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Landscape Development shares COVID-19 management strategies

April 1, 2020 -  By

“Welcome to the curse of living in interesting times,” began Gary Horton’s letter to his company on March 13.

The CEO of Landscape Development Inc. (LDI) personally writes everyone in the company every other day, and the company’s HR director and COO are also communicating often with employees to offer reassurance and information about COVID-19 and how developments with the virus are affecting employee safety and the company’s ability to work.

Landscape Management caught up with Horton on March 24 to ask how the company is faring as it deals with the coronavirus. LDI is a $100 million company which does primarily design/build and maintenance services for a mostly commercial client base. It operates 10 branches throughout California and one in Las Vegas.

LDI moved quickly to fall in line with the prescribed safety measures, transitioning 70 corporate staff out of headquarters from March 13 and over that weekend. It also doubled paid sick time from the California-mandated five days to 10 days.

“The rule is any sign of any illness sniffly nose, anything you go home and you’re paid,” Horton says. “Congress is still debating whether to make that part of this legislation, but time’s slipping away.”

The company’s 1,100 employees are operating as usual as of press time. “With the exception of Las Vegas, we’re at full employment and everyone’s active,” Horton reports. The Las Vegas office of LDI was briefly shut down under the nonessential business order, until Nevada Governor Steve Sisolak allowed landscaping services to keep running under “other service providers who provide services necessary to maintain the safety, sanitation and essential operations of residences or businesses” provision.

Horton says that California is a busy state for construction, and LDI’s sales pipeline and project backlog are four to seven months out and secure.

“It’s harder to say what’s coming our way in the economy beyond that,” he says. “This is where getting out of this quickly becomes important. If this drags out for four or five months and businesses actually close and 10 or 20 million people are out of work, all bets are off.”

Horton says that the near-term looks pretty good. But he knows that the business is subject to the government orders, citing that a peer company in San Francisco with over 500 employees was completely shut down by local officials.

On Monday, March 23, LDI project managers emailed each of their clients with current jobs to ask two questions: “Is this job progressing and do you want us to continue yes or no? Will you pay us per contract with no exceptions yes or no?” The email also included what LDI was doing to keep their crews safe.

Horton says that 90 percent of those clients responded quickly in the affirmative on both questions.

On the maintenance end of the business, some clients have cut back on services related to large group gatherings, such as churches and sports field maintenance. New enhancement sales have been cut back, because people don’t know where their cash is coming from or how they should spend it.

There’s irony here, says Horton. “We were heading into what was going to be the best three or four months in our company’s history, and then this thing happened.”

Horton credits his strong executive team with identifying ways the company can save money and get focused, fill backlog holes and tighten relationships with customers.

“There’s upside in this too if you look at it the right way,” he adds. “It really eliminates complacency. In a week, we went from a job seeker’s market to one where no one is hiring. When you value your job, you help the organization get through and thrive.

“I’m completely calm in this, and I didn’t feel that way in the last recession, that one went on for six years in California and we went from being a big company to a small one. By rights, we probably shouldn’t have gone on, but we pulled through it and here we are.

“Now we’re more profitable and better managed. We developed a really good executive team of rational, professional and clear-thinking people, from top and midlevel management, that’s pound-for-pound as good as any in our industry,” Horton says.

LDI’s COO (Mark Crutcher) was senior VP at Valleycrest and BrightView for facilities and purchasing, and the company’s head of HR is Raul Diaz de Leon, who was formerly Valleycrest’s HR director.

“(de Leon) has run as many as 12,000 employees in the landscaping sector — talk about a steady hand at the wheel to navigate through something like this with employees,” Horton says.

“I’ve been through four recessions. You sort of know the moves you have to make to protect people and protect the organization,” he says. “Our midmanagement went through that last recession with me — they’re battle-tested, and no one is getting too excited. This is just another battle, we’ll get through it.”

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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