Watch Us Grow 2023 Industry Standouts

These business leaders empower employees through education and infrastructure.
The words "Watch Us Grow 2023 Industry Standouts" with three headshots of the award winners.

Building a company and encouraging growth while harnessing an engaged workforce in an active market isn’t easy for irrigation and landscape lighting professionals. It takes an understanding of the importance of education and culture, and sometimes a little bit of risk.

The Watch Us Grow: 2023 Industry Standouts program celebrates contractors and business owners who develop both their revenues and their teams. For this year’s class, that means a drive for education of both yourself and your team as well as the willingness to put yourself on the line.

We hope their stories guide your company’s next steps toward stronger employees and greater success.

The Audible Caller

Aaron Walls, owner of Purple Walrus Landscape Company in Lewisport, Kentucky, didn’t initially get into lawn care as a young entrepreneur the way that many in the industry do. He handled a couple of houses nearby with a push mower, but it wasn’t anything that he saw as a developing career. But he found himself looking more at working in the market after going through a dark point in his life.

Walls’ background involves drugs and alcohol, landing him in prison, an experience he openly talks about. In the work programs there, he picked up some more general guidance on lawn care along with trash along the side of the road. He finished his sentence in the early 2000s and found his way to a job in a local factory. He didn’t care for the work and kept thinking back to how he could make a future in working with landscapes.

“That’s when I started to realize, you know what? I hate factories. I was miserable,” Walls says. “So in 2019 I started taking a mower with me to work, then after work mowing lawns on the way home until dark.”

One of the benefits of the factory job was that he had plenty of time to listen to music or podcasts as he worked. Walls used that to his advantage, listening to podcasts to build his business and industry knowledge, like “Profit Time” with Wayne Volz on Turf’s Up Radio. He called in to a few episodes of different shows on the network looking for more information on how to develop his opportunities in the green industry and connected with the hosts.

“Then Darren Gruner called me at work, and told me to try landscape lighting,” says Walls. “I thought, he’s lost his mind, there’s no way I’m going to make any money putting lights up on somebody’s house. I just want to cut grass.”

Gruner won him over and got him connected with manufacturer representatives who helped Walls learn the basics of landscape lighting, how to quote an estimate and complete a design. He printed out flyers to develop his market using a little of the cash from his factory job and started to pass them out after work in areas where homeowners seemed to have more disposable income. He did his best to balance out his fledgling company around his family and his time coaching softball.

“It was difficult on my family, for my wife,” he says. “I was working 10 hours a day and Saturdays. There were several times when I wanted to quit, and it got really quiet at the dinner table.”

When he finally got his first lighting job, the representatives helped guide the installation.

Aaron Walls of Purple Walrus Landscape Company teamed up with manufacturer representatives and industry experts to learn the basics of landscape lighting. Getting his first few jobs gave him the momentum to move forward and start his own business in landscape lighting. (Photo: Purple Walrus Landscape Company)

“I made more on that job than I did in a month of factory work, put together with a month of mowing,” Walls says. “Then I thought, ‘Man, I need to get more of these flyers out.’”

After another project came along and Walls started feeling more comfortable in developing his knowledge in landscape lighting, he talked to his wife about leaving the certainty of the factory behind and committing fully to landscape lighting. “I looked at my wife and said, ‘The iron is hot right now.’” She supported his decision as long as they could make a living on his lighting work alone, even though it meant more time that he was going to be out trying to build the company. “It takes a strong woman to be able to do that as we go into the fourth year doing this. It didn’t happen overnight.”

Even the name of his company is a reference to the risk he felt he was facing as he pushed the company’s growth. “Purple walrus” is one of the phrases Derek Carr, former Las Vegas Raiders quarterback, used to call an audible on the field. And acting as his own boss has been liberating for Walls, though it also means he has to be responsible to keep himself moving. Word-of-mouth has been a key tool for him in picking up new work, as a few of his clients have already brought him new projects through neighbors looking at the work he’s completed for them.

He’s also continuing to hone his landscape lighting skills by developing a network of peers through social media, sending photos of his work to other professionals who have been doing the job a lot longer and asking for tips.

“They’ve already been through the steps where they’ve done it and learned from it long ago,” he says. “They’re saving me 10-15 years just by sharing their ideas.”

