Maffei Landscape thrives through employee training, advancement

Maffei Landscape Contractors has developed a comprehensive Master Craftsman Program to train employees and provide clear avenues for advancement within the company.
Photos courtesy of Maffei Landscape Contractors.

The uninitiated might think there’s little skill involved in edging a landscape bed. Those who have done it know it’s more difficult than it looks, and it takes time to pick up the skill—and even a little artistry—required to do the job right. Bob Maffei, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors (www.maffeilandscape.com) on Cape Cod, had a revelation while edging beds a number of years ago and used that experience to create a training program that’s changed the entire way his company operates.

Maffei, who started his company as a high school student in 1991 with a lawn mower in the back of his El Camino, has since grown to become one the leading landscape services providers on Cape Cod and now employs more than 100 workers during the growing season. He credits a big part of that success to his training program, which he says was first inspired by a book popular in the green industry in the mid-1990s called “The E-Myth” by Michael Gerber. “It’s a phenomenal book about entrepreneurs. Most entrepreneurs aren’t really entrepreneurs, they’re really technicians,” he explains.

That message struck a cord with Maffei, who at the time was trying to find ways to delegate responsibilities to others in order to take on other roles and grow the company. “I needed to find ways to grow excellent technicians without me remaining one,” he says. “For example, I found out early on that I could edge beds really well, so I ended up edging all the beds. I started to realize that I couldn’t do much else in the company if I was the only one edging beds. I tried to pass the edger off to someone else to do it, but they just didn’t do a good job. That made me realize that I needed to find a way to train other people to do the edging the same way I did.”

It was while edging landscape beds that Bob Maffei, owner of Maffei Landscape Contractors, realized he needed a system to train others to do the job properly. Now, three-man teams are made up of an Apprentice, a Craftsman and a Master Craftsman. Employees advance as their skills develop, and the Master Craftsman is responsible for helping to train those on their team.
Maffei Landscape Contractors serves customers on Cape Cod.

Over time, Maffei tried out a number of different training ideas. He laid ropes out and painted lines for others to follow with the edger, but the results were never satisfactory. “Eventually, I found a piece of equipment called a power stick edger, just a weed wacker with a blade on it. I could take that unit and zip around a property and cut really good edges in about an hour,” he recalls. “The guy behind me would take the half-moon stick edger and follow the groove I had cut and kick out the bed edges. The guy behind him would pick up the excess grass, put it in a wheelbarrow and bring it to the truck. After about a month of this system, this guy who I had been trying forever to train on edging grabbed that power stick edger and cut perfect edges. He got it. I said, ‘Where did that come from? Have you been holding out on me?’ He said, ‘No, I’ve been watching how you do it.’ I realized that I had actually created a training process by breaking down the task into parts that were a little easier to digest.”

And so was born Maffei Landscape Contractors’ system for training and promoting employees: the Master Craftsman Program. He came up with terms for the three skill levels involved with each job within the company. A new hire begins to learn the ropes as an “Apprentice.” Once an employee gains some experience, they become “Craftsman.” The final step, for those who have gained the necessary skills to do the job and to teach others, is “Master Craftsman.” “These are age-old terms, but most landscape companies aren’t talking like this,” says Maffei. “I think the program gives us an edge over everyone else.”

One part of what makes the Master Craftsman Program work is the fact that Maffei operates a bit differently than most landscape contractors. Rather than forming crews and sending them out to do every job at a particular property, the teams at Maffei—each consisting of an Apprentice, a Craftsman and a Master Craftsman—specialize in specific landscaping tasks. “Our edging teams just edge; our mulching guys just mulch; our mowing guys just mow, etc.,” he explains. “And, they get really good at those things. Most landscapers are Jacks of all trades, but as the old saying goes, ‘Jack of all trades, master of none.’”

He uses the company’s specialization approach when marketing to customers, who he says appreciate the fact that specialists are handling each aspect the overall landscape job. “We explain that we’re going to put a Master Craftsman on their site, and that’s a big thing. We tell customers that when they hire us, they’re not just getting a kid in a T-shirt. They’re getting someone who has gone through rigorous training to be an expert in what they do.”

While this approach requires scheduling multiple visits to a property during the course of a week, Maffei says that the speed, quality and efficiency with which each crew can do its job more than makes up for the added scheduling challenge. “Take someone who is spreading mulch two days a week and two days they’re edging and one day a week they’re cutting grass. If they try to go out and spread mulch against someone who does it every day, who do you think will do a better job and work faster?”

Maffei Landscape Contractors is organized with specialized teams, each responsible for a specific part of the landscape maintenance program. “Our edging teams just edge; our mulching guys just mulch; our mowing guys just mow, etc.,” Bob Maffei explains.

Besides, the approach of having employees specialize in one area carries into the company’s offices. “We have a guy who does just production scheduling, that’s what he does. He doesn’t sell work or do the things that an account manager would do. He focuses on scheduling,” Maffei explains. “Because we’re running multiple crews, we have a good procedure for how we schedule things; that’s an important part of it.” The result is a finely tuned system of prioritizing tasks and jobs to keep things running as efficiently as possible.

There are other benefits to the business of this approach. “If you’re in a business like ours, where turnover is prevalent, you can train up a guy in less time and make him good at one specific thing, versus trying to train him on a thousand different things. And, we’re able to pay our guys better because of it. You pay a specialist more than you do a generalist.”

When new employees join Maffei Landscape Contractors, the company’s system is explained in detail so each employee sees the avenues available for advancement. “The idea is to show them that they have a real shot to move up here. That’s hopefully a big incentive of coming to work with us. You can come in here and really build yourself a career,” Maffei explains. “You can start as an Apprentice in mowing, for example, and then move up to become a Craftsman and Master Craftsman. And, you can really take on some of the more challenging jobs that require complex skill sets, like irrigation installation and construction work.”

The biggest jump in skill and stature occurs when employees reach the Master Craftsman level. One key component of the elevation of an employee to Master Craftsman status is passing the Massachusetts Certified Landscape Professional exam conducted by the Massachusetts Association of Landscape Professionals. “If they want to be a Master Craftsman and work at that high level, they have to pass the MCLP,” says Maffei.

Not surprisingly, the company has created a training program to assist employees in that endeavor. For example, six Maffei Landscape employees recently passed the MCLP test, and to help them prepare, one of the managers led a weekly meeting where a group of employees studied and trained together. “They only hold the test once or twice a year, so the guys really worked hard to be ready for it,” says Maffei. “They also met a night and reviewed photos and studied plant identification, everything they needed to be ready for the test.”

Not every employee who took the test passed, but the fact that six employees met the high standards of the MCLP created a lot of excitement within the company. “We give employees a week’s paid vacation for passing the certification test, so it’s been a great incentive,” explains Maffei. “We’ve even had office staff go through the MCLP. We encourage that. If you’re going to work here, landscaping is what we do. If you want to be considered a professional in our industry, being trained and certified is a pretty good place to start.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 13 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories.