Bnechmarking to Success in Texas

When Scott and Company, Bay City, Texas, decided to get into the maintenance business, it took a short cut. Instead of starting from scratch and learning the business on their own, owners Scott and Pam Evans took the advice of an industry expert and visited a firm that already "cracked the maintenance code." walker-talk-volume-07-10_1.jpgThe visit paid off in a big way. Scott and Company launched a new maintenance division three years ago which already is adding more than $1/4 million to company sales. The new business is profitable, too.

Not many contractors can lay claim to such aggressive and profitable growth in just three years. Scott and Company attributes its success to a number of factors, including Scott's knowledge of the industry - he has a degree in horticulture. Before taking the maintenance plunge, the owners were already operating a successful landscaping business and tree farm. Having experience in the commercial landscaping business paved the way for bigger and more profitable maintenance accounts, notes Scott. ln fact, it was the commercial landscaping customers who nudged Scott and Pam in the maintenance direction. "After repeated requests by property managers for full service quality maintenance, we decided to look into the business," tells Scott. Finding out ahead of time how successful maintenance companies do business was one of the smartest moves they could have made, he adds. A little research upfront saved the company years of experimenting with practices and equipment that would have cost them time and money.

Due Diligence

Even though Scott and Company had been in the installation/construction business since 1988, the owners realized a successful move to maintenance wasn't guaranteed. Industry consultant Charles Vander Kooi agreed and suggested a visit to The Good Earth, Inc., a successful South Carolina maintenance company. The visit gave Scott a clear picture of how to run a maintenance business. It convinced him they could succeed in Texas if they followed the rules, produced quality work, projected a quality image and kept production up and costs down. Good Earth operated close to a dozen Walker Mowers, and Scott naturally plugged them into his maintenance scenario.

But that was only the beginning of the benchmarking process. Scott located another maintenance firm eight hours away in San Angelo. The company, Executive Lawn, Inc., also ran Walkers. Before plunging into the business, Scott and one of his maintenance foremen-to-be, worked on a crew there. Not only did they learn how to operate the mowers, they discovered some of the other practicalities about performing maintenance, from approach and technique to what employees should be wearing at the jobsite. Since then, Scott and Executive Lawn's owner Tim Clark have taken the benchmarking approach a step further by sharing ideas on bidding properties. Tim has traveled to Bay City, about an hour from Houston, to help Scott bid larger maintenance properties, and Scott has traveled to San Angelo to assist Tim on bidding some larger installation projects.

Nice Mix

Today, Scott and Company does better than $750,000 in gross sales. Although design/build still represents more than half of sales, maintenance - both as part of installation projects and as exclusive maintenance contracts - is fast catching up. Maintenance is all commercial while design/build (including irrigation) is 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential.

Having a business away from the "big boys" in Houston has helped give Scott and Company room to grow maintenance. So, too, has the nature of the maintenance properties - all commercial - which cuts down on direct expenses such as excessive travel and time lost in loading and unloading equipment associated with small residential properties. Maintenance accounts include a cancer center, health care facility, large automotive dealer, three hospitals, plastic surgery center and a 400-plus apartment complex.

walker-talk-volume-07-11_1.jpgScott and Company has 11 year-round employees, 23 during the peak growing season. Three maintenance crews each operate a Walker diesel, with a 48-inch deck and grass handling system for "fine" work, and a 62-inch deck for larger areas. The company also has a gas Walker with a 42-inch mulching deck. Crews operate Honda push mowers and Shindaiwa handheld equipment. For large areas, the company is considering buying an Excel with a 12-foot cutting width.

Scott says if he learned one thing from visiting other maintenance firms it's the importance of keeping production up while keeping costs down. "We learned from the 'get-go' to buy the best equipment possible. It's not the price-tag on the machine that counts but how much money that machine can make for you. We saved ourselves 10 years of not making money, just by buying the right equipment the first time around."

It also pays to have a dealer who can provide excellent service. Scott gives plenty of credit to Houston Walker dealer Landscape Power Company for keeping downtime to an absolute minimum. Owner Dan Bridges appreciates Scott, too. He says, "It's nice having a customer like Scott who didn't have to learn the hard lessons about buying cheaper equipment."

walker-talk-volume-07-12_1.jpgTricks of the Trade

Three years of maintenance experience and the upfront benchmarking has earned Scott and Company a reputation as a quality full-service landscaping company. Add to that a horticulture degree and an outright love for working with plants and landscapes, and the Evanses have a winning combination.

"I'm unusual in another way," adds Scott. "From the very beginning, I wanted to get involved in landscaping." He started working in a local garden center when he was 12 years old and eventually ended up buying the center's landscape and irrigation department after graduating from Texas A&M.

The years of experience have given Scott and wife Pam a unique perspective. In addition to her office duties, Pam walks the properties just to provide "another set of eyes." She explains that when one person continually walks a property, things get overlooked or taken for granted. Every property needs a second opinion.

Like most successful maintenance companies, Scott and Company keeps its employees in uniform. And they add a caveat. While crew members wear blue hats, foremen wear white ones. The reason? If a property manager or another customer has a question, they don't have to search around for the person in charge. They know that person is wearing the white hat. A small gesture, but an important one for customers, adds Scott. (A tip he learned from working with Executive Lawn.)

Another small word to the wise. "Develop a friendship with someone else in the business," Scott explains. "You'll be able to openly share ideas and discuss challenges." As he points out, benchmarking is not just for people getting into the business, it's for everyone.

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