Hispanics Find Their Strong Voice in the Landscaping Industry

Q&A with Ralph Egües, executive director of the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance (NHLA)

NHLA color logo 577d569a36d6c

The National Hispanic Landscape Alliance (NHLA) just celebrated its five-year anniversary. Ralph Egües Jr., executive director, discusses how the association has grown, its priorities going forward, and the hot-button topic of immigration reform.

Q: Paint a quick picture of how the association has grown over its first five years.

We’ve certainly learned a great deal that we didn’t know in 2011. We were a very small association through our first three years, but we’ve grown significantly beginning in late 2014 through the present. Each month we add dozens of new member companies. Also, we now have more than eighty student members, and college faculty and even equipment dealers are joining our association.

The growth has really been the result of listening and learning, certainly some trial and error along the way, and we could have never gotten to this point without our supporting members; Briggs & Stratton, Cub Cadet, Echo, Honda Engines, Hustler, John Deere, Kawasaki, Kohler, Rotary and Toro. Each of our supporting member brands has a keen desire to better understand, engage, and appeal to existing and prospective Hispanic customers. Each has believed in the four-part mission of the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance, and together we have learned a lot and built a community that is accomplishing a great deal. Having the support of some of the industry’s leading brands has enabled us to develop an association that seeks to deliver a unique value proposition to each member category, and to individual members within each category.

There is a lot of great programming available through others including the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), the Irrigation Association (IA), state associations, extension services, manufacturers, dealers, consultants and others. It doesn’t make sense for us to duplicate those efforts. Rather, we see ourselves as a gateway association. We work really hard to bring members into our association, most of whom are hard-charging entrepreneurs who are tied up with their day-to-day and perhaps haven’t considered the value of joining an association. Of course, like all leaders they have questions and doubts, they face new challenges as they try to grow or even sustain operations, and in high-volume, low-margin businesses, mistakes are especially expensive.

The NHLA is a really democratic peer group. We welcome everyone and we work to understand each member, identify what they believe their strengths and challenges are, and then we help them connect with members in other geographic areas that have cleared those hurdles. This process creates a different dynamic, a greater clarity through community, and an opening to learning and sharing. It has been interesting to discover that it isn’t always the larger companies that have the answers. Some smaller companies have great ideas that larger ones can also implement successfully in their markets.

We also help dealer members and our supporting members better understand Hispanic customers and help them develop unique strategies for better engaging them. At times, we help with translations and other times with message “trans-creation.” Of course, there is much more to it than just message development.

Q: Your association has been recognized for being very effective in advancing industry interests almost since the beginning. To what do you attribute that success?

First, it is important to note that we don’t do it alone. It is important to highlight that this industry’s leading associations are working fervently and that they are doing so in a collaborative fashion. The NHLA is a very active member of the GreenScapes Alliance, a coalition of associations that also includes the NALP, IA, TPI, OPEI, American Hort and ASTA.

Each of our organizations brings something unique to the table. Together we have a much better shared radar screen of industry threats, which are many, and collectively we can figure out how to best leverage our competencies to advance our members’ interests. We have different contacts that we can leverage and we each have a unique perspective and voice. Of course, the NHLA leverages Latino political power and our doing so effectively has been a point of pride for our members, and much appreciated by our colleagues.

Q: Describe your working relationship with the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP).

We have had a very close relationship with the NALP since the very beginning. In addition to our collaboration through the GreenScapes Alliance on environmental issues raised through model codes and standards and green building systems, we work together through the H-2B Workforce Coalition to address labor needs.

Our collaboration goes beyond advocacy too. We support GIE+EXPO and the companion Landscapes program in Louisville every year with our own LatinoLink programming, and we partner with NALP on both the National Collegiate Landscape Competition and Day on the Hill. All of these are really great efforts that everyone in the industry should know about and take part in. We do our part to increase participation overall, with an emphasis on expanding participation by Hispanics.

Q: Given your collaborative relationship with NALP, why do you feel that the industry must also have a national association for Hispanics?

The NHLA doesn’t exist to separate, we exist to unite. We have developed a database of more than 20,000 Hispanic-owned landscape companies in the U.S. In doing so, we’ve realized that far too many entrepreneurs are just passing through the industry, never fully understanding the potential for success that exists for their businesses.

Too many others employed in the landscape industry needlessly limit themselves rather than taking full advantage of opportunities to learn and advance, and to help others to do so.

There are linguistic and cultural dynamics that need to be understood and addressed. The sheer numbers of Hispanics in our industry, hundreds of thousands across the country, demands that there be a focused and sustained effort targeted at meeting them where they are and addressing their needs. It is also important that the broader Hispanic community recognize the importance of the landscape industry.

Our mission is a unique one. We empower Hispanics and help them understand that this isn’t just a job. It’s a profession. This isn’t something you do until you can do something better, this is a vehicle through which you can realize and exceed your dreams. We have members that are living that reality and it has been a beautiful thing to see them sharing their experiences with others in a way that inspires and informs.

