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2020 LM150: Building a career-centered culture

June 18, 2020 -  By
Larry Yaffa (Photo: Marvin ShaoUni)

Brilar has focused on providing more opportunities for its 200 employees, says CEO Larry Yaffa. (Photo: Marvin ShaoUni)

Brilar CEO Larry Yaffa says the key to the company’s 32 percent growth in 2019 comes down to a shift in perspective in how it hires and retains people.

“We’ve changed our direction in how we pay our staff and the opportunities we give our staff to try and make it more of a career-oriented role,” Yaffa says. “I think before, people were just throwing a $1/hour (raise) trying to keep them on board, and now we’re competing with Amazon (and other companies), so the dynamics of what we’re offering need to change.”

Headquartered in metro Detroit, the company, ranked No. 129 on the 2020 LM150 list, also has locations in Grand Rapids, Mich.; Cleveland; Indianapolis; and Des Moines, Iowa.

Brilar’s business is 62 percent mowing and maintenance and 30 percent snow removal, with lawn care, design/build and irrigation rounding out the rest of its service mix. It derives 80 percent of its revenue from commercial accounts and 20 percent from municipal accounts. The company’s 2019 revenue was $18.2 million, up from nearly $13.8 million the year prior.

Keys to growth

As with most landscape companies, Brilar’s biggest struggle in 2019 was labor.

“That’s our biggest stumbling block. We’ve been able to make the sales, but there were a few opportunities that we had to hold off on because we didn’t feel we could staff them in the time frame that was needed,” Yaffa says.

Over the past few years, Brilar has tried to create an environment that is more of a career option rather than just a seasonal role. The majority of crews work four 10-hour shifts, the goal being not only to alleviate travel time but to make sure the company gives people the weekend off.

Though the workweek may go into Friday, the days of people working seven days and 90 hours a week is no more, he says. If you’re trying to create a career environment, people want the weekends to spend with their families, he says.

In 2018, Brilar opened locations in Indianapolis and Des Moines, Iowa. Staff advancement opportunities are one reason for Brilar’s growth and expansion, Yaffa says. He touts the company’s internal training program and succession planning as a big part of the focus on advancement.

“Our biggest motto internally is ‘Always be training your replacement.’ I tell everybody, ‘I can’t move you somewhere else if there isn’t someone internally to take over your role,’” he says. “With opening new branches, we’re always adding new crews, so crew members can become foremen the following year, and the foremen can become managers and so on.”

Brilar employee (Photo: Marvin ShaoUni)

Though 2019 was the first year Brilar used the H-2B visa program, the company also uses a variety of initiatives aimed at recruiting and retaining local talent. (Photo: Marvin ShaoUni)

Brilar has also rolled out a new 401(k) program with matching, and it opened up its health and dental program to all full-time employees.

It also added disability and life insurance for all full-time employees and started a new paid time off program.

Another driver of the immense growth the company saw in 2019 was adding four new sales staff and offering in-depth sales training with a sales coach, Kirk Armstrong.

Brilar also stepped up marketing efforts by hiring a marketing coordinator and using Google advertising.

In regards to leading and growing the company, Yaffa says he’s learned that transparency with teams is key. This is especially true in times of crisis or uncertainty, such as when the firm’s Michigan locations were shut down from March 23 to May 4 due to the Michigan governor’s COVID-19-related executive order and health precautions, and its Ohio location was shut down from March 23 to April 13.

“As a company, we’re pretty open with letting (staff) know where we stand,” he says. “Whether we’re on or off our mark and budgeted versus actual hours on jobs. That’s a huge benefit for us in a time like now, when we have to work as lean as possible. The more information we can provide to (employees), the more information they can provide to us, and it’s about working with them and training them how to become more efficient.”

In another boost to Brilar’s efficiency, the company spent $1.5 million in capital in 2019 on new trucks, trailers, mowers, tools and equipment. The company uses Exmark mowers, RedMax handheld equipment, Sure-Trac trailers and Ford trucks.

So crews know how to operate the equipment properly, Brilar added a director of training, who works with the director of safety. “I think that’s going to lead to the biggest successes we have,” Yaffa says.

The company strives to shout out its current successes by sending team emails and using a private Facebook page for employees to offer congratulations when a team member has a new sale, when a crew hits budgeted hours or to share appreciation from a client or a client referral.

“We try to make sure everyone’s aware that what they did the day before led to something great,” Yaffa says.

Meeting the challenge

Before March, the company was on pace to meet its goal of 30 percent growth over 2019. While Yaffa acknowledges that the shut downs and concerns around COVID-19 have taken a toll on the business, it’s too early to tell how the year will end up.

He says that Brilar is continuously restructuring its budgets for the year, and as businesses begin to open again, clients are starting to make decisions that they held off on earlier in the pandemic.

“Even last week, we were signing maintenance customers. That’s unheard of for us,” he says, explaining that by April 15, the company typically has booked all of the maintenance work it’s going to have for the year.

Yaffa says that some of Brilar’s bigger landscape clients who said that they were going to hold off or might have to cancel are coming back online.

“I think we can see the end, but I don’t know what that looks like yet. Now that more companies have gotten the (Paycheck Protection Program) loan, I think the fear isn’t as great,” he says. Brilar has received its PPP loan, as well.

As the company works through the uncertainty of the moment, Yaffa is upbeat about its ability to make it through.

“We’re set up for our employees to be safe, trained, successful, happy and empowered to help make our property managers lives easier,” Yaffa says. “We believe this will make a difference with not only clients but in the retention of employees.”

He adds, “We try to push this Team Brilar approach: ‘Think of us as the legs of the table, and if one of us falls, we all fall down.’”

It reminds him of last fall, when the metro Detroit area got hit with a snowstorm on Nov. 11. The storm brought 9-plus inches, a record for November, breaking a 94-year record, according to the National Weather Service.

“It was incredible — guys were landscaping and mowing that Friday. Sunday into Monday, they were throwing plows and salters on trucks,” Yaffa says. “They were really pulling together … and I was blown away by the spirit of the staff, who had very little sleep each day, them coming back and having such a positive attitude: whatever we need to do to get it done.”

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Abby Hart

About the Author:

Abby Hart is the managing editor of Landscape Management. A native Clevelander, she spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was operations manager of a global hospitality consultancy. She also worked as managing editor of Illumine, a health and wellness magazine; and a marketing specialist for B2B publications. Abby has a degree in journalism from Boston University’s College of Communication.

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