You've been in business three years. You work hard, your crews work hard, and all too often days and nights run together. You like what you do, but may not want to work like this forever. You have a decision to make.
Do you want to stay at the owner/operator level, or do you want to grow your company and be able to spend more time, as they say, working on your business, as opposed to just in it?
Nearly every successful landscape and lawn maintenance contractor started out as an owner/operator. Some have chosen to remain small, and cannot be faulted for making that decision. Others have selected a different route, with an eye toward growing a business and creating more opportunities for themselves and their employees.
Assume for a moment that you're in the second category. Where do you start? How do get from point A (where you spend 95% of your time in the field) to point B (where you can allocate several hours a day doing things that business people and owners do)?
What do you want to be, and to who?
"My goal was to retire at age 36," says Kurt Kluznik, CCLP, president of Cleveland-based Yardmaster. "Of course, that was pure fantasy. But the point is, from the very beginning I wanted to become a business person and grow my company.
"Probably the biggest question owner/operators should ask themselves is, 'What do I want to be?' If the answer is to be more of an owner than an operator, then they need to start thinking seriously about their service offering and customer base. They also may want to consider bringing in a mentor or another third-party individual to provide an objective appraisal of their business."
As Kluznik points out, when starting out, it's easy to get in a rut and focus on issues that are either out of your control or won't have a meaningful impact on business growth. A mentor may recommend that a new owner hire a key person, simplify equipment brands, or spend less time socializing with employees. A third-party perspective may encourage the owner/operator to set up monthly P&L reports or even construct a budget.
"When I started in business in 1971, the main thing I measured each month was my checking account balance to see if I had enough money to pay the bills," Kluznik recalls. "Most of us started that way, but it sure would have been great to be forward-thinking enough to have a budget and monthly P&L statements. Learning to take important financial planning steps would have made the transition to running a true business much less arduous."
Green industry consultant and veteran landscape contractor Rod Bailey, CCLP, agrees. "Take a few courses in financial management before doing anything else," he advises owner/operators. "Then, start looking at objectives. Develop a plan. What kind of business do you want to be in? What kinds of customers do you want and what kinds of services do you want to offer them? Once owner/operators identify their ideal customers, they can begin to target the good ones and weed out the bad ones."
But it all starts by having a strategic plan, Bailey emphasizes. "Having a plan and focus, and setting growth goals for three to five years down the road, will allow owners to make good decisions about equipment and people."
Bailey says he initially wanted to be a consultant, but needed five to six years of real-life experience to give him credibility. Thirty years later, he sold his landscape contracting business to pick up where he left off.
"Over the years, one tends to forget those important first lessons," Bailey relates. "When I talk with groups today or mentor individual contractors, I start out by asking them if they would plant a landscape without a landscape plan. Of course, the answer is no, and the same theory applies to operating a business. It starts with a plan."
Focus builds strength