Virginia firm remains optimistic in spite of government cutbacks

Co-owners Bruce Baughman, left, and Jamie Bullard, right, are budgeting for 10 percent growth in 2013.

Co-owners Bruce Baughman, left, and Jamie Bullard, right, are budgeting for 10 percent growth in 2013.

Being surrounded by the military isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, for Bruce Baughman and Jamie Bullard, co-owners of . Grounds Maintenance, Inc., based in Poquoson, Va., it means hard work but a good living, too. Based in a region that also has NASA Hampton, Langley Air Force Base, Ft. Eustis, the U.S. Coast Guard Training Center and the Naval Weapons Station-Yorktown, provides the company with a decidedly patriotic client base.

“I guess about two-thirds of our customers are either military or have jobs directly dependent on the military,” says Baughman. But being so heavily dependent on the military and its support systems has its hazards, too.

Even though Baughman and Bullard have budgeted for 10 percent growth this year, they realize that if the federal government doesn’t get its act together, reaching that goal might turn out to be a big challenge. To be more precise, they’re concerned about government spending cuts that are worrying their clients. In fact, a handful of clients have already called and inquired about reducing the level services to their properties, admits Baughman.

K.A.B. Grounds Maintenance, Inc.

Co-owners: Bruce Baughman andJamie Bullard
Founded: 1988
Headquarters: Poquoson, Va.
Markets: The Virginia Peninsula and theHampton Roads metropolitan area
Services: Hardscaping, lawn maintenance,lawn installation, flower beds and gardens,landscape lighting, irrigation repair, treeand shrub care, grading and drainage, andproperty cleanups
Employees: 12 peak season

“The economy in the area we service is very dependent on military and government. If sequestration remains in place, our business may be in for some tough times,” he adds.

Although Norfolk Naval base is out of their service area, many of their customers either work on the base or have jobs that support the base. Newport News Ship Building is a private company, and the largest private employer in the area. It survives on building navy ships and subs.

Worrisome cutbacks

“We’ve been lucky so far, and have been able to hold on to most of our customers,” he says. “With cutbacks and budget restraints, many local government contracts have gone to low bid.”

Equally troubling to him, companies are winning bids by charging less than what it costs us to do the job, he’s convinced. “I think everyone knows these low-ball bidders cannot do the job properly for what they bid. But low bid is low bid.”

What other challenge does he seek to overcome in order for the company to reach its goals for the season? “Finding people that don’t mind doing a hard-day’s work,” Baughman answers succinctly, people like co-owner Bullard who joined the company almost 16 years ago. Baughman describes Bullard, who manages the company’s turf and bed maintenance program, as “a hard working perfectionist … that works daily and keeps the crews moving in a productive manner.” Baughman said bringing Bullard into the company gave it the extra energy it needed to grow from a two-man operation.

Another key member of the staff is Beth Stevenson, who Baughman says he “leaned on heavily for years before she came to work with us.” Past manager of the equipment and supply company where they still buy almost all of their equipment, seed, fertilizer and chemicals, Stevenson has worked in the green industry for more than 20 years.

The <a target=. team takes a break during a cold spring day. From the left: Adam Bearekman,Danny Bryant, Beth Stevenson, Quran Muhammad, Jamie Bullard and Nick LeMay.” title=”The . team takes a break during a cold spring day. From the left: Adam Bearekman,Danny Bryant, Beth Stevenson, Quran Muhammad, Jamie Bullard and Nick LeMay.” />

The . team takes a break during a cold spring day. From the left: Adam Bearekman, Danny Bryant, Beth Stevenson, Quran Muhammad, Jamie Bullard and Nick LeMay.

“She has absolute wealth of knowledge and know-how. Beth is one of the most organized, professional people I have ever known. Jamie, Beth and a staff that take pride in their work; that’s what sets us apart,” says Baughman.

Baughman says their knowledge of the industry and their track record distinguishes them from competitors within their market. “I think the biggest thing is providing complete landscape management,” he said. “When customers are choosing a lawn service, they need to look at each company for what they’ve done so far and what they know.”

He tells prospects to compare companies in terms of value and not necessarily price. “Is the company reliable? How long has it been around?” are what he suggests prospects ask of service providers. “Get references and then call them. Make sure they’re licensed and insured; make sure they’re licensed pesticide applicators. I tell them to trust their landscape to someone who is properly trained and proficient,” says Baughman.

