Turf Magazine - December, 2012

WEST FEATURES

Sustainability Rules for AAA Landscape

The Underwood's affection for Arizona's beauty reflected in their business practices
By Suz Trusty

AAA Landscape


Mission Statement: AAA Landscape is a company dedicated to excellence. Guided by spiritual and moral values, we provide responsive, profitable, professional landscape services with integrity. Our vision is identical on every project we do: To build happy relationships with our clients, community and employees, while we improve the environment and preserve the planet for future generations.
Founders: Robert Underwood: CEO of AAA Landscape/Managing partner of Arid Solutions; Richard Underwood: President of AAA Landscape/Southern Arizona General Manager/Managing Partner of Arid Solutions
Founded: 1974
Headquarters/Locations: Tucson and Phoenix, Ariz., and San Antonio, Texas
Markets: Arizona, Texas and Oklahoma
Services: Landscape management: turf care, tree and shrub care, arborist services, irrigation, granite repair, GPS inventory; Construction: site preparation, installation, hardscaping, water features, rain gardens and water capture
Employees: 418 overall, 176 in Tucson
Website: www.aaalandscape.com
AAA Landscape was a typical startup. Robert Underwood kicked off the business in Tucson in 1974 with a $1,000 loan and a borrowed pickup truck. His brother Richard says, "I had a pickup truck, so a few months later he asked me to come down for a couple weeks to help out. I loved it - and never left. Bob started our Phoenix operation when we had a major client there."

The 90-mile separation resolved the "Who's the boss?" question for the highly competitive pair. Technically, it's a 50-50 partnership in AAA Landscape and Arid Solutions, LLC, a wholesale nursery specializing in Southwest natives and desert-adapted trees and plants. An executive board oversees the companies run by the brothers. Robert is CEO of AAA Landscape; Richard is president of AAA Landscape and Southern Arizona General Manager. Together, they serve as managing partners of Arid Solutions.

Richard says, "Bob and I started out in maintenance; it's always been there, but there have been times we haven't fully appreciated it for what it is, the source of long-term relationships that produce sustainable income. Our company performs best with a 50:50, or at the most a 60:40, construction to maintenance relationship."

Sustainability's broader meaning

Richard says, "We are all about sustainability - sustainable relationships as well as sustainable landscapes." Sustainable landscape management (SLM) starts with the selection of plants appropriate for the area, considering soil conditions, temperatures, water requirements and microclimates as well as intended usage and client preferences.


A lighted walking path winds through this AAA Landscape project at the Ventana Medical Systems.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF AAA LANDSCAPE.

As a full service landscape company, AAA works with the developer on designing the property. The Tucson branch has a landscape architect on staff to facilitate the relationships. Some of the larger planned communities United States.

In the Phoenix area, most of the land has been farmed prior to its conversion to urban or commercial development. Tucson, however, retains much of the native high Sonoran desert, complete with washes, riparian area and habitat for animals.

"Most of the area we're developing here (Tucson) is first use," says Richard. "We opt to work with developers who understand that and incorporate the environmental elements into the master plan."

Construction and maintenance interact. Richard notes that after about 10 years, a landscape is generally ready for an update, incorporating plants and hardscape features that reflect new introductions and evolving lifestyles. With many client relationships extending 25 years or longer, these types of projects add up to about $1 million per year.

The turf management program begins with managing the soil and carries through to proper fertilization, irrigation and mowing. Tree and shrub management includes observation for overall health along with proper pruning extending to full arborist services. All plant maintenance programs follow best management practices (BMPs), whether the issue is weeds in the turf or plant beds, or disease and pest infestations.


The Underwood Family Garden - Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona demonstrates the Underwood brothers' commitment to advancing education in sustainability of water resources. Learn about this amazing project at http://bit.ly/1103kuo.

Water issues touch every aspect of landscaping and maintenance in the U.S. Southwest. AAA incorporates the latest technology in bringing sustainability to this finite resource. "We can live in this desert with the water we have, but we must use it and reuse and go lightly on the land," says Richard. Along with water audits and computer-controlled irrigation based on ET information, AAA designs projects with water harvesting in mind - from the contouring of landscaped and paved areas to capture from downspouts to catching and using air conditioner condensate. This commitment to advancing education in the region is reflected in the family's role in developing the Underwood Family Garden-Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona.

Operational strategy

Jeff Hatfield serves as regional manager for the Tucson Landscape Management Division. He has two district managers, each with $2.5 million portfolios. They oversee the site supervisors, who oversee the foremen who work on the job sites directing their crews. "We've set up branch locations, grouping our crews geographically by the areas they serve. Anywhere from 20 to 40 people will report to, and be deployed from, each of these sites," says Richard. "This cuts travel time and results in greater productivity while reducing fuel costs."

