Turf Magazine - May, 2014

WEST FEATURES

Finding the Sweet Spot

Rick Longnecker of Buds & Blades learns to say "no" and good things start happening
By K. Schipper


Rick Longnecker and his wife Nicole founded Buds & Blades in East Olympia, Wash., in July 2005.
Photos courtesy of Buds & Blades Landscape Company.

If Rick Longnecker ever goes looking for a personal and company motto, he might consider Shakespeare's "To thine own self be true."

The owner of Buds & Blades Landscape Company, Inc., started in the industry at an early age, left to work in his family's business, but ultimately decided to go his own way.

However, he says it's only been in the last year that he and the company have truly found their niche, leaving him in a position to know when to say "yes" to customers, and also when to say "no."

Longnecker started mowing people's lawns while still in grade school, studied landscape construction and grounds maintenance in college, and then ran his own landscape firm before going to work for a couple of family- owned power equipment businesses.

"I wasn't burned out," he says. "I just saw another opportunity in the family business and decided to try something different. However, after a while I decided maybe it was better that I did my own thing."

Buds & Blades Landscape Company

Founders and owners Rick and Nicole Longnecker

Founded: July 2005

Headquarters: East Olympia, Wash.

Markets: Olympia and surrounding communities

Services: Mowing, bed maintenance, lawn fertilization and liming, moss control, weed control, pruning and hedging, leaf cleanup, rough-area mowing and brush cutting, sprinkler service

Employees: 4 full time plus seasonal help as needed

Website: http://www.budsandblades.com

The year 2005 proved to be a watershed one for Longnecker. After getting married in January, he launched Buds and Blades in July. "I decided if I was ever going to own and operate my own company again, that would be the perfect time," he says.

And, it was. Not only was the economy booming, but Longnecker had stayed involved with the Washington Association of Landscape Professionals (WALP) (he served as the organization's president in 2011), which he says got him quickly connected with a good group of contractors.

Referring to those boom years prior to the Recession, he says, "Basically, all we had to do was answer the phone and show up. It was a lot different than the last few years."

At that time, he says his biggest problem was finding enough help to get the work done. Today's labor market isn't quite the same; Longnecker says getting the right people remains a challenge. And, having good people is critical for the type of operation his company is positioned to be.

"We're mostly a residential maintenance company, although we have a handful of small businesses," he explains. "I started the company to be somebody's second or third landscaper where they've been let down or burned by a bad experience. I knew we could take better care of them."

To do that, Longnecker says he has to offer good value, but it's important to have little turnover. He wants the same crew seeing each client regularly. He has four full-time employees and some seasonal help (along with his wife Nicole and a bookkeeper helping him part time in the office).

"We give a high amount of training," he says. "It's probably close to 40 hours of training per year, both in-house and at seminars offered by the industry."



Buds & Blades is often called in as the second landscape company on a property because its well-trained Hispanic employees are particularly proficient in maintenance practices, such as pruning and shaping.

And, because he has a mainly Hispanic workforce, not only is the training done in Spanish, but Buds and Blades utilizes a lot of technology to keep communication going. The latest addition: tablets, which have replaced paper route sheets and allow the crews to be dispatched quickly with the information they need for each job.

"Our approach is to be incredibly reliable," Longnecker says. "And, when we're at a job, we know how to take care of it. Because of our training, we're able to get a lot done in a small amount of time."

Key relationships

One area in which he takes particular pride is the company's pruning services. Longnecker attributes that to the fact that many companies don't bother to train their employees to do a good job.

"That's one of the things we train extensively on," he says. "We bought the training videos from PLANET and that trains them in Spanish. And, we send them to classes once or twice a year so they're getting some classroom work and some field work, too."

Still another thing is emergency response to clients' problems. Longnecker says the Olympia area is particularly prone to big wind storms, and if a client calls he can have a crew out by the end of the day to at least assess the problem and provide a next-day solution.

"We don't advertise 24-hour service, but if you're one of our customers and we have a relationship, it will get taken care of," he says.

Relationships are an important part of Buds and Blades' marketing strategy. Much of the company's commercial work comes from residential customers who also own businesses.

"The rest is referrals from somebody we're already serving or they're somebody who isn't putting it out to bid and wants to work with someone local," Longnecker says.

Referrals are a big part of Longnecker's marketing, although he does direct mail, and he also gets a lot of leads through the company's website.

"We've also had some good experiences lately with things like Yelp and Angie's List," he says. "We've just started to get into that and leverage the positive reviews. Facebook helps create a buzz. We've also started an every-other-month e-mail newsletter. It all puts in people's minds the things we do."



Buds & Blades is considering developing its lawn fertilization service and its snow & ice management service into a separate division of the company.

And, Longnecker tries, in turn, to be responsive to his customers' demands. Based on requests from his commercial customers, he's looking at adding snow removal, as well as fertilization and weed control as a standalone service.

A licensed contractor, he's also done some construction projects - again for existing customers - from small enhancements to the installation of a permeable paver driveway he describes as, "a fun project."

"But, that's really not our focus or our niche," Longnecker says. "We're the best at taking care of it after it's put in the ground."

Fortunately for Buds and Blades, Longnecker believes that in the aftermath of the recession people are focusing on quality, and to some degree on being green.

"We certainly are looking at how we do business," he says. "I want us to not only offer green practices but I want how we operate to be green."

Longnecker may have started in the industry early in life, but he's not one to rest of his laurels. In fact, he says his advice to others would be to know your costs, train your employees well and keep learning. For him, that's meant being involved in both his state landscape organizations and PLANET.

"We use those resources," he says. "Contracting is next to the restaurant business in terms of toughness. We use those resources and leverage them for knowledge and training."

All that has contributed to what he sees as his greatest success; that breakthrough this past summer where he finally knew exactly the niche Buds and Blades is serving.

"We kind of had everything hit together," Longnecker says. "We have the right people, the right equipment and the right customers. Everything is working together and we're heading toward the same goal. That's the thing I've worked hardest on and struggled with the most.

"We're at a spot where we can say, 'No, that's not where we excel,'" he concludes. "That might not seem like a big thing, but it's allowed us to say 'yes' to a lot of other things."

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.