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Finding the right people at the right time

July 17, 2020 -  By
A crew from Rossen Landscape, Great Falls, Va. (Photo: Tony Ventouris)

Despite the challenges of COVID-19, landscape companies are investing in recruiting and retaining people. Pictured: A crew from Rossen Landscape, Great Falls, Va. (Photo: Tony Ventouris)

It’s been a whirlwind two years for Dillon Selee.

After graduating from Brigham Young University with a degree in landscape management in 2018, he went into sports field management. From there, he found he’d be able to make more money in the landscape industry, so he started a job at a national landscape firm in Tulsa, Okla.

That role did not last long — after nine months as a production manager in commercial landscape maintenance, Selee was furloughed from his job in March at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

With no clear timeline for when he’d be called back to work, he decided to contact recruiters in the green industry. He found an opening as a residential account manager with Lawns of Dallas and started in April.

“I was blessed to find a job and be offered the job with Lawns of Dallas because it’s a growing company,” he says.

Lawns of Dallas crew member (Photo: Lawns of Dallas)

Take care Customers may pay extra close attention to how companies respond to COVID-19. (Photo: Lawns of Dallas)

Getting furloughed, interviewing remotely via Zoom, traveling down to Dallas for an in-person interview and moving with his wife and 1-year-old son from Oklahoma for a new job in Texas in a matter of weeks during a global health crisis … this was not how Selee expected to make a career change in the landscape business. But like many other workers, he has remained flexible in order to advance in the industry.

In addition to Selee, Landscape Management spoke with Madison Gardner of Lawns of Dallas, and Scott DeNardin, Scott Heinemeyer and Victor Gonzalez of Hittle Landscaping about their tips for hiring and retention as they continue to tackle the labor market during a challenging 2020 season.

Invest in your team, and your team will pay it forward

Lawns of Dallas has been around for nearly 40 years in the metro Dallas market. The company went from 60 to 120 employees within the last 18 months. It provides 50 percent construction, 30 percent maintenance, 10 percent lawn and 10 percent tree care to a 60 percent residential, 40 percent commercial clientele. It reported $9 million in revenue in 2019.

“We have a very hardworking atmosphere … and we’ve found that striving for excellence in all that we do gives us a greater meaning and purpose in our work,” says Madison Gardner, president of Lawns of Dallas. “That gets translated from the managers to the crews to everyone else.”

Gardner says the company got more aggressive about hiring during the pandemic, knowing that the downturn would have to pass at some point. “A lot of the national companies made cuts, and I really wanted to invest in growth for the long term,” he says. “We found good people, and I wanted to hire them, even if we would be impacted in the short term.”

The company used a variety of methods to get through the last couple of years of growing their labor force — stressing the company’s referral program and finding potential workers through vendors, recruiters and word-of-mouth from customers and employees.

Hittle Landscaping crew members (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

A step ahead Hittle’s onboarding process allows staff to know what’s expected of them at various stages. (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

Lawns of Dallas hired several higher-profile and midmanagement people this spring, including a commercial business developer to grow its commercial construction division; Selee, who will support its residential maintenance portfolio of high-end estate clients; and another commercial account manager.

“Whenever there’s a period of crisis, always take the long-term view and don’t get caught up in the short term,” Gardner says as a word of advice to other green industry companies looking to hire quality workers at the moment. “If you can budget for it, see your hiring as a long-term investment.”

In addition to hiring well, he says he stresses to his team that customers will remember how they’re treated, how Lawns of Dallas worked with them in this time and how the company followed proper safety procedures.

“We will be remembered by how we responded during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this will further increase the long-term customer partnerships that we are building,” Gardner says. “I’m also really excited about where we’re going to continue to go with this great team that we’ve built during this downturn.”

Culture is key

“The reason we’re able to get good upper management talent is because when people meet us and see what our mission is about, it’s not your typical landscape company,” says Scott DeNardin, president of Hittle Landscaping, in Westfield, Ind.

