When William Cruz earned his bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering, he never imagined that one day he’d be working as the director of operations at one of the country’s leading landscaping companies.
Born and raised in El Salvador, Cruz worked as a quality assurance engineer and maintenance manager for a regional airline in his home country for seven years. When he moved to the U.S. 20 years ago, it was a difficult time to find a job in the airline industry.
At that time, his friend who had a small landscaping company offered him a job as a gardener. “I thought it was a good temporary option while I searched for ‘real employment,’” says Cruz.
As Cruz learned to use landscape equipment and techniques to create beautiful gardens, he enjoyed the work. “Being outdoors and enjoying nature was a new adventure for me,” he says. He liked building relationships with both his co-workers and the clients they worked for. And when he saw how much money people in the U.S. invest in their landscapes, he realized there was a lot of financial opportunity in this industry.
He soon discovered there’s more to this work than simply mowing and blowing leaves — there’s a science behind why a specific plant needs to be in a certain spot and why yards need to be mowed a specific way, he says.
As a lifelong learner, Cruz saw landscaping as an opportunity to pick up new skills and concepts. He began earning different landscape certifications and licenses and visiting nurseries to learn about horticulture.
Cruz worked for The Villages Golf and Country Club in San Jose, California, where he used his management skills as a supervisor of five crews. This role gave him the opportunity to pass on the knowledge he was learning through his own professional development, he says. It also gave him the chance to encourage the employees he worked with to study and develop their own skills, something he continues to do to this day.
Cruz moved on to an account manager position at Gachina Landscape in 2004 that he learned about through a friend who worked there.
Located in Menlo Park, California, the company was founded in 1988 by John Gachina, who ran the company until he passed away five years ago. Today, the company remains family- owned under the leadership of John’s wife, H. Jaclyn Ishimaru-Gachina, who serves as its president and CEO.
It was the company culture that made Cruz envision a career at Gachina. He began advancing through the company, becoming an enhancement project manager and then a branch manager. “It was then that I had the privilege to work directly under the company owner, John Gachina, for almost five years,” says Cruz.
The biggest lesson Cruz learned working with John Gachina was to always put team members first. “His number one priority was his employees,” Cruz says. “He knew everybody by name, and he would greet every single one every single day. He made you feel that you were part of the family.” John Gachina created an environment where his employees could enjoy their work and have fun while doing it.
Today, Cruz serves as the company’s director of operations where he oversees the operations and finances of five branches and three departments, totaling more than 430 employees.
Putting employees first is an idea Cruz applies to everything, including when he was tasked with helping an underperforming branch that was steadily losing money because of mismanagement, he says.
“There wasn’t good communication — the team members weren’t even aware the branch was losing money,” he explains. The branch manager hadn’t disclosed the situation to them, and there was no accountability for anyone’s actions. Employees were leaving early and working overtime without authorization. “The atmosphere was really polluted,” he says.
But his primary concern wasn’t the money, it was the morale of the team. Cruz explains, “I knew that if we regained the trust of our employees first, they would be willing to join the efforts to improve clients’ relationships and the financials of the branch.”
He started by explaining the situation to the employees and asking for their help. “I had to do a revision of the role for every single person on the team so that they knew what was expected of them,” he says.
Positive reinforcement was also necessary in changing the branch’s culture. “I told my managers, ‘Anytime you see somebody doing something good, we need to bring it up in front of everyone every morning.’ And then people started feeling like, ‘Oh, they’re paying attention to the good things that I’m doing.’ And that will encourage them to continue doing it.”
This approach paid off. The same team that was there when the branch was losing money helped make it a healthy branch again. In six months, they turned things around and the branch ended up having a positive net profit that year.
“We didn’t have to lay off anyone; we just put order in the house,” he says. “When you focus on your employees first, they take care of your clients, and the financial part just falls into place naturally.”
Taking care of employees means mentoring, promoting and empowering them so they feel appreciated, says Cruz. When you do that, your crews will put in the extra effort for clients.
An important guideline for Cruz is to make certain he doesn’t micromanage his team. “We provide clear expectations and tell them what we want,” he explains. “We provide all the tools and the support that they need, and we let them use their imagination and their creativity on how to reach that specific goal.”
If this means his management team doesn’t spend eight hours a day in the office, Cruz doesn’t mind. He knows if someone is not doing the work, the results will show in the form of complaints or a goal not met. He views his role as monitoring and supporting his team, a management style that’s worked quite well for him.
The people Cruz works with make his job worthwhile, he says. From the crews out in the field to the management team he works closely with every day, he says he’s been with the company long enough to be able to know and care for each of them personally. “I certainly feel I am blessed to have this team,” he says. “I am very proud of what each of them has accomplished.”
Gachina puts a major focus on employee training, Cruz says. The company provides training programs for employees at all levels, including a certification program to train new hires for up to two months before they are sent out into the field. Employees also have the option of getting training outside Gachina with full company reimbursement.
“Everyone needs training to succeed, to be more efficient and work in a safe manner,” says Cruz.
The green industry provides many great career opportunities, says Cruz, but you do need to gain the necessary skills for what you want to do. He gives the example of a Spanish-speaking landscape technician who wants to become an account manager. He would encourage this technician to learn English to better communicate with clients and learn the necessary computer skills for this type of role.
“Sometimes people feel that they can be given an opportunity just because they’ve been in the company for a long time,” he says. “But the opportunities go to people who are capable, who have the potential and who have the willingness to learn new things.”
Cruz is proud of the success he’s had in this industry, and encouraging people of all backgrounds to educate themselves to advance in their careers is what’s most important to him.
“I want them to see an example of where they can be, the potential that they have to also be a director one day, or a branch manager one day, or a senior account manager one day. It’s possible.” And Cruz would know, he’s living proof that if you work hard in this industry, you can rise to the top.
If you asked William Cruz, director of operations at Gachina Landscape Management, what the company’s two top focuses are, he would reply environmentally friendly practices and employee safety.
One practice the company implemented was a result of realizing it was taking too much green waste from jobs back to the landfill. At the same time, the company’s injury rate was quickly increasing. Most of the injuries occurred while dumping heavy burlaps full of debris, which caused back injuries.
“We started to train our teams to change the way we did landscaping, no longer picking up leaves. Instead, they were mulched and blown into the bare landscape areas,” he says. “They were only allowed to bring back to the yard debris that could not be mulched, such as tree branches, palm fronds and any other hardy materials.”
Cruz explains that there are many benefits of leaf mulching, such as getting natural nutrients, soil moisture and weed control. Right away they noticed a reduction in green waste by 50%, and as the teams got used to this practice, it reduced even more. At the same time, since there were fewer heavy burlaps to dump, they saw a decrease in back injuries.
Clients also liked this practice of leaf mulching and thanked them for providing free mulch on their properties.
Finding ways like this to reduce injury are important to the company. One idea Cruz had was a safety fair that he organized and put on with the help of his management team.
“We had a total of 10 stations with a 20-minute training at each. The crew members were divided and assigned to each station and every 20 minutes they rotated to the next,” he says. Each station was focused on one part of the safety practices and procedures, such as personal protective equipment, proper lifting technique, equipment safety, truck/trailer safety and heat exhaustion.
“We actually saw a huge difference in employees’ attitudes toward safety,” he says. “They were trained on every specific detail for every specific piece of equipment that they use. The results were great. We saw a great decrease in incidents since starting it in 2017.”