Darren Gruner interviews Green Industry expert Steven Cohen about his process of acquiring a “fixer” company and taking it to over $7million in a few short years. Steven attributes much of his success to problem-solving, and creating lasting processes for his business.
What do you do when you have a problem at work? Do you jump straight in and treat the symptoms? Do you stop to consider whether there’s a deeper problem that needs your attention?
If you only fix the symptoms, what you see on the surface, the problem will almost certainly return and need fixing over and over again. However, if you look deeper to figure out what’s causing the problem, you can fix the underlying systems and processes so that it goes away for good.
In this interview, learn how landscape industry business owner Steven Cohen navigated his journey from problem maker to problem solver over a forty plus year industry career. Stephen will share how he and his team transformed two million dollars he acquired in 2016 to over $7 million in five short years by utilizing a well balanced blend of cultural, operational and customer service objectives to become a leader within its market. Steven’s favorite business thought “If you really want to learn about your business, just step into the shoe use of your employees and clients with an open mind and your focus will be refocused on issues and problems you have not seen in the same light any time before.”
DG: Why did you choose to acquire this specific company over all the others?
SC: That’s a great question.
The real reason is that it was a fixer company.
When I acquired BCLS Landscape Services Virginia, the company was in business for twenty, twenty-five years and it was actually a very successful company in the previous owner’s life.
But from my perspective, when I acquired it, it wasn’t a perfect company.
It lacked the profitability that I would consider to be the ideal benchmark for profitability industry.
It lacked systems and processes, it really lacked culture and it also lacked recognizing who their right customer was. We kind of did a little bit of everything and I remember when I had to write the business plan and we were talking to our consultants about, you know, is this the ideal acquisition?
I had to put together a business plan for our bank, who was going to be a lender and partner with me for a period of time, to really show them that this was a turnaround business and I had the expertise to turn it around, and that’s what we focused on.
My passion as an industry professional is going into companies and solving problems, including our own company, and this was a good company to fix.
DG: Yeah, it’s funny that you mentioned, you know, when you go to get a loan, I mean obviously when you go to a bank, they want answers. They want to know, is this the right investment? And it’s kind of good that they asked those questions. They asked those important questions and I’m sure they’ve asked you for a mission statement as well. Right?
SC: The plan, it probably took me about six months to actually write the plan. The due diligence process took us about a year to go through it, ascertaining all the information on the company and be able to assimilate that information and put it into a business plan with not only a narrative where the business was, but where the business is going to go over the first five years.
And we had an illustrate on how we’re going to transform it, not only operationally but also financially. And I remember the banker saying to me, the reason why we’re going to partner with you on this is because we have confidence in your vision and your direction.
So, what I would say is, it was the thought process going into the journey that shaped the journey on a longer term.
DG: Yeah, it’s not just let’s go, just let me give Steve the money. And because we believe in them, is that they also wanted to know, they wanted to make sure they had that strong foundation themselves so that they know that this was a good, the right decision to make.
DG: That’s just the way it is in business.
And people want to grow, they want to increase their business and they’re looking for so many different ways and there’s avenues out there, like a business bank that can help you, but you have to have that, you have to have that proof in the putting there. You have to show that what you’re doing is worth of value.
But what with the biggest important plan? And, by the way, they’re your bank. You know, the people that got involved, your investors that got involved with this, got their happiest hell right now, because you were able to increase the business three and a half times as soon as you took over management.
Like, how do you do that? I mean, give me some specifics. How do you just go. And how do you? I mean you must have. You had it. You didn’t just guess. You knew what you could do for it, right? You knew that you could build this business. You took a good look at it, and you said this is how… you knew that this was gonna happen right?
SC: I mean you want to have, you want to be, you want to have inspiration and confidence in yourself that you can transform your business or you can have a successful business in a market.
There are so many variables that go into making a successful business. But the first thing that we really looked at after we acquired the company, and I think what we learned in the first year, it wasn’t three months, is the first year, is really who are we as a company?
When we acquired BCLS, it was a landscape company, just like many others. It did commercial landscape, it did residential landscaping, did maintenance and irrigation, it did snow. But as we went over the first six months to a year, we really realized and learned who we were as a company, and I think the driver of that was financial data. We learned in a relatively short period of time, that we were not a good company to do residential work. It was not financially feasible for us; it wasn’t profitable for us in the type of accounts I acquired and it wasn’t the right fit for us.
Our structure was more designed to be a commercial services company, not a residential services company. We identified that and everything that we do in our business we want to make sure the alliance with the business. Our COO at the time, Howard Rose, who now is our CEO, said something to me which I’ve always fought. But if you don’t do something ten times, then you shouldn’t do at nine times. So, one of the things we looked at really objectively now, is what are you really good at and if you’re good at it, can you’re perfect it even better and do it repetitively over a period of time to make successful.
