Empowered to grow

May 25, 2016 -  By
Mark Leahy (left) and Brad Leahy, owners of Blades of Green in Edgewater, Md.

Mark Leahy (left) and Brad Leahy, owners of Blades of Green in Edgewater, Md.

Focus and a positive company culture drive business at Blades of Green.

Brothers Mark Leahy and Brad Leahy, owners of Blades of Green in Edgewater, Md., talk a lot about company culture. It’s their primary focus these days, as they strive to grow their $5.3 million lawn care and pest control company by more than 15 percent per year.

Ask them what they mean by “culture,” and they agree it can be difficult to define. But they’ve done so in their company’s vision statement, which hangs on the wall in the office.

“You’ve got to repeat it, repeat it and repeat it some more,” Mark Leahy says of the company vision, values and culture.

He relays an anecdote about a new hire to serve as an example.

Blades of Green has a strict no-smoking policy. The new hire wanted to smoke, and the technician training him told him it wasn’t allowed. Later that morning, the tech couldn’t find the new guy. Soon after, he saw him walking down the street smoking. By lunch, the tech had called his manager to say, “This guy’s not for us.”

The fact that the technician understood the company’s values and felt empowered to inform his manager that someone was violating them is one instance of the company culture at work, Mark Leahy says.

Likewise, Blades of Green customer service representatives (CSRs) are permitted to give client credits up to $250 on the spot if they feel they need to do so to make someone happy.

“If you think it’s the right thing to do, you need to do it,” Mark Leahy says of the mentality he tries to instill in his employees. “Tell us about it, but do it, even if it costs us money. In the long run, it’s going to cost us something, whether it’s money or our reputation.”

That sense of empowerment is what the Blades of Green culture strives to achieve, and it’s part of what its owners believe will drive the company to “25 by 25”—or $25 million in annual revenue by 2025. It’s a stretch goal, no doubt, but it’s one the Leahys are confident they can make if they can continue to foster a positive company culture that attracts and retains excellent employees.

Finding focus

“I’ve got the same story every guy in the industry’s got,” says Mark Leahy of how he got his start. He began mowing lawns as a kid to earn extra money with his kid brother (Brad) sweeping the sidewalks for him. He bought his first car with his mowing earnings before he had a driver’s license. First operating as MJL Landscaping, he eventually changed the name to Blades of Green—a play on the Nintendo hockey game Blades of Steel—and graduated from the University of Maryland, earning his degree in turfgrass management.

After Brad Leahy graduated in 1999 from High Point University, he joined his brother, and they’ve been working together—even sharing an office—ever since.

Key moments for the company have been adding fertilization and weed control, nixing mowing, walking away from landscape installation and entering the pest control market.

“Once we saw there was enough demand for fertilization, and you just needed a couple thousand customers to have a solid business you could work on and grow, it was a major turning point,” Brad Leahy says.

Since focusing on their niche, the brothers have turned inward, defining their company’s values and striving to make it a great place to work.

“We care about our clients and our people,” Brad Leahy says. “It may sound simple, but when you have a bunch of people working toward a common goal of exceeding customers’ expectations, it’s a much better place to work. We’re not just trying to get the most production.”

To that end, Blades of Green has cut lawn care production standards this year by about 20,000 square feet per route per day. A typical lawn for the company is about 10,000 square feet. It’s a surprising move but one the brothers believe will pay off.

Reducing production expectations allows technicians to spend more time on properties doing evaluations. They’re looking for sales opportunities—such as tree and shrub problems or pest concerns—and other things clients might like to know about, even if it’s not related to a service the company provides (such as a clogged gutter).

The business case for reducing production targets is an expected sales increase and improved route density, Brad Leahy says. He adds, “Even if we don’t sell anything, it builds value for our customers.”

Team Time: The Blades of Green team gathers for its 2015 “Halftime” event to celebrate its hard work, participate in training and outline goals for the rest of the year.

Team Time: The Blades of Green team gathers for its 2015 “Halftime” event to celebrate its hard work, participate in training and outline goals for the rest of the year.

People push

Getting and keeping great people is the No. 1 challenge for Blades of Green, like it is for many landscape industry firms.

“What we’ve discovered is the right person just doesn’t show up on your doorstep,” Brad Leahy says. “So we’ve put a considerable amount of money into recruiting, training and our culture because not only is it hard to find (people), it’s harder to keep them.”

To address the first part of the equation—finding good candidates—Blades of Green hired a full-time human resources director last year.

It’s been a big help, the Leahys say, and it’s changed their approach in some areas. For example, the company’s help wanted ads focus on the workplace environment, not the job itself.

“(Ads) used to say ‘lawn care tech,’ and list the duties,” Brad Leahy says. “Now, a lot of our ads don’t even say what we’re hiring for.”

The company’s turnover rate is about 20 percent, Mark Leahy says.

“We always want to be top grading,” he says. “We think we can always be getting better people. We rate employees as A, B and C, and we want all A and B players.”

As for the second component—keeping good candidates—the company is also investing in retention initiatives, such as events for training and camaraderie.

Every season begins with a kick-off, typically in March, which includes presentations from management, suppliers and team-building activities. The whole company gathers again for a similar halftime event in July; there’s a crab feast in the fall if the team meets its aerating and seeding goals; and the year wraps up with the holiday bowling party, where the coveted “Fred of the Year” awards are handed out.

As the company grows, communication among departments and levels becomes as important as ever.

That’s part of the reason ride-alongs are a big thing at Blades of Green. They’re done by “everybody and anybody,” Mark Leahy says. For example, a CSR will ride with a tech or a tech will sit in the office with a headset on. “They’re there to observe, help out and learn, so everyone understands everyone’s job isn’t easy.”

Roundtable sessions, Which the Leahys introduced about a year ago, are another way to keep people happy and improve communication. Once a month, the owners and the HR director sit down with two pest techs and two lawn techs to give them a chance to voice their opinions.

“We ask them what they like, don’t like, what we should keep doing or stop doing,” Mark Leahy says. The feedback is often related to wanting more communication and more training, he says, but it’s also about things the company leaders didn’t even know was a concern.

“The first meeting there was a big complaint about uniforms,” Mark Leahy says. “We didn’t even know there was a problem. A couple phone calls later, and it was fixed. The roundtables have changed