Virginia’s James River Grounds Management focuses on basic values

James River Grounds Management abandoned the H-2B guest worker program because of regulatory issues. Instead it implimented an aggressive employee recruiting campaign.
Photos courtesy James River Grounds Management.

Maria Candler operates James River Grounds Management, Glen Allen, Va., one of the largest landscape operations in the South. Her philosophy about the community service her company performs can perhaps be extended to the reason for her company’s overall success. “In the end, for me, it cannot just be about grass cutting,” she says. “It has to serve a higher purpose.”

The company began 25 years ago as a joint endeavor between two partners, Ray F. Lazarchic and Michael C. Hildebrand, and in 2005 was sold to four members of its management team, Maria Candler, president and CEO; Jason Knight, vice president and COO; Todd Pendleton, vice president business development; and James Batterson, director of facilities. The exit strategy of the original owners was designed to keep the foundation of the business intact.

The company provides commercial landscape services to homeowners’ associations, multi-family dwellings, medical, retail and educational facilities.

James River Grounds Management

President: Maria Candler

Founded: 1989

Headquarters: Glen Allen, Va.

Markets: Richmond, Portsmouth, Williamsburg, Charlottesville, Chesterfield, Newport News and Virginia Beach, Va.

Services: Grounds maintenance, ornamental plant health care, landscape installation, landscape enhancements, landscape design, grading, horticultural consultation, irrigation, holiday decorating, snow removal, arbor care, drainage, parking lot sweeping, soil testing and analysis and landscape master planning

Employees: About 400, including 250 seasonal


Unlike many of her peers who run landscape companies, Candler, now in her 19th year with the company, never set out to work in the industry. Her degree is in recreation, parks and tourism with an emphasis on destination marketing.

“I didn’t even know what a begonia was when I started working here,” she says. “This was a job when I was figuring it all out. I fell in love with it. I loved the diversity of our employee base. I loved that we are working with corporate America, but not necessarily in corporate America. I appreciate that I can be in a boardroom in the afternoon and a mulch bed in the morning and how the shifts in the day are so varied and interesting to me.”

When it comes to employees, Candler looks for a good work ethic. “There is a lot of heavy lifting and a lot of work to be done,” she says. “But we also are very focused on training people. We don’t need people to come to the table with different pieces. We’re committed to our team and also very culturally focused on figuring out who somebody is and what unique contributions they can bring to a team, whether it’s a crew or our sales team, and making sure they’re in the right job and that they’re a good long-term fit for the job.”

The company utilizes different tools to assess an employee’s potential and examines that person’s performance in increments of 30, 60 and 90 days.

“That’s helped a lot to keep people in jobs and have them feel like they’re really on a path,” says Candler. “You’re either moving up or you’re moving out.”

Labor is Candler’s greatest challenge.

“Even though we’ve been through a recession and unemployment rates are at a high percentage, we have always felt the pinch of labor,” she says. “Even though there are people who are unemployed, they are not necessarily looking for a seasonal job with days that are long, hot or cold and physically demanding. We repeatedly have job candidates who tell us in the interview that it is better for them to collect unemployment than to take the job.”

Good employees wanted

For years, the company utilized the guest worker program, but not anymore.

“That worked very well for our business,” Candler says. “It allowed our managers to focus on our client and not have to be in this huge babysitting role with crewmen who needed a high level of training and supervision.

“We brought in the same people year after year. They were trained; they understood the mission. They were able to really sharpen their skill set over a couple of seasons. That’s how we grew our business.”

But the company has distanced itself from the program over the last three seasons because of its issues involving the U.S. Department of Labor and unions, she says.

Following that move, “it really was remarkable how many systems within our organization had to change in order to become this fierce recruitment organization all built around bringing in people who had no clue about landscape contracting and trying to get them the training and education they need very quickly to work efficiently and safely in the crew environment,” Candler notes.

“You put our drug screen program and criminal background checks into that and what’s left is an enormously small pool of candidates,” she adds.

One of the company’s offices has a 60 percent failure rate on the drug screen at orientation.

“It’s disappointing and astounding,” says Candler. “We’ve processed about 1,700 candidates this year for 250 seasonal positions. It’s been a revolving door.”

Adding to that challenge is the loss of potential employees to jobs in the construction industry, which is gearing back up, and uncertainties tied to immigration reform.

Healthcare reform and new OSHA regulations also add to “trying to run a business post-recession with smaller margins in this uncertainty,” she says.

Personal communication still relevant

Candler believes what separates her company from competitors are the same principles from the first day the company opened its doors.

“It comes down to putting value on the relationships with your clients, understanding what they need and doing what you said you’re going to do and when the game changes, you need to let people know,” she says. “Communication is the key piece.”

Social media has changed the communication methods. “The speed in which you need to communicate is so different,” says Candler. “We went from reactive to now, when you have to be proactive and anticipate everything. Communication is in real time. Everything is shifting into more automated, quick, in-advance response.”

Yet one cannot ignore that personal connection, Candler says.

“With Facebook and email, and a website portal management of information, we’ve got to do that to set ourselves apart and fulfill that necessity, but if you just do that and you don’t have people in key positions who are personally out there building good, solid rapport with client partners and understanding who they are as people, what their pet peeves are and what they need to feel like you’re their advocate, you’re just going to get it done.”

Beyond cutting grass

“We are asset managers,” says Candler. “Our clients will tell you that landscape is one of their largest budget items. They no longer have the time to be on their sites, so we are their eyes for all things exterior. They count on us to help them from getting blindsided. If a sign is down or a light is out, we report it. They appreciate that we don’t just look at the landscape, but we partner with them to make their work life easier. We are paid to manage their landscape, not just to cut the grass.”

