AAA Lawns’ employees take responsibility for the business’ success

AAA Lawns, based in Fayetteville, Ark., serves the Ozark Mountain region of northwest Arkansas and offers a broad list of services, including mowing, edging, aeration, seeding, sodding, irrigation maintenance and repair, mulch­ing, color change-outs, pruning, fertilization and pest control. The chemical applications for everything other than flowerbeds are subcontracted.

Owner Terry Delany says, “We seek out the larger properties and the multiple-site accounts. Our proposals are professional in appearance, clearly spell out all the details and include a warranty, but our service provides more than that. We see our role as taking over the landscape maintenance for our clients. We assume the responsibility of making the site look great so they can focus on their business. We take a proactive approach so they never have to call us with a problem.”

That level of service draws new accounts. Delany says, “We got our first Wal-Mart account seven years ago. In our area, each manager makes their own decision on services, but the local managers meet once a week or so and share information. That first store has recommended us to the others, and we now serve nearly all of the Wal-Marts in our area.”

Other commercial accounts have a single contact for all their area stores, including 10 Walgreens and 30 McDonald’s. AAA considers each of those as one account, but takes the extra step to keep communications flowing. Those 30 McDonald’s have a monthly managers meeting, and every other month, Delany, along with his account manager and sales manager, attend that meeting to stay in touch so everyone knows what’s going on at their store.

Photos Courtesy of AAA Lawns.
Swing crews handle 95 percent of the add-on sales, such as mulching.
Equipment allocation and placementfor the AAA Lawns maintenance crews’trucks and the timing of tasks were allpart of the restructuring from three tosix person crews.
Members of one of the swing crews work on mulching at this McDonald’s site.
The signature chartreuse of AAA Lawns is repeated on their trucks, their building andcrew members’ shirts. Crew leaders are in blue shirts, also with the company logo, soclients can more easily identify them on the job site.
As part of the increased focus on marketing,AAA Lawns adopted the green spacein the middle of one of the busiest intersectionsin northwest Arkansas.

With the economic downturn, AAA is seeing more competition in the market, as those who previously concentrated more on design/build shift their emphasis to maintenance. They’re also seeing clients tightening their budgets in response to declining sales. “So, we’ve restructured again,” says Delany. “This time it’s to become leaner, more efficient and more cost-effective. Again, we’ve involved the staff all along. We hold a managers meeting with all the crew leaders weekly and a companywide meeting once a month. We share the financials, the earnings, goals, the profit picture so they understand what it takes to operate. We have a one-page business plan with seven specific goals that’s posted, and we give them weekly updates. We also seek their input on how to operate more efficiently. With labor making up 40 percent of our costs, we need to make sure every second is well spent.”

The restructuring process started about two years ago after Delany linked up with Mike Rorie in Ohio for a two-day session as part of the PLANET Trailblazer program. At that time, Delany was running three-person crews. Rorie has moved to extended cab trucks with six-person crews to cut overhead.

Delany says, “The cost savings were impressive. We sold our old trucks and switched to the Isuzu Super Lawn Trucks with hydraulic ramps built by Tony Bass in Georgia. We now run six, six-person maintenance crews. We were able to reorganize the crew structure without demoting anyone. The teams that cover the larger acreage properties operate with two crew leaders.”

The more difficult task was rethinking how to operate most efficiently with the expanded crew size, says Delany. “We analyzed everything from the equipment mix, how the equipment was loaded, the task assignments and the sequence of those tasks. We went out with stopwatches to get an accurate reading of tasks so we could better allocate personnel. The crews were totally into trying different ways to make everything fit together and their input was key to the process.”

Now, the typical maintenance truck carries one 60-inch zero-turn mower, one 48-inch walk behind, one 22-inch push, four string trimmers, three backpack blowers and assorted hand pruners.

Two additional “swing” crews handle about 95 percent of the add-on sales, such as mulching, flower planting and plant bed chemical applications. Delany says, “We don’t do landscape design and major installation, but do tackle plant replacements and other small projects. The swing crews are our go-to guys for that. If rain puts us behind on mowing, we have enough equipment to have them fill in.”