Though crew size varies, most are three or four, including the foreman. Each works a predetermined rotation among its assigned sites. A crew may work an apartment site for two days, an HOA for two days, and a business site for one day. The larger communities have at least one onsite crew full-time.

All company vehicles are equipped with a GPS tracking and locating system to ensure they can be accounted for in real time. "Tracking also allows us to compare routes for travel time and fuel efficiency," says Richard. "If we could cut fuel usage by 10 percent, that would give a huge boost to profitability."

Along with fuel use, crew productivity, site conditions and the labor budget for each property are monitored weekly. The information is shared with the management team, including the foreman for each site. Richard says, "The foremen need those tools to manage their resources effectively."

Designed for efficiency

The Phoenix and Tucson sites are similarly designed for peak efficiency. Both have ample outdoor space for company vehicles and large equipment. The main Tucson building is 7,000 square feet and houses offices for the management and administrative staff, including an onsite IT specialist, and an impressive meeting room equipped for teleconferencing.

At the rear of the building is a large storage area for supplies and an extensive arsenal of small equipment. It opens into a multiple bay shop, divided into two sections, one equipped with a lift. Richard says, "Anything down is lost time and lost money. So we have our own fleet mechanics maintaining everything from our trucks and tractors to our mowers and two-cycle equipment."

The company utilizes technology in multiple ways to improve client services. For example, a GPS mapping system is used to precisely locate all trees, major irrigation and landscape components for each job site providing "real time databases for continuous inventory and observation." Work is underway to expand the data tracked and integrate it more fully into long-term enhancement planning programs.

Connecting

"We're high tech and high touch," says Richard. "Technology is great, but it doesn't build relationships, people do."

The foundation is simple: do what you say; be kind to everyone up or down the ladder; and give back to your community. "It's the ethical, fun way to run a business. It's practical, too. When people like you and think you're doing a good job, you get the benefit of the doubt when you mess up occasionally. And we all do. With a strong relationship, it's easier to make that call to admit it, apologize, and agree on what to do to make it right."

Internal connection is equally important. "If my office door is open, anyone can knock and come in. We have an in-house newsletter. All of our personnel, from the foremen on up have their own email address. We hold daily tailgate talks with our crews in the field."

Monday mornings start with a meeting involving 10 to 12 people: the office staff, division managers, the head of the sales division, the landscape architect and chief mechanic. "We go around the room with each person detailing the work they have coming up so we can best determine how to help each other. We close in prayer," says Richard.

Video conferencing provides fast and effective interaction for the executive team, the accounting staff, landscape or maintenance teams, and various intercompany committees. It also connects the board and committee meetings of the multiple associations and community organizations the company partners with and supports. Richard says, "It cuts down on windshield time, a tremendous cost savings. Even better, it creates the personal connection that fosters accountability and produces results."

The recession hits hard

The economic downturn hit hard in Tucson, with new construction dwindling to nearly zero. In turn, the company's construction division sales dropped from $25 million a year to $5 million. "We moved all the estimating to one location," says Richard. "People who had done one job were doing two or three. With what became two recessions, back to back, we were forced to do something we had hoped never to do: layoff construction workers."


A small part of the AAA Landscape Tucson fleet is pictured here. Each truck is numbered and GPS equipped. Each is identified by the company logo and phone numbers for both Tucson and Phoenix.

In the maintenance division, in return for full employment, the company curtailed holiday and vacation time and did away with matching funds in the pension plan. "We temporarily cut back to a 38-hour workweek and downsized by attrition," notes Richard.

AAA aggressively sought and secured new business including some military base work in El Paso, Tulsa, San Antonio and Austin. "We've opened an office in San Antonio to serve that market more effectively and are developing more maintenance business there. And gradually, construction is increasing in Arizona," Richard reports.

Staffing is ongoing, with applications always accepted. Managers contact the HR department when looking to add personnel. Applications are reviewed to determine those most qualified for specific positions. They are then contacted to come in for interviews.

The lack of a robust, strictly enforced national guest worker program puts added pressure on landscape companies throughout the Southwest. AAA Landscape meets the immigration issue head on. "We decided early on that we'd be squeaky clean," says Richard. "The current e-verify program provides an effective check of legal or illegal status. Because we're very open about using it, the word spreads and few non-qualified apply."

"We hire the best people and then use every resource available to enable them to expand their knowledge and expertise," says Richard. They promote the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association certified landscape professional program and continuing education classes. A couple full-time in-house educators assist with onsite training, including both English and Spanish as a second language. Richard says, "The investment in our people is the base for the sustainable relationships that result in a sustainable business."

Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at suz@trusty.bz.