For the past few years, Walls has continued building his business in landscape lighting while expanding his professional knowledge as well by adding holiday lighting to his services offered. He’d like to work toward adding irrigation to his repertoire with additional education, but he’s got plenty to develop his business. Working with landscape lighting speaks to him on a personal level as well.

“When you put lights in on these houses that are just gorgeous — life was dark, and now I get to add light. It’s an amazing thing.”

“My life was at a dark point,” he says. “Prison and drugs and alcohol — darkness isn’t a fun thing. So when you put lights in on these houses that are just gorgeous — life was dark, and now I get to add light. It’s an amazing thing.”

The Expertise Builder

Working as a team across disciplines is a key part of company development for Suzanne Saylor, director of Shearon Interiors for Shearon Environmental Design in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania. The privately owned company has a range of expertise in its staff such as landscape architects and civil engineers.

“As a team, we’re always collaborating to see what works and what doesn’t work,” she says. “We visit one another’s job sites, educate ourselves and share ideas. That’s a huge part of the growth that’s happened in our company.”

Saylor’s projects include both interior and exterior green spaces such as green roofs and walls. “Being able to lean on a lot of the staff members here, some of the senior, more knowledgeable people as far as lighting and irrigation, that’s been a huge part of my growth.”

Reaching out for expert opinions and walking through each step of the process have always been important steps for Saylor’s approach to education, especially if she doesn’t have the answers herself.

As the pandemic reached its peak, Shearon faced a change in how clients were doing installations, going from plant-packed designs to a more open, minimalist space. To help keep her department profitable, Saylor had to expand her education in efficient irrigation and pass that information on to her team. As a hands-on manager, she worked with manufacturer reps to get assistance with some of the more challenging new irrigation installations her team was focused on.

“They came out and educated me on a lot of points,” she says. She then took that knowledge and shared it with her team as they took on the new projects.

Loren McIrvin of Allied Landscape not only made education and certification a keystone of his company’s career pathing, he provided technology to his crew to make sure each person had access to the education he built his career on. (Photo: Allied Landscape)

“I’ll work with my crew just to make things more efficient,” says Saylor. “Since I do run a small crew, I like everyone who works for me to have the irrigation knowledge to be able to identify a problem and troubleshoot it.”

Reaching out for expert opinions and walking through each step of the process have always been important steps for Saylor’s approach to education, especially if she doesn’t have the answers herself. “One thing I’ve found helpful throughout my career is to say that in my opinion no question is a dumb question,” she says. “I’m not afraid to admit that I might not have the knowledge I need in order to provide the best service to my clients.” Once she finds a subject matter expert or manufacturer’s rep to work with, she’ll reach out to them as a resource throughout the process until she feels like she’s developed a better understanding. “Those guys are always there and they’re always happy to come out. Their systems are the ones that are being used on the job, so they want those systems represented well. If we’re not doing our job in asking for help when it’s needed, it gives everyone a bad name.”

The company encourages a culture of sharing ideas and processes across managers, says Robert Wisnewski, manager. “There is a sense of feeling comfortable enough to ask those questions if you’re unsure about something. There’s no ego or pride that’s stopping people from learning. That’s been a really big advantage for us for a long time.”

Informal training sessions are a key element to sharing expertise on the job, as well as a weekly newsletter sent to all employees. Not only does the newsletter cover company news and kudos for employees, it includes notes on common best practices as a refresher and easy reference for something that might otherwise be found only in a binder or in a magazine. The newsletter can be a jumping-off point for team discussions about individual topics, says Saylor.

The newsletter is one part of an infrastructure program that’s been developing to keep the four branches of the company connected and informed, says Wisnewski. The company has spent the last year transitioning to electronic timesheets, providing tablets for each employee and GPS technology in the trucks for better routing. Investing in tech and infrastructure as well as improving compensation has made it easier to recruit new employees.

An organizational change has improved employee retention and career pathing as well, he says. The company has experimented with a “junior manager” role, outlining an employee who has a feel for career advancement.

“It gives people the opportunity to see if they’re interested in leading,” he says. The role allows for mentoring with managers while gaining experience, preparing them for larger projects and more active roles without immediately requiring them to have institutional knowledge. “The junior manager level has really worked out for us.”

For Saylor, following up with her team and junior managers after a project is just as important as with the client. “I really like to communicate with my team and ask, ‘Are you happy?’” If there’s a question about another opportunity or a different department, the company has the tools in place to fit the employee to the right job. “We have a good staff out there because we are putting people where they like to be. We all know if you don’t like to go to work, you’re not going to be doing a good job. It benefits everybody in the long term.”

