Bruce Hunt recalls the many changes he experienced and helped to implement in helping Brickman become a national landscape leader
Some industry leaders seem to evolve with the changing marketplace; continually examining, analyzing and adapting to not only meet their challenges, but to triumph over them. That’s an apt description of Bruce Hunt, senior vice president at The Brickman Group, recently honored for his 50 years of service to the company and the landscape industry.
Brickman was motivated to start providing maintenance services as a provision of their contract for development of McDonald’s first corporate campus in the 1970s. This courtyard was part of that project.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE BRICKMAN GROUP.
As chairman emeritus, Theodore “Dick” Brickman Jr., said during the award presentation, “Over his 50 years here, Bruce Hunt not only contributed to the growth of the company, but perhaps more importantly helped to create and continues to articulate the culture that is integral to our success. Bruce is the embodiment of our culture, founded on trust, honesty, respect and, most importantly, the Golden Rule. His integrity and his ability to foster lasting relationships are an example to all of us.”
Thus the key to success for Bruce Hunt lies at the heart of the man: intelligent and observant, inquisitive and innovative, dedicated and ethical.
Right time – right place
Hunt earned his bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture from Michigan State University in 1961. Seizing an unexpected opportunity, he and his wife Carolyn (Cammie) traveled to Long Grove, Ill., about 40 miles from Chicago, to meet with Dick Brickman and his dad. The interview had originally been set for Bruce’s roommate, who later decided he didn’t want to work in Chicago or for a small business.
The McDonalds Corporation training facility is Oak Brook, Ill., is home to Hamburger University. The corporate university, situated on an 80-acre campus, has trained more than 80,000 owner/operators, managers and mid-managers. The site is maintained by The Brickman Group.
“I called Dick Brickman and asked if I could interview instead,” says Hunt. “During the two-day process, we learned the scale of their work was very small, but their vision for the future was impressive. Their focus on ethics in relationships and business practices was even more so. Cammie and I made the decision right away to come with Brickman and have never regretted that decision. It’s been a great relationship. Their actions over the years have more than lived up to their words.”
In 1961, most landscape projects were designed first, and then put out for bid for the installation. At that time, Brickman was a pioneer in the design-build concept, with no maintenance component. Hunt’s initial role was designer and estimator. Though he classified himself as a “competent” designer, he believed his organizational talents were stronger.
“Design-build takes the two dimensional and creates a three-dimensional end result,” says Hunt. “I felt very comfortable in organizing all the elements involved to make that happen. I asked to be moved to the contracting operations; the Brickmans agreed. I was promoted to the role of general manager in 1968.”
Still a small but growing firm toward the end of the ’60s and early ’70s, Brickman’s reputation began drawing requests from clients to do work on the East Coast and as far south as Florida. That tapped into Brickman’s long-range plan of going national.
Bruce Hunt spent his early years building Brickman’s design/build business.
The company’s first calculator was an old, used, Smith Corona hand-crank adding machine, purchased from a grocery store. Yet very soon Brickman became an early innovator in production controls, all computerized. Hunt says, “That occurred in the late ’60s, long before laptops.”
Back then, computers were room-sized wonders of technology requiring a climate-controlled environment and constant oversight by skilled technicians. Access to computer use for most companies was gained through an agreement with the computer owner, generally a bank or other large entity. (One term for doing so was “plugging into their mainframe.”)
“We established formats and management systems built around understanding very clearly where we were financially and how we were controlling resources,” recalls Hunt. “The company has always been very open in sharing information with its managers, including financial statements and production reports, giving us the information, tools and numbers that would help us manage more effectively.”
Brickman was invited to bid on development of the first McDonalds’ corporate campus in Oakbrook, Ill. “In order to get the contract, we needed to agree to maintain the landscape ‘forever’ (the term used by McDonalds’ founder Ray Kroc). That is really what motivated us to get into the maintenance business,” says Hunt.
Most landscape architects back then considered maintenance to be a lesser skill, almost beneath them, lacking the creativity that earned them prestige and the excitement they craved. “Today that attitude has changed through most of the industry,” says Hunt.
Initially, Hunt’s travel to grow the business focused on the design-build side. He advanced to the position of general manager of design-build operations, working to develop new processes as he led the company’s mid-Atlantic region, commuting there from Chicago.