So, I think our success in the first five years, really has been understanding who we are as a company and continually being agile enough to adjust our business structure operationally and financially to that.
DG: You know, there’s a lot of guys in our industry that are always afraid to get into that commercial industry, that commercial business, because they don’t pay they’re thirty, sixty, ninety days out.
How do they sustain a successful business and maintain their employees and keep them going as well? I mean, how do you draw the line there?
What made you decide? Because residentials, I mean, you have that. Depending on where you live, you have that assurance you’re gonna get paid. You’re right, you’re right away, but obviously the risk is not worth the reward. If you get to commercial, how do you draw the line and make that decision?
SC: I have a passion for residential work, just like you do. So, doing large scale residential jobs or, the hiring residential jobs as a passion of mine, everything from design to installation. You know, I think what we identified in our company was our business model, our company structure and our people were better suited at acquisition to be a commercial company. I’m not saying that the quality of work or the mindset and doing commercial work is differently, but it’s very difficult to take somebody from a residential property to put in a commercial and it’s difficult to take somebody from the commercial environment and put in residential.
There’s just always a challenge in that. So, one of the things that we focused on, is really where do we want to be in that market segment? And what we’ve decided was the commercial is that area and diversifying the business from a cash flow perspective that it balances out.
For an example, in our business I will tell you we don’t have a collection problem. I mean, generally, our clients pay us between thirty and forty five days. Thankful. So that’s a blessing. But there’s a balance between commercial maintenance work is cash flow in concept or theory. You know, your performing services on a weekly basis, and every month you build it out and every month you’re getting paid and that creates cash flow.
On the flip side of our business we’re doing a lot of commercial landscape installation. It takes more revenue to manage those jobs because some materials and labour the time frame of getting paid from those jobs is forty, forty-five to sixty days and then there’s retainers that can take you upwards of a year. But the profitability in that work is far greater than the maintenance.
So, it’s like ingredients and a recipe, Darren, when you put the ingredients in the bowl and you mix it around, you want to make sure you have the right blend in order to balance it out.
I’m gonna tell you something. When I bought this business, we had twenty-two employees. We have eighty employees now. Okay, we have twenty-two employees and I said to myself, man, if we can just, and we acquired the company in October, I said, man, if we could just make it until December with payroll, will be good. I think back then our payroll was thirteen thousand dollars a week. I was like, if we can make it that next month…, the end of the year came and we made it to the end of the year. I remember my banker, who I kind of got a little pissed off with at that time, sent to me, you made it through the first year, congratulations.
As the business evolved, here we are five years later, and our payroll now is a six-digit a week, we pay close to a six-digit week payroll, and we make it every single week and we don’t do it from funding, from a line of credit. We do it we self-sustain ourselves, and the driver of that is the blend of business.
DG: Yeah, yeah, thank you for bringing that up, because that’s a big question right there. Like, what do you do? How big do you have to be in order to move the needle? I mean, how many clients do you have to have? How many commercial accounts do you have to have so that you can sustain something like that? Because, when you said you got through the first year, that is a big applause, because that means that you got to the next paying where people can actually start paying you.
Now, you said that you didn’t have a line of credit, and it’s what I had a guy today and we did we did.
SC: We did not use our line of credit.
DG: I had a fellow that asked me today: Do you have a line of credit with a company that you buy your products from? And I said I don’t like to use credit at all. I’d rather use my client’s money.
And it looks like you got around the corner without having to use your line of credit. I mean, that’s Kudos, absolutely, to you to do that. But how big did you when you stepped into this business, what was the cash flow that made it more comfortable for you so that you can move to get around the corner?
SC: A good basis of it was having good customers. I mean we definitely weeded out the bad customers.
I mean, what we learned early on, within the first thirty days, we put software.
We were able to determine in the first thirty days of what jobs were profitable and what jobs weren’t. And one of the things that we did was, we went back to clients and said, you know what, we need to increase your contract because it’s been under paying for so many years.
And, you know, he went back, and he got anywhere from probably anywhere from ten to thirty percent increases on money of the clients.
We did not lose a lot of clients, but we used technology and data to show them that the contract was under performing financially for us and they were happy with us, and we showed him that.
You know, if you’re happy with us, then there’s a happy medium to get us to where we need to be financially. That was a big thing.
