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Working in the great outdoors

May 8, 2020 -  By , , and
Landscape crews working outside (Photo: Danny Hurley)

As restrictions have eased throughout the country, companies are relieved to be able to send crews back to work. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

While the coronavirus pandemic continues to affect everyday life, green industry professionals around the country have managed to spot some silver linings.

Landscaping companies have been deemed as an essential service in all 50 states, including in Michigan and Minnesota, where there’d been a complete shutdown of services just a few weeks prior.

“I think as a landscape contractor, we have the benefit of working outside, and that warranted the opportunity for us to bring staff back,” says Dale Drier, general manager of Drost Landscape in Petoskey, Mich., which had closed its doors from mid-March until April 29.

Overall, some companies have experienced an uptick in customers as weather improves and people spend more time in their yards. Others have found that their recruitment efforts have been answered with workers from other industries. And still others have donated their mowing and lawn care services to frontline health care workers.

Hard at work

Conserva Irrigation is surviving — and thriving

Landscaper working (Photo: LM Staff)

Though landscape crews can easily maintain distance while working, they’re also direct reporting to job sites to keep a safe distance in transport. (Photo: LM Staff)

For Conserva Irrigation, an irrigation firm with 91 franchises across the U.S., the business is not just surviving — it’s thriving, according to Russ Jundt, founder of the company.

“While it’s been an awkward time where we’ve needed to pivot and be more thoughtful and more prepared, our sales for Q1 were up 65 percent year over year, and it’s not slowing in April,” Jundt says.

In addition to following social distancing and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) measures, the company has developed a platform where technicians can assemble a digital estimate on-site and email it to the client instantly.

While Jundt says no one could have foreseen a global pandemic, Conserva felt somewhat prepared as it had already run through a series of contingency planning exercises late last September with different measures to prepare in the event of a downturn or economic change.

“We had already started that planning process last September, and then as things started to evolve in mid-to-late February, we understood that we better get some guidelines put in place so we can be ahead of the curve for each of our franchise locations,” Jundt says.

Jundt says he expects Conserva will continue to do well, despite the economic fallout from COVID-19.

“Due to the nature of our business being a need-based business, the fact that our services are a smaller-ticket amount and that we’re a repeatable service, we anticipate that in a downturn, we would remain robust and busy,” he says.

Raising the bar at Complete Landsculpture

“Raise the bar” was the theme of Complete Landsculpture’s recap and prelaunch training trip earlier this year.

A few short weeks later, the coronavirus pandemic hit, and like businesses all over the country and the world, the company had to put its goals on hold and meet the challenges of the pandemic head-on.

Complete Landsculpture is a $24 million operation, led by owner and President Chris Strempek and co-owner and Vice President Gene Freeman. It’s headquartered in Dallas with a second location in Edmond, Okla. It provides 60 percent design/build and 40 percent maintenance services to a half residential, half commercial clientele, and ranked at No. 100 on the 2019 LM150 list.

Landscaper working (Photo: LM Staff)

Some landscape companies have gained workers from other industries, easing labor strains. (Photo: LM Staff)

“A week after things started to get very serious in New York, we jumped on board and figured it was going to come to us,” Freeman says. In mid-March, the company began to allow office staff to work from home, providing temperature checks and developing safety procedures for crews and locking down its corporate campus.

The safety protocols aside, the demand for construction work hasn’t waned, even with the turbulence in the national economy. The company has continued to hire and book jobs and is currently on pace with its revenue goals for the year.

A longtime client even signed a contract on a design plan in the early weeks of the coronavirus outbreak.

“We scheduled a 4:00 p.m. happy hour Zoom presentation, couriered the plans to them and did a virtual tour through it. And then we did a ‘cheers’ through the camera,” Freeman says. “So, clients are getting familiar with it, too. They’re not scared of the technology or being able to do it that way.”

Complete Landsculpture experienced some setbacks at the beginning of 2020. After the wettest year on record, it was behind its numbers in January, and then found that it was denied its usual 75 workers from the H-2B visa program — 40 percent of its labor force.

The company has hustled to fill 60 of the 75 open positions. Freeman says they’re finding success with hiring laid-off workers from some clients in the retail and the restaurant industries, and the company is currently offering an $8,000 signing bonus for an experienced foreman.

