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Growth mindset

October 16, 2018 -  By
Marty Grunder (Photo: Matthew Allen)

Photo: Matthew Allen

Marty Grunder is a lot like many of you. He started his landscape business as a teenager with a used mower. His company’s top challenge is hiring and retaining employees. He’s a family man above all else. And he’s made some missteps along the way.

What’s unique about Grunder, though, is his self-awareness and his willingness to learn, accept feedback and act on it, which can be tough for a successful, hardheaded entrepreneur.

His growth mindset goes back to his childhood, he says. His mother, a teacher, and his father, a civil engineer, always wanted their kids to push themselves.

“They would never tell us no about anything related to work or making ourselves better,” Grunder says, which is how he came to use his father’s tractor to mow the neighbor’s yard for $10 and eventually start Grunder Landscaping Co. (GLC) in 1984.

He tells the story of introducing himself in 1989 to landscape industry icon Frank Mariani, CEO of Mariani Landscape in Chicago—a gutsy move for a 21-year-old.

“His operation was about 10 minutes from my (future) in-laws,” says Grunder. “I read about him in one of the trade journals and went over to see him when I was up there. I remember looking at that company and thinking, ‘I’m never going to catch Frank, but I’m going to keep chasing.’”

GLC Business breakdown (Graphic: LM Staff)

Graphic: LM Staff

Mariani has been his mentor ever since.

Grunder is an avid reader of business books—he’s even written one himself—and he’s not ashamed to say he’s met with a counselor to sort things out after tough times in his life. He’s always focused on getting better.

That’s why it’s no surprise that he seized an unexpected opportunity to improve his company when it presented itself in 2017 at GROW!, the annual conference he runs as part of his landscape industry consulting firm.

That year’s conference drew about 300 attendees to Dayton, Ohio, and featured a tour of GLC and an auction to raise money for the National Association of Landscape Professionals’ Industry Growth Initiative.

Up for auction were two-day sessions attendees could bid on to win a visit with Grunder or with so-called “industry giants,” including Mariani; Mike Rorie, board member of GroundSystems; Todd Pugh, CEO of Enviroscapes; and Jim McCutcheon, CEO of HighGrove Partners.

When the Grunder session came up for bid, Mariani—having toured the Grunder facility and recognizing some untapped potential—raised his hand. “I thought, ‘What the hell is he doing buying me?’” says Grunder, who was unclear at that moment that Mariani was turning the tables on him. “Then Frank grabs the mic and in front of everyone says, ‘Marty, ‘industry giants’ Todd Pugh, Mike Rorie, Jim McCutcheon and myself are going to bid $5,000, and the four of us are coming to see you and show you how to take your company to another level. You’re doing great things, but you can do a lot more.’”

On Dec. 21, 2017, Mariani, Rorie, Pugh and McCutcheon returned to GLC. “We showed them everything in the company,” Grunder says. “And those four men showed me how I was stifling growth. We had the infrastructure to do a lot more than $5.5 million to $6 million, and I needed to get out of the way.”

Peer panel (Photo: Grunder Landscaping Co.)

Peer panel Marty Grunder’s peers helped guide his firm to a new structure. From left: Frank Mariani, Grunder, Mike Rorie and Todd Pugh. (Photo: Grunder Landscaping Co.)

How Grunder got here

Grunder was raised in Dayton, Ohio, on a gentleman’s farm with horses, a dog, an orchard, a lot of grass to cut and the equipment to do it with.

“I was always enthralled with equipment,” Grunder says. “When dad said I could use our tractor to mow the neighbor’s lawn and they would pay me $10, I thought, ‘This is great.’”

At age 16, he founded Grunder Landscaping Co. with his brother, Rich (who is no longer involved in the business), to fund his tuition at the University of Dayton.

By his senior year at UD, the company grossed $400,000. Grunder was paying for school and had money in his savings account, but he also experienced uncertainty about his future, as he saw his business school buddies earning sign-on bonuses and buying suits and cars, while he wore grassy boots and drove a pickup truck. Always seeking counsel, he went to a local entrepreneur asking if he should get out of the landscape business.

