Case study: Cross-train to gain

Cross-training employees among departments gives Birchcrest Tree & Landscape options.
Cross-training employees among departments gives Birchcrest Tree & Landscape options. Photo: Birchcrest Tree & Landscape

A fast-growing, full-service company expands employees’ skill sets.

By cross-training employees among all departments, Birchcrest Tree & Landscape runs a lean and efficient operation. The company rotates employees based on need, allowing it to keep employees working full-time while eliminating the need for seasonal workers. This approach has helped maintain quality and boost profitability for the Rochester, N.Y.-based firm founded in 1981.

From the get-go, employees are cross-trained so they’re able to move into other departments when there’s a need in another business area. For example, those who install hardscapes or do planting work are cross-trained to do tree work during winter or times when there’s less landscape work. Or, if a plant health care worker can’t do his regular work due to rain, there are more options besides sending him home because of cross-training. It helps with sick or vacation days, too. “We’re able to just have someone else step up and fill the gap,” Owner Dave Dailey says.

To make this possible, the company assigns some employees as trainers. “While they’re still assigned to a job, their main goal is to train the employee—not get the job done,” he explains. “It’s OK if it takes two or three times longer, as long as the employee gets trained. To really put the emphasis on training we believe it’s important that you take the focus away from completing the task and put it on how to do the task correctly.”

When there isn’t a need for training, Birchcrest trainers function as normal employees and go back to typical work. But as soon as there’s an employee who needs training, they shift their focus. Dailey suspects this approach might be a step that other companies aren’t willing to take, but he believes it pays off for his company, which was named the 15th fastest growing privately owned company in the Rochester, N.Y., area by the Rochester Business Alliance.

It goes hand-in-hand with quality, Dailey adds. The company prides itself on professional work. He says such quality is possible because of the firm’s intensive training to meet needs in other departments and its training for the sake of ongoing learning. Birchcrest employs 10 International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) Certified Arborists, two ISA Board Certified Master Arborists and eight New York State Nursery Landscape Association Certified Nursery & Landscape Professionals.

“Management’s job is to teach those underneath them, so part of their duty is ongoing education,” Dailey says. “We have some sort of training going on continuously in each department and it can be as often as once a week. It may only be a half hour, but it’s still important to put in that effort for a specific educational task when you have everyone’s attention.”

Because of its ability to rotate employees into other departments, Birchcrest has not only eliminated the need for seasonal workers but also has saved money.

“While other landscape companies pay the maximum unemployment rate, ours runs low to average,” he says. “We’re able to keep our employees working full time.”

Although pay is the same even if employees switch departments, Dailey says that cross-training gives workers the opportunity to earn overtime in a different department. Employees also appreciate the opportunity to try something new for a while and break away from the monotony. It keeps employees fresh and engaged.

“(Cross-training) prevents burnout and keeps employees happy,” Dailey says. “We find they really like it.”

Although cross-training has been a big success, Dailey says it’s not without its challenges. The biggest is the dedication of time as well as what it’s asking of employees. “You’re training people to know a lot more information,” he says. “That’s why it’s important to put in the time for them to really learn it. This can only be successful if you truly dedicate the time to it.”

Business breakdown

Company: Birchcrest Tree & Landscape
Location: Rochester, N.Y.
Annual Revenue: Nearly $11 million
Service Mix: 55% design/build+installation; 45% mowing+landscape maintenance
Client Mix: 55% commercial; 45% residential
Employees: 99


Payton is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

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