But having clients that paid consistently between a thirty and forty-five day and the right balance of those clients allowed us substantially, to use cash flow to support the business and we had a line of credit early on in the business and we just went through the due diligence process because we’re at the next level. I mean we’re a monster now, in five years, going from two point two million losing, you know, two hundred and fifty thousand dollars a year when we acquired the company, being seven million dollars and being profitable, you know, our demands on cash are lot different today, and the bank that I started with, we have decided just yesterday, we’re gonna be moving away from that bank. And the reason is that the bank looked at us differently today than they did in the past. They look at us today as a customer, where the bank that we’re going to switch looks at us as an opportunity.
And you know, that’s part of the growth process. You know, just like you outgrow people and people outgrow you, we’ve outgrown our bank.
DG: And that’s okay, I mean that’s just the relationships.
DG: So, listen, what you did would you just scared the crap at of me and you said, you had lost two hundred fifty thousand dollars a year for a while at the beginning, right?
SC: No, no, when we acquired the company, the previous owner was losing two hundred and fifty dollars a year.
DG: I was gonna say, how do you sustain that? How do you get that back?
SC: We bought the business in October and on closing the first few months we owned the business, we did turn it profitable the first year.
We made a ninety-thousand-dollar profit in the first year of income.
DG: Okay, so you went to the bank. Let’s talk about this, because somebody wants to say I want to get into a business. I want to look at a business. I think I see something that’s profitable that could do well. Somebody wants to sell, and I think I could do a better job for them, and I go to an investor and I say, Hey, look, I got this job or this this business I want to purchase and I need an x amount of dollars and here’s my mission statement.
They like the plan. How does that work? How does that work with the bank? What are they doing? Are they financially supporting you to help you buy this business? And, by the way, I got to imagine that’s not just the money that they’re giving you. You still have to now run it after a while, once you get it right, and you gotta keep the money going. How does that all work?
SC: So, our financial package we went to acquire the business. We did utilize a small business administration law. So, our bank was a small business administration lender.
So, in partnership with capital that I put forth to acquire the business, which was greater than 50%, the balance of it was funded through the small business administration. I actually funded through the bank and guaranteed by the small business administration.
Our original loan on the business acquisition was a seven-year loan and I don’t recall the interest, I will say that we paid that loan off in five years, which is a blessing.
So, I own the company today outside of what the Bank has, you know, on UCC filings and things like that, but we own the company. So, it was a combination of those two.
DG: When the bank negotiated with you, did they take a piece of the business with them?
SC: They have there the first lead holder on the business until the loan is paid off. And the loan package included the acquisition of the business. It included working capital. Okay, so it included a chunk of money for working capital to seed money to get us started and sustain us, and that’s what got us out of the gate, in addition to some additional capital that I put in. But we, thankfully, and I knock on wood, have self-supported this business for over five years now with borrowing a little bit of money from the bank on our line of credit.
DG: So, what would you need to borrow the money for at this point if you’re profitable?
SC: Just cash flow. You know, we’re doing a lot of big commercial work right now.
Fifty percent of our revenue is maintenance and 60 percent of maintenance revenue’s, the balance of it is in commercial landscape installation work.
So, we’re doing some large jobs, anywhere between thirty thousand to three quarters of a million dollars.
Those jobs, traditionally, you don’t get paid for forty-five to sixty days, but we’re paying our avengers in thirty days, and we have not done it all this year. We have not had a bar from our line. But going into next year, there’s a little bit of a concern that we’re starting to recognize and understand as the economy is going to change. And I don’t think the economy is going to tank. I’m not an economist. Okay, I don’t think it’s gonna tank. I think it’s gonna be a correction and one of our concerns and one of the reasons why we’re switching banks, is that bank was gonna offer us a larger line of credit. My concern is that cash flow from how people pay might slow a little bit. So, the thirty-day payers might become forty-five-day payers, the forty-five day payers might become sixty day payers because their cash flow in their business might slow down. It’s always a trickledown effect. So, we want to have a little bit of a cushion in there.
DG: Okay. So, your clients, the commercial people that you’re doing landscaping, they’re giving you some deposits but they’re not paying that day to day.
SC: No. On the on the commercial work, when you’re working for general contractors or construction management firms, you’re fronting everything. You’re fronting all the labour, all the material and everything, and it’s a minimum of forty-five days.
You can do AIA requisition forms that you can build progress payments on a monthly basis for work completed in place or materials stored on place, but you’re not getting any money upfront. That’s all on us.
DG: Yeah, that’s a scary thought for a lot of those small guys getting into the business. You were there at one point, you know, you understand how that is, but you have to have that steady cash flow.
