Finding direction in today’s business world is as challenging as ever. For an overview landscape industry trends now and in the year to come, Landscape and Irrigation recently interviewed PLANET President, Bill Hildebolt, Ph.D., Landscape Industry Certified Manager & Technician; and PLANET President-Elect, David Snodgrass, Landscape Industry Certified Manager.
LI: Obviously, the economy is the biggest issue for everyone in every industry. How have professionals in the landscape industry been dealing with the economy, and what trends have emerged from dealing with this difficult economic landscape?
PLANET President, Bill Hildebolt, Ph.D.Hildebolt: The one interesting trend that I have seen is that those people that are continuing to make profit this year are doing so because they took out waste and inefficiencies that translated to the bottom line. In the long run, their profits may be equal or better. You definitely get attention when you start talking about how you can effectively spend or save money.
Snodgrass: It is a difficult economy for every business out there. It is easier to keep a customer than get a new one. So, it’s important to get closer to our customers because the ones that we already have are that much more important. Keeping them can be a challenge, so be sure to pay close attention to them.
Companies are putting off spending on new equipment, and only doing so when absolutely necessary. This temporarily impacts our vendors, and they ultimately suffer along side of us.
I’ve also noticed that companies are doing a better job running their business because we are forced to pay closer attention to important numbers, especially accounts receivable and payables. This is a good thing as it allows us to be better business people, and, once things improve, those skill sets should remain. Strong companies will definitely get through this. Companies that have a weaker foundation are more at risk. I encourage everyone to focus on their pockets of strength and where the opportunity lies.
LI: How are industry professionals positioning themselves and their companies for a better future?
Hildebolt: Most people are looking to diversify into different business opportunities. Some may need to re-evaluate their workforce and business practices, which will allow people to work much closer at their operations and to make decisions that will ultimately help in the long run. There are real opportunities for those that are willing to be creative and innovative.
PLANET President-Elect, David SnodgrassSnodgrass: A few things come to mind. The first being active marketing, which can improve market share especially now when no one else is doing it. Second, keep your good people. Once the times improve, we want to make sure that we have our good people in place to take advantage of a better economy. Now is a good hiring opportunity. There are seasoned people out there currently looking for work, so pay attention to those opportunities, even if you are cutting back in other areas at the moment. Third, companies are diversifying. For example, the residential design/build/installation sector of our industry is beginning to offer different services, such as lawn care, tree care and maintenance.
Companies are beginning to go green, which is definitely a strong trend that is not going away. Soon going green will be expected, especially in the landscape services industry, as customers will expect us to be green and it will become a buying criterion. Green roofs are a perfect example. Our industry is well positioned to be the expert in knowing how to design and install green roofs, we want to be sure to capture this opportunity and not let it slip away to another trade.
LI: Beyond the economy itself, what are some other key issues that will be at the forefront for landscape professionals in 2010?
Snodgrass: Labor is a key issue. We cannot afford to let our best workforce be taken away. If we lose that battle it will have a significant negative impact on the green industry.
Our industry is under attack by environmentalists. We need to continue to fight for the value that landscaping provides and be an organized voice of the industry. Environmentalists are trying to put a negative spin on our environmental impact. The reality is that we are naturally one of the greenest industries, and our carbon footprint is one of the smallest. We are just not telling our story. PLANET is fighting the battle for the industry. That said, we could let the national association represent us, but our opposition is very organized and has a strong voice. Therefore, we need an army that goes far beyond that national voice. This needs to happen in the trenches. Every company must tell our story and stand up for the “Green Industry” that we represent.
Hildebolt: Fuel is another issue that we could face. If costs start to increase or there are any other impacts, is there going to be an explosion of price? The lawn care sector is very heavily impacted by fuel.
LI: There has been an increased push for “green” practices, water efficiency, sustainable initiatives, etc. Yet there have also been concerns raised over programs like EPA’s WaterSense becoming too aggressive. How should landscape professionals balance “green” initiatives within the overall scope of their business models?
Hildebolt: Everyone needs to get involved at the grassroots level, not just with the national, state, or local associations. PLANET works with the Greenscapes Business Alliance (GBA), a national group of organizations whose members are in the business of providing and maintaining greenscapes. The GBA communicates the value of properly managing lawns and landscapes based on years of practical experience and hard scientific research. There is a lot being done, but it will not be as impactful and effective if we don’t engage the entire industry.
Snodgrass: Businesses should engage in green practices. I would encourage everyone to take a practical approach and determine what is affordable, because our businesses need to be sustained as well in order to participate in this movement. The reality is there is a lot built into this green movement and doing things differently doesn’t necessarily cost more — in many cases it saves money or makes money for your business. In addition, when you consider employee morale, customer impact and the public image of your company, it is obviously the right thing to do. One thing is for sure, our industry can do a better job implementing green practices and becoming more sustainable.
I would agree that EPA’s WaterSense is becoming too aggressive. However, our industry needs to find a responsible balance with water use, fertilizer, using natives, chemicals, et cetera, and it needs to be done in a responsible way. We should be open to input and advice from others, and be willing to adjust the way we do things to be better stewards of the environment.
