Flying High

Jetstream may not be an ordinary name for a landscape and irrigation contractor. It's a familiar one in Grand Blanc, MI, though, where Kurt Litton has been operating his business for 21 years.

Litton and a buddy came up with the name to highlight the new company's irrigation service. Since then, Jetstream has grown from a two-person operation that installed irrigation systems to a full-service landscape and irrigation company with 1,500 customers.

"I didn't realize until several years later that a jet stream is really a stream of air and not a stream of water," says Litton. "Oh well, the name has stuck and the business has a good reputation among homeowners and area builders." Indeed, last year, his company brought in more than $1 million in revenue from design/build and irrigation projects, and the owner has set a goal to reach the $5 million mark by the year 2013.

"I know the figure is aggressive, but it's realistic, too," says Litton, who has a degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. "If I develop good systems, continue to hire and retain good employees and stay focused, I know we can get there."

After a couple years working for an area landscape contractor, Litton launched Jetstream in 1986 with the purchase of a used pipe puller. Through 1989 he did nothing but install irrigation systems, thanks in part to a series of overly dry summers in the Flint area. In 1990 he diversified his service offering by taking on landscaping projects. His service mix—which consists of landscape construction and irrigation installation/service—has since been the company's mainstay.

Going with the flow

For Jetstream and its owner, the 1990s ushered in a period of economic boom. Armed with a business degree (Litton said he didn't want to go to college, but got his degree in large part to satisfy his father) and a couple years of solid experience, the young entrepreneur grew his business. He developed relationships with builders, designing and installing landscapes and irrigation systems for new construction. Later, when the boom ended, he switched gears and promoted renovation services to homeowners, all the while building his reputation and client list.

"Over the years, I've thought about diversifying into landscape maintenance and possibly lawn care, which would enable me to offer customers in-house full service," says Litton. "But I can do the same thing by picking up the phone and calling an area maintenance or lawn care contractor. If a customer needs some concrete flatwork done, I can call in a contractor who is an expert in the field. I can also call in a carpenter for deck work and an excavator for dozer jobs. I enjoy giving other people work. It's good for their businesses and it's good for mine since I get referrals, too, and can continue to focus on what we do best."

Litton says that growing the business has not been easy. "Training employees who often leave and become your competitor is common in this industry," Litton relates. "From time to time, I think about my dentist brother and how all he has to do to go on vacation is block off a week or two on his calendar. People will wait a month to have their teeth cleaned, but consider a broken sprinkler head a state of emergency."

Litton's overhead structure differs from his brother's, too. Dentists don't have four sprinkler service technicians, three landscape construction crews and two irrigation installation crews, along with a host of other equipment that totals upwards of $300,000. Nor do they have 20 employees to drive and operate the equipment.

Litton just shrugs it off and says, "I enjoy what I'm doing, but it's also important to make a decent living and have a good quality of life." His advice to any young landscape or maintenance contractor is to start paying attention early to the business of having a business, and get administrative help. "Hire someone to answer the phone and do clerical things well before you think you need help," he emphasizes. "This will reduce stress and keep you out in the field installing, selling and doing what you do best."

Litton compares the dilemma landscape contractors often find themselves in to the inexperienced plumber. When asked to fix a leak under the sink, the plumber replies, "I can't fix that right now, I'm too busy mopping the floor."

Growing requires assistance—lots of it

By 2000 Jetstream was doing well, generating between $700,000 and $800,000 a year, but Litton thought the company could do better. After attending a Kevin Kehoe Masters in Management seminar in Atlanta that year, he set new revenue goals. In order to reach them, he would have to reduce his management load and spend more time marketing and selling his business.

Litton realized he couldn't truly grow until he hired someone in the office to handle the paperwork that would come with growth. Enter Shirley Norman. As Jetstream's controller, she worked only 20 hours a week at first, managing accounts payable/receivable, generating financial statements and starting job costing procedures. Her job has now evolved into a full-time position that involves a little bit of everything.

Norman is the administrative Jill of all Trades. Her presence gives the company president the freedom to fix leaks and sell more work. "I will say it again," says Litton. "One of the first things young, growing contractors must do is hire an administrative assistant before they think they need one, maybe even before they can truly afford one. By the time they see a need, a ton of work has already passed them by."

The same advice applies to a company's field operation. To grow as aggressively as he wants, Litton has trained a couple of operations managers, although one position is not filled at the moment. "Personally, I'm doing a little more mopping than I want to right now," Litton admits. "I've let my foremen know that before I hire from the outside, they have an opportunity to step up and become an operations manager if they demonstrate the willingness and organizational talent. If you can groom your own people for the job, you're better off than hiring an individual from the outside. That's just human nature."

"Raise your hand for third-party help," Litton continues. As a PLANET member, Jetstream last year took advantage of the association's Trailblazer mentoring program. Veteran PLANET member Tom Heaviland, CLP, president of Heaviland Enterprises in Vista, California, flew to Michigan for a day to share his years of experience.
"Tom's firm is all landscape maintenance, so we couldn't compare apples to apples," Litton explains. "Instead, we worked on developing a strategic plan and putting some core values and concepts in place, all of which are important for long-term growth. When I inquired about adding landscape maintenance to my operation, he showed me some names on his client list and I knew immediately that we had fewer opportunities here. It reaffirmed my commitment to continue doing what we do best."

Growth curve

Of the $1.3 million in sales Jetstream projects for this year, 70% will likely be generated from design/build projects and 30% from irrigation installation and service. Subcontracted work will account for approximately 10% of the total dollar amount.

Jetstream has been working on several impressive projects. One spectacular home has a huge Unilock brick patio, complete with an outside fireplace, fire pit, an entertainment bar with a granite countertop, along with a kitchen, among other amenities. Jetstream handled everything but the kitchen, in which case a subcontractor was brought in.

Litton drives by several other properties and then stops to show a landscape design to a customer. Litton meets a construction crew on another site and visits later with an irrigation foreman who has been with his company 11 years. All in a day's work, Litton says.

The last stop was at a half-finished condominium site. The large project was halted last summer after the builder went out of business overnight. "The builder took several small companies down with him," Litton relates. "Luckily, we're not among them. Instead of passing on the bad debt expense, we borrowed quite a bit to pay our suppliers. Things like this happen. The only protection a contractor has is to avoid putting all of his eggs in one basket. Our client mix is diversified, and we've learned over the years to grow our business on the backs of people who appreciate us."

This out-of-business builder and a cooling economy have altered Jetstream's growth schedule, although Litton still looks to reach his goal by 2013. He's moving into new office digs this year, leaving a spacious upstairs home office. He will have even more room at the new office, but being able to see his wife and young daughter during the day has been nice, too.

Among business initiatives, the owner plans to continue developing and building relationships with subcontractors, and he's always open for new opportunities. In the meantime, it's business as usual, and it will be that way as long as there are irrigation systems to install, and service and properties to build and renovate.

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