The business of creating and caring for outdoor spaces comes naturally for Zech Strauser. His company, Strauser Nature’s Helper, has true meaning for him.
For the first 10 years of Strauser’s life, his family lived off of the grid in a rustic farmhouse in the Poconos. That meant no running water and no electricity. When he wasn’t on the road traveling with his parents selling carrot juice and pita pockets (their van even had a wood-burning stove in it), he collected eggs from the chicken coop, retrieved the family’s perishable food items from the nearby stream (because his family had no refrigerator) and tended the garden.
“I’ve been attracted to nature since I was born,” says Strauser. “My parents raised me to be outside more than inside. In my late teens when I was searching for what I wanted to be, landscaping seemed like a good fit. I believe how I was raised helped me have a love for the outdoors as well as the importance of serving people.”
From the age of 10, Strauser helped his parents run a bed and breakfast after trading in their rustic farm and moving onto the Main Street of the town of Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. In high school, he helped tend the grounds at a local golf course. After purchasing a leftover $25 push mower from that course, Strauser started his business, mowing neighbors’ lawns. By the age of 20 after attending college, the business became a full-time gig.
Today, Strauser Nature’s Helpers has grown to be a full-service landscape company of the Poconos region and has expanded into a second eastern Pennsylvania market around Reading. The company employs 30 people who are busy year-round with the company’s landscape and snow and ice management services. The company is a mix of 75 percent commercial landscape maintenance and snow removal, including HOAs and industrial sites with some enhancements, and 25 percent residential landscape management and design installation.
“Our ideal client is someone who believes quality work is more important than going with the cheapest bid,” says Strauser. “They go with us because they know we won’t put a Band-Aid on things. We have been organically growing about 20 percent per year. That has been pretty much the case for the past decade, even in the slower years during the market crash (2008-2010) when our installation business almost totally tanked.”
Luckily, Strauser managed to hang in there with savings and a good relationship with area banks. He used this time to buy his corporate headquarters when land prices were rock bottom. He also worked with clients on extending contract terms. During the Great Recession, he was forced to grow up and think like a CEO.
Customer retention is a critical factor for Strauser. Most years, the company weighs in at higher than 90 percent client retention with the lowest year coming in at about 85 percent. “The secret to high retention is that we never play games with our customers,” says Strauser. “We don’t cut corners to make up costs, and the customers value that. We also ensure professional-looking crews are out there representing us.”
Boosting worker loyalties
Despite increasing revenue and high customer retention, the history of Strauser’s 17 years in business hasn’t always been easy. A consistent challenge Strauser faced from day one has been employee recruitment and retention.
“A few years into starting my business when we were on a growth curve and entering the growing season, I experienced a mutiny of my entire crew,” says Strauser.
Luckily, Strauser was taking some community college classes at the time, and with the help of a business instructor there he planned a company resurrection by creating a strategic plan, detailed budget and new pricing scheme. He then hired new employees with a retention plan and was able to save the season by rebuilding his team.
After that, he realized how important it was to be patient with staff to ultimately get the results he wanted. In the past, he pushed his crews too hard and resentment grew. He focused too much on keeping customers happy at the expense of his crew. “Happy staff will make happy clients,” he says. “My new belief is that leaders look after their staff and managers look after the numbers. Most leaders are more concerned about their numbers than the contentment of their staff. There has to be a sacrifice here.
“We have a 40 percent retention rate this year which is certainly better than in 2002 (when all of his employees quit).” says Strauser. “We would like it to be higher, and I do believe it will change as we continue to build the core team that will take us into the future.”
Strauser offers a full benefits package, updated technology systems and equipment, upgraded office space and, most importantly, a culture of trust and constant improvement. New recruits get state-of-the-art online video and hands-on training, and current staff members are encouraged to attend subsidized college classes.
“We do research on what is working and not working with our training,” says Strauser. “The problem with training is there is never enough time to conduct it properly, so we need to deliberately schedule it in, even during the high season.”
While the cost for training is expensive, Strauser continues to go over-budget in this area. “But that’s fine,” he says. “The more safety and less callbacks the better. Train now or pay later. It’s all about ROI.”
Strauser believes to recruit effectively you have to try a little of everything and think out of the box. Lately, he is bringing employment activity directly to his doors. He finds a “We’re Hiring” sign on the front door has been bringing in the most prospects. He conducts weekly “meet-and-greets” where candidates are welcomed into headquarters, told the company story and learn details about current job openings.
Strauser believes the industry as a whole could use considerable improvement when it comes to getting the new generation of workers interested in landscaping. “Efforts need to be made in introducing landscaping as a viable employment option through our local schools at a young age,” he says. “We need to change how we are landscaping (e.g., more sustainable design options) so younger people can get more excited about it. We also have to increase wages, stop the mandatory rates for H-2B workers and have more training in leadership skills. We need to showcase the cool factor about the landscape industry. That’s why I got involved in the industry, and I believe we as an industry can teach others to feel the same way.”
Expanding territory offers challenges, too
Despite the challenge in adding good people to his staff, Strauser is planning to open more locations in eastern Pennsylvania without cutting into his profitability, even short term.
“At this point with our current two locations, we can travel an hour in any direction and have a market that has plenty of opportunities in the commercial and multi-home side of the business,” he says. “We are now servicing Lebanon, Reading, Lancaster, York, Lehigh Valley and the Poconos. We plan on also having a residential division for maintenance in each branch.”
Scheduling work and routing is another challenge for Strauser. “We conduct multi-service visits, route trucks by strategic geographic groupings and have upgraded our software to help manage the sold work,” says Strauser. “It’s about knowing what you have sold and managing the hours by planning out long in advance. Being flexible to changes is key to keeping our cool and being professional.”
Strauser never charges extra for travel outside the company’s regular range of clients. “Being that we are traveling into new markets, we aren’t currently figuring in travel as an extra expense. If we did, we probably would not get the work. We have plans on starting more locations and increasing our densities within narrowly defined areas to help decrease our travel expenses.”
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COVER PHOTO: STRAUSER NATURE’S HELPERS