Staying True to His Mission
Faced with the choice of growth or quality service, this Pennsylvania owner chose quality
Still Waters Grounds Maintenance
Owner: David Wigfield
Headquarters: Emmaus, Pa.
Markets: Communities in and around the Lehigh Valley
Services: Grounds maintenance, design/build, installation
When you're consistent, conscientious and value-driven like David Wigfield, owner of Still Waters Grounds Maintenance in Emmaus, Pa., there isn't much room for indecision. Or the need for suddenly jumping for anyone except your customers; though he did make the decision to jump ship and venture out on his own 18 years ago.
He had worked for two other companies for more than a dozen years prior to breaking out on his own, heeding the call to carve his own path on his own terms. He had contacts from his early years, but basically he started Still Waters from scratch.
"I was on my own and on a wing and a prayer, and in hindsight it was actually the easiest part of my business for the last 18 years," Wigfield says. "I was secure. I believed in myself. I wasn't as scared as my wife was, though there were certainly moments of apprehension, but I was confident that I could do it."
Click photo to enlarge.
Still Waters expanded into installation services starting with planting jobs and progressing into sidewalk and patios. Outdoor kitchens and water features, such as this pondless waterfall, are customer favorites now.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF STILL WATERS GROUNDS MAINTENANCE.
One of his first realizations was that he wasn't so sharp on the business side of things. So he went to a local small business development center, which helped him set up cash flow accounts, taught him how to budget and more. All of it was an eye-opener.
"Once we put it on paper, I could see it was possible," he recalls.
That first year went as planned, and Wigfield was literally by himself, but he remembers the feeling he had on his very first job. It was a late February day and snow began falling, but he was pruning trees, living the American Dream. "I would work until 6 or 7 each night, then be in my office planning or invoicing until 10, but I didn't mind it," he says.
The second year, he took on a part-time employee, one who still works with him from time to time. In 1997, his third year in business, he hired his first full-time employee. Within a few years Still Waters had as many as eight or 10 full-time employees, but Wigfield eventually downsized after realizing the ambitious five-year plan to grow his company to $2- or $3-million-a-year really wasn't what he wanted, after all. It wasn't as important as delivering a quality product, he came to realize.
Even the company mission statement today is not about size so much as taking what you have and can do, and doing good things with it.
"It was a matter of quality control," Wigfield says. "I was attracting good, quality people who were college-educated, but I still found myself fixing what they were fixing. I figured that if I was going to be working (in the field), why would I continue doing the work I was paying someone else to do? When I did the work, I was working for free."
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In 18 years, David Wigfield has never had to advertise his company's services. All of his work has come from referrals.
The cutback in business was directed at maintenance accounts. Still Waters had separate installation and maintenance crews. His brother, Ed, who helped him get into the turf and landscaping industry, swears by maintenance. In fact, his company, EMI (Estate Maintenance, Inc.) in neighboring Macungie, Pa., is entirely a commercial turf maintenance company. He refers his residential work to Wigfield. "He says maintenance is where it's at for him," Wigfield says.
Still Waters maintains a balance, with about 60 percent of its business is maintenance and 40 percent in installations.
Wigfield graduated in 1989 from Penn State's then ornamental nursery management program. At the time, it was that or the golf course management focus. "Then, they found out everyone was going into the landscaping industry," he says.
At Still Waters, over time, expansion in services reflected client requests. Initially, Wigfield's work was mostly maintenance, but a customer asked about installing a sidewalk. It spurred on the installation side, and the interest in growing what he considers the more attractive side of the operation. Installation started with planting jobs, then more sidewalks, patios, water features and outdoor kitchens, and he's even into some carpentry now, having built and installed an arbor-pergola three years ago and a few more since.
"We really do things differently," Wigfield says.
That's most evident in his company's responsiveness, job completion and satisfaction, showing up to start a job when promised, remaining on a job until it's finished and communicating with clients at all costs. It's also about creating a feeling of comfort that his guys inspire, even prompting clients to let them try new work they haven't previously tried because "they like working with us," he says. "A lot of it is just the way we conduct ourselves," Wigfield says.