“He looked at me and said, ‘Are you kidding me? Do not quit this business yet. You are so close to being very successful—don’t give up,’” Grunder recalls. “He was right. Within a couple of years, we did $800,000 in business, and I made a lot of money for a 24-year-old kid. I put money down on the property that’s still our location today.”

Though GLC had some early success, it hasn’t always been easy.

In 2000, Grunder’s life changed when his father died unexpectedly.

“I was 32,” he says. “That was a wake-up call for me. Anybody can be gone anytime.”

Grunder Landscaping Co. leadership team (Photo: Matthew Allen)

Team effort The Grunder Landscaping Co. leadership team, from left: Seth Pflum, general manager; Amber Fox, director of human resources; Paul Stoll, director of LandKeeping; Marty Grunder, president and CEO; Michael Ericson, director of financial operations; and Dalton Yates, director of design/build. “One thing I’ve learned from Marty about being a leader is you don’t have to have all the answers,” Pflum says. “There’s not a problem with being honest about that and facilitating a team to jump in and help you when you don’t.” (Photo: Matthew Allen)

As a result, Grunder doubled down on his dreams and focused on being the father, husband and leader he wanted to be. To reach his goals, his business became more sophisticated, operating with budgets and adding processes. He became involved with Dayton-based Aileron, formerly known as the Center for Entrepreneurial Education. He attended the “Course for Presidents” there, among other training opportunities.

“Prior to that time, we hustled, tried to sell everything and worked hard to get it done,” he says. “We didn’t have near the systems and procedures we have today that have enabled us to scale and grow.”

Grunder also grew his consulting firm during the early 2000s and wrote a book, “The 9 Super Simple Steps to Entrepreneurial Success,” which is dedicated to his dad.

“Losing my father like that without having a chance to say goodbye was a difficult experience, but like a lot of things that are difficult, you end up learning a lot. The lessons I’ve learned from that have made me a better person and a better business person.”

Grunder learned another tough lesson in the mid-2000s when he decided to part ways with his cousin, a minority partner in Grunder Landscaping Co. It resulted in a lawsuit that lasted for two years. Grunder knows now he was in a predicament common among entrepreneurs—they fear upsetting one person rather than doing what’s best for everyone. He knew his partner wasn’t getting the job done for several years before he had the courage to let him go.

“That whole experience has made me a better leader and coach,” he says. “When you hire someone, you have to be very clear with expectations and career paths, and if they’re not cutting it, you have to do what’s best for the whole team.”

Grunder calls that move one of the biggest turning points in his business.

Training day (Photo: Grunder Landscaping Co.)

Training day Grunder Landscaping Co. trains team members every Tuesday to keep employees engaged and quality high. (Photo: Grunder Landscaping Co.)

“Once we made that change, I was able to move people in the places they needed to be in,” he says.

The company clipped along for more than a decade of steady growth. Being the biggest company was never a priority. Grunder is a proponent of the “small giants” concept—an idea he picked up from the book “Small Giants: Companies That Choose to Be Great Instead of Big” by Bo Burlingham.

“So many people get caught up in the size of your company,” he says. “We’re more worried about being the best, and we’re proof that you can have a smaller company, make a great living and impact a lot of lives.”

‘Giant’ wake-up call

The pursuit of being the best is what convinced Grunder that Mariani’s crazy idea to bring the “industry giants” to GLC to offer feedback was more than worth doing.

“If you can imagine Frank, Mike, Jim and Todd doing a tour of our operation, I couldn’t argue with them,” Grunder says, noting their companies combine for around $120 million in revenue and decades of experience.

It was humbling and eye-opening to hear their advice, Grunder says. The feedback centered on his role in the business, the bottlenecks it created and how it was holding the company back.

“Mike, Todd, Frank and Jim told me the structure we had wasn’t conducive to growth, that I had my hands in too many things and if I would let go of some of this stuff and get in the lane where I have strengths, there’s an opportunity for us to double or triple the size of the company,” he says. “That got my attention.”