The company provides irrigation system maintenance and repair, but doesn’t do the initial design or installation. Through this past spring one irrigation specialist handled all the irrigation work, but training is in process so the maintenance crews will be able to tackle minor maintenance and repair issues.

Several changes involved better time management, including revamping of what Delany terms “the morning circus.” It used to take nearly 30 minutes of prep time to get the trucks loaded and crews headed out each morning. Delany says, “We met with our crews with the challenge of lowering that time to eight minutes, and they came up with the answers. We used to unload and service all of our equipment every day, whether it needed it or not. Now, we determine which equipment needs servicing or blade sharpening before the next use, and the rest is locked on the truck overnight. About 50 percent of the time there’s no unload and reload.”

AAA’s shop foreman used to drive each truck to the gas station to fuel up. Now the fuel is delivered on-site, saving at least 10 hours of his time per week.

The biggest change was switching the work week to four 10-hour days. That has several advantages, including having Friday as a built-in day to catch up from weather delays or put in an extra push to prepare a site for a client’s special event. “We’ve been able to hold to that four-day schedule at least 70 percent of the time during this past spring,” notes Delany. “When we do, it cuts our crews’ on-site nonproductive time by one day, which is a 20 percent savings. The three-day weekends also reduce crew needs for personal time off during the workweek.”

GPS units were placed on all of the trucks at the start of 2009. Delany says, “We get a report on how long the crews spend on each account. We’ve figured the average time and are currently implementing a bonus program for our crews when they hit the targeted times.”

As part of the restructuring, a single account manager is now the primary point person for all existing accounts. That individual also handles all the design for flower beds and color change-outs. One sales manager focuses on new businesses. An office manager oversees the office staff. A new position, field supervisor, was added in 2008. He does most of the hiring, all the training for new hires, the majority of the specialized training, and is in charge of quality control. Each new hire spends a full day in orientation and the rest of the week working on a crew with the field supervisor to be sure all the basics are covered. Safety Tuesday brings the entire staff together for a 10-minute training session each week.

Another change was a clearly designated path to a raise. Specific skills are organized by category into four columns. Staff members select one skill from each column, master each skill and then demonstrate to the field supervisor that they’ve gained the necessary expertise to perform them competently. Four new skills mastered earn the next step up on the pay scale. Delany says, “It puts the responsibility on the employees to learn more to earn more. They can decide they’re satisfied with the current position and pay rate, or advance at their own pace; the company gains a higher percentage of cross-trained personnel.”

While roles are more clearly defined, the open communication and weekly and monthly meetings reinforce that efficient company operation is a shared responsibility. Delany says, “Before the last restructuring, I was spending 20 to 30 hours a week on the company, rather than the 60 to 70 hours so many business owners put in. This past year, our management-level personnel have pretty much run the company by themselves. That’s allowed me to cut back my on-site hours even more, though I’m always available by phone and e-mail for support. I’d been doing some consulting as other business owners sought my advice on how to operate more effectively so they could have a life outside of the company. This has freed me to focus more on running the consulting business [] while continuing to grow AAA Lawns, Inc.”

Everyone’s a Part of the Sales Team

Delany says, “I tell my employees we have one designated sales manager onstaff, Patrick McCullough, and 36 sales managers in the field selling our servicesby the way we do the work. That’s actually what brought us the McDonald’saccount. One of our crews was at work on an Outback Steakhouse propertywhen a gentleman pulled into the parking lot and came over to one of ouremployees. Like all of our personnel, that staff member had gone through thetraining on how to handle those situations. He was very polite, answered all thegentleman’s questions and gave him my card. I did get a call, set the appointment,prepared the proposal and presented it in a half-hour meeting with thepotential client.

“At the end of my spiel he said, ‘Okay, you’re hired.’ I thought I’d done a supersales job. Then he said, ‘The last 30 minutes had nothing to do with my decision.I pulled into that Outback because it looked perfect. Your staff memberanswered my questions, was really polite and went to the truck to get me yourcard. I decided to hire you before you even walked in.’

“That crew member was just 18 and had only been with us for a month,which proves that everyone is part of the sales team. It wasn’t the polished salesguy, but the one with the string trimmer that sold the client.”

Suz Trusty is a partner in Trusty & Associates, a communications and market research firm in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years.