Performance Pays

Mike Christopher says the most reassuring thing about his landscape business is that he's geared for commercial. It's also what scares him the most. This past year has been about the most frightening in his decade-long career.

Drive around Christopher's market area roughly 20 miles northeast of Kansas City and you'll see an abundance of unfinished commercial developments--projects where Christopher had contracted to do the landscaping, at least until the funding was pulled. Christopher's Lawn & Landscape in Kearney, MO, has also gone from doing installs on more than a hundred new homes per year to just a tad over 40 this year.

Why is it, then, that Mike Christopher is as confident and content as ever? First of all, his hard-working, blue-collar roots have taught him to count his blessings. He's relieved that he's not running on too much debt. And he's more than happy to be back working in the field again, at least for the time being. "Am I completely recession-proof?" Christopher asks. "No ... but I'm probably better off than a lot of contractors."

A little luck doesn't hurt

Sure, the dramatic drop in installation business has stung. But Christopher is quick to point out that things could be much worse. This contractor's ability to withstand the downturn thus far can be attributed to skillful management, and a little bit of luck.

While several area homebuilders have gone under in the past year, Christopher has been partnered up with one that's hanging on. That's cause for a huge sigh of relief, because this homebuilder is also a commercial developer--and has been Christopher's biggest customer on both the installation and maintenance side of the business.

The relationship goes back several years. "I was mowing a commercial property in an area he had developed," Christopher tells. "Apparently his contractor wasn't doing a great job. He saw me one day and came up and introduced himself. He asked me how he could get his properties to look like the one I was maintaining. I told him, 'Hire me to mow it.'"

Before long Christopher was on the account. Around the same time, the developer was also in the process of building up a residential neighborhood and needed someone to mow the common areas. Christopher landed that account too.

Christopher's Lawn & Landscape had its opening to break into the installation business a few years later. Again frustrated with his current contractor, the developer looked to Christopher once more. "We landscaped a few homes to show him what we could do," Christopher recalls. "He was pleased, and thankfully continues to be. These days, when he or his son or foreman call me, they're not asking for a bid. They're asking what we can do, and when we can do it by."

Landscaping combo meals

Christopher's landscaping portfolio also includes some sizeable commercial projects, including a complex of health care clinics that took about two weeks to complete. But due to the current economy and credit crisis, no commercial installations were contracted for 2009 (as of mid-May).

Many of the company's residential installs, though, are done for the homebuilder. Christopher's Lawn & Landscape tries to keep it very simple. "We have three separate plans to satisfy different budgets," Christopher explains. "Plan 1 might include a certain amount of plants and bed space, where Plans 2 and 3 would include larger amounts. Having three clear-cut options makes it easier on both us and the builder. But we still make sure each property looks unique."

Christopher has also begun setting up meetings with the actual homebuyers themselves. "I'd say at least 30% want to add something above and beyond what's outlined in the plan," he points out. "We do a lot of walls and walkways, and trees in the backyard. This has really helped drive our installation sales up."

Writing on the wall

One thing Christopher's Lawn & Landscape is not doing much of these days is irrigation system installations. In fact, they aren't doing any. When the housing market severely slowed last year, Christopher saw the writing on the wall. Earlier this year he sold a truck, trencher, vibratory plow, and a trailer full of pipe, tubing and other supplies. "Thank God for Craig's List," he exclaims.

Eliminating the irrigation division has proved to be the right decision. "We had no winter installs scheduled and were yet to receive one inquiry through mid-May," Christopher tells. The company never did irrigation system service, so nothing has been lost there. When an installation opportunity does arise, Christopher will be using his former irrigation specialist as a sub. He made a similar move a few years ago with his lawn care division.

Paying for performance

Christopher has decided to focus on the two areas he knows best: maintenance and installation. Having but a handful of large commercial accounts, many of which are interrelated, Christopher often wonders if he's putting too many eggs in one basket. He simply cannot afford to risk upsetting--and losing--a customer, which is why he's devised a bonus system that encourages employees to do all the little things that help improve the customer experience.

"Three seasons ago I recognized the fact that I needed to create more of a sense of ownership among my maintenance crew," Christopher relates. "Take my relationship with that homebuilder, who's also a commercial developer, for instance. That's technically one customer I need to take care of. But all of those businesses that rent office space from him need to be happy too. Every cut counts. And that responsibility is largely on the maintenance crew."

Christopher says he provides his mower operators with an above-average hourly wage. He also provides monthly bonuses to each member of the maintenance crew when they meet a defined set of criteria, including:
• No complaint calls, which could include driving incidents, sidewalks not cleaned off properly, mow/trim quality, etc.
• On time to work every day
• Weekly cleaning of trucks, mowers and other equipment
• Mower blades consistently maintained
• Other routine equipment maintenance performed on schedule

"I don't want seasonal employees, I want good employees," Christopher says. "How do you get them? How do you keep them? You have to tell them what it means to do quality work--and reward them for it."

Old school

On the subject of quality work, Christopher is once again providing first-hand demonstrations to his landscaping crew. One of his cost-cutting measures this year has included letting a couple employees go and getting back in the field himself. He's loving it.

"I'd much rather be out working than sitting in an office anyway," Christopher relates. "I've heard all the sayings, like 'You have to find time to work on your business, not just in it.' But working in it is what's helped me grow it. It makes a big difference when my customers see me on a jobsite."

Christopher still finds plenty of time to work on the business. He's in the process of developing a website. Have travels with a laptop so he can look up information or pull estimates together in a blink. He's figured out what he needs to charge per minute to make money. He meets three times a year with his accountant to ensure things are on track, figuring out ways to reinvest in the business and reduce his tax liability.

But he doesn't like operating with a lot of debt. And he doesn't like dealing with payroll, so he outsources that too. On the contrary, Christopher enjoys talking with clients, figuring out their changing needs and how he can further help them. These days Christopher's Lawn & Landscape also does some street sweeping and heavy brush mowing for a couple of its clients.

"I don't really care if I'm 'the big guy,'" Christopher says. "I just want to make a decent living and enjoy work. To accomplish both, you have to charge what you're worth. Man, this work is just too hard for you to do it for free."

As Mike Christopher has found out over the course of his decade-long career, and particularly during these past couple of challenging years, you have to pay for performance, but performance will pay you back.

Christopher's Lawn & Landscape
Kearney, MO

Owner: Mike Christopher
Year Founded: 1999
Average Annual Sales: $400-$450k
Sales Breakdown: 38% installation, 30% commercial maintenance, 7% residential maintenance, 20% snow removal, 3% brush mowing, 2% lawn care and irrigation subcontractors
Employees: 3 full time, 1 part time
Landscape Equipment includes three Grasshopper mid-mounts with 61" decks; two Encore hydro walk mowers with 48" decks; one Wright Stander with 48" deck;
Bobcat Toolcat utility vehicle; Bobcat T190 track loader; Bobcat MT52 mini track loader; Stihl and RedMax string trimmers; Stihl blowers; implements include a collection broom, 6" trencher, hydraulic breaker, 72" brush cat, auger, pallet forks, tooth bucket
Trucks include a Ford F-450, F-350 and F-250
Snow Equipment includes two Meyer truck-mounted spreaders, one Western truck-mounted spreader, LESCO ride-on spreader, Shindaiwa push spreader, two John Deere snowthrowers, one Toro snowthrower, Bobcat snow pusher attachment