For professional irrigation and landscape lighting contractors, maintaining company growth while dealing with a booming market for customers often comes back to understanding the importance of good employees, empowered to make the right decisions.
The Watch Us Grow: 2022 Industry Standouts program celebrates those service providers who have not only had a successful year but tried new ideas to encourage that growth. For most of this year’s class, that meant focusing on developing their hires into the high-functioning team they needed to reach their goals.
We hope their stories guide your company’s next steps toward stronger employees and greater success.
The Department Developer
For Bradley Hill, CIT, irrigation services operations manager for Par 3 Landscape Management in Las Vegas, building an effective irrigation team took someone who could see that all the parts were already there in the company. It just needed assembly and investment.
Par 3 Landscape Management provides irrigation and landscaping services primarily for homeowners associations and commercial properties. It maintains about 500 employees out of a single location servicing many of the well-known businesses in town.
The company’s owners grew up in the area and developed long-running business relationships with many of the big names, which helped them establish a market share.
While Hill was just completing his bachelor’s degree in horticulture, he had interned at Par 3 during the summer. With his background, he was focused on water conservation, especially in a part of the country that has struggled with drought.
“As a horticulturalist, I was focused on the plant health aspect,” he says. “Let’s not just cut water to cut water. Let’s save water but also let’s keep the plants alive and promote healthy root systems.”
He was impressed with the way that Tom Raden, landscape irrigation manager at Par 3, recognized the importance and value of water conservation, but he realized the company hadn’t built an infrastructure around it.
“So, I pitched the idea to Tom and the owners of the company,” he says. His idea was to develop a full irrigation department within the company. It would take investment and education, but he was convinced there would be substantial return as well as water savings for clients. The owners signed onto the idea, and Hill and Raden worked together on building the department from the ground up.
Starting out, Par 3 had some technicians covering irrigation issues, but those employees didn’t always have the best tools or training for the projects they were working on. “When it comes to irrigation, it’s often the last thing people think about because everyone wants to see a new plant,” says Hill. “You can’t really see the benefits or beauty of irrigation because it’s all underground. What I wanted to do is really showcase how irrigation could change the company and change a property.”
While many of the technicians had been working on irrigation issues for more than 30 years, they didn’t always know why they followed specific procedures. Hill collected education materials from his own recent graduation and other resources and developed a full curriculum of topics to train the team to develop them into qualified irrigation professionals. Every month, he trained his group on concepts such as flow, velocity and pressure, and after about six months he started to see a shift. Not only were they understanding the lessons, they were approaching Hill on off days to ask about more advanced ideas.
“It was really interesting to me to see these guys for the first time take interest and pride in what they were doing,” he says. “Not that they weren’t before, but it became important for them to actually understand it now.”
Hill built the curriculum to provide knowledge first, so when he pushed for new tools like multimeters and wire trackers, they were able to use them effectively. One of the biggest investments was to trade out the teams’ trucks for full-size service vans, he says. The new vehicles allowed the technicians to organize parts and tools, reducing costs in buying the same part repeatedly and allowing them to spend more time specifically on the repairs. It also helped the team present themselves as professionals separate from just another branch of landscaping. “As soon as we did that, it was a night and day difference. They’re walking billboards for Par 3 in our irrigation division with professionalism.”
With the investment in education and tools, the team was able to move past just dealing with ongoing repairs and getting the job done to a place where they used their expertise to get things right the first time.
“It really turned around the department and pushed us to profitability really soon,” he says. “It was awesome.” On top of providing water conservation for their clients, the irrigation department of Par 3 became profitable within eight months and began to be seen as the go-to irrigation resource in the community.
Hill is grateful for the opportunity to build and establish an entirely new department within the company, especially when it took some investment to get things moving. “Par 3 was gracious enough to take a chance with me,” he says. He also credits his management and his crew for stepping up to the challenge. “I was merely lucky to get with this great group of people. Without them, none of this would’ve happened.”
The Communication Specialist
Jason Walker, CIC, owner of Pate Landscape Company in Montgomery, Alabama, started at the company by working in the field after he graduated with his degree in horticulture. He joined the company in 1994, connecting his learning to hands-on practice, and eventually purchased it in 2021. “That experience is tremendous, it’s one of those things that you don’t want to repeat but you’re glad you did it,” he says.
Part of what he learned in his time coming up through the company was the importance of staying connected. A lot of trade industries are somewhat known for traditionally “being rough and gruff, where people don’t talk and they don’t communicate,” he says.
