Sandy Weaver, owner of Albuquerque Grounds Maintenance, is feeling pretty good these days. After all, this is her company's tenth year in business. AGM has an excellent reputation as well as a good mix of commercial business. And it's backed up by a cadre of loyal, hardworking employees. In Sandy's own words, "I'm glad to be where I am. But it sure wasn't easy getting there."
Her words echo the challenge facing all lawn maintenance contractors today. Nearly anyone can buy a mower and hang a shingle, and the majority of them can stay in business at least a year. or two. Those who do good work and learn how to run a business can last even longer. In fact, providing quality work and gaining business knowledge and experience is the ticket to longevity... unless you want to grow. With growth comes an entirely new set of challenges.
Sandy's plan for slow, controlled growth worked for four years. But a growing market combined with a growing reputation eventually forced her hand.
"We started to grow six years ago," remembers general manager Eric Spalsbury. "At the time, we had two and one-half maintenance crews. Then the business really took off." The company added more maintenance crews and more services. Within two years, AGM was grossing around $750,000. providing exterior and interior maintenance, installation and irrigation services.
Today, revenue has doubled to nearly $1.5 million. AGM has eight maintenance crews, jobs in nearby Sante Fe, and a new location that it has already outgrown.
The growth spurt challenged both Sandy and Eric to develop a growth strategy. Two years ago AGM established department managers for its interior, color, landscape/irrigation and exterior maintenance divisions. The move took pressure off at the top, but didn't help in other areas.
"The toughest thing about growing is losing control." relates Sandy. "We really care about people. Growing doesn't change that. but it changes how you communicate that feeling. It's difficult, but sometimes a company just outgrows its people and its clients."
As she explains, employees who enjoyed a "mom and pop" working environment might find it hard to adjust to a slightly more formalized working environment inherent in a larger company. And customers who were accustomed to seeing owners in jeans doing the planting questioned their priorities when they weren't on site as much.
At the employee level, AGM tackles the growth challenge two ways: by providing more training and offering new incentives.
AGM University was established to facilitate employee training. In addition to providing technical classes on pruning, fertilizing and applying insecticides among other technical subjects, the company offers classes that introduce employees to business fundamentals.
"Our employees appreciate and enjoy the classes," tells Eric. "In addition to helping them advance their careers, sessions also give them an appreciation for what it takes to operate a business."
But education alone doesn't ensure employees will adopt the company philosophy or perform up to expected standards. To encourage employees to do their best AGM recently developed a Performance Incentive Awards Program (PIAP). "The program is easy to administer, and it holds value for the employee," explains Eric. A PlAP form is affixed to the back of hourly employee time sheets. At the end of the week, employees are graded by their supervisor for 1) Being responsible for their actions, having respect for others/equipment/vehicles/ shop/yard/etc.; 2) Attitude; 3) Time management; 4) Customer satisfaction; and 5) Attendance/punctuality. Employees who receive a perfect score get a $10 bonus for the week. The crew with the best rating for the month is treated to a free lunch.
The program features an additional twist to encourage employees to return the following year. If employees return the next year and have a perfect score for at least two months they receive an additional $200 bonus.
Does the program work? It seems to so far, tells Sandy, adding that it's just one of many different ways to pique employee interest in their jobs. "The biggest thing, however, is to show genuine concern about employee well-being and give them a chance to have a career, she emphasizes.
Just finding new employees in Albuquerque is currently a struggle, thanks to a huge building project under way by Intel. One of the country's largest construction projects, the building of a new Intel plant is literally "sucking the labor pool dry." All the more reason to find ways to keep employees interested.
AGM's customer rolls include 13 McDonald's, a large shopping mall, and several apartments, condominiums, hotels and other restaurants. Sandy and Eric strive to maintain as much client contact as possible, but the bigger they get, the more help they need.
Two years ago, AGM produced its first newsletter designed in part to keep customers up-to-speed about happenings at AGM and to promote seasonal services. A survey card sent to all 140 clients on a monthly or bimonthly basis offers a way for customers to comment about current services or request new ones.
Even then, it pays to visit as many clients as possible. Eric relates a story from a couple of years ago when Sandy visited an AGM exterior color planting project "She wasn't satisfied with the planting arrangement, but wasn't dressed to do the planting herself. So she purchased a new pair of jeans in a nearby GAP store and pitched in with the planting." Nothing beats that kind of interaction. Unfortunately, as much as owners hate giving up control, these instances are few and far between.
AGM is in a position now to consolidate growth, and concentrate a little more on the bottom line. Last year, the boom market brought plenty of business in small landscaping projects, Sandy relates. This year and the years after will offer other opportunities. The working plans call for holding the maintenance division where it currently is (it now brings in approximately 70 percent of the company's total revenue) while growing the landscaping and interiorscaping divisions.
"Ten years seems like a real milestone," says Sandy smiling and breathing a sigh of relief. 'We've reached a plateau and now will begin looking for new growth opportunities." As she notes in this business, however, growth is really another word for finding ways to maintain employee and customer loyalty.