Informational support group proves invaluable

Dan Schied started the networking group on a short paper list, and now it has 40 members on a list serve.
Photo by Barbara Berry.

There’s a landscape networking group in the state of New York that’s a little mysterious, but that’s only because it operates by word-of-mouth, has no office or bylaws, charges no fees and it doesn’t have a name. Members don’t seem to care, however, because it’s the quality of the information they share that is most important.

Existing mainly in the e-mails they exchange and the two or three meetings they hold every year, it is a loose collection of groundskeepers and turfgrass professionals. Their sole purpose in the 15 years that the group has existed is to be a conduit for information and support for members who have a landscaping problem or question.

Dan Schied is the manager of horticulture and grounds at the University of Rochester in upstate New York, and he estimates that members have numbered up to 50 at various times and are primarily from western New York, but there are also members from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Long Island. He conceived the group at what was then called the New York State Turfgrass Show and is now the Empire State Green Industry Show. Members come and go, and their main means of contact are through a computer list serve and the occasional meetings.

Ron Randall, head grounds supervisor at State University of New York at Oswego, says the networking group is great because members have a lot of experience and expertise in many different areas. Randall has a turfgrass background, so he usually sends questions to the e-mail list for topics that he knows little about. For example, he was recently looking to buy a salt spreader, so he sent out a technical question to the group. He got back several valuable and instructive answers. He notes, however, that the conditions for membership list are very stringent. He likes the informal nature of the group and has used it for information ranging from sidewalk maintenance to propagation of tulip bulbs. “This is just a group of people whose opinions I trust.”

Mary DePentu and Ron Randall at SUNY Oswego swear by the group, which answers questions ranging from turfgrass to equipment.
Photo courtesy of The University of Rochester.

Randall started his job three years ago, and his boss, Mary DePentu, recommended strongly that he get involved as one of his first actions. He likes the fact that the group contacts make it easier for members to get together at green industry conferences and talk over current issues.

DePentu, now the director of facilities maintenance and operations at SUNY Oswego, keeps the list serve up to date. It now has 40 members on the e-mail list, whom she says are all part of an “elite group” of grounds managers who provide professional consulting at no cost. She cites this example: In 2007, her campus got 11 feet of snow and word got out quickly. That same day, members began sending her e-mails and calling with offers of manpower and equipment. She says that these kinds of situations have proven to her that the members will go well beyond professional courtesy; many have become her friends.

Jim Consolloy has been the manager of grounds at Princeton University for 21 years, and a member of the group about 10 years. He is retiring, and wants to emphasize that although Princeton is outside the climate zone of the western New York members, they have made him feel very welcome and provided a lot of good advice. A focus of his has been trees, since Princeton has a lot of trees, and he has been active in that subject area, and others.

“Every campus has questions, like about student advertising,” Consolloy says. Questions as esoteric as how landscape managers deal with student advertising placed on a college campus will come up, and he guarantees that when he submits such a question that he will get a lively discussion going. He can recall similar questions about how to handle outdoor smoking areas, for example.

Consolloy’s theory is that the more ideas that can be brought to bear on these modern and often unexpected issues, the better the decisions that can be made about them. The networking group has certainly worked for him that way. Being on a campus that doesn’t get huge snowfalls, for example, he has asked ice removal and after-storm scheduling questions of the group. As a concrete result, he now purchases and applies liquid salt to iced areas. He has also gotten good information on turf issues, such as Japanese beetle grub control and the type of equipment used to alleviate soil compaction.

“This has been very beneficial to me and our institution,” Consolloy says. The e-mail service is nice because a question can be asked and the other grounds managers can answer in their own time. He has attended several of the group’s meetings-and hosted a meeting at Princeton where other Ivy League grounds managers, in addition to the existing group members, attended-and because of the value of the information to the university, he has never had any trouble getting the school to pay for his trips to New York conferences or summer meetings.

“Every summer we try to meet at a different campus or a different institution,” Schied says. Members suggest topics beforehand that can be discussed at the meetings, and a tour of the host’s campus or grounds is usually undertaken. The first meeting was at the University of Rochester, and other host sites have been Nazareth College, Rochester Institute of Technology, Cornell University and Princeton. Often, 30 or more members will attend the one-day meetings.

The meetings held at conferences are usually more of an opportunity for members to drop by and use other members as a sounding board for any and all issues and topics. Sometimes, the conference organizer provides them a meeting room, and sometimes they just meet at a restaurant. Although the get-togethers are very low-key, Schied says he often gets more information from them than he does from the more scientific-based meetings at the conference, because the information comes from experienced turf managers who are applying and experimenting with the latest science on a regular basis.

This year, the group had a room at the Empire State Green Industry Show, and only six members (or curiosity seekers) dropped in. Still, the group discussion was lively, as attendees talked about topics ranging from tree hazards to campus management to the legal ramifications of slip-and-falls on campus. Schied also had his curiosity raised regarding the cost savings payback analysis of heated walkways at building entrances during the winter, with projected savings inside and outside the building used to justify expenditures on new projects.

If anything, it is the computer list serve that gets the most play from members throughout the year. Schied originally compiled paper copy lists of members, and when Mary DePentu at SUNY Oswego turned that into an e-mail list, it really boosted the efficiency of the information pipeline. “Once she started the list serve, it went from an occasional call to a daily tool,” he says.

Another member who has been involved with the group since the beginning is John Fik, a grounds and sports field consultant with Sodexo Campus Services. He oversees 47 college and school grounds, and it has been invaluable to be able to ask a wide variety of questions of the group. In fact, he says he feels secure that he can ask about any topic regarding grounds management and get a professional response. He also likes being able to help others in the group.

“Everyone is out to help everyone else make their job easier,” Fik says, and in all these years he has never seen anybody have a conflict. All the people he has met are nice and very open with the information they have used to address problems at their facilities.

Fik points out that as the years go on, issues and topics of discussion change. That is when it is helpful to be in a networking group like this, because the first ones to learn about an important new issue are willing to help others get up to speed. He cites the topic of synthetic turf as one that is becoming more prominent in discussions, and he has been asked questions about how to plow snow on top of synthetic turf without damaging it, for example, and has been able to impart what he has learned.

This informal networking group provides a world of experiential information and is a great idea in this age. The only thing left for the members to do is to find a name for their group.

For grounds managers in the New York area wanting to find out more about the group, e-mail Dan Schied at [email protected].

Don Dale resides in Altadena, Calif., and is a frequent contributor to Turf. He has covered the green industry for more than 10 years.