Q: Which of the NHLA’s accomplishments are you most proud of?

I’d sum it up in two words: changing lives.

I’m proud of the small company owner who was on the verge of quitting the industry because he couldn’t take another year of the same thing, but met the NHLA and has spent the last three years building a really professional and successful operation.

I’m proud of the gardener who had been going through the motions for 10 years, but became transformed at our Train the Trainer program and achieved a number of promotions, rising to ops manager at a successful company just three years later.

I’m proud of the Hispanic students at a small community college who now go to the National Collegiate Landscape Competition as true competitors, not spectators, with an expectation of winning.

I’m humbled by the older Hispanic who after attending our seminars at a state association conference said, “I’ve been working at this for almost 20 years and for the first time, I feel a part of something. I don’t know how to thank you.” The NHLA has really been a humbling, rewarding and joyful experience for many.

A third word comes to mind too: community. I’m really proud of the community we’ve built and are continuing to grow. I can’t tell you how special it is for me to be around our members, landscape industry professionals from California to Virginia, from Connecticut to Texas, and from Illinois to Florida, caring about one another, and building an association to address unique community needs by better connecting with each other and with the rest of the industry. These are wonderful people that would never have met but for the NHLA. I’m most proud of being part of an effort that is changing lives for the better through an empowering community.

Q: Immigration reform has once again been thrust to the forefront of discussion in this current campaign season. The rhetoric is as inflamed as ever. What has your general impression been as this debate has played out in the news?

I understand the frustration. It is regrettable that our country, a country built by immigrants, has a dysfunctional immigration system that simply doesn’t address the legitimate economic needs of the nation for service workers or for those with high-tech education and skills. What is needed is thoughtful dialogue and real problem solving. There are certainly leaders today of all political persuasions having such conversations, trying to sort out the challenges and craft a better way forward. We saw proof of that a couple of years ago in the Senate.

The NHLA has brought a unique perspective to the conversation and we look forward to continuing to do so. The Hispanic population in America serves as one of the largest economic engines in the United States. It represents 16% of our total workforce and more than a third of the landscape industry workforce. Hispanics in the landscape industry—including diligent and productive field staff and leaders, highly creative designers, human resources professionals, entrepreneurs and others—collectively have a household income that exceeds $19 billion a year. Through the NHLA they have a voice in this very important conversation. We should all understand that correctly solving the nation’s immigration problem will boost the economic prosperity of the country.

Q: With respect to immigration reform, what would the NHLA like to see happen that would protect Hispanics who are looking for jobs here in America, and also Hispanic small business owners who are trying to do things the right way and create a better future for themselves and their families?

What we need is a working immigration system with incentives and rewards for doing things the right way and disincentives and penalties for doing things the wrong way. Our association, for instance, is highly involved in the effort to save the H-2B visa program. It is one of too few examples of orderly immigration that meets a labor need that the domestic workforce, in sufficient numbers, will not assume; in this case a need for seasonal workers.

Each year more than 60,000 foreign workers enter the country to perform seasonal work. More than 30,000 of those come to work in the landscape industry. They are paid significantly more than minimum wage and at the end of the growing season they go back to their countries. It is an expensive program for employers to participate in, but when administered correctly, it ensures a sufficient legal workforce that makes it possible for reputable companies to grow and add year-round jobs that Americans are interested in filling.

Q: Let's say reform does happen, that most undocumented immigrants in this country are allowed to legally stay and work, that a wall is built, that the flow of new illegal immigrants is stopped, and that programs like the H-2B seasonal guest worker program are abolished. Will NHLA members be able to properly staff their companies?

No, of course not. We need to recognize that undocumented immigrants in the country are working. If undocumented immigrants can’t get work, they leave, because there is no other way for them to survive. Most, if their status changes, will simply keep on working in the fields where they are now employed year-round. These workers are not going to instead take seasonal jobs in an industry they know nothing about.

Various sectors of our economy, including the landscape industry, will always have a need for seasonal workers. Smart immigration reform must recognize that fact. That is why we advocated for an H-2B-like program in the Senate immigration bill and why we continue to advocate for such a program as a necessary part of any immigration reform solution.

Q: What is at the top of the NHLA's to-do list as you look ahead to your next five years as a national association?

We are driven by our mission to (1) develop and provide a better understanding of Hispanics in the landscape industry, (2) draw Hispanics in greater numbers into the broader community of landscape industry leaders, (3) facilitate greater professionalism and transferrable business success among Hispanics in the landscape industry, and (4) to provide Hispanics in the landscape industry an effective voice in advocating for industry interests.

We have a whole lot left to do in each of those areas during the next five years and beyond. Of course, we will prioritize as we have during the past five years, continuing to focus on the greatest needs, as identified by our members, and we will continue to do as much as we can with the resources we have, with and for our members, and with and for our industry and profession.