The Education Advocate

Loren McIrvin, owner of Allied Landscape in Livermore, California, grew up in the San Francisco Bay area, helping his parents with their landscape and construction company of about 20 people. He describes his father as the type of contractor who was great at talking with clients and organizing installations, but he was sometimes a little hazy on the technique. McIrvin got to spend time helping his mother on weekends and after school making fixes to client projects, moving a plant to a more appropriate spot or grouping designs with similar water requirements together. His dad made an excellent salesperson but the errors got to him.

“So for me at a young age, that made an impression on me,” he says. “I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got to learn the right way.’”

“We’re very intentional about our employee experience. We’re not looking to build robots. We’re looking for great attitudes.” – Loren McIrvin, Allied Landscape

He worked toward “getting every industry certification that was available,” he says. “I looked for any classes I could take and just really committed myself to education, and it really opened my eyes in terms of opportunity.”

With the time and effort he put into education, he found chances to manage irrigation supply stores and take on regional sales while also teaching some others what he had learned. He joined professional peer groups to help refine ideas. Even as he did that, he continued his own education to build his understanding of both himself and those best practices.

“I wanted to make sure what I was telling my peers wasn’t just coming from that ‘dad’ place,” he says. “Education really helped me to build confidence and to make myself comfortable in my own skin in the industry.”

While certification programs, such as those through organizations like the Irrigation Association, have always been a part of his company’s infrastructure, it was a little more challenging making sure that his employees had access to education outside of those opportunities, he says. The education modules, which are all video-based, were built with an approach specific to his region and the platform integrated with the other management software the company used. The pandemic gave him the time to sit down and think through his options to build a plan around developing digital access for everyone on his team. Among his challenges was the fact that he couldn’t assume that his employees had reliable Wi-Fi service at home or even a working laptop.

Suzanne Saylor of Shearon Environmental Design built on her industry education to help keep her department profitable during the pandemic, learning from experts and sharing that knowledge with her team. The company encourages sharing ideas and expertise across disciplines. (Photo: Shearon Environmental Design)

“We put an iPhone in every employee’s hands,” he says, to work around issues with access, and provided an email address for each employee. That opened the way for employees to pick up as much education as they were able and gave McIrvin a way to look for upcoming talent.

“If there’s some young, ambitious guy that is like me when I was their age, they are soaking in this information,” he says. “We have a clear career path that has an educational component tied to the other capabilities and other checkmarks you need to have.”

The company recognizes achievements in certification for employees and makes it easy to see how many colleagues have gone through the program and moved forward in their careers. Each employee carries a photo badge that lists their certifications as a badge of honor, he says. Crew supervisors and above wear a special safety vest that matches what operation managers and account managers are wearing. That focus on creating a strong career path and connecting it to education has paid off in building enthusiasm among employees, he says.

“There’s a ton of growth opportunities for our folks,” McIrvin says. “It fits with great education. It keeps people engaged. I can tell you that as far as employee retention and recruitment go, we have an easier job in my market than other folks do. The reason is that word has spread that ‘Hey, listen, these guys are looking to move you up.’”

While growth is a primary drive for McIrvin, he balances it with taking his foot off the gas occasionally to check for healthy progress. At one of his previous positions, it was a hard lesson learned that fast growth isn’t necessarily good, taking on team members that weren’t a fit for the company because options were limited.

“I had to unwind that, and that was really tough,” he says. “The concept of growing at a sustainable rate has everything to do with building your bench through education and building their capabilities. But before any of that starts, it means having a robust screening process.”

Building his recruiting around culture fit rather than just industry experience has brought him some of his best employees from unexpected places like the food service or hospitality industry, he says.

“There are hardworking people there,” he says. “Getting the right people on the bus is absolutely everything.” Checking for culture doesn’t stop with a personality test, though. The first 30 days of every new employee’s role includes almost daily check-ins to make sure things are feeling like a fit for both the employee and the company.

“We make sure to have a badge for them and address them by name. That shows right out of the gates that we’re engaged. We’re appreciating you as a human and we’re checking in with you at the end of the first day,” he says. “We’re very intentional about our employee experience. We’re not looking to build robots. We’re looking for great attitudes.”

Kyle Brown is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Lighting magazine and can be reached via email.

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