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Double duty

November 10, 2017 -  By

What you can learn from a landscape company that survived the year both of its owners were deployed.

LG Scott Landscaping & Tree Service Owners Luke Scott (left) and Larkin Scott III (right) with their mother and office manager, Dale Scott. Photos: Tony Ventouris

“Oh boy, what do we do now?”

Larkin Scott III recalls having this thought in the summer of 2015 when he found out that he’d be deployed for the third time in his role as a Black Hawk pilot with the Virginia National Guard. His worries were those of any soldier being deployed to a place like Iraq. After all, he would be away from his family for a year and even miss the birth of his second child.

But his concerns carried an additional weight. He knew his brother and business partner, Luke Scott, a fellow member of the National Guard, also would be deployed at the same time, albeit with a different unit. The pair co-own LG Scott Landscaping & Tree Service in Providence Forge, Va. They bought the company from their father, Larkin Scott II, in 2008.

Members of the Reserves and National Guard can be called up at any time, so the family always knew this situation was a possibility, but they still didn’t expect it.

“For a while, Luke was in a unit that didn’t need to deploy, and I had already done two deployments, so it didn’t seem like it would ever happen,” Larkin Scott III says.

But it did. They could have requested not to deploy, but they thought it might hurt their Guard careers. Besides, they joined the service knowing they may have to serve overseas.

“We wanted to do our duty, so we said, ‘Let’s figure this out,’” says Larkin Scott III.

Luke Scott, who serves as an infantry scout squad leader, deployed in May 2016 to Qatar, and Larkin Scott III departed a month later to Iraq. They left the business in the hands of their mom, Dale Scott, who had served as office manager since the company was founded in 1997. They also promoted a key employee to general manager. They created a comprehensive operations manual and spent a few months working on a plan for the business to run while they were gone.

Before they left, the brothers thought they were well prepared, but they learned they could have done a better job setting up the company for success during their time away. The company survived, but profitability faltered.

They returned earlier this year—happy to be home safely, grateful for their family’s help and motivated to build and grow a profitable business that’s less reliant on its owners.

“It’s not impossible to run a business remotely, but it comes down to systems and the people that implement them,” Luke Scott says. “You can’t do it with just systems, and you can’t do it with just people. It has to be equally strong on both sides.”

The People Piece

When it comes to family support, Luke and Larkin Scott III recognize how lucky they are. Their father, Larkin Scott II, who sold them the company and retired in 2008, stepped in.

Graphic: Landscape Management

Graphic: Landscape Management

“He just jumped in and started helping out to make sure things that needed to get done got done,” Larkin Scott III says. “We were very fortunate.”

Their younger brother, Levi, who has a career in a different field, also helped as needed with equipment repair and other duties.

Their mom and office manager, Dale Scott, shouldered much of the burden while they were gone—especially when the general manager they had promoted started dropping the ball on duties like overseeing the shop and equipment maintenance. When he quit in January, several months before either owner was slated to return from overseas, Luke Scott got released early to come home to keep the business going.

“I couldn’t do it by myself,” Dale Scott says. “I’m not very good with a tractor.”

The family also got support during the deployment from the members of their Leader’s Edge Peer Group, operated by consultant Jeffrey Scott.

“The peer group was like having a board of directors to help out,” Larkin Scott III says. “My mom was able to contact them for advice on things, and they would take as much time as needed.”
Despite all the support, having both owners gone for the better part of a year created some people problems in the company.

With the owners gone, the company’s lack of systems and accountability came to light, Dale Scott says.

“We had in the back of our minds that we needed systems, but because of the hustle and bustle of everyday business, we never got around to it,” she says. “Because we had always been family owned and operated, everything always revolved around the owners.”

For example, employees always had been trained in an “apprenticeship-type” program on the job by an owner—Luke Scott on the installation side and Larkin Scott III on the maintenance side. They assumed their general manager would take over those duties while they were away, but it didn’t happen, so new employees didn’t have training to fall back on.

The lack of an onboarding system created problems for current employees, too.

“We wound up with a lot of turnover and turmoil for our employees that stayed with us the whole time we were gone,” Larkin Scott III says.

Since returning from deployment, the owners quickly implemented a formal training program, using manuals from the National Association of Landscape Professionals. The company also created a program for internal certifications and testing.

To increase accountability, which was another problem that arose when the owners were away, they have implemented a five-point incentive program that assesses employees based on the company’s core values: excellence, loyalty, integrity, teamwork and efficiency.

These items used to be “just a sign on the wall,” but now employees are evaluated and given feedback on them weekly. Crew leaders and crew members can earn an extra $4,500 and $3,500 per year, respectively, by meeting key performance indicators associated with the core values.