He says . Grounds Maintenance further distinguishes itself from competitors by offering employee benefits not typically provided in the industry, such as full medical for all employees after a year of employment. That, plus fair pay, has allowed his firm to keep quality employees, he’s convinced.

Missed opportunity?

Despite his success, Baughman says that, in hindsight, he would have expanded his company faster while the economy was still thriving. “There was a lot of work I could have had if I had been a bit more ambitious,” he admits. “I have always tried to keep control of everything and I think sometimes that holds me back.” Another regret is that he would have started more formal training for himself and his employees earlier.

These lessons have prompted Baughman to commit to goals he feels will improve and grow the company this year. Better communication between all the employees is high on his list.

“I need to know what everyone in the company needs and wants, and I need them to be better informed of what is expected of them. As much as we need to grow the company, we need to make sure the crews are working efficiently. I think I might have been putting too much on Jamie. That’s recently changed.”

What’s in store for the future? Baughman is realistic, yet positive. He trusts that better-informed clients will continue to appreciate excellence in service and products.

K.A.B. Grounds Maintenance maintains a strong book of residential work along with contracts with the city of Newport News, Hampton Roads Transit Bus Depot, Newport News Police Headquarters, Newport News Police Training Center and The Newport News Public Works and Operations Facility.

It’s also built up a good reputation over the years of restoring and renovating other companies’ landscape installations, which Baughman says has enabled he and his partner to glean insight and information they wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“It’s put us in the unique position of seeing which products and installation practices work best,” he claims. “As far as our company’s work goes, we differentiate ourselves by doing the job we are paid for, all the time; every time.

“I was very proud a few years ago when we were in a small group of contractors being referred to a high-end client by another high-end client. When asked which company was the best, their response was that all the companies had really good points, but . Grounds Maintenance was the only company in that group that they had nothing negative to say about. That was great to hear,” says Baughman. The co-owner credits the firm’s commitment to employee education and training for making the difference.

Dynamic and History Rich

Poquoson is a small, sleepy city (pop. 12,021) locatedon the Virginia Peninsula. But the region of Virginia whereit’s located is one of the most dynamic in the nation. Poquosongot its name from a Native America word meaningroughly “great marsh.” While the area is still characterizedby an abundance of water resources-bounded by theYork River, James River, Hampton Roads and ChesapeakeBay-it’s located in a region featuring one of the greatestconcentrations of U.S. military might and support in thecounty. The region also possesses a strong industrial baseand enviable recreational opportunities.

The historical significance of the region dates to thefounding of Jamestown in 1607 and includes the siegeof Yorktown in 1781, the decisive battle of the AmericanRevolution, and the Battle of Hampton Road during theAmerican Civil War between the first ironclad warshipsthat took pace off the mouth of the James River. Also,Fort Monroe, the country’s oldest military base still inuse and is located in Hampton, Va.

There are 1.6 million residentis in the Hampton Roadsmetropolitan area that includes (in addition to thePeninsula) Norfolk, Newport News and Virginia Beach,which is popular with beach-goers.

Working and studying

“The green industry is not a kid with a mower; it’s a lot of trained professionals that want a career making things beautiful and functional,” he says. While not a “kid,” Baughman started the company when he was in college. He was already married with a very young daughter. He found that by working hard, he could make money and still attend classes.

“A lot of times I went to class covered in dirt, grass and sweat; I would sit far away from other people so as not to offend them. No one ever seemed to mind,” he recalls somewhat sheepishly. He also gives lots of credit to his wife, who has been a big factor in the company’s survival and growth.

“My wife, Carolyn, from day one, has maintained all the company’s books, taxes, records and anything else that required a smart dedicated person. She did that while still working her own full-time job. I have been blessed with a wonderful wife,” he says. But eventually the couple realized they needed help and that’s when Bullard joined the company.

“He was just about to finish high school. He was working at my wife’s restaurant. Yep, I hired him away from my wife. It took her a while to get over that,” says Baughman with a big grin.

Baughman’s mother is also taking a while to get over something, her son’s career choice. She wanted to be among the ranks of other mothers, whose dream was to one day introduce her offspring as, “My son; the doctor, the Ph.D.

“Who knows?” Baughman says in jest. “This article may help my mom realize that I have an actual career. She still calls, asking me to finish my doctorate and get a college teaching job so I don’t have to go out and push a mower all day. I gave up trying to explain to her that I haven’t mowed a lawn in years.”

Pamela Walton is an experienced reporter and editor that lives and works in Gainesboro, Tenn. Contact her at [email protected].