Why LEI is thriving in its New England market.

Landscape Etc., Inc.’s 80-plus employees provide landscape and snow services in a two-hour radius from its Massachusetts headquarters. PHOTOS: LEI

Steve Christy likes to drive home a certain point with his staff. “I tell them, ‘Listen, our customers don’t need us. They can find another company to do what we do, but we need them,'” he says. “This is the approach I want you to give to our customers. They are our partners.”

Christy is convinced that his company’s success in building positive, mutually beneficial relationships with clients is a big reason why his 28-year-old company, Landscaping, Etc., Inc. (LEI), in Millbury, Massachusetts, generates more than $10 million in revenue annually. For that reason, he is constantly stressing the importance of customer service and customer communication to his managers. He also insists that his front-line employees deliver prompt, professional and safe customer service.

He doesn’t just assume customers are happy with his company’s performance, either. He seeks customer feedback on performed work and also on employee performance. He wants to make sure his crews meet expectations and his managers are staying in touch with clients and keeping them informed of the company’s service. “We ask them to help us to learn our weaknesses to better serve them,” says Christie. That’s not to say that even good clients occasionally need a nudge or two to keep the relationship on a strong footing. “We’re looking to be fair with them, so we just want them to be fair with us.”

Managing the morning rush

LEI focuses on the commercial and industrial sectors of the industry and offers a full palette of turf and landscape services, everything from lawn care to snow management. Landscape maintenance accounts for 40 percent of the firm’s sales, and snow management another 40 percent. The remaining revenue comes from construction, enhancements and other services. Its core market radiates out about a two-hour drive from its headquarters west of Boston in central Massachusetts, which Christy describes as “the ideal location” in New England. “We can be in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts, Hartford (Connecticut), Providence (Rhode Island) and New Hampshire all within an hour. We’ve worked as far away as Albany (New York), which is a two-hour drive. We can cover an area of more than 6 million people.”

But as anyone who has driven in the area (especially Boston and its suburbs) knows, you have to pick your times and your routes carefully to avoid getting stuck in traffic. LEI wants employees out of the shop by 6 a.m. on workdays. If they’re even 15 or 20 minutes late, they may find themselves battling rush-hour congestion, which could turn what should be a one-hour drive into a two-hour drive. LEI employees fuel and load their service trucks each evening so they are ready to go first thing in morning. When the employees return to work the next morning, they pick up their work orders and are on the road within the next 15 minutes. Another way the company attempts to control fuel costs is to include fuel surcharge language in its contracts, typically its long-term contracts. “Let’s say the fuel prices are $3.75 when we write a contract. We say if it goes up to $4 or $4.25, the surcharge will apply,” he says, adding that most customers understand this is necessary.

No Excuses Allowed in Snow Services

Steve Christy is an equipment guy. He realizes that one large piece of equipment can take the place of many laborers when it comes to providing snow and ice management services. He also knows (through bitter experience) that equipment can fail in winter’s conditions. In the end, when you promise to deliver snow removal services, you must deliver those services. There can be no excuses.

Christy says a big snowstorm in central Massachusetts in 1992 convinced him that it is better to be prepared in terms of equipment than to be caught short and disappoint important customers. He recalls that it snowed for two straight days, piling up almost 3 feet of snow in the process. “I had every truck and piece of equipment I owned stretched to the limit,” Christy says. “The three winters leading up to that, we did not get much snow in the Worchester, Massachusetts, area. I took on more work, stretched everything to the max and didn’t have any backups.”

The lesson: “I could have had happier customers,” Christy says. “You have to have backups, because something is going to break. We got our work done, but not in a timely fashion.”

Christy says LEI charges approximately 5 to 10 percent more than its competitors for these services. This allows his company to keep adequate backup equipment. “We are able to perform the work clients need in any occasion,” says Christy.

The unpredictability of weather events has also driven the structure of LEI’s contracts. In 2013, the region had 89 inches of snow. The year before that, it was 110. Prior to that, it was 30.

As a result, Christy prefers a contract mix of 50 percent seasonal contracts and 50 percent “pay as it snows” contracts. With seasonal contracts, the company is paid a certain amount each year no matter how much snow falls, which gives the company a baseline income.

