Managing Growth on the Atlantic Coast

Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC is celebrating its 10th year in business with a rebooted talent roster, transformed culture, and just as much profit on a lot less revenue and stress. Now sustainable growth can commence.

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Things have been booming in and around Virginia Beach, VA, and we’re not just talking about the roar of fighter jets flying to and from Naval Air Station Oceana, a U.S. military airport. Because the area has such a heavy military presence, the economy has remained quite strong, even during the 2008-2010 recessionary years. A lot of landscaping companies grew during that otherwise troubling period for the industry, including Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC.

That sales growth continued until a few years ago when the company leadership decided to hit the pause button. The growth felt good, but it also felt like some things were on the verge of getting much harder to control. They reviewed accounts to identify where they were and were not making money. They reviewed their routes to determine where excessive drive time could be limiting additional growth. They reviewed their employees and their systems to determine where things could—and in some cases had to—get better.

“We’ve begun the process of basically transforming the company this year,” says Josh Doebert, company owner. Step one was people. “Many months ago, we’d decided that it makes more sense to search for the right employee and train them rather than just hire someone with a lot of experience who might not be a good fit for our company,” adds Stephanie Windsor, Doebert’s sister-in-law who runs the office and acts as his right hand. Windsor has been with the company for three years after leaving her sales career in the medical devices field.

The philosophy of hiring attitude over experience was amplified when Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC started working with GreenMark Consulting Group late last year after winning a contest for “free coaching” for a lucky reader of Green Industry Pros. “In working with Steven Cohen and Bill Eastman from GreenMark, we’ve focused on identifying the key attributes we look for in the different positions we were filling, and then promote those attributes in the help wanted ads,” Doebert relates. Doing so has helped attract some high-quality candidates.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC, like other industry contractors, had been experiencing difficulty finding qualified candidates to fill its roster for the upcoming season. This momentary panic quickly turned to optimism for Doebert and Windsor upon working with GreenMark Consulting Group. A recent notable hire has been industry veteran Pedro Hernandez who joined the company as its maintenance operations manager. Pedro has been instrumental in helping to rebuild Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC’s culture. 

“There is definitely a change in the air here,” Doebert says. “I think it’s the dynamic of our company that is helping us attract good people. We’re straight shooters and compensate fairly"

One appealing trait is the company’s now 10-year track record of providing high-quality, horticulturally sound landscape management. That has helped establish a strong foundation from which to grow—and growth is definitely back on the agenda.

Ownership mindset from top to bottom

Purging the “bad apples” from its workforce was step one of the transformation. Adding a good mid-level manager like Pedro was step two. Since both crews are new, he has been spending a lot of time in the field training them to company standards. He’s also been creating job folders for each property, complete with google earth imaging and notations, to assist crews.

Now Doebert is looking for someone like Pedro to take charge in the landscaping division. This has proven to be a more difficult position to fill due to the nature of the work and knowledge base required.

Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC currently fields one 3-man landscaping crew. “We could easily put on a second crew,” Doebert says, in which case a second Pedro would be vitally needed. “Right now I’m overseeing the landscaping crew, but as owner I really need to be focusing on other things, like business development and planning, as we look to grow. I want to be able to sell a landscaping job, and then hand the project off to my manager knowing that it will be completed correctly.”

While the search for a reliable landscape division manager continues, Doebert already has a great leader in place to oversee the turf and ornamental division. Dave Watson joined Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC not too long after the company was founded in 2007. He has been a right hand man to Doebert helping out wherever he is needed, but the goal is to keep his focus on lawn applications.

Watson is currently a one-man division, performing the applications themselves while also providing customer service and estimating, and interfacing with vendors. Doebert and Windsor concur that lawn care presents a tremendous growth opportunity for the company. As this division grows, the goal is for Watson to transition into a managerial role overseeing numerous technicians.

The same can be said for Pedro as the maintenance division grows. “I envision a day, not too far off, where Pedro’s maintenance crews will be self-sufficient so he won’t need to be in the field as much as he is right now,” Doebert says. “Then he’ll have more time to work on account management and selling enhancements, and looking for ways to improve systems and productivity.”

