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2022 LM150: How embracing technology helped take Level Green Landscape to the next level

June 22, 2022 -  By
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A great partnership and a willingness to embrace technology and change take Level Green Landscaping to the next level. (Photo: TonyVentourisPhotography.com)

A great partnership and a willingness to embrace technology and change take Level Green Landscape to the next level. (Photo: TonyVentourisPhotography.com)

Doug Delano and Bill Hardy met 40 years ago when Hardy hired Delano to work in the construction field at Ruppert Landscape Co. Delano had just left his first job teaching high school math in disillusionment. He knew he enjoyed the outdoors and gardening, having grown up on the rural Eastern Shore of Maryland, and was curious to explore a career in landscaping.

Delano and Hardy were both branch managers when a larger company purchased Ruppert Landscape Co. in 1998. Delano stuck around with the new company for three years; Hardy stayed for five. Eventually, they looked at the new company and said to each other, “If these guys can run a landscape company, we can probably do just as well as they can.”

Level Green Landscape, a commercial landscape company headquartered in Upper Marlboro, Md., with four additional branches in Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia, has indeed done well. The company enjoyed a 26 percent increase in revenue from 2020, landing them at No. 95 on the 2022 LM150 list with reported revenue of $27,417,000. The company has 118 full-time employees and staffs up to 175 in-season.

“This company was built organically. We were both in our 40s at the time (of forming Level Green),” Delano says. “We both had kids, so our work/life balance was important. If we do this together, it makes it a lot easier to bounce things off somebody on a regular basis. There’s a value to not going in alone … working well with a partner is huge.”

Embrace change

Now that Delano (managing member/head gardener) and Hardy (partner) are in their 60s, the vision has changed. They want the company to continue to grow — they mention a goal of $100 million in the next eight years — and they want to replace themselves while not being acquired.

“We have a very specific culture here, and if we were rolled into a larger organization, I don’t know (if) that culture would survive,” Delano says. “We want to continue to grow with the people we have and continue to recruit people who will help us grow.”

One of the philosophies at Level Green that enabled the company to grow is a willingness to embrace change. A recent structure change at Level Green, promoting two employees from within to regional managers, allowed other employees to back-fill the positions and showed what opportunities are available at the company, says Paul Wisniewski, division manager. The reorganization allowed him to focus more on production, with a goal of taking the company to the next level.

“Growth will come from giving these opportunities to our team,” Wisniewski says. “Opening up that door to more people within the organization allows them to grow with us.”

Another employee who has grown with the company and created positive change is Michael Mayberry, chief technology officer for Level Green. When he first came to the company seven years ago, he joined as an operations manager.

Immediately, he started bringing new technology to the company — software, a new accounting system, new equipment. When a colleague looked at Level Green and told Delano and Hardy that they were more high-tech than companies twice their size, they knew they were on to something.

“That’s when we decided that Mike was not in the right position, and he needed more freedom to work,” Delano says. “He became our full-time tech guy, and it really helped us out.”

Mayberry says his goal is to get the entire business to run through automation and make decisions based on data collection. He says data-driven decisions are superior to gut decisions.

“I think we can all admit that our industry as a whole has been stuck in the ’80s,” Mayberry says. “We may have moved up to the 2000s, with a lot of companies using software platforms. Technology, in general, is changing rapidly, and the industry is finally starting to accept that technology. My goal is to integrate as much of that technology that makes sense so we can do more with the same or less amount of people.”

Recruiting and retaining staff

Keeping the Level Green staff at the proper level has always been a challenge. While Delano and Hardy don’t think it’ll ever become less of a problem, they have implemented some “strategic initiatives” they say are working.

Recently, Level Green hired a full-time recruiter and shared an in-house survey with all employees to determine what is most important to its workers. Following the survey, a committee comprised of employees at all levels will review the results.

“It’s going to be a long process, but we’re going to have to put significant time, effort and money toward it to be able to continue our growth,” Hardy says. “It’s going to be a major project, I believe, for a number of years. We just have to work on it; there are no magic bullets, there is no magic wand … there’s just constant hard work.”

Doug Delano (left) and Bill Hardy founded Level Green in 2002 and haven’t looked back. (Photo: TonyVentourisPhotography.com)

Doug Delano (left) and Bill Hardy founded Level Green in 2002 and haven’t looked back. (Photo: TonyVentourisPhotography.com)

Delano adds that he knows his leadership team is up to the challenge and that they have learned from experience.

“We are often solving the same problems today that we were solving when we were a $200,000 company,” Delano says. “We had staffing problems when we were a $200,000 company. We’ll be a $100 million company and still be looking for people. Paul will have less hair, but he’s going to have the same problem.”

Wisniewski heads the committee that focuses on training and developing staff, another element in successfully retaining employees. The most exciting thing about it, he says, is it gives employees the opportunity to be successful in the long term. Hardy says the desire to help employees succeed for the long term is a foundation of the company.

“I get excited about making sure that we stick to the basics that made us successful,” he says. “When we first started with 10 employees to when we’ll be 500 or 1,000, we have to maintain that smaller company feel. That’s very important to Doug and me because that’s what got us here. That’s part of these committees and initiatives, they all lead to growth, but growth through maintaining our core values and doing the right thing.”

Level Green is also proactive about building a pipeline of future employees. The company actively connects with local universities, colleges and community colleges.

“We want to get younger people in and show them that we’re an organization that is investing in growth and investing in people,” Hardy says. “Hopefully, by building this pipeline, we’ll bring in people who can grow through the organization and support us for our 10-year plan.”

It starts with trust

Delano looks back at the 20-plus years of Level Green and says he and Hardy didn’t know what they were getting into at the beginning, but he’s happy the partnership has brought happiness to many.

“I don’t think Bill and I ever set out to have a company this large,” he says. “We worked for a great company in Ruppert that taught us a whole lot, and we’ve been able to carry that on. Bill and I have always felt very strongly that if you make a commitment to somebody, whether it be your family, a friend, an employee or a customer … you live by it.”

However much Hardy paid Delano by the hour back in the 1990s, it’s paid off, and then some, in the 2020s.

“My wife calls Doug my ‘work wife,’” Hardy laughs. “Partnerships are like a marriage in many ways. It starts with trust. You have to trust each other, and you have to communicate. Realize that you will not always agree. When Doug and I had offices side-by-side, it was pretty evident to most people around us that we didn’t always agree. But there was a trust level, and that continues on.”

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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 19 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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