One of the big differences he saw between smaller and larger landscaping companies is the effort the owner made in keeping conversation open with management and crews. With a team of about 20 employees, he needed to learn from larger companies if he wanted to continue growing.
“Once you get to a certain size, the owner can’t be the operator,” he says. “It’s difficult when you have to take that step away to be the owner. You’ve got to communicate your intentions to the operator. I’m really big on having a chain of command.”
That started with making changes to the way Walker hired for upper-level management. Instead of just looking for industry experience, he made it a point to look for people who had a past in management and who shared his priorities as a manager. “If they need it, I can teach them landscaping a lot more easily than I can teach them management,” he says.
One of his current managers came from a background at a divinity college, he says. While he had to take some time to learn the industry, he’s been useful as someone who understands how to teach the crews and communicate goals clearly.
Walker encourages a company culture where even when there are mistakes, it’s clear that the expectation is that the discussion surrounding the solutions will be calm and direct. “I always tell my guys, even at the lowest levels, we don’t yell at each other,” he says.
Creating that kind of a company culture challenges the way that many owners see themselves as leaders, he says. He gives the example of a rock band, where it’s easy for many leaders to think of themselves as the person in front, singing to the crowd. But the reality is actually the opposite, he says.
“If we’re a rock group, I’m the drummer; I’m not the lead singer,” Walker says. “I keep the beat. I set the tone and the rhythm.” It doesn’t always feel as flashy, but being the person who’s available to make sure the teams have what they need both in terms of equipment and office support gives crews the best chance to give their best performance. Once he’s shown his team how to do things, he does his best to step back and trust them to do the work.
“I allow them to make decisions and make mistakes, and we’ll learn from them,” Walker says. “I can’t be the one making all the decisions, because I’ll never get anything done.”
Part of the communication work he does is sharing the company’s victories, such as letting the whole team know when Pate has been selected for a project even when it’s not the lowest bidder. For Walker, that shows the payoff of hard work that builds a reputation in the community. “I want to share that what they’re doing matters,” he says.
When there are mistakes in the field, he tries to look at them as teachable moments. Rather than a yelling match, he and a manager will work with the crew to talk about what went wrong in a situation and how it should be resolved differently the next time around.
For Walker, it comes down to trying to keep in mind that sometimes his crews might not have the same life experience that he’s had in his career.
“As long as they’re honest and nobody was doing things maliciously, we can grow from that,” he says. “I’ve seen those employees that make those early mistakes, and when you let them know, they fix it. Some of those guys have been with me for years.”
The Career Counselor
Kevin Tucker, owner of Aqua-Bright Irrigation & Illumination LLC in Sykesville, Maryland, started his career in irrigation as a crew member using a trencher, which is why he feels confident in telling his team that he understands their day-to-day work.
“My first job was to level out the trenches and dig under the sidewalk all day,” he says. “Whenever I ask my guys to do something, it’s not something I’ve never done myself.”
When bringing a new employee in to Aqua-Bright, which does irrigation and landscape lighting installation, he’ll often talk a little bit about his background and the different jobs he’s held within the industry through the years. The point isn’t bragging but to help them to understand that there’s the potential for more than just working for a paycheck in the irrigation industry. “This is what sets the stage for a career,” says Tucker, who has about 25 employees. “You can literally start at the bottom and work your way up to owning a company, and I will help you.”
Tucker began working on developing career paths for his employees as one initiative to help bring on and maintain new help in the past few years to mitigate the overwhelming amount of new work in the market. Finding experienced irrigation and lighting technicians seemed impossible without poaching from other established companies. He hired a business coach to help develop strategies and made the decision to start hiring for attitude and work ethic rather than experience.
“Our whole ethos is that we’re here to help,” he says. “So we’re looking for people with that personality type.”
Once a potential employee makes it past that checkpoint, the field opens up even more. During the onboarding process, Tucker talks with employees about joining one of two main tracks that are available: customer service or technician. Both learn about installation and troubleshooting techniques, but each path is set up to meet employees’ different work styles. Some employees thrive in connecting with customers, while others want to just focus on fixing the issue in front of them. Both are important to the company’s success as a whole, he says.
“We lay out the possible career paths and the salaries and different bonus programs we have available,” he says. “We put the steps in front of them and say, ‘Here’s the opportunity. What do you think?’ And we’ve had a really good response to this.”
The employee turnover at Aqua-Bright has gone down considerably since building in the career path program. In the past, employees would sometimes jump to another position at a competitor for an addition 50 cents an hour. “If the employee felt like there was nowhere for them to grow in our company, 50 cents just seems like a good deal,” he says. But now there’s a clear path forward to make crew work into more than just showing up for a job. His team does a quarterly check-in with each employee to make certain they’re staying engaged and on track with goals. “It’s been a big catalyst for us. Everybody’s on board and the quality of work has gone up.”