Hittle came in at No. 114 on the 2020 LM150 rankings with $21 million in revenue in 2019. It provides 57 percent design/build services, 27 percent maintenance services, as well as snow removal, irrigation services and a small percentage of lawn care, to a mostly commercial clientele.

Hittle Landscaping crew members in front of trailer (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

Checking in Taking time to ask how new hires are doing can strengthen employee engagement. (Photo: Kevin Foster Photography)

“There are things here that attract people that other landscape companies don’t offer,” he says. Hittle is family-owned and has been in the central Indiana market for almost 50 years. DeNardin says it is a faith-based company and offers the services of a corporate chaplain, Kevin Klassen, who comes in once a week.

“He’ll walk the yard as our crews are loading their trucks. He’ll talk and share,” DeNardin says. “He’s someone who can care for our people on a confidential level — whether it’s related to work or personal issues.”

The company also works with local cancer, health care and ministry organizations, and team members have the opportunity to have the company pay for them to attend a mission trip to the Dominican Republic to build homes for needy families with Homes for Hope.

Though Hittle is a family name — for Ron and Nancy Hittle, the husband and wife team who started the company in 1973, and Jeremy Hittle, their son and owner of the company — the Hittle name has evolved to stand for the company’s core values: honesty, innovation, thankfulness, teamwork, leadership and excellence.

Hittle also hired a recruitment manager, Victor Gonzalez, in January to help communicate these values to potential employees.

“I wanted someone waking up and going to sleep recruiting for Hittle, and that’s been an important part of the equation,” DeNardin says. “He’s been doing a great job of understanding who might be coming in from outside the industry or who might have been furloughed or laid off because of COVID.”

Gonzalez has hired 140 new team members since he started, working overtime to fill the worker gap when, for the first time in 12 years, the company did not receive its H-2B guest workers — 85 slated for this season. “It’s about creating awareness that there are career paths here, what they are and what they look like,” he says. For example, on an employee’s first day at work, which is known as “Culture Day,” the company spends a whole day talking about who the company is and what it does.

According to DeNardin, retention has almost doubled in the last two years because of Hittle’s cultural messaging.

Put systems in place

Hittle hired a new director of landscape maintenance from a national landscape company in April. Lately, the company has used social media campaigns and online recruiting methods targeted toward crew leader and irrigation service technician positions, since those were the areas that took the biggest hit when Hittle’s H-2B workers weren’t approved. The firm is also targeting skid-steer operators and offering a $500 signing bonus for those hires.

With so many new employees, it’s important to set expectations and be clear about goals early on in the employment process, according to Scott Heinemeyer, Hittle’s vice president of human resources. He says goal setting and clarity help with employee referrals and retention, as well, because when employees are aware of what’s expected of them, they’re able to communicate to friends and family and explain what’s expected at 30 days, 60 days and a year.

The company also implemented an onboarding program late last year.

“We used to just come in and say ‘Hey, welcome, you’re on truck 47, good luck with that.’ Now, we’ve become very intentional about the way we’re onboarding,” Heinemeyer says. “The way the first 30 and 60 days look, we want that to be very consistent and predictable across the board, regardless of which of our five divisions you go into.”

Hittle’s onboarding guide includes information on daily work-related inventories, skill assessments and equipment inspections. It also includes what the company refers to as the “Hittle Operating System” — a model for communication, goal achievement and problem-solving that is based on the Entrepreneur Operating System outlined in the book “Traction” by Gino Wickman. The company is also working on employee engagement early on by checking in with new employees each week to ask how they’re doing and how the company is treating them.

Employees first

The team at Hittle talks about the concept of serving its employees, as opposed to the other way around. “You don’t work for me —
the leadership team and I work for you,” DeNardin says. “Our role and responsibility is to be here to serve them, build career paths and help them provide for their families.”

Heinemeyer adds that though it’s nice to admire a nice outdoor kitchen or patio, it’s most energizing to see people come into the company and see them thrive.

He says, “At the heart, it’s about caring for our people authentically, and going above and beyond for people and helping them build careers.”

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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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