2020 LM150: Hittle Landscaping is on a mission

June 30, 2020 -  By
Hittle crews (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

Hittle Landscaping is a name, but is also embodies an acronym: honesty, innovation, thankfulness, teamwork, leadership and excellence. (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

Coming in at No. 114 on the LM150 is Hittle Landscaping, based north of Indianapolis in Westfield, Ind. 2019 was one of the best years of Hittle’s 47-year history, and it wasn’t by luck or serendipity, says Scott DeNardin, president.

“Growth needs to be intentional,” DeNardin says. “We initiated a strategic planning discipline using a system (from a book) called ‘Traction’ by Gino Wickman. The system is simple but very powerful and is built on setting goals for the year and breaking down core objectives, called ‘rocks,’ by quarter and then executing to results through accountability.”

Hittle Landscaping generated $21 million in revenue in 2019, an 11 percent increase from 2018. The company has two branches and offers services in design/build and installation (57 percent), mowing and landscape maintenance (27 percent), snow removal (8 percent), as well as some irrigation and water management, turf and ornamental care and pest control.

A passion and a mission

DeNardin says he and his team saw success because they improved the way they manage their fleet and equipment, they focused on their software system to report key performance indicators that impacted profit (indirect time, labor efficiency and more) and improved their inventory controls to reduce write-offs, while ensuring better quality of material for their clients.

“These were key issues that were consistently causing issues with internal operations and workflow, which cascades to customer satisfaction,” DeNardin says. “You can’t scale growth without reliable systems and organizational discipline.”

Reliable systems and organizational discipline are DeNardin’s areas of expertise. He has been with the company for almost three years and has a background in corporate finance. It’s been a good fit for him, he says, because the company’s values reflect his own. Though Hittle is a family name, it also has been turned into an acronym: honesty, innovation, thankfulness, teamwork, leadership, excellence.

Ron Hittle started the company as a grass-cutting side business in 1973. He was a firefighter and eventually became the fire chief in Indianapolis. His son Jeremy eventually took over and is now the CEO. He and DeNardin work together on strategic planning, but Jeremy Hittle is happy to let DeNardin do the day-to-day planning.

“It’s an amazing family, and it all starts with Ron and (his wife) Nancy Hittle,” DeNardin says. “Our passion is landscaping, but our mission is to impact the lives of our employees and our community.”
To Hittle, “community” is a broad term. It could mean neighbors and customers, but it also could mean a family in need in a faraway country.

Hittle Landscaping considers faith to be core to its culture, and it offers employees the opportunity to join a mission trip to the Dominican Republic to build a home in the Homes of Hope program.

Typically, 10 to 14 employees go each year. DeNardin had coincidentally been working with the same group before he joined Hittle and has done 14 missions himself. The trip does a lot for both parties, DeNardin says.

“I can’t even describe the impact it has on people to go to a country with challenging living conditions and provide a house to a family,” DeNardin says. “It changes that family for generations. And yet, I think the people who come back are as much or more impacted than the family who received the house. They’re inspired with gratitude, and they realize how much we have here and how much we’re blessed with.”

Hit by headwinds

Hittle Landscaping was hit by “two significant headwinds” in 2020. First, the company didn’t get its H-2B workers this year, which would normally comprise 40 percent of its workforce. And of course, like everyone, the team is adjusting to working in the time of the coronavirus.

(Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

Hittle’s goal is to positively impact the lives of its employees and those in the community. (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

To remedy the loss of the H-2B workers, the company hired a bilingual recruiter at the first of the year. That recruiter, along with the help of the human resources department, has enabled the company to hire 120 percent of the workforce it lost out on. Now, the leadership team is focused on training those workers, which includes keeping them safe.

The company was able to set up its 40 office employees to work remotely very quickly, DeNardin says. “We were fortunate to be considered an essential business. It became a matter of rapidly implementing protocols to keep our 240-plus employees safe.”

The days of one driver and three riders in a truck are over, and now all employees must pass a health checkpoint to validate their health before entering a truck. Tactical answers like those were relatively easy. As to what COVID-19 will do to the business, that question gets a long pause from DeNardin.

“Macroeconomics is my hobby. I watch this stuff pretty closely, but it’s hard,” DeNardin says. “Anyone who says they can predict the economic trajectory at this point is simply throwing darts and hoping they come close. There’s so many unknowns.”

New home production installations are down, he says, but he hopes they come back in the fourth quarter.

On the commercial construction side, the firm’s leading indicator is how much it’s bidding out for general contractors. That figure has slipped “a little, maybe 10 or 12 percent,” he says. He calls commercial maintenance recession-proof, and Hittle does a lot of work in that vertical. And the snow and ice market in Indiana doesn’t care if there’s a virus or not.

“I think everybody probably knows what’s going to happen to quarter three,” DeNardin says. “The question is what happens to quarter four? The hope is a recovery, and we can focus on our strengths and gear up for a good 2021.”

Rodeos and magic shows

Looking to 2021, DeNardin says Hittle Landscaping’s biggest challenge will again be recruiting and retaining talent. Hittle has been proactive in overcoming that obstacle by making the company a place that enriches the lives of its employees, he says.

“Without good people, we simply cannot grow our company, no matter what the strategic plan is,” DeNardin says.

Showing gratitude is “the Hittle way,” and is done often. Sometimes that means surprising a crew with a pallet full of cold drinks when they’re out on a job site. Once a month, the crew gets a traditional Mexican breakfast cooked for them. Last year, DeNardin hired a magician to entertain the team — who then put DeNardin in a guillotine for his grand finale. And then there’s the annual company rodeo.

Yes, a rodeo.

“We have skid-steer contests, lawn mower contests. We’ll tape a spoon on the end of a forklift and see who can drop an egg into a Dixie cup the fastest,” DeNardin says. “It’s fun; I’ve tried it. I might even go out in the backyard and practice, so I can get better at it.”

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This article is tagged with , , and posted in Featured, June 2020, LM150
Seth Jones

About the Author:

Seth Jones, a graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. Seth has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories. He is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

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