“The only way to set a fair price is to have historical data,” Christy explains. “You have to know the square footage of the properties, the parking lot and the sidewalks. The other data you need to know is the annual snowfall of the town in which the client is located.

“Taking all of that into consideration, I can come up with a fair seasonal price,” he adds. “The only way it works is if you take into account three years, because in New York you’re going to have a high winter, a low winter and a medium winter as far as snowfall goes. You can’t do it for just one year because someone is going to get hurt price-wise.

“It’s hedging your bets, and it works very well for us,” he concludes. “You need that mix so you don’t have all of those peaks and valleys.”

Embracing service variety for success

LEI has tripled in size since the 2008-2009 recession, which Christy attributes to his company’s service diversification. He is constantly examining its mix of services based on what he is hearing from clients. “Landscape maintenance is the backbone of this company, but we offer other services because of our customers’ needs,” he says. That may even mean litter control and parking lot sweeping. “We do all kinds of construction services and select site work, too. We’re a one-stop shop for these busy property managers,” says Christy.

Landscape maintenance services generate about 40 percent of LEI’s annual revenue of $10 million. The company’s goal is $15 million within the next five years.

Staying ahead of the curve is another business strategy LEI has employed over the years. “I remember the years when $1 million was our benchmark, then $2 million, then $4 million, then $5 million, then $10 million,” Christy says. “The way we’ve been able to reach them is by building relationships and working hard to provide the services our customers need.”

For example, in 2009 when Asian long-horned beetles showed up in central Massachusetts and caused the demise of many mature trees, Christy had his staff trained by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to deal with it. “We got certified for it so we knew what to look for,” he recalls. This past May, the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service declared the beetle eradicated from the Boston area.

Partnering with clients and employees

Christy started the company tending bar at night. He worked in the field during the day, read as much as he could about landscaping and took advantage of every opportunity to learn from more experienced and successful business owners. Today, he has a staff of 85 workers, but says that finding qualified labor is still one of the biggest challenges facing the company. To attract prospective employees, he participates in job fairs, conducts open houses, advertises through various forms of media and even posts on Craigslist.

To attract prospective employees, LEI participates in job fairs, conducts open houses, advertises through various forms of media and even posts on Craigslist.

“I have a phenomenal corps of people here,” Christy says. “We just have to keep adding more like-minded people.” He tells job applicants: “Give us a day’s pay for a day’s work and we’ll train you. I want you to learn more because when you will earn more, and you can keep moving up.” Christy retains top employees by matching the wages offered by competitors, but also by providing benefits, such as profit sharing, long- and short-term disability coverage, life insurance and treating them to company cookouts and Friday ice cream days during the summer. “We try to make this a good place to work,” Christy says. “I don’t treat people as numbers, but as family.”

Cognizant of the expense of training new employees, Christy invests in the continuing education and licensing of his staff. “We’ll hire a teacher to give the continuing education seminar they need to obtain their licenses,” Christy says, adding that the expense is significant (about $200 a head), but worth it.

LEI makes every attempt to retain its valuable field employees by paying competitive wages and providing them with training.

While he appreciates the advantages that cross-training means for his employees and for his company, he doesn’t want his key employees to wear too many hats. He creates positions where managers excel in no more than one or two areas. “We’re trying to get people to specialize in certain areas so they can keep an eye on the crews,” he says. Christy is confident of the landscape industry’s prospects for at least another decade, and he’s similarly confident of his company’s growth. He has set a goal for LEI of $15 million in revenue in the next five years and $20 million in the next 10 years. “People are spending more money on their outdoors,” he says. “When you talk to a realtor, it’s all about curb appeal. When you go to a shopping center or office park, it’s all about curb appeal.”

Christy advises other business owners to “keep your eye on the ball. Keep your eye on your customers,” he says. “Realize you need to have a partnership with them and your employees. If you treat your employees and customers as partners and care for them in that manner, you’ll do fine.”

LEI founder Steve Christy is thankful for his core of experienced and dedicated employees. He is constantly on the lookout to add more good workers.

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Florida, is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.