Freeman says the company is continuing to work its typical hectic schedule, but it’s also working with clients who are experiencing hardships, such as hotels, restaurants and churches. “We’re sensitive and concerned for the people who are affected by COVID-19 both short term and long term,” Freeman says. “We’re still servicing those accounts, modifying billing, cutting back on services, reducing rates and delaying invoicing.”

Freeman says it’s all about relationships.

“Relationships matter at all levels for us. It’s one of our core principles,” he says. “We’ve just got to stay strong,
continue to push, continue to come together. And, we’re letting (our crews) know we’re in the trenches with them, in the office, working with them side by side — 6 feet apart.”

Back to work in Minnesota for Doehling Landscape Services

Crews working on a design/build project (Photo: Danny Hurley)

As homeowners spend more time at home, they’re enlisting landscapers to help beautify those spaces. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

Matt Doehling, owner of Doehling Landscape Services in Shakopee, Minn., is glad to be back to work.

The company was originally among the businesses classified as a nonessential service in Minnesota Governor Tim Walz’s executive order in March. But as of April 8, landscaping operations were named essential businesses so he and his employees could start the season.

While nonessential, he says he wasn’t able to go into the office to process payroll, according to the strictest reading of the executive order. Unable to work, Doehling took to an advocacy role.

“I sent an email to our whole customer list, as many as I could,” he says. “I said, ‘Here’s what’s going on with our service and our business.’ I encouraged them to write to our legislators and our representatives.”

He also encouraged his clients to sign a petition to designate landscape and lawn care services as an essential business, which ended up garnering 40,000 signatures.

“Our industry is a great example from a public health standpoint,” he says. “We can maintain all the social distancing that’s required and needed to prevent the spread of this terrible virus.”

He’s had some substantial hits to his bottom line, with about 25 to 30 account cancellations on spring fertilization programs, and there are about 60 to 70 other clients he hasn’t heard from. He estimates all of that to be about a $25,000 to $30,000 loss in revenue. However, he says the new business he’s received may offset those losses.

“I’ve been surprised with the number of new business we put in place this year,” he says. “It’s a testament to the great work our employees do. The positive is that we’ve been able to, for the most part, replace lost business.”

An unexpected side effect

COVID-19 changes the way ProGreen recruits

Michael Hall, owner of ProGreen Turf & Landscape in Newport, N.C., says this time of year is always busy for his operation, but it seems busier than usual.

“We are 100 percent working,” Hall says. “We haven’t slowed down.”

Crews working on a design/build project (Photo: Danny Hurley)

Many companies enforce safety measures, such as
wearing face coverings and following strict disinfecting procedures. (Photo: Danny Hurley)

One of the biggest innovations to come out of COVID-19, Hall says, is how he’s approaching hiring. He’s noticed more applicants for jobs recently, and they’re not always from a landscaping background.

“We’ve upped our game on recruiting,” Hall says. “We’ve actually had an influx of females.”

Hall attributes this to two factors: highlighting his female employees on social media and a new trial employment program. Following a phone interview, potential employees come in to work a day.

Employees fill out paperwork and are paid $100 a day. He puts the new employees with strong crew leaders, and usually by lunch the first day, the crew leader has assessed whether the potential employee is a good fit.

“Some of the females that were applying said they’d give it a try for a day,” Hall says.

For example, one employee is a bartender and was looking for a new source of income after bars and restaurants in North Carolina closed due to COVID-19. She didn’t have any experience working outside, so she opted to try working for ProGreen Turf & Landscape for a day, and she decided to stay.

Overall, Hall says he’s hired three women so far.

While there’s a lot of good on the recruitment side of the business, Hall has noticed more clients micromanaging crews since they’re home.

“People are at home, and they’ve got nothing to do but look at their yard,” Hall says. “Every little detail, they’re picking out.”

Silver linings at Cherrylake

Cherrylake sees mostly sunny skies on the horizon as it expects its maintenance and construction sectors to keep pushing forward, despite the coronavirus pandemic.

The central Florida company, which ranked at No. 127 on the 2019 LM150 list with $15.6 million in 2018 revenue, is comprised of an 1,800-acre tree farm, a landscape and irrigation construction division and a landscape maintenance division.

While the company is concerned it won’t receive its 20 H-2B workers this season, Chloe Gentry, director of organizational development and marketing at Cherrylake, is optimistic that the current labor market conditions will allow for Cherrylake to fill some of those spots.

“The silver lining on this is that unemployment is high right now, so we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to recruit some strong workers who will become part of our year-round team,” she says.