The quarterly reviews have also helped Tucker find new ways for his employees to expand their training and learn what they’re interested in. As his crew members started to see that there was more opportunity for a full career in the field, they requested additional education, he says. It’s also clarified team roles and helped each member understand what their particular role supports and why it matters.
The additional attention to his employees has connected well with the amount of work that’s available in his region as well. “If you’re going to promise somebody that they can move up, there needs to be work for them to do,” he says. He’s invested in marketing to continue to bring in new territories for his crews to hone their skills.
“Everybody wants to know where they stand. Everybody wants to know what they can do to grow and progress,” he says. “If you expect your employees to just show up and dig for the rest of their lives, then you’re going to keep on getting the same results with employee churn.”
The Brand Builder
With the influx of new work during the pandemic, Sean Mullarkey, CIC, CID, CLIA, owner of TriState Water Works and Lux Landscape Lighting in Cincinnati, Ohio, was trying everything he could think of to bring in new employees. That’s when his local peer entrepreneur group brought in a trade job recruiter. “I thought, ‘Let’s give this a try, because everything we’re doing isn’t working,’” he says.
He knew a professional trade recruiter would have a better handle on how to write attractive ads and stay on top of potential employees. And for a company his size, at under 10 employees, he didn’t feel like he could justify hiring a manager to do that work in-house. “We’re trying to take care of our customers, employees and vendors, and cash flow,” Mullarkey says. “Recruiting is so important to us, but it always seemed to fall on the back burner.”
He worked with a recruiter and brought on more employees to build support infrastructure for his company’s office as well as develop its brand. For one of those employees, part of their work is doing recruiting work in-house, building a social media and web presence that will attract more employees to TriState.
That includes account management for platforms like Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, with clips of video interviews with current employees and of company outings. The idea is to show how the work gets done, but it also shows how the company is dedicated to team building and paying its employees back for their efforts, he says.
It goes beyond that to building profiles for each of Mullarkey’s current employees, as well. It’s one thing to remember a birthday, but knowing their hobbies or types of music that they listen to can help develop a company culture that feels more cohesive. It also gives the recruiter a better idea of how to market to other potential employees who are similar to the ones who are already succeeding.
Investing in a recruiter initially and an in-house effort go hand-in-hand with investing in marketing or developing the company, he says.
“We get a lot of customers by word of mouth and all our great reviews,” Mullarkey says. “There’s no sense in me spending more money on advertising for customers if I don’t have the employees to do the work. So our focus last year and this year has been on marketing to and finding employees.”
Once new employees are brought on, there’s a new apprentice training program waiting for them to guide them toward a full career in the industry. “We needed skilled technicians and needed a way to fast-track them to be independent workers,” says Mullarkey. Originally, he had new hires follow established technicians on the job to learn through osmosis, but then he determined that to get the results he wanted, he needed something more structured.
So he worked with his team to build a 90-day training program that organizes a new set of skills to take on over the course of each 30 days. Every segment builds on the last with an 80-page manual that he compiled out of his company’s standard operating procedures.
“At the end of each 30 days, we sit down and review what they’ve learned over that time,” he says. “It’s not just technical skills. It’s also soft skills like what it means to be to work on time, interpersonal skills, how to communicate well.”
He and one of his earliest employees began writing down those best practices and gathering them from early in his company’s history to keep their work consistent. Each practice is about a page long. If they run longer, he breaks them down into a separate procedure.
Each of those 30-day blocks also reminds Mullarkey to take time to evaluate whether the new hire is working out, so there isn’t a full year going by with substandard work without some review. He also sets goals for each of the apprentices during the program to help determine what other training or certification they’ll pursue after completing 90 days.
“They’re expected to get certified to maintain their job position, at least the certified irrigation technician,” he says.
Though it’s tough to quantitatively measure how much things have improved since organizing the apprentice program, Mullarkey’s business has built a reputation in his market as the “tech geeks.”
“I’ve got skilled technicians that come from other companies who say they learn more in the first year here than they learned in three years at the previous job,” he says.
Employee retention has improved as well, as his crews feel like they’re picking up a useful skill even in day-to-day work.
“Once someone comes on, they pretty much stay,” he says. “My employees feel like they’re part of a professional organization. It’s something they can be proud of, because they’re learning it and feeling competent. I think there’s a real sense of pride.”