Wealth Building Summit panel enlightens on acquisitions

October 21, 2015 -  By

Christopher Noon of SmartLawn and Debby Cole of Greater Texas Landscapes and The Groundskeepers led a panel discussion on acquisitions during the Wealth Building Summit at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Louisville, Ky., on Oct. 21. The event, keynoted by consultants Jeffery Scott and Ron Edmonds, was held during Landscapes 2015.

Noon sold Noon Turf Care in July. TruGreen acquired the company, which was doing more than $8 million in annual revenue when it sold. SmartLawn is a franchise system he’s in the process of creating.

Cole started her company, Greater Texas Landscapes, in 1981. It merged with and operates as The Groundskeepers, a 100-percent-employee-owned company, with Cole still on board. The company ranked No. 21 on the 2015 LM150 list of the landscape industry’s largest companies with more than $56 million in 2014 revenue.

The panelists shared their experiences with acquisitions and fielded questions on the topic. Here are some of the highlights from the discussion:

Q: We’ve discussed that one characteristic of a desirable acquisition is the owner staying on for a period of time after the acquisition. Debby, you’re an example of a person that fits well with the organization you joined, The Groundskeepers. How were you able to do that?

Debby Cole (DC): Before agreeing to the acquisition, I checked them out. I talked to their people. My people played golf with their people. We checked each other out, and we were both into it. I had a five-year employee agreement, but after five years I was having so much fun I had to stay on. But I probably investigated the company that bought me out more than I investigated the man I married. The fact that we can communicate, and there wasn’t a heavy-handed big brother was the reason I could stay on.

Q: Debby, you said you had great culture alignment, was it a systems-first thing or a people-first thing?

DC: It was definitely people first. In fact, that’s our tag line.

Q: Were there any challenges on the systems side?

Sure. They ran a completely different accounting system. I miss QuickBooks! The parent company now handles all the books stuff. But they were founded on the premise that the person running the branch is an entrepreneur. And we’re very entrepreneur focused. They had great systems, and they adopted some of ours.

Q: If someone were thinking about starting new branch of an existing company, what three pieces of advice would you give them?

Chris Noon (CN): People, people, people. The person with boots on lawn, heading that up, has to be someone who wants to do it and is capable enough to do it. That’s why we do things like personality testing. It’s hard to tell your boss no I’m not up for the job. If you’re on the bench in football game, and the coach tells you to go in, you can’t say no or you’ll be cut. Some people are great role players and want to be a spoke on the wheel, doing the same thing for a hundred years. And that’s great; we need those people. But you (may) need a problem solver that’s going to work things out on the fly, and there is no recipe for it.

DC: For one, we never started a branch in a place where we didn’t already have work. The smallest branch we opened already had $400,000 a year in revenue. Every branch we’ve opened had business on day one.

Additionally, just like you might have a mentor for new employees, a new branch needs support. We call it the baby branch, and it needs cared for like that new employee. We nurture the branch and spend time teaching it our culture. We have a branch that’s been open for a year and a half, and we still spend two days a week there.

And finally, courage. That’s the key to everything we do.

Q: What would advice would you give to someone about to do their first acquisition?

CN: Make sure the cultures mesh. You hear that all the time but really get into it. Get to know the owner’s wife and family. Take them to dinner and get to know were they’re coming from personally to make sure things go smooth and you really get the ball rolling.

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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