Besides posts about Mark Wirkus and Ole, this is the most painful post I’ve done.

It’s no surprise really. When LandCare first took over my business, (the wallstreet firm), they had a better idea of running an entrepeneurial organization. Their plan was to leave the strong owners in place, share information and best practices to improve the organization. This was short lived of course, as ServiceMaster bought out LandCare on March 19, 1999. Soon, it all changed. The strong owners were not welcome. 3 of my salespeople, all making in excess of $100,000 per year were considered overpaid, even though their sales were in excess of  2 million each annually. (What would the lesser salesmen think of their outrageous pay?) and everything was boiled down to the lowest common denominator. They destroyed the company. The average branch did about 2 million per year. Mine did $13.7 million my first year with 1.7 million in net profit after paying for all the extra corporate overhead. The mistakes are too numerous to mention here. The branch ended up doing somewhere around $3 million about 4 or 5 years ago.

About that time, they had decided to sell LandCare to a private investor group of experienced managers.

They contacted me.  I was struggling with my current partnership at the time and agreed to fly to Memphis to meet with a V.P. and 2 other people to interview for the Mpls-St Paul branch manager job. I was excited. I wanted to hear that they had realized their mistakes. I was hoping they would tell me they were going to focus on employees and customers, motivation and satisfaction. Extremely happy people, internal and external customers. After 2 hours, it was apparent that they hadn’t changed much at all. I was told that they now had collected so many numbers from the branches that they would be able to manage the business to a whole new level. My heart sank. After I started realizing that they weren’t going to be successful, I’m sure I did not seem excited at the prospect at all.They asked me if I was really interested in the job and I said i didn’t think so. 

I remember it was a rainy day. I love rainy days, but the drive back to the airport seemed especially dreary and gray. I get the numbers part of it. Knowing your costs, being efficient, getting higher gross margins, knowing which type of landscape work is the most profitable so you can pursue it are all important things to know.

There was a day around that time where the surprise announcement came that Denver and Chicago Landcare offices were being closed effective that same day. LandCare had paid really good money for the  Church rollup ( a founding member)and we had purchased the Tandem company a year or so later.  (Tandem seemed like a pretty well run company to me).

We acquired 20 million dollars in landscape business from Church and Tandem, then a bean counter decided a few years later that they couldn’t make it work so just shut it down. What a waste.

The reason I left LandCare was I was doing acquisitions for them in the central U.S. Three of those acquisitions were in the final stage. We had Letters of Intent and in one case had the employees of the incoming company meet our management staff. (My mistake). It was a Monday morning when I got a call from my superior saying they were pulling all deals off the table. The reason? “We don’t even know how to run our own branches, why should we acquire more branches to mess up? That was very good logic and accurate, but I had a good name nationally and this was going to tarnish my reputation with the 3 business owners I now had to call and give the bad news. Again, the decision was solid on paper, but the human costs were incalculable.  I can’t put a number on my reputation and my principles.

So, with the news that LandCare will probably be sold again, I wish I could still  have the chance to show that a different path can be taken to success. My guess is that an investment group won’t buy it, they’ll just sell the accounts to Brickman for 40 cents on the dollar with the promise that Brickman will give TruGreen Lawn Care the chem work. ( I don’t actually know, just a guess)

I feel badly that I let my employees down by selling to TruGreen in the first place just to have everything and everyone spread to the 4 winds.

There are two things that make the whole “numbers” approach doomed to failure in a service business.

1. Efficiencies and prices don’t build relationships with customers. Yes, a low price might get you in the door, and maybe they’ll even re-up the contract another year even if they’re not happy because the price is lower than anybody else, but it’s transactional business, devoid of emotion, an analytical’s dream and everyone else’s nightmare.

2. Employees. They didn’t want exceptional employees. I mean that seriously. I was told something to the effect that they hired for positions and that the employees should be “plug and play”. I don’t think that term was around at that time, but you get the drift. If an employee quit, you should be able to plug another in their place, give them the rules to follow with little or no drop-off. 

Are you familiar with Maslow’s Heirarchy? Landscape employees are not paid very much.Let’s take it from the employers standpoint:

1.  It doesn’t cost  very much to ensure their rise from the first stage Physiological needs like food and water to the second stage, safety and security.

2. Then to get to the third stage of Love/Belonging like friendship, family, that doesn’t cost anything! Team building, get togethers and consideration of each other probably cost less than the uniform cleaning budget/

3.  Getting to the fourth stage, Self Esteem, confidence, achievement,  respect of others, that doesn’t cost much either.

Now we’re mostly up the Pyramid.

The final step, Self Actualization contains terms like morality, creativity, problem solving, lack of prejudice and acceptance of facts. These traits do cost some money because management needs to lead the way by operating morally, playing  fair and maybe champion a few charities of interest to the employees and customers. Money has to be spent to live to a higher code, but it’s really not that much more.

OK, but what’s the payoff? A landscape business is SO different from other businesses. Not only does mother nature affect every aspect of their jobs, but employees have hundreds of decisions to make every day! It starts out the night before. Going to a job where they are self actualized, they care enough to get a better nights sleep, come in more prepared, come in with a better attitude, which improves the performance of the 3-5 people they work with all day. Another benefit of an employee in this zone is the spousal and family support. If they love their job and have connected with others, they are much more likely to be supported by their spouse and family members. Ever had to deal with an employee whose wife hated the fact they worked at your company? Wow, bad news.

It continues with how they load up their equipment, how they treat the equipment. When they’re carrying a weed whip, it’s the difference between scalping the lawn around the trees  to an even cut. From mowing over garbage, creating confetti, to picking it up and stuffing it in a pocket or bag. It shows up how they talk to customers. You see it when they take the time to note landscaping problems like insect and irrigation problems without being asked. It shows up in the amount of themselves they pour into every aspect of their day. 

See, hundreds of decisions that a spreadsheet can’t manage. hundreds of decisions, each one costing or saving the company maybe 20 cents to $5.00 each time, but added up in total, cannot be overcome by managing by numbers.

Balance the numbers with the interests of the people involved. If it were simply about the numbers, than the millions of numbers compiled by TruGreen LandCare that managers could wring their hands over would have ensured fantastic success.

I’ve had more than my share of failures in business. The fact that an uneducated person like myself cleary saw a problem costing tens of millions in sales two years ahead of time is sad. Do you know what’s humorous? The thought that a ServiceMaster employee reading this doesn’t think that the human cost was the problem at all. “If we just had more numbers……”

  Good luck guys, I sincerely hope someone restores the lustre that a well run landscape company can generate.

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