It's also the way he treats his workers. They get gold-standard treatment, are well compensated, have comprehensive health and medical coverage and a retirement plan. It's the type of care you might expect for a company with 300 or 400 employees, not a small operation like his. Proper customer care, Wigfield says, comes from proper employee care.
Company decisions are based on morals and values consistent with its mission statement, while an effort is made to keep increases fair. Education-based cost analysis is a must. Often, he's able to show customers how he's saving them money in the long run, even if upfront costs are more.
Another staple to the company's success, Wigfield says, is sitting down as a company each year and establishing a can-do list of ways to do better by doing differently.
"Grass cutting is the same as it was 30 years ago, but how can we do it more effectively? As expenses go up, how can we keep from passing that cost on? We make every effort to absorb the cost," he says.
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Dave Wigfield's company gets residential referrals from his brother Ed Wigfield's commercial maintenance firm, Estate Maintenance, Inc.
"You can be content without being satisfied. Just because you're content doesn't mean you ignore opportunities to push forward. You can still want a little more, and you can't get there unless you continue to try," he adds.
Consistency helps. Competitors, he says, too often adhere to the buy-low, sell-high mentality. Wigfield doesn't.
"I buy the way I buy and sell the way I sell," he says. "When I buy, I buy the top of the line, and when I sell, I sell the top of the line. Value is what we want to deliver."
Making the grade
Many times he's not hiring, or looking for, a particular skill set, so much as for someone who can be flexible, responsible and responsive. The company may be to the point where it has to hire another full-time employee this spring. But Wigfield hasn't run a help wanted ad in 10 years. Rather, he's found good employees through word-of-mouth.
"Appearance is huge," he says. "My guys have to be neat and clean-cut. I have to be comfortable sending them out to a property."
He's also concerned with past employment history. If someone is jumping jobs, something's not right. "They're either leaving or being asked to leave," he says.
Andrew Carpenter, Still Waters' construction manager, was first attracted to the company the summer after his freshman year of college. Studying architecture at the time, he switched his major to landscape contracting design/build and transferred to Penn State.
"My talents have fit in well with what Dave has set up," he says. "I have learned a lot from Dave, and it has definitely been a challenge at times learning as I go, but I think we have developed a good balance of me running the install side of the business and him the maintenance side. Clients hire us because they not only want professional results, but also professionals working at their properties. We both believe in not just quality work, but a quality and professional experience from start to finish."
Wigfield doesn't sugar coat what employment in the landscape business entails. "I tell them that this work stinks. It's either freezing cold or you're sweating your rear off," he says. "It takes a certain mentality and someone who loves difficulty and a challenge."
As he's become more experienced and tweaked the business, he says there's an unwritten expectation that the company, any company, takes on a life of its own, but that never really happens, he suggests.
"You get to the point where you feel tired, but the young guys have the ambition that maybe you've burned off," Wigfield says. "They have the new ideas." They're like fertilizer, perhaps, keeping things fresh and green.
He's as particular about his equipment: four Ford trucks, Exmark mowers, Echo trimmers, blowers and chain saws and a John Deere backhoe and skid-steer. Again, there's consistency in brand names, and the dealers he depends upon.
The biggest challenge he sees developing is selling a high-quality product in what he describes as a Wal-Mart society.
"Business is different in different areas, but in general, people want the cheapest price," Wigfield says. "Settling for less is the trend; value-menu shopping."
And so, as he suggests, Still Waters' commitment to quality has almost become a limiting factor. It's counter-productive to growth. You figure McDonalds can deliver the same product in every location, so you ought to be able to grow your own business the same way, Wigfield reasons, but making a hamburger is not the same as making a landscape.
"Take one variable like weather," he says. "Now, you have to adjust to deliver."
Still, in 18 years, he's never advertised his company's services either. All his work has come from referrals. "When that's the case, you're doing something right," he says.
The author is a gentleman farmer and experienced reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa. Contact him at <45 light="" oblique="">firstname.lastname@example.org>