In grounds management, the company takes a hybrid approach, although there is not a large customer request for organics.

“Over the last few years, we have explored organic products,” says Candler. “Originally, we felt like things were price-prohibitive and results were not up to the level our customers expect. A lot has changed there.”

One employee, whose job is safety compliance, also spends time looking at new data and products to stay on top of industry trends.

“Our clients currently are not overly interested in the green movement,” says Candler. “We see them getting a little more interested in water management. Everything is motivated by price. They’re interested because they’re paying a lot more for water.”

To measure quality control, quality control audits are required monthly for a certain percentage of a branch’s jobs as part of the company’s dashboard performance measurement system, says Candler. The jobs are scored. The company also surveys its clients annually as well as having built-in check points through the life cycle of a project.

Also, James River Grounds Management has been eliminating many of its idle resources in the past two years by subcontracting more services to make the best use of its investments, Candler says.

In vendor relationships, Candler seeks a partnership akin to how her company works with its own clients.

“We don’t always hit the mark there, but we certainly want our vendors to be bringing us the latest, greatest technology and hope that they spend time trying to understand the challenges of our business,” she says. “Relationships matter.”

JRGM sees its role as valuable asset managers for its clients, protecting their property investments.

Increasing use of technology

Automation, and doing more with fewer resources, is one trend Candler has experienced in the past few years.

“We’re moving into a cloud-like operation where everything can be done from a parking lot without having to get to a hub,” she says. “That’s a game-changer for everything from payroll to employee reviews to how we manage client interaction and communication, linking everything and being able to access everything from anywhere you might be.”

Knowing what she knows now, Candler says she would have focused on automation sooner.

“I also would have been lesser focused on prospective employees’ landscape experience and more focused on their personality profile and general skill sets than what was on their resume,” she adds.

This season, the company is focusing its efforts enabling all staff, field and administrative, in becoming more technologically connected. Candler has budgeted for 5 percent revenue growth this season. As James River Grounds Management moves forward, the steps are steady and focused on the clients and doing a good job, she says.

“We’re going back to basics from that very crazy recession, high-emotion world we were living in,” she says. “I see the next five years as getting back to that place where we are building and growing. We have so much opportunity in our own market. It doesn’t require any fancy strategic plan. It comes down to executing with a laser-like precision the processes we’ve been maintaining over the last couple of years.”

Candler anticipates the industry will become increasingly regulated.

“For me, some of these changes are real positive,” she says. “I like the idea of our industry becoming more professional, requiring certifications. I want it to be done in a way where the playing field is level and it’s not like that right now.”

Take the high road

James River Grounds Management endeavors to present a positive image of the industry.

“It seems like the last few years of pressure has created a lot of bad behaviors in our marketplace,” says Candler. “I wish our competitors realized the long-term negative impact they are leaving on our industry. We don’t solicit employees from our competitors, we don’t lowball our jobs and we don’t trash talk our competition.”

Candler spends a great deal of time in industry advocacy, working with immigration coalitions as well as sharing her company’s story with legislators.

She also mentors smaller companies.

“Stewardship is a huge part of our business model,” Candler says.

James River Grounds Management has an extensive background in community involvement and does six to 10 events annually.

“We are working on a plan to do a backpack school supply drive for a school that services a fairly large underprivileged community,” Candler says. “We’ll be doing a service project building a patio to do step one of an outdoor classroom for them in the morning and then partnering with our vendors to do a school supply drive where we’ll be handing those out during their open house.”

The company also is partnering with its clients in a food drive.

“All people have challenges in their lives, but generally, we are a team of people who feel extremely lucky for being where we are in our lives,” Candler says. “We feel it’s our responsibility to spread that around.”

A side benefit is it brings the employees closer together as a team, Candler notes.

“Most of our giving back projects happen when we’re at our busiest time,” she says. “This spring, I was at one of our projects talking to one of our managers. I know how busy he was on that particular day. The phone’s ringing off of the hook and he had 10 other places where he felt he should be. But at the end of the day, he told me he was glad he spent his day in community service. He said he really needed it.

“Everybody needs to feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves,” she adds.

Yet, Candler often feels conflicted.

“We’re in this world of often shameless self-promotion,” she says. “We did so many projects for so many years and would never say anything about it. But now our prospective clients want to know about this. We’re in that place where we really have to self-promote, but it’s always so awkward. I’ll do Facebook because I feel like I have to. Every time I do it, it just feels wrong.”

PIP the Fox

One marketing technique used by James River Grounds Management is a mascot, PIP the Fox, whose name stands for Partnership in Planning. An employee dressed as a fox, PIP’s mission is to remind the JRGM team that it requires planning, organization and good communication as well as teamwork and quality product delivery to ensure employees and clients are highly satisfied.

PIP’s travels are documented on the company’s Facebook page. He carries a backpack that at all times contains a first aid kit, water, personal protective equipment, schedule/specification sheets, a healthy snack and an iPad for communication and organization. Seasonal items are added, such as sunscreen and a pitch fork in the spring and summer.

Sports teams have mascots; why not a landscape company? PIP the Fox reminds JRGM employees to work as a team, communicate.

PIP the Fox carries a plan that encompasses a communication plan, calendar of services, leadership behaviors, core values, mission statement and client testimonials.

“The last couple of years have not been a lot of fun during the recession,” notes Candler. “We were looking at rebranding ourselves, just a bit of a tweak. We were looking for some ways to do some promotion, but do it in a way that was fun and a little bit different.”

Thus the introduction of the mascot, who has gone on some client luncheons and hung out with employees. Next year, he’ll be making appearances at client functions and golf outings.

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at [email protected].