Systems development has been another big focus over the past several months as Doebert and his team have been working with GreenMark Consulting Group. As an off-chute to that, accountability and empowerment have also taken center stage.

“We want every employee to feel like their project, crew or department is their own little company,” Doebert says. He and Windsor have been working out the details of a new incentive program designed to usher in that ownership mindset. “We want our culture to be about quality, details and efficiency,” Doebert adds. “We’re establishing company-wide goals and also goals for each crew. The hope is that everybody will push each other and help each other to get better, because then everyone will be rewarded.”

Putting admin on autopilot

It took about a month’s worth of adjusting, but everyone is now benefiting from the company’s adoption of Service Autopilot, a cloud-based management software.

“The antiquated paper system we’d been using just wasn’t efficient anymore,” Doebert says. “You could spend half a morning trying to decipher scribbles and ketchup stains.”

"We started using Service Autopilot when our new foremen came in, which made the transition a lot smoother," Windsor says.

Each foreman has a smartphone with access to Service Autopilot. They clock their crews in and out of jobs. They’re able to type in notes as things are observed on properties. They also have access to customer information, which comes in handy when a client has an issue that needs to be addressed immediately.

“Having all of this information and data in real-time is proving to be a huge advantage,” Windsor says. “It provides a much better visualization of what’s going on for the day. We’re also able to analyze jobs in a very timely fashion to determine where we’re going over on man-hours; are we understaffed, using the wrong equipment, or maybe need to rework our routes? Having this information so readily available, without getting swallowed up by paperwork, has been tremendous.”

“There is a lot of front-end loading that has to happen when switching to a software system like this,” Doebert adds. That’s why he and Windsor decided to implement Service Autopilot in phases, starting with the two maintenance crews before moving on to lawn care and then the landscaping crew.

Perfect fits

Advancing in increments is really how one could describe the way Doebert and Windsor have been going about growth in general. The company has been bigger in the past, but never better or as profitable. With the proper people and systems now in place, it’s time to look at growing again.

“We like our model,” Doebert says as Windsor eagerly nods. “We like small to mid-size commercial accounts such as office buildings and shopping centers—the kind where you can put on a three-man crew and deliver a nice, consistent level of service that is appreciated.

“In the past we have done some larger maintenance accounts and they just didn’t work out,” Doebert continues. “We could see it in our guys’ eyes: They hated it!   These accounts were not the norm for our business and didn’t align with our business model. The accounts only wanted a certain level of service, and it just wasn’t the level of service our guys were accustomed to providing. We didn’t re-bid these contracts the next year. We decided to move on and focus on what we were good at.”

Like many commercially focused landscape maintenance companies, Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC does have some residential accounts. The company is unique, though, in that it doesn’t cater to the super high-end of the residential market.

“Middle America has been very good to us,” Doebert says. “They value the service we provide. There is one high-end neighborhood that some view as the pinnacle of landscaping around here. But there are a hundred landscapers working in there. It’s very cutthroat, which is not where we want to play.”

Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC knows where it wants to play. The growing company wants to service clients that fit its maintenance model, and then build landscape enhancement sales off of that base. It wants to grow its higher-margin turf & ornamental care division—perhaps even branding it separately to allow for the pursuit of subcontracted work from other area landscape companies.

That’s in the future, though. Today they’ll continue working on systems and processes to help facilitate their profitable growth—which could soon eclipse the million-dollar mark if things continue going according to plan.

“We’re very thankful for the great team we now have in place,” Doebert says. “I’m also thankful for our vendors who stood by us and helped us get started 10 years ago. One notable vendor is our equipment dealer, Land & Coates, Inc.  I truly view them as a real partner in my business.”

Feeling blessed and eager to pay it forward, Doebert maintains his company’s involvement in the GreenCare for Troops program, which helps to provide landscaping services to families of deployed military members. It only makes sense, seeing as how Atlantic Landscape Management, LLC has become such a staple of such a great military community. Like everything else they do, it’s a perfect fit.