SC: But again, it’s all strategy, you know, when I look back today to the first year, I will tell you that, right now, our company in our market has a very, very good reputation in doing large projects, equal to that of my biggest competitor, okay, which is a company in town that’s a nursery installer who I have a high level of respect for. I think they’re a great company and there’s a lot of things that we want to do to emanate them from the quality standpoint.
But it didn’t start off that way. We started off by doing install the first year. Maybe our first install the first year was thirty or forty thousand dollars and then the second year we got the next job was eighty thousand dollars.
It didn’t happen until two years ago where we had multiple five hundred-thousand-dollar jobs with national contractors. Is really when it exploded for us. That was a tough year, but we accomplished a lot of work, and we completed the work very, very successfully.
But it gave us stability to have confidence to say where that company now we are pre-qualified with the majority of the large national construction management companies that work in the Richmond market. We are pre-qualified with most of them and a lot of the work we have going to this year is all pre-qualified work with major, major construction companies, national construction companies. It’s been a good journey.
DG: I can only imagine. But listen, none of this can happen without your employees and your vendors, your clients.
DG: So, basically, I gotta ask you and I gotta move on, because we could, you and I, we could talk forever. But based on your favourite business quote, which I, like, you know, we all have different ways, different views of looking at our business and, what is the most important to you?
Your favourite business code quote is, and let me read it for those of you who didn’t hear it at the top of the show: If you really want to learn about your business, just step into the shoes of your employees and clients with an open mind and your focus will be refocused on issues and problems you have not seen in the same light any time before.
Interesting. Do me a favour, take us through a time where you actually put that into practice.
SC: Every day. You know, our friend, mutual friend, Adam Linnemann, put a question up on Linkedin today and it was something about how do you set yourself for success during the day, and I responded, by looking at yourself at the end of the day.
I gotta tell you there’s a lot of things, and I go back to what you said originally, your high level of respect for me. I’m a good business owner. I think there’s a lot of better business owners out there. I have a lot of respect for a lot of the people in the industry and I think a lot of people are smarter than me in a lot of ways. But I learn every day, and I’m not saying that every day I do something right. I think we all many mistakes. But what I’ve learned, you know, I’m sixty years old now and I’ve been doing this for forty five or forty eight years, whatever it is, and did this growth for me, has really happened in the last five years, is the ability to look at the business objectively, from other people’s viewpoints, and sometimes, you know, I had a situation yesterday where I didn’t handle myself professionally with a contractor. You know, he got me pissed off about something and I reacted to it. But after I reacted to it, I stepped out of my shoes for a minute and I thought about how he perceived me, and I realized that the perception of me at that moment was not a good business partner.
It was a confrontational business partner, and I immediately called him and apologized from my behaviour.
You have to be able to look at things objectively from all different types of viewpoints. So, I always tell our team members, you know, look at things. If you think I’m a nag, step into my shoes for a minute, look at it from my perspective and maybe you’ll see it in a different way.
If you think your customer is harassing you or is constantly pestering you, step into their shoes and look at it objectively and see how they see things. It’s a whole new perception.
DG: Wayne W. says: don’t treat people how you want to be treated. Treat people how they want to be treated. It’s interesting.
SC: Exactly and you know what? You can be smart as you think you are and smart as you want to be, but if you don’t have the willingness and the open mindedness to learn and reflect, then you’re never going to be successful.
And that’s why, when I answered Adam today, at the end of the day, I always like to look back at that current day. While it’s still the same day before midnight, and I ask myself, what were my successes today? And if I had to change something, how would I change it? And this really aligns with yesterday. I would have completely change how I approached yesterday by stepping back and probably using information that I had, which would have been good information, to prove my point, versus verbal communication that came out the wrong way. So, reflection is very important.
DG: Absolutely. Some of us have that innate ability to back off, you know, instinctively at first. You know, like Dick Cheney, you know that kind of guy. You could sit back and listen and evaluate and then you can attack and then you know that’s right. That’s our problem.
SC: I hate to say, we speak first and then we apologize after.
DG: Hey green industry pros, this is Darren Gruner, your host of Strong Foundations.
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Right, exactly. So, moving on we have. So, you were at one point starting out. You know, we all had, we all had a small business like, let’s just say you have a landscape lawn business making about fifty thousand dollars a year. You know, what does the business look like and how do you take it to the next level?
I mean, it’s been a long time since you’ve been there.
Can you remember and help us through?
SC: I think the biggest problem in businesses is the owner itself and how they approach business ownership.
I think we focus too much on sales. This is my opinion. I think we focus too much on sales and when we go for sales, we cast the fishing line into the water and we reel it in and we see what we catch.
My advice to people looking to grow is take the time to really understand your business, understand what you’re good at and understand where you can strategically position yourself in the market to be successful.
