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."
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."