NORTH FEATURES


Lean in Beantown

NatureWorks seeks continuous improvement in serving an exclusive clientele
By Tom Crain


NatureWorks Landscape Services, Inc.


Owner: Matt Gramer
Founded: 1995
Headquarters: Walpole, Mass.
Markets: South Boston
Services: Residential lawn and tree care, gardening services, seasonal displays, irrigation management, construction services, and snow and ice management
Employees: 40 to 50 (depending on seasonal conditions)
Website: www.natureworkslandscape.com
Matt Gramer never stops reaching out to his colleagues for advice via hyper-networking, exploring out-of-the box solutions to ongoing challenges, empowering his employees to determine best practices, and fine-tuning his customer service program.

These are some of the reasons why his company, Walpole-based NatureWorks, marketing to the South Bostonian estate owner, has been averaging 15 percent growth annually. It has also outmaneuvered the recession with barely a nick (2009 was the only "dip" year at 18 percent) and holds one of the most successful formulas of any East Coast residential landscape company in retaining and growing its client base.

"We've made decisions over the years to embrace lean tools, bring certain services in-house and sharpen our customer service practices for high-end customers," says Gramer.

About six years ago, Gramer was introduced to the idea of adapting the "Lean Tools" process through networking with green industry consultants who brought him onsite visits to companies who were successfully using "lean" elements.


From left, Eric Banks, Meghan McPhee, Matt Gramer, Jennifer Guerin, Jenny Sherman and Mary Sullivan make up part of the team at NatureWorks Landscape Services that maintains a company culture encouraging employees to be involved with effecting positive change.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATURWORKS LANDSCAPE SERVICES.

The term "lean" was coined to describe Toyota's business during the late 1980s by a research team headed by Jim Womack, Ph.D., at MIT's International Motor Vehicle Program. It has been accepted as an effective strategy that seeks to produce a high level of throughput with a minimum of inventory for manufacturing. The lean process of management is a relatively new concept and is still considered a bit experimental for the service industry, particularly for landscaping.

"Most believe that the lean system is suited only to the manufacturing industry," says Gramer. "This is not true. Lean applies to every business and every process. It's not a tactic or a cost reduction program, but a way of thinking and acting for an entire organization."

NatureWorks' greatest challenges came during 2009 when it, like many businesses, needed to reduce costs as revenues fell. "Of course, the investments we made in our lean training was more relevant than ever," says Gramer. "We focused a lot of time on identifying waste within our operation and developing standard work to ensure tasks can be trained and delivered with efficiency and consistency."

Through the lean system, NatureWorks implemented:

* "spaghetti charting," a graphical presentation of how information, materials and people move through the work crew;

* Kaizen events (a.k.a. Kaizen Blitz), pulling employees out of their typical day-to-day job responsibilities and placing them on an empowered team for up to five days to improve a business process;

* committed 50 percent of its staff to learning new lean tools on a weekly basis during 30 to 45-minute sessions.

"The largest benefit to come from the investment we've made is that we now have an internal culture where people are involved with effecting change," says Gramer. "We're not just asking our employees to go mow a lawn or plant a tree, but we're also asking them to help us do it with better quality, more efficiently, and at a lower cost, which are all things our clients are demanding today. A lot of small businesses are run with the owner making most of the decisions, but we've found that leveraging the talent and intellect of our team is more powerful."


This residential property features a freshly painted container display for the springtime, a massing of Azalea blooms and a manicured lawn.

Customer is king

Another emphasis for NatureWorks' business practices operating alongside lean tools is highly personalized customer service. NatureWorks focuses exclusively on helping its residential clients manage and improve their landscapes via maintenance (60 percent), design/install (30 percent) and snow and ice removal (10 percent) services.

Gramer finds that his best new clients come out of referrals from existing clients. "For this reason we focus a lot of attention on making our clients' experience one that they would talk about favorably with their friends," he says.


The NatureWorks construction crew installs 4-inch-caliper cherry trees to add spring color to the rear terrace of this upscale Boston-area residence.

Gramer cites a couple examples of how his account managers are stepping up their game. One was recently recognized for volunteering to take care of one of her client's dogs when she learned her client couldn't find anyone to watch her pet due to a last-minute trip to Europe.

Another account manager took on a backyard renovation of a pool area with only three weeks to get the job done for a party, even though the company was fully booked with other client projects. It involved the design and installation of a large fieldstone fireplace, building of a bluestone patio, renovation of an irrigation system and the creation of a new outdoor kitchen area with pergola and bar.

"We were veneering the bar with stone to match the fireplace, delivering new patio furniture and laying the last piece of bluestone the day of the party, but the account manager and our devoted work crews made it happen," he says.

Gramer tries to think about the buying experience of his clients from his company on par with what they receive in other parts of their daily lives. "Since they are shopping at Nordstrom, servicing their cars at a Mercedes dealers and staying in five-star accommodations while traveling, naturally they will be expecting a similar customer service experience for their landscaping," he says.

There are several ways that NatureWorks fulfills this service experience for its clients. When customers call the company during regular business hours, it's a rule that the client will speak to a person. "They have the expectation that if they call a landscape company they are going to get a voicemail, but not here at NatureWorks," says Gramer. He also believes details like having uniformed and well-trained crews driving clean trucks.

New services added

Over the years, Gramer has made decisions to bring certain services in-house and even provide new services based on customer's demands.

NatureWorks started two new divisions three years ago, offering services that were previously subcontracted - a tree division, providing such services as pruning, removal, cabling and stump grinding; and an irrigation division. These are now providing considerable cost savings for the company and increasing the quality of service for its customers.

For the last couple of years, NatureWorks' clients have been voicing concerns about the encephalitis mosquito outbreak keeping them from enjoying their backyards. "People asked us for a healthy alternative to traditional pesticide spraying of their yards," says Gramer. "We researched various products and found a good organic alternative that gets applied to our client's properties every two to four weeks during the summer months. It's been very profitable for us."


With no way to get a mini excavator and 8 tons of bluestone into this backyard to create a new patio, Natureworks air-lifted everything to the job site with a crane. The company relies upon its employees to find creative solutions to please its customers.
To strengthen its referrals for residential clients, NatureWorks networks extensively with other allied trades including landscape architects, new home builders, landscape designers and realtors that serve the same demographic. For the past six years, Gramer has been an active member of the Massachusetts Landscape Professionals, serving on its Board of Directors, including one term as president.

Another tactic for NatureWorks is to help with causes or projects related to its clients. "Many (of our clients) are on various boards, so we've sponsored many golf events and made donations as much as possible to their affiliated organizations," says Gramer.

NatureWorks also got involved with creating an outdoor classroom at the Chickering School in Dover where its clients' children attend. "It was great to create this space where kids could go outside and learn and interact in the garden," he says. "It was particularly fun to have the kids work and get dirty alongside our team.

This year, NatureWorks is projecting $4 million in revenues, a nice increase from previous years. Its market niche is staying healthy. "I believe we're very fortunate to be in this part of the country, particularly the Boston area, where a large number of good jobs in the financial, healthcare and education sectors have fared better than other areas," says Gramer. "We've seen an uptick in consumer spending during the last 12 months and we're hopeful it continues."

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. Contact him at tecrain@goingreenguy.com.