And then you have to build a foundation of systems and processes.
You know, and this is one of the biggest things that we struggle with, this in our business today, to make the time to do it, but having basic processes in order to sustain that business for a longer term.
I think we, if you look at why consultants are in the industry, we’re employed by clients because we help them solve problems, but we’re solving problems that probably could have been solved earlier on in the journey of growth in their business.
And most businesses, when they hire a consultant, they hit a brick wall at ninety miles an hour and say, okay, what do we do now? Let’s hire a consultant to have them come in and look at this objectively. And you go back and say, well, you know, if you did this back then, you probably could have saved yourself some aggravation.
So how do we put structure and going forward?
To answer the question, I think the most important thing is you have to have a business plan.
You have to have. I don’t care if it’s on a napkin, you have to have something that you can go back and look at and reflect and say, yes, I’m on course, or not on course. You have to have some basic systems and processes in order to sustain the business, and you have to understand your business, and understand the businesses is who are you as a company and who do you want to serve and how do you best serve them to be successful?
DG: Yeah, that’s great, because that’s going to bring me right to my next question, which kind of answers it in a way.
A lot of business hit a point where the working harder doesn’t seem to be generating a lot of growth for their business right? So, these people feel stuck, regardless of how much time they put in.
So, how would you, as the business I would decide at that point, what it is. I mean, you’re saying go back to your business plan you have in place.
Go back and refocus and start again and start over again. Is that what you’re saying?
SC: I’m sitting in my office and one of the things… my goal for this year is, we’ve gotten through the first five years, okay, so what’s the next five years look like? So, in going back and looking at the first five years, it’s what we’re successful in, and why were we successful? And then how do we continue to improve on that? And if we weren’t as successful in something, how are we going to shape that for the next five years going forward, and again working with our new bank, that was one of the questions they asked me.
What’s the next five years looked like, and I had to share that with them because that again was a decision of them, putting together a new financial package for us the next five years.
DG: would they be comfortable enough hearing that it’s much of the same as what we just did? Because you did a lot of great growth.
SC: Both banks were very receptive to where we’ve been and both banks were receptive of where we want to go.
I believe the institution that we’re going with, who I have a little bit of a previous relationship with, I think looked at the business a little bit more objectively and while cautiously, look, a bank is not gonna lend you money if they don’t have confidence in you.
I think they looked a little bit more at not only the financial data, but they also looked at the confidence they had in me as the visionary officer of the company of how we’re going to continue that growth going forward.
But listen, the next five years was not projected to them to be all fame and glory. Okay, the next five years was presented them to be smart, objective in business decisions that we make, and a driver of that, part of it, was financial, what’s the economy gonna do, what we believe economy is going to do and how we are best preparing ourselves for that.
So we had to present that in a way that gave them confidence that we’re just not gonna keep you know, look, a lot of business today are growing twenty, twenty-five percent.
If you’re growing twenty, twenty-five percent over the last five years, you better back that down to ten, to twelve, maybe twelve to fifteen next five years okay.
So, you’ve got to be smart when you think about these things.
DG: Guys like us who have been through recessions, you know, a couple overall over our years, you know, we seem to be more understanding about the way things are gonna head next, and they must have confidence in you because you’ve been through a few.
I mean two thousand seven, two thousand and eight we all got hit really hard. People were not spending money. We had all this overhead. You know, we had to kind of reinvent ourselves. A lot of us had to reinvent ourselves, and we lost a lot of people in our industry to regular desk jobs.
So, in your words, how do you prepare for something like that? I mean, and you’re always preparing.
Once you go through it and it’s been and you got hit hard, you have like you had a bad relationship. You’re always preparing for that. What do you do, because I’m sure that’s constantly on your mind as you’re growing.
SC: Yeah, I mean the first thing is you want to make sure you have strong relationships with people. I would like to think if your marriage is strong, and you have a hiccup, you want to think that you can work through and it’s the same thing in business, you want to have good, strong relationship with your clients.
So, if their economic position changes, it does potentially have a negative impact on your economic position, that you can work through negotiating.
With gas surcharges today, you know, fuel what it is, most companies, a lot of companies are passing these fuel surcharges off and there’s been a lot of resistance from clients saying, hey, it’s an increased cost, we can prepare it.
So how do you go about making it easier for them without saying, okay, no problem, we won’t do it, and just have an impact the bottom line?
I think strengthening your relationships in going into an economic correctness is key. I think also, a little bit of intuition.
Landscape company owners typically have very good intuition and feelings. I think that drives a lot of decisions you need to make, and also financial data.
