Trust your instincts, go all in
This month’s mentor is John Eckhardt, owner of LawnPro Landscapes in Chilliwack, B.C. Launched in 1997, LawnPro originally focused on lawn maintenance; the company now offers the full array of services including design, installation and snow removal.
What drew you to the green profession?
I didn’t grow up wanting to be a landscaper, but there was a point where I knew I wanted my own business. I wanted to have more control over my life; that’s what really pushed me to take that step. It was a tough choice, but I wanted to do my own thing.
I saw a local grass cutting company that seemed to be doing well, and thought it would be interesting. After starting the business, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed the work and the rewarding feeling from completing each job.
What are your keys to success?
The clients are number one. It’s all about meeting and exceeding their expectations. Work ethic is another key. You have to be willing to put in the hours and to work hard, especially with a small company where you have to wear so many different hats.
My goal has always been to keep learning. Initially, it was more related to landscaping and the actual physical part of it, and lately it has been more on the business side. But it’s important to have a willingness to learn and pick up and share new ideas.
What are the biggest challenges you have faced?
We were always strong on customer service, but the biggest challenge over the years has been on the financial side of running the business, because I had no experience with it. We had got to a point where there was too much overhead and we weren’t charging enough, so for me that was probably the biggest turning point. It forced us to really look at our costs, our overhead and how we were charging; I learned that you can’t be afraid to raise your prices.
At that time as well, I bought estimating software that really helped me understand my costs and charge properly, and since then things have been going much better.
We were running about $1.25 million, and I thought I needed someone to do our landscape design and another for sales, so I started putting managers in place before I was really ready. That was the biggest lesson, in understanding how that affects those overall costs. So if you bring someone in at $50,000, how much extra work do you have to generate to be able to pay? My crews were going out in the field and they were good crews, doing the work, doing everything they needed to do, but it was more that I wasn’t charging enough, plus we had too many managers for our size.
What sets your business apart?
We try to establish relationships with our clients so we’re working with them rather than for them. For example, we don’t sell someone more than they need, and people really appreciate that.
We also make an effort to have our crew leaders and employees develop relationships with the clients. It starts with the little things, like when a crew is driving through a townhouse complex, we want our staff to wave to people and smile. We have heard feedback it makes a big difference for our customers; they don’t feel intimidated by our crews working in their backyards and they feel comfortable coming out and talking to them.
How do you avoid problem clients?
You develop a gut instinct and I have had to learn to follow it. Another key is to ask specific questions during the screening process. Things like, “when do you want the job done?” and “how much money are you looking to spend?” Those will help you get an idea if they are realistic. It’s important to walk away from jobs you feel are not going to be worth the trouble.
What advice would you give new green professionals?
I wish I had understood the cost of running a business from the start. It’s really hard to build a business by offering the cheapest service. You can never build and grow a good solid business by doing that. You need to understand your overhead and what is involved with running a business. When you’re starting out, you should have an end goal in mind; figure out what you really want out of the business, because if you just want to cut grass, or if you just want a job, you would probably be better off working for somebody. You really have to aspire to have a business that will support you and your family. It’s a lot of work, and looking at the statistics, the percentage of businesses that fail are pretty high — so understanding what you’re getting into and making sure you have a passion is critical.
Landscape Trades, April 2016