LM150: Building careers for growth

July 17, 2019 -  By
Person using spreader (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

NaturaLawn has helped foster lifelong employees by strengthening its management. (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

Getting to the top as quickly as possible can be impressive at first glance. But if the proper systems aren’t in place, problems can appear quickly.

Phil Catron, founder and CEO of NaturaLawn, says steady, controlled growth is key for the success of NaturaLawn of America.

The company is a great example of consistency, reporting 7.4 percent growth for 2018.

Founded in 1987, the franchise system now covers 24 states. Ranking No. 24 on this year’s LM150 list, the company has averaged at No. 25 since appearing on the first list in 2009. Since then, the company’s revenue has grown 93 percent.

Building a great team

Catron credits a three-phase management training program for the franchise system’s great labor force. The in-person program helps develop NaturaLawn’s key employees. Offered a few times a year at the home office in Frederick, Md., the program accepts top employees from NaturaLawn’s 91 licensed franchises.

“These are people we’ve identified as ones who can move up the management ladder and into leadership roles,” he says.

A smaller class size of 10-12 people ensures engagement and an intimate learning environment. Implemented two years ago, the program focuses on teaching the selected team members the impact they can have and what they can bring back to their operations.

Phil Catron (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

Phil Catron (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

The program begins with scenarios to help teach communication and thought processes. The second part focuses on the soft skills of being in a leadership role. The third and final part goes over the nuts and bolts for budgeting and planning.

The employees spend time reviewing their franchise location’s financial statements. They learn more about what makes up the financials and how to drive a business toward success.

Catron says the program develops in-house management, a “secondary bench,” as he calls it. This training helps managers prepare to become owners in the future.

“This is not a job; it’s a career,” is the motto shared with employees. But, Catron knows that not every employee will have a lifelong career with NaturaLawn.
“We would love everybody to stay with us,” he says. “But, if someone leaves, our goal is to make them better prepared.”

Solving labor challenges

In 2018, NaturaLawn grew its revenue by nearly $5 million. Catron says the management training program is partly why. The company plans to continue explanding the program. The next phase is to develop a reinforcement component.

After the management training, employees return excited and recharged. The goal is to reinforce and build upon what they’ve learned through webinars and other meetings while back at their franchise locations. Catron says this additional training will be implemented by the end of 2019.

So far, nearly 50 managers have gone through the three-phase management training program, and more than 10 percent have moved up into supervisor or ownership roles, Catron says.

Key employees of NaturaLawn (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

NaturaLawn credits its in-person management training program for helping develop key employees into managers. (Photo: NaturaLawn of America)

Strengthening the company’s management is relieving labor pressure. In fact, Catron says he doesn’t see finding employees as a big problem.

With strong management development, employees are creating lifelong careers at NaturaLawn. More than 500 full-time employees and 230 full-time seasonal workers make up the company’s workforce for its 91 franchisees.

“Recruiting and finding good, solid people should always be at the forefront,” he says. “Recruiting should be a year-round event.”

Now, NaturaLawn is moving into the second generation of owners at the franchise level. As sons and daughters take over, succession planning is a key strategy to maintain the company philosophy.

“Employees and people are No. 1,” Catron says. “Take care of your people first. They will adopt that philosophy, and they will take care of the customers. Don’t point fingers, solve the problem.”

Growing through service

Focused on lawn care, 97 percent of NaturaLawn’s customer mix is residential. The company ranks No. 4 in the breakdown of the top 25 turf and ornamental companies. Although landing a big contract typically aligns with growth, Catron says NaturaLawn focuses on long-term customers instead.

Another growth strategy most companies employ is acquisitions. They are happening left and right throughout the industry, but

NaturaLawn’s last one was more than 20 years ago. “We have not actively sought out any acquisitions but rather conversions,” he says. These conversions occur when an independent operation decides to join the franchise.

NaturaLawn launches new locations or territories every year, but there’s a limit. “We don’t want to add more than four new locations per year,” Catron says.

The reason? NaturaLawn wants to get each new location to $500,000 within the first five years, and adding 15 new locations would take too much of the company’s support efforts.

“If you grow too fast, and your infrastructure is not in place, the system will implode,” Catron says.

Industry outlook

Although Catron doesn’t see labor as a big problem, he does see another major issue in the industry: companies that don’t differentiate themselves.

Trying to do and sell the same services as a competitor is a poor business strategy. He says the landscaping industry falls victim to this dangerous strategy often. Companies sacrifice price, value or service and try to make up for the loss with volume.

“Don’t be an octopus and do everything for everybody,” he says. “Be different in either products, service or personnel. And never apologize for price.”

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To view the complete list, breakdowns and company profiles, check out a PDF version here.

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Danielle Pesta

About the Author:

Danielle Pesta is the associate editor of Landscape Management. She started writing for the green industry in 2014 and has won multiple awards from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA). She can be reached at dpesta@northcoastmedia.net.

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