“We’ve incentivized good behavior, like showing up on time, being honest and coming in on budgeted hours,” Luke Scott says.

They’ve also tried to build their company with a military team mentality. It’s nothing formal or fancy, Luke Scott says, but he’s tried to instill in the core staff that it’s their job to give feedback on one another—not to “tattle,” but to ensure they have a strong team.

“It’s helped the esprit de corps,” he says, adding the employees started a weekly breakfast on their own at Waffle House. “I don’t have enough employees, but the ones I have all like each other.”

Systemizing the business

Pitching in From left: Dale Scott, Larkin Scott III, Luke Scott and Larkin Scott II. Dale and Larkin II pitched in to help LG Scott Landscaping & Tree Service survive the time their sons were both deployed. Photos: Tony Ventouris

Since the brothers returned from their deployments, the company is “systemizing” other areas of the business, as well. It’s all an effort to improve profitability and reliance on the owners.

“For us, sales haven’t been an issue in years,” Luke Scott says. “(The problem) is keeping as much money as possible at the bottom of the P/L.”

They’ve identified—and are working to fix—a few areas where they were “sloppy” or are underutilizing people and resources.

While they were gone, communication was inconsistent. Larkin Scott III was hard to reach and often didn’t have internet. Luke Scott had access to a phone and internet connectivity, and he spoke with his mom and the general manager a few times a week. Dale Scott also sent her sons a weekly report including cash flow and any major issues. In hindsight, Luke Scott says he would have wanted more details. Today, reporting and monitoring information has become a priority for the company.

During the owners’ time away, there seemed to be a lot of lost time, Luke Scott says. The company has used Service AutoPilot as its primary software for several years, but it realized it wasn’t vigilant about entering data properly.

“Like any program, it’s garbage in, garbage out,” Luke Scott says. “I would pull reports, but they would be terrible because nobody had clocked in and out properly for two weeks.”

Now, the company has a weekly meeting where it focuses on safety and the importance of recording information accurately in the software system. Each crew has a cellular-enabled tablet and clocks in and out of tasks via the software’s app.

Having good data leads to better job costing and, ultimately, profitability.

“If you work hard all month and then you see you didn’t have much of a profit, it gets you motivated about recording information,” Luke Scott says.

The company also has learned to better leverage GPS fleet tracking, which it added through a service called InTouch. At $25 per month per vehicle, it’s a quick return on investment, Luke Scott says.

“The lowest amount I bill out is $50 per man-hour, so if it saves me half a man-hour a month, it pays for itself,” he says. “If you have any vehicles on the road that you’re personally not in, you can’t afford not to have it.”

Adding GPS has eliminated speeders, idling and lost time due to stops at convenience stores. If a truck enters a convenience store, the owners get an alert.

“It’s not because I’m that miserable of a boss,” Luke Scott says. “But time gets lost easier when guys stop. Our policy is everybody brings lunch to work. With GPS, they’re more inclined to abide by our policy, which cuts down on unbillable time.”

The owners also are working to streamline their duties and communication to be more efficient.

One area they immediately addressed was clearly defining roles for all employees, including Dale, Luke and Larkin III.

“Before we deployed, there was a lot more excessive communication and overlap,” Larkin Scott III says. “I think that’s a mistake a lot of people make when they’re growing.”

They’re also better at using a component of their software system that allows them to assign one another “to-do’s” and lets others see and comment on these items.

“We’re really working to keep everything we do inside of one software system as much as possible,” he says. “That, along with very defined roles, allows us to get a lot more done than we used to.”

All three of the company’s managers acknowledge it wasn’t an easy year for their family or their business. Dale Scott, in particular, is happy to have her sons home.

“It was a difficult year,” she says. “It was very nice to get them back.”

Getting back into shape

Returning from deployment to learn their business needed some work was daunting, says Larkin Scott III, owner of LG Scott Landscaping & Tree Service.

He took solace in the advice of consultant Jeffrey Scott (no relation), who runs the Leader’s Edge Peer Group to which the company belongs.

“When we joined the peer group (in 2013), we were essentially going out of business very slowly,” says Larkin Scott III. The peer group helped the company turn things around. Prior to both owners deploying with the National Guard in 2016, they were getting quarterly profit checks “and life was great.”

The company survived the deployment, but profitability slipped, which was discouraging to the owners.

“(When we returned), Jeffrey Scott said, ‘You were in a rough spot before, so do it again.’ If you’ve ever been in shape, you know how to get back into shape,” says Larkin Scott III. “Those were probably the best words of encouragement. We’ve done it before, so we can make this work again.”

Photos: Tony Ventouris

This is posted in 1117, Cover story, Featured
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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