A personal – and company – highlight came in the midst of the 1990s construction slump that rocked the design-build industry. Hunt sold and then managed the largest single site project for Brickman to date, Del Webb’s Huntley, Ill., Sun City Development. He worked with the landscape architects of the Hitchcock Design Group in what was dubbed at the time as, “the unique Sun City Business Alliance.” Hunt was involved in all aspects of Del Webb’s first cold climate, 55-plus, retirement community, from initial site development to installation and subsequently to maintenance.
“We billed well over $20 million on the construction phase,” says Hunt. “Then we handled the maintenance once the project was completed. Del Webb was a great client and it was exciting to work within the interactive alliance.”
Brickman later did work on Del Webb projects in Texas and Virginia, just one example of the request from a national entity to provide service in additional locations based on the quality of their work and the strength of the relationships forged.
This shot shows a section of Del Webb’s Huntley, Ill., Sun City Development during the installation stage.
Switching to maintenance
Hunt’s role continued to evolve as he focused on development of national maintenance accounts. They included hotel chains and real estate development firms with both office and retail sites.
“I looked at it as just as exciting and challenging as the construction side,” he says. “In either discipline, it’s all about listening to the customer to determine their needs and developing a plan and resources to meet them.”
Everyone says they do quality work and the best job. But it’s the performance that counts. “What clients see in the grounds and landscape areas allows them to evaluate the finished product,” says Hunt. “If it doesn’t look good, they see the flaws. If it does look good, they see a pretty picture.”
As the construction industry continued to struggle, the company began redirecting both its management and labor and refocus on maintenance. Design-build is now a small segment of Brickman, with the bulk of its business being maintenance and maintenance-related service for commercial clients.
Bruce Hunt sold and managed Brickman’s landscaping of Del Webb’s Huntley, Ill., Sun City Development in the 1990s, beginning of a lasting relationship with Del Webb.
Hunt describes design-build as a firefight of variation. Each site, job and client has differing attributes, needs and expectations, which may or may not be well-communicated. It’s typically a one-time project. Once completed, a new project is needed to fill production. Maintenance is much more consistent and easier to standardize.
“We worked with W. Edwards Deming, the consultant credited with reinventing and reviving the Japanese industrial component following World War II. His strategy of ‘continuous improvement’ helped us adopt an ongoing effort to improve our business processes through enacting small changes over time he called incremental improvement,” adds Hunt.
Following Deming’s guidelines, a company selects a process, and then analyzes it to determine measurable sources of variations that could negatively impact its product or service. After review of the impact of each small change, the company decides whether or not implementing it would lead to greater consistency.
Dick Brickman, left, hired Bruce Hunt in 1961 as a designer and estimator. Over the years Hunt’s role changed and grew. Here Brickman honors Hunt’s 50 years of service to Brickman.
“Equate the consistency of a product or service to the experience of eating at a McDonald’s restaurant,” says Hunt. “The Big Mac is the same everywhere. That doesn’t just happen.”
Maintenance is a production operation that requires clear focus to achieve consistency. A company needs to understand what their costs are and how to control them, how to budget, how to estimate, and how to deliver the work that consistently produces results that correlate with the terms of the contract and the expectations of the clients. Done well, the focus on consistency delivers the desired results.
Hunt says, “Over the past 15 years, the company has grown significantly in both geographical spread and dollar volume under the leadership of Scott Brickman and his team, providing the resources I could call upon to bring to the picture as needed.”
While Hunt notes the ability to see into the future is not one of his strengths, he says, “The landscape industry has always been open to the small, hands-on entrepreneur, in part, because of the low startup costs, and I anticipate that will continue. The biggest challenge for any company is growth and handling the transitions successfully.
“Small and large companies with the insight to analyze and adapt will continue their growth. The outlook for the industry is as consistent as ever, continuing highs and lows. Nothing ever stays the same, but things will get better.”
Hunt’s role will continue to evolve with Brickman, this time to a consulting capacity as he transitions to Florida. “Now with a few gray hairs, or more accurately, a lack of hair, I believe the culmination of my career has been in mentoring those leaders of the future, in industry roles both within and outside the company,” says Hunt with a wide grin.
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 [email protected].