To energize its safety awareness program and help contain insurance costs, the company recently instituted a “Safety Bingo” game. For those unfamiliar with the game, the rules are simple, says Donna. “Employees get a bingo card and every day a number is drawn until someone wins. If there’s an accident of any nature, the game ends and a new one begins. In the meantime, Bingo winners receive neat gifts. In fact, we just gave away a big screen TV, and our next winner will get a DVD player.”
Demonstrating with safety cones how long it takes to stop a truck and trailer and having the fire department come in to instruct employees about the proper use of fire extinguishers are among other safety initiatives. The company is also a member of PLANET’s STARS ((Safety Training Achieves Remarkable Success) program.
To improve productivity, every Wednesday, DOWCO employees participate in a 30-minute “working smarter” training session. “Before we started the program, I told program founder Jim Paluch that we couldn’t afford 30 minutes a week,” remembers Maurice. “He told me that we couldn’t afford not to.”
Turning the corner
It took the new owners 10 years or so to crack the $500,000 barrier, and a little over another 10 to reach the $2 million plateau. “One of the best moves we made early on was to get connected,” Donna emphasizes. “We joined PLANET’s legacy groups PLCAA and ALCA in the 1990s and immediately help was only a phone call away. Until we could afford to pay for outside advice, we formed a board of directors comprised of relatives, friends, business associates, and even customers, and we took their advice seriously. Later, we worked with green industry consultants Frank Ross and Bob Coulter who have helped us with budgeting and long-range planning issues.
“We also shopped around for a bank that would work with us to get a Small Business Association (SBA) loan and a line of credit. All banks aren’t created equally and ours has become a great business partner.”
Bankers can help in so many ways, Donna adds. Just as one example, DOWCO’s bank helped the owners set up a system to scan checks into their money market account, saving them a trip to the bank and allowing their money to earn interest that much faster.
Finding employees was a challenge early on, too. Maurice says the H-2B guest worker program has alleviated labor shortages, and being a bit unconventional helped the company grow career-minded managers.
“When we find good people, we work to create a win-win for them and for us,” he emphasizes. “We find a position that fits their talents, try to be flexible with their schedules, and make sure they are compensated fairly.”
Adds Donna, “We’re also taking advantage of a new work force, women who are looking for careers in the green industry. Just one look at our staff tells part of the story. We have two female account managers, a female landscape designer, and a female production manager. The makeup works especially well in our market as the major decision maker is frequently female, and gender often reduces the intimidation factor when purchasing lawn care.”
Looking back over the years, Maurice and Donna emphasize how important it was for them to gain control over their growth and business. “I admit, there was a time when we lost control,” says Maurice. “We were growing and making very little money. The business was running us.”
Donna agrees, “We learned to put systems and safe-guards in place to control payroll and overtime. We acquired a line of credit to help us meet expenses when we had a bad snow year or drought. We’ve also learned to diversify our service offering and customer base. I recall how painful it was when we lost one large customer who represented 50% of our business.”
Maurice just shakes his head. “When you buy a new truck, trailer and maintenance equipment, and put a new crew on to provide the service and have no customer, your investment becomes a liability. That’s not good business.”
DOWCO has since fine tuned the way it does business. In addition to its target high-end residential customer who owns a $750,000 home on 1.2 acres of land, the company also serves large sub-divisions and commercial establishments. Still, it’s that high-end customer who gets the lion’s share of the Dowell’s attention.