Late last year, Ruppert Landscape was recognized as one of the Washington D.C. area's fastest-growing mid-size companies by SmartCEO Magazine. The Maryland-based family- and employee-owned construction/maintenance firm is now generating well over $100 million in annual revenue across its network of branch and satellite locations in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia and Texas.
In response to this news, Phil Key, president of Ruppert Landscape, said, “The quality of our people is the key to our success. We strive to attract and develop people with a good attitude who are strong communicators and can interact directly with our customers, and who are capable of making good decisions. In our industry, those things really do help to distinguish us from our competitors."
Whether you're a $100 million company or a $100,000 one, this service-driven business really is about the people delivering that service. Jay Long, director of organizational and people development at Ruppert Landscape, talked to us about what his team is doing to cultivate leadership from within—an essential ingredient for companies looking to grow in today's economy.
"We've been a very growth-oriented organization for many years," Long says. "A big reason is because we have a very ambitious workforce that doesn't like to stand still. We can't accommodate their ambitions if we as a company are not growing."
Long says that Ruppert Landscape, thanks in part to improved economic conditions, has been growing on both the construction and maintenance sides. The growth in maintenance has been organic. "When a branch gets to a certain size, we split off another branch from there," Long points out. "This creates opportunity for our employees."
Growth requires good managers
Ruppert Landscape currently operates 14 maintenance branches and four construction branches. In addition, the company operates two satellite locations: a maintenance satellite in Baltimore and a construction satellite in Texas. Typically, a satellite location is a precursor for a full-blown branch.
Ruppert's headquarters is in Laytonsville, MD, roughly 30 miles north of Washington D.C. The LEED-certified campus is home to a maintenance branch, a landscape branch and the corporate office. Nearly 50 people are employed in the corporate office—most of whom are administrative support personnel, executives and department heads. But at Ruppert Landscape, the concept of being a "manager" extends far beyond the walls of a corporate headquarters.
"We have roughly 450 management and administrative positions throughout our company," Long points out. "We are very decentralized. Each branch manager has his or her own team."
More than two-thirds of those 450 management positions are field managers (crew foremen). In fact, there are 191 field managers and another 130 assistant field managers throughout the Ruppert organization.
"In our company, the field manager is a true management position," Long explains. "They are responsible for hiring their own employees and evaluating them, and making decisions on the job. They must speak English, and they have a lot of customer contact. The field manager is where the rubber meets the road in our organization."
About half of Ruppert's field managers have two- or four-year college degrees, whether that be in horticulture or some other field. Most of Ruppert's mid-level managers also have degrees. That said, while college graduates have been an excellent source of recruiting for entry-level managers, having a college degree is not required at Ruppert Landscape.
"We have a strong culture of promoting from within," Long says. As a matter of fact, each of the company's 18 branch managers are home-grown, as are the majority of corporate managers and mid-level managers. Of Ruppert's field managers, one in four started as a crewman or assistant field manager.
Even with the new recruits coming out of college, there is a certain expectation at Ruppert Landscape. "We believe that you have to know this business from the ground up, so you have to spend some time in the field before you can move up," Long says. "This is why many of our mid- to upper-level managers start out as field managers."
Managing the manager shortage
In mid-January, 24 of Ruppert Landscape's field managers came to the corporate headquarters to interview for the next level. "We have a panel of interviewers," Long explains. "Most of the field managers put on a suit and tie, and participate in an extensive panel interview process to gauge their readiness for the next level. It's a development tool for a lot of them. We don't have 24 open positions, but we want them to go through this process because it gives them a good feel for what they need to do to get to the next level."
What is required of a field manager to reach that "next level"? Long says they have to be good with people, because at Ruppert, field managers and mid-level managers have a great deal of interaction with clients. They also have to be good at managing, coaching and growing their employees. Finally, they must exhibit good time management skills, a solid professional demeanor and high level of integrity.
One advantage Ruppert Landscape has is that entry-level employees can look around and see countless examples of managers who've risen through the ranks. That is inspiring. Beyond that, it's making sure employees are put through the proper paces from day one.
"We start by providing a good orientation to the company on an employee's first day," Long says. "From there we provide basic skills training for those going to work in the field. The training is based on standard operating procedures, which helps ensure performance consistency across branches. We also offer seasonal training topics, such as snow removal or dormant tree pruning, in the branches."
On the management side, Ruppert provides a two-day orientation training program for new field managers. A number of additional two-day programs are conducted throughout the year, typically at the Laytonsville headquarters. For example, in mid-January, roughly 45 managers from different parts of the company came in to learn about recruiting, selecting and retaining employees.
Additionally, once a year, all 450 managers attend a two-day "management development day" event. "We provide a state-of-the-company address on the first day," Long describes. "On the second day, we split the 450 people up into smaller groups that go to specific training sessions that are most applicable to their positions."
Much of the training material has been developed over the years by Ruppert Landscape staff. "We also have a director of employee development, Chris Schneider, who is responsible for creating and improving our training programs," Long points out. "We teach most programs in-house. So we rely on our branch managers and department heads to act as professors, which is great because it helps reinforce and refresh the ideas being taught.
"We also use outside sources for training," Long continues. "For instance, we have a consultant who works with our business development team on sales. We'll also invite outside speakers to present at our management development day. It's good to sprinkle in some outside voices so our people aren't just hearing from us all of the time."
Aside from these major training events, numerous other training sessions are happening throughout the year. Training covers everything from skills, safety and equipment to finance, language and computers. "Employees average 50 to 60 hours of formal training every year, but it can vary by position," Long says.
Next in line
As mentioned earlier, one of a field manager's many responsibilities is to fill open positions on his or her crew. To that end, field managers are taught to always be recruiting and to be comfortable talking about job opportunities with almost everyone they meet, whether they are at the gas station, church, kid's soccer game, etc. Field managers should also talk to other Ruppert employees to see if they have any friends or family who might like to come work for the company. Long says field managers are given training on how to properly interview and evaluate job candidates.
Field managers have one other prominent responsibility: Make sure their employees are developed to the point that they could step into a field manager role themselves. "The idea is that employees will be given opportunities to move up in our company, but not before they have trained someone well enough to take their place," Long points out.
The landscaping industry is growing—and Ruppert Landscape has been one company helping to lead that growth. "As we discuss our challenges going forward, many of them are people-related," Long says. "It's about attracting enough, and the right kind, of people to help us continue to grow. Then we have to hang onto them—and develop them so they can get to the next level."