Be conservative. We’ve pulled back in buying what we want. Okay, can we make it happen? You know Howard said it the other day they needed four backpack blowers. Can we get it done with three? Okay, now, look, I’m not saying that we’re not going to buy four, but you have to have a discussion. Can we make it work with three? So just trying to do more with less.
DG: We really escaped, not only escape a bullet here as an industry during this pandemic with the covid, and it seems like we might even get you know, if there’s, of course, if q two turns out to show that we really are in a full recession. You know, it seems like we as an industry are gonna shine and we’re still gonna do well.
We’re not, like you said, you’re not, I’m not as worried either about it for some reason, but we did get hit hard back in two thousand and seven. No one was spending money at all.
I mean everybody got scared. So, what do you know, now we have these young guys that have entered into the business that didn’t experience what we experienced in two thousand and seven and two thousand and eight.
What do you say to prepare these guys just in case this does have a negative impact on our industry?
SC: Look, the crash of two thousand seven, two thousand and eight was driven by the housing market and you know, aggressive lending, subprime lending to people, and it’s the housing market that crashed.
Again, I’m not an economist, but, in my opinion, we’re not going to have a housing crash, we’re gonna have a housing correction, and talking to bankers that I interact with, you’re not going to have the thirty thousand, fifty thousand, hundred thousand dollars more than asked being paid. You’re not gonna have. I’m gonna waive the home inspection or the mortgage shortfalls.
What you’re gonna have is, it’s gonna change now. Where, before, it was a seller’s market, it’s gonna be a buyer’s market. You know.
So, the shift is, all this is designed, I mean the Fed raised the interest rate yesterday not to raise 0.75, they did it to stabilize the economy based on various economic things that have happened with the covid-19.
Okay, and we want to have confidence with them. They have to find the same balance.
I was listening to the head of the Fed this morning and what he was saying is he doesn’t know what’s right, but the next time they meet next month, the interest might go up a little bit more.
But what they’re doing is, they’re looking to find that sweet spot with the interest rates to get the economy rebalanced.
You know, business owners, I don’t care if you’re large or small, the young business owners, you know, really have to be smart in choosing.
Again, it goes back to choosing the right work, that’s gonna pay them the best way.
Everybody always wants to jump in commercial and you know, they always want to gravitate towards the big contractors to get their work.
And I tell them, you don’t need to be going to that fishing pond, okay, stay in a small pond, look for the local independent real estate owner who has, maybe, a small strip centre and build a relationship with them and, maybe you get two or three projects with them and then you have a portfolio and then you can go after the bigger stuff.
But stay with a customer that’s going to pay you well and don’t step into something that you’re gonna put yourself at risk.
And that’s what people do. They put themselves at risk because they want to be bigger than they can be. Okay, or shouldn’t be, and that’s a problem.
DG: I like that. So, listen, you touched on the fact that you responded to a comment by Adam Linnemann on LinkedIn, right?
Social media is just a pool of, it’s like a cesspool of not knowledge,
I don’t know, it’s smart stupidity. I mean just a little mix of everything, right?
What are the bad recommendations that you’ve heard throughout the industry?
I mean you’ve seen it out there. I know you’re on social media stuff.
What do you see out there that’s just bad recommendations?
SC: Man, that’s a hard one. I don’t think I can say that there’s something out there lately that somebody says gives advice that’s bad.
I think people have different opinions. I honestly don’t think that there’s that much bad advice out there. I think there’s a lot of opinions out there and maybe opinions that differ.
I had one this morning that I posted something, and somebody got really, really pissed at me, and I took the post down.
But in the reality of it is, I have a valid point, and I’d happen to be a little bit more expressive so, I put that point out there.
I think there’s good learning on social media. I actually think that the next generation of consultants have a lot of good ideas, and a lot of good thoughts and I think their journey is a little bit different.
I look at myself. I’m an exiting consultant. I’m exiting industry at my age, okay.
You know, in the next three to five years I’m gonna be in this industry, maybe, thirty to fifty percent of the time. We made that transition in our company, I shared that with you, but I think the next generation of consultants and entrepreneurs in our business will do things a little bit different than our generation has done, and I think a lot of it’s gonna be for the better.
I like Linkedin, I think there’s a lot of good advice out there and I think the advice is a good mix of business advice but also business advice that is blended with personal advice, and I think there’s some good learning with that.
I also think there’s a lot of strong opinions out there. You know, this is the way I do it.
The one thing that’s important is just because somebody does it another way, it doesn’t mean that’s the way to do it.
I always like that copy and innovate logic that I was taught early on, there’s nothing the matter with copying something that somebody else does. Obviously don’t plagiarize it, but always innovate on what you’re gonna use of what you like of somebody else’s business.