As he mulled over the suggestions with his longtime Vice President of Operations Paul Stoll and Seth Pflum, his then-production manager, he saw no logical reason not to make the recommended changes to the company’s structure to position it to scale up.

“It made so much sense once the picture was painted for me by these gentlemen,” Grunder says. “If you find out that you could do better than what you’re doing, no matter where you are, why would you not try to do that?”

Based on their advice, less than two weeks later, he promoted Pflum to general manager and instated a five-person leadership team.

It includes Pflum at the helm as general manager; Stoll, now director of LandKeeping; Amber Fox, director of human resources; Michael Ericson, director of financial operations; and Dalton Yates, director of design/build.

Pflum was a natural choice for general manager, Grunder says, noting he’s young, hungry and detail-oriented. He joined Grunder Landscaping Co. about six years ago after moving to Dayton from Indiana. The “industry giants” also unanimously thought Pflum was the right person for the job.

It’s nine months into the new structure, and the reorganization is going well. It has allowed Grunder to focus on the company’s long-term strategy and do what he does best—networking, selling and overseeing the company culture.

Pflum, who reports to Grunder and is now responsible for the company’s profit-and-loss performance, says the team already has accomplished a lot. They went from ground zero—devising a plan to roll out the changes to the team in January—to checking several major projects off their list.

“Marty and I are both perfectionists,” Pflum says. “We’re both driven but very different on how we’re going to achieve that perfection, so I think that’s why it’s working so well.”

In addition to leadership changes, Grunder Landscaping Co. is working towards implementing a paperless office and is adding key staff, including an experienced horticulturist. Technology and process improvements have been a big focus. Today, the accounts receivable process is almost all digital, as are new hire packets and employee onboarding information. Accounts payable was at 10 days, and now it’s down to three.

Long term—after the team eliminates duplicated efforts and is running efficiently in the new structure—the focus will turn to building a model that is scalable from a sales and production standpoint.

“We are getting very strategic about everything,” Grunder says. “We’re asking, ‘What types of projects and work do we need?’ For example, our goal is to grow our LandKeeping department 10 percent per year. That’s where the most potential is in our business.”

Part of what’s making it a smooth transition is Grunder’s support and trust of the new leadership structure, Pflum says.

“It’s reaffirming when we’re making changes, and the whole team is accepting those because Marty is,” Pflum says. “He’s allowing us to do our jobs by supporting us and changing, as well.”

Suffice it to say Grunder is energized about where the business is today, even if a year ago, he didn’t know such a drastic change was on the horizon. “I’m very excited about the company,” Grunder says. “I’m probably more excited than I was 30 years ago because I see how it all doesn’t have to fall on me to get done. I have people who really want to take the ball and run with it.”

Training = culture

If you stop by Grunder Landscaping Co. on a Tuesday at 8 a.m. and wonder why the trucks are still in the lot, it’s because the team is training.

“You have to be deliberate about training if it means something to you,” says Grunder Landscaping Co. President and CEO Marty Grunder. The past three years, the company has shut down for an hour on Tuesday mornings while managers instruct team leaders on a new concept or an important fundamental. “We’ve always done training, but not like we do now. We’re constantly investing in our people, helping them get better and learn new or better ways to do things.”

Like many landscape companies across the country, Grunder Landscaping Co.’s top challenge is finding and keeping good workers.

“The best way to get new people and retain people is to make your company a great place to work,” Grunder says. “We work very hard on the elements of keeping people engaged, sharing information and showing them a career path.”

Now that Grunder has moved into the chairman role, he calls “culture keeping” his primary responsibility. Increased training is just one way Grunder Landscaping Co. is enhancing company culture.

“What company would you rather work for, the one that trains or the one that doesn’t?” Grunder asks, rhetorically. “What company would you rather have your 18-year-old son work for? The one that’s safe or the one that isn’t?”

Starting this month, Marty Grunder brings his growth mindset and unique insights gleaned from being both a landscape professional and industry consultant to the pages of LM. See the debut of his new monthly column, “Grow with Grunder.”

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Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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