The Bruce Co. shares retention tips at CENTS

January 13, 2016 -  By
Bliss Nicholson shares The Bruce Co.'s

Bliss Nicholson shares eye Bruce Co.’s core values: exceptional customer care, ongoing financial stability and build a great environment for our employees.

Green industry members from across the Midwest converged on the Greater Columbus Convention Center in Columbus, Ohio, Jan. 11-13 for CENTS 2016, hosted by the Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association.

Attendees struggling with labor issues had the opportunity to learn from the father-son team at The Bruce Co., which has mastered employee retention. The Wisconsin-based firm has employees that have served the company for more than 50 years, and the majority of its staff has served more than 10 years.

“If you want to keep employees, you have to keep them happy,” says CEO and Chairman Bliss Nicholson.

History of The Bruce Co.

The Bruce Co. began in 1952 when 11-year-old Lee Bruce didn’t have enough money to attend a Boy Scout jamboree. He started cutting lawns, and soon customer calls poured in.

At 15, Bruce won the chance to sod the University of Wisconsin, but he wasn’t allowed to sign the contract due to his age. So with the help of his father, Bruce incorporated the company in 1956, creating The Bruce Co.

The Bruce Co. ranked No. 60 on the 2015 LM150 list of the largest landscape companies with 2014 revenue of $24,465,500.

Retention driven by dialogue and culture

In 2009, Bruce sold his company to Nicholson, who had been his right-hand man for years. To help new employees understand the company’s legacy in Bruce’s absence, Nicholson shows new employees a video history lesson during the orientation process.

In addition to a history lesson, the orientation period is when the company creates an open dialogue with employees. Maintaining open lines of communication helps new employees buy-in to the company’s culture and keeps them around, Nicholson says.

“We tell people, ‘If you’re not happy with your position or supervisor, talk to HR before you leave. Don’t just leave, talk to us, maybe we can find a different fit, a better fit,’” says Seth Nicholson, the company’s president.

Culture and values help employees buy-in, but at the Bruce Co., they’re also coaxed by a robust benefits package, which includes health insurance, a flex plan, a 401k match program, a wage progression plan and an employee referral program. The company spends “an excess of $1 million” per year on health care.

“Different cultures fit different people,” Nicholson says. “Not everybody is going to be a good fit. Finding those people and finding out what their needs and desires are is important.”

Recruiting for the long term

Even with its great retention rate, the company actively recruits and hires new employees. Seth Nicholson, who took over as president in 2015 after gaining experience at nearly every position in the company, described a process of “proactively evaluating positions needed.”

The company starts by posting job listings to as many outlets as possible, and it re-posts them every 30 days. It uses newspapers and other paid outlets, but it also posts on free sites like, which often have large email databases of job seekers.

“Place accurate job descriptions,” Seth Nicholson says. “We’re really clear about culture and quality expectations and education and physical requirements. If they’re not interested in those things, they don’t even call.”

The company has also found success working with veterans, Latino organizations and correctional institution programs, from which it has found some of its best-behaved and most-dedicated workers, the company says. When recruiting upper-level positions, it contacts architecture or horticulture colleges, which send job listings to students via email blasts. It also sends employees to four to six career fairs per year.

The Bruce Co. seeks candidates who have stuck with a previous job for more than six months, proving they’re not job hoppers. Candidates also must accept snow removal as part of the job since The Bruce Co. is seeking long-term employees, not seasonal ones.

Proper recruiting is time consuming. The Bruce Co. suggests delegating the responsibility to an HR specialist.

If you don’t have an HR specialist, it’s typically you doing it, and you could be out selling jobs or dealing with customers,” Seth Nicholson says.

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About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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