DG: Okay, that brings me to why I think you’re my idol.
Now, look, so here’s the deal, right, so when you’re growing into business, you want to emulate somebody else. Copying, Imitation. It’s best form of flattery. Absolutely. You find somebody that you want to be like. You know, in New Jersey there was a company called Lepinsky Brickman, was a big name. I wanted to be like all these big, I wanted to be like them. So, I’m gonna be like them. I’m gonna do what I can. That’s when I wanted to be in the business.
Now I want to get out of the business, right, not now, not now.
Eventually I’m gonna want to get out of it, to retire. You know, I’m fifty-seven. I’m not far behind you, and I look at you and you say we have a CEO. Now, as far as I’m concerned, I’m thinking CEO, that’s the top. You’re now the chief visionary officer.
That’s why I said, boy, you just created a new position for me in my business. That’s where we all need to know, in which direction we’re going to follow. And while we’re all you know, you can’t wear all the hats, you hire the people that run the business the right way, and you have these people in place, but you’re the director, you’re the person that’s aiming in the direction in which you want to be, and obviously you’re gonna leave your legacy.
The company will always be in place, but you will now have directed the shift the way you wanted to go and you can look back and say, wow, look what I built.
SC: See that’s an interesting point and I think part of our journey as a company, in part of my understanding of how I set our company, our success, was learning from somebody else’s situation.
Probably about five years ago, I was asked to consult for a woman up in New Jersey, and an accountant and her son died in his sleep, okay, and he had a small landscape business and they needed to liquidate the company. And you know, I went up and I met with the woman. She was probably in her late sixties or early seventies, and I went into her home and the son actually lived at home with his parents, the mother and father, and his business was operated out of the home, and I remember his office was in his bedroom, and I had to assemble the information to put together a package to sell that business.
And what it really it impacted me, was that this was a guy who worked hard his whole life. He was a young guy. I think he was less than forty years old; I think he died in his sleep like two days before Christmas.
But at the end of the day there was nothing. There was a bunch of equipment that got sold off for a “x” amount of dollars, a bunch of accounts that got poached from anybody heard he died, and whatever is left I was able to sell, but there was nothing, you know, and that really impacted me.
You know, when we bought BCLS, we went in with a very defined plan, and the plan was very simple.
We were going to build an organization and in ten years we were gonna exit. Okay, we would exit through a sale, and you know, we have thought about changing a little bit of that direction during the journey.
But the one thing and the most important thing for me was, God forbid, something happened to me, what would happen to the business? Okay, and it doesn’t mean that the business has to go on, but the wind down, would have to be more orderly than a bunch of boxes with papers and a lot of conflict and confusion like this woman had with her son between, you know, where’s money, where’s assets, where’s debt and all those things.
So, part of our business plan was to put together a plan, a succession plan at the same time. And the succession plan, and this is not morbid, but the succession plan was, God forbid, something happened to me, what happens to the company? Who runs the company? How does the company get financed or funded? And how does the company go on? Now, for me, it was a legacy. You know, God forbid I die, the company goes on.
There’s life insurance that pays off debt and all the other things that are involved. Today it’s a little bit different. My Wife told me, God forbid, something happens to me, as quick as she can cash out, she’s at the door, she’s taking life insurance, believe me, she had enough of the business.
But I think, as a business it’s not just being in the business, it’s how do you leave the business is just as important. How you end it, is just as important as how you started.
DG: Well, how do you think about that? How do you end it with being alive?
SC: For me it was very simple. So, you know, we started off with an organizational chart, and I was blessed that the CEO of the company that I acquired has been with us for the last six years. He was with the company previous staff for five years.
Today he’s a principal in our company. He has an equity position in the company, and I call him my partner and he calls me my partner. And you know, we have a very aligned vision. We don’t always agree, okay, but we have a very aligned vision.
Howard Rose was promoted in January to the CEO role, and the reason for that was twofold. Number one is the next level we wanted to get our company to a leadership. He runs the day-to-day operations of the company. He’s the face of the company in mentory guards. You know, God forbid something happened or as I lessened my day-to-day activities in the company, Howard would be the person who makes the key decisions.
My role is slowly going to evolve into an advisory role. It’s what’s the next five years look like? What’s our next thought with strategic positioning within this market or new markets?
The COO was actually eliminated and we’re actually looking for a vice president of operations now, who will then go in and deal with all the day-to-day operations and that will be directly to Howard.
So, it’s just organizational change throughout the growth journey or trajectory of the company that’s occurring.