In the meantime, the company considers itself lucky to be deemed an essential business in Florida and will follow the necessary protocols to stay open, according to Gentry.

“Our first priority is to make sure our employees and our community stay healthy and safe,” she says. “Our second priority is to make sure we keep operations and revenue flowing so that we can keep people employed.”

To keep employees safe, the company follows CDC guidelines of keeping people 6 feet apart, sanitizing vehicles and equipment, decreasing the number of employees riding in each vehicle and staggering start, finish and lunch times so 200-plus employees aren’t all amassing at once.

As far as its clients go, Gentry says the company has received support from them to keep operations up and running.

“Our clients are calling us to say, ‘We just want to make sure you understand you’re an essential business so you need to show up,’” Gentry says. “We’re very happy to see that our clients view this as an opportunity to get a lot of work done on these construction projects, and they want to push forward and keep building.”

Giving back

A helping hand for health care workers

R&R Landscaping, a landscape company based in Auburn, Ala., joined in the effort to help COVID-19 health care workers after a simple request.

Claire Goldman, principal and head of design and business development at R&R Landscaping, received a text asking about welders’ face masks from a friend, whose husband worked at a hospital in their area.

Goldman purchased the entire stock from her welder’s supplier and dropped them off. After some communication with her friend, she thought that servicing yards for some of the health care workers would atleast give them one less thing to worry about when they are home and, hopefully, allow them to rest.

The hospital chaplain gave her addresses for emergency room and intensive care unit nurses, and Goldman asked Southern Pride Landscaping, Cutting Edge Lawn Services and other local landscaping companies if they would be willing to take on properties if the need arose. They all jumped on board.

“The thing that really blew me away was how my competition responded,” Goldman says. “You don’t ask a landscaper to do free stuff in the spring — we’re all going as hard as we can just to keep our head above water this time of year.”

Goldman adds that the goal is just to do what the company can for people to feel loved and supported.

R&R Landscaping offers 80 percent construction, 10 percent maintenance and 10 percent irrigation services to a completely residential clientele. The company’s season started off by having to cancel its spring kickoff event just as the coronavirus sparked safety concerns all over the country.

The company adjusted and brought a taco truck, Drive-by Tacos, out to its property. Team members ate tacos on the lawn 6 feet apart, reviewed their work from 2019 and discussed their direction for 2020.

On the other hand, very little has changed for the company from a client standpoint, Goldman says, but there’s been turnover on the employee side. Some employees have had to stay home with their kids and some have been afraid to come in, but the company has made some new hires, mostly from the restaurant industry.

Goldman says the company is training as quickly as possible while maintaining its spring hustle, following CDC safety guidelines closely and providing the team with masks.

In addition to safety, the constantly changing nature and public response to the coronavirus has shown the importance of leadership and communication.

“This has been a time where accurate information has been very difficult to come by, and there are very few answers,” Goldman says. “It’s easy to lead when you have a clear path. The only clear path we have had is to do everything we can to make sure our employees feel safe to come to work and our clients feel safe doing business with us.”

She credits her leadership team with staying focused on the day-to-day tasks, allowing her to research government programs, connect with clients and collaborate with other business owners to get through the pandemic.

“We’ve made it a point to validate how everyone is feeling and communicate there is no right or wrong way to feel,” Goldman says. “It’s confusing, frustrating, scary and exhausting — and that’s OK. ‘We’re in this together’ has never rang so true.”

All American Lawn Services gives back

Mary and Eric Infante, co-owners of All American Lawn Services in Evans, Colo., also wanted to do something to help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I felt this overwhelming need to give back,” Eric Infante says. “The only way I could think of was donating my services since I’m out there mowing anyway. Why not help?”

The couple is giving away a free year of service to 10 first responders — firefighters, police officers, nurses, doctors and paramedics.

“They seem to appreciate it a lot,” Eric Infante says of the first responders he’s taking care of. Mary Infante adds, “It’s got to be nice to come home exhausted and have a nice mowed lawn.”

Overall, the Infantes have remained optimistic. “There’s a lot of hope in this house,” Mary Infante says.

Sarah Webb

About the Author:

Sarah Webb is Landscape Management's associate editor. She holds a bachelor’s degree from Wittenberg University, where she studied journalism and Spanish. Prior to her role at LM, Sarah was an intern for Cleveland Magazine and a writing tutor.

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