LI: What areas of advancement in the industry are you most pleased with? And what areas need to improve?
Snodgrass: I am most pleased with our industry’s willingness to always get involved at the community level and to support service projects. The PLANET Day of Service is an incredible initiative that surrounds supporting the community. Our industry has always been generous to the community, but we do not always get the credit, which is where the Day of Service program has been such a huge success and ultimately has so much potential for making a greater public awareness for what our industry does.
Certification within our industry is building momentum nationwide, as well as in Canada. The advancements that we are making in this arena, including the recent re-branding and the convenient online testing are examples of the great progress being made.
Safety awareness is extremely important to acknowledge. The level of awareness now versus five years ago is so much higher. Our industry now knows that what we do is high risk. Companies are managing risk much better. PLANET has a great safety awareness program and is helping the industry realize the importance of safety by providing industry-specific safety benchmarking tools.
Overall, awareness of our industry, especially at the student level, is making improvements. The PLANET Student Career Days event is wildly successful; there’s nothing else like it. We refer to it as the Olympics for the green industry. We couldn’t be more pleased with the impact this event has had on our industry and how it has developed over the years.
All of that said, I would say there is still room for improvement in some of the topics I’m most pleased with that I noted above. While certification has received great momentum, it still needs wide marketplace support. If we can get the public and industry to support, require, and specify certification, then it will truly become the industry standard, which then will make it wildly successful. This is all about to happen!
In terms of safety, with all the effort so far, the green industry is still listed as one of the top seven from OSHA. Accident numbers are still too high, so we need a continued “heightened awareness about safety.”
Lastly, I would encourage all of us to do a better job of reaching out to the youth so that we can begin to impact the younger generations and steer them into the green industry and make this their career.
Hildebolt: David captured a lot of what I agree with. I would add that PLANET’s Renewal & Remembrance event is another great asset to our industry in terms of awareness and community service. Also, the quality of education that our Green Industry Conference offers with our workshops and seminars is always well received.
Communication within our industry is the area that I would say needs the most improvement. There are still a lot of people that do not understand all that our industry can offer, and PLANET can help with that.
LI: What other advice would you give to landscape professionals in 2010?
Hildebolt: People will look at the next biggest and greatest thing they can do and chase after it. This can be difficult. Everyone should remain true to their core competencies right now. One of the biggest challenges can be making good decisions, but it’s important to be mindful of that as you head into this new year.
Snodgrass: I have a few pieces of advice to offer.
Remember that your employees are your greatest asset. Be sure to pay special attention to them.
There will be the temptation to drop pricing, which it seems others are doing. I would caution companies not to sell themselves short and to be confident that they offer a valuable service that deserves a healthy profit. It’s all about selling the value in other things and not leading with price.
Live within your means. Do not buy what you cannot afford to pay for.
Diversify, but only do so if it makes sense to you. Specialization equals proficiency, which in most cases gives you competitive advantage.
Last, and most important, be sure to position yourself for the possibility that 2010 will be a good year.
LI: What would you like landscape industry professionals to know about PLANET in 2010?
Hildebolt: The Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) can most certainly help you. Companies should not feel alone; there are many companies that are in the same position. By belonging to a national association such as PLANET, you have other companies to lean on and learn from, as well as resources and tools that are made available to you. PLANET offers educational venues and a mentoring program that can help you come out on the upside. I would also stress that you should be aware of what the pitfalls are. Don’t take on too much or be too greedy. Learn from others who may have been through the same thing before.
With jobs being down, there is not much competition for workers, so be cognizant of the labor issue. Without the H-2B program, the labor pool is probably not going to be there when we go back into a growth mode because we will not have the temporary workers in place.
Nowhere else can you gain executive polishing, working with peers, meeting volunteer groups, and taking on leadership positions. There is no better place to get that training than with PLANET.
Snodgrass: PLANET members include many of the top landscaping companies in the United States and some from Canada. PLANET is where best practices are shared and those practices foster growth and prosperity in good times, as well as help with survival when times are tough. From all that we offer, being involved with PLANET at the national level can give a company an advantage over its local competitors. As well as its members, PLANET staff is also applying those best practices in order to protect the green industry. PLANET works hard for all of us, and by being a member we all have a louder voice that can significantly contribute to our industry.
I also look at the volunteer side of the association and see that volunteers are consistently working harder for a cause — to advance the green industry. Sometimes it seems as if we work harder for that cause than in our own businesses. That is what makes PLANET strong. That’s where the “magic” of this association comes from.
LI: What is your boldest prediction for 2010?
Snodgrass: Spring will be business as usual for the green industry. There are a lot of gardening enthusiasts out there, which the green industry has in our favor. This would make us one of the first industries to recover. I’m an optimist in that I believe following tough times can be good times. Position your company and yourself for 2010 to be a good year so you will be ready to take advantage when that opportunity arrives.