DG: So, the endgame for you is to bring the value that it’s worth, and then you can turn around and you can sell it and make a profit and then move on.
SC: That’s part of it. The more important part of it is giving a home to our team members and making sure that the people that are here, who want to be here, if the business was sold, is that they still have a role, a key role, in the company, helping the company to be successful.
DG: So, you’re a relationships guy. Obviously, that’s what you are. You build a relationship.
DG: You know, I want to talk to you about… building strong foundations right, and I’m not gonna say it for you, but I’m gonna let you say it. If you could tell every lawn landscaping, even snow removal company owner, one great way to build a strong foundation in their business, what would it be?
SC: For me, it’s structure. It’s all about structure. The structure is so important because under structure there’re so many components of structure. Everything from culture, to operations, to sales, those all things must come under that umbrella structure. You must have an organized structure and it doesn’t have to be something that’s very complex. It can be the most simplistic form, but you must have structure.
DG: So, it starts with, and what I’m getting out of this conversation with you is that: don’t even start doing business until you have a piece of paper that’s entitled a mission statement. Right? Something that you have to have is a plan. You must know what you’re gonna do, what you’re gonna accomplish.
SC: In the most simplistic form. I’m not saying you have to go out and build this complex mission statement, but you have to have some sort of.. God, look, everything in our life guides us.
Okay, you know, we spend money at the grocery store, but the foundation for that is a plan of how much money we have and a list of what we’re gonna buy. It’s no different. You don’t build your house that you live in from the roof down, you build it from the foundation up, and that foundation starts where? It starts on the ground. It starts with the footing, and after the footing is in place then your blocks come up to great, so you have to have a strong footing.
The problem is, there’s this mental block and there’s also almost a resource block in our industry, is people don’t understand how easy it is to create that footing okay, it’s in the most simplistic form of just having some bullet points with some thoughts. That’s something you can go back and reflect and say, am I going in the right direction? Am I doing what’s right? Or do I need to change what I’m doing?
DG: So, would you say that the word ‘why’ would be one of the biggest words in the industry? Why am I doing this?
SC: Yes, absolutely. I always say it’s what happens, why does it happen and how are we going to solve it?
Okay, I have that inquisitive personality and I always ask when I see things happen positively and/or even negatively in the organization, you have to ask why first. Okay, it’s amazing. When you look at the objectively, you know you’re gonna get your answer. Okay, it’s really how you solve the problem.
I’ll tell you a quick story before we end.
I had a client years ago. This goes back thirty years ago, and the client and my biggest competitor was a national company at that time, and you know, they did a bunch of work for this client, I did a bunch of work, and we ended up losing the job. And I remember the Director Vice-President of Asset Management telling me you have a great vision, but sometimes your vision is a little bit too big, and you have to concentrate on the small details. And you know, in our business a lot of companies are great fixer companies. Okay, what I mean that is, you have a misstep with the client, so what do you do? You run out there and you fix the problem for them. Okay, and usually when you fix the problem, you fix it with resources and then, next time it happens, you do it again.
A lot of companies become great fixer companies. What I learned is we were a great fixer companies, okay, but we weren’t a good problem-solving company. In order to move from the fix stage to the problem-solving stage, you have to be able to step back and look at it objectively of what went wrong.
DG: What’s the difference between fixing something and solving a problem?
SC: Well, fixing a problem is just going out there, and you didn’t spread the mulch correctly, and it’s too thin over there and it’s too thick over there, okay, so you go out and fix it by taking a spring rake and rake in the level.
Simplistic explanation, but solving is why was the mulch too thin over there and too thick over there? It’s training, it’s how did the crew apply the mulch in that bed. Why does somebody over apply the mulch? And part of it might be application. Maybe one guy’s using a wheelbarrow, maybe one guy’s using a bucket, maybe one guy spreading with a leaf rake, one guy’s using a hard rake. Okay.
So, solving the problem requires two things. The number one thing is time. Okay, you have to solve the problem, but with time, okay, because it’s not going to get solved like that.
And the second part of it is to be able to look at it objectively. Okay. And if you can do those two things, then you create the process or the system, so it doesn’t happen again.
And that’s where your documented systems and processes come a place where you can say to person, Hey, look, this is how we do it. We want to follow this procedure.
DG: You are so number one. Why did I select you as our first interview with strong foundations? The reason is in the pudding here. The reason is exactly this interview that we did.
You’ve taught me a lot. I know that you’ve taught a lot of our listeners the same thing and we’re gonna want to hear more, definitely, from you. So we really appreciate you coming on.
SC: I appreciate being invited on talk. Thank you very much.
DG: Thank you, Steven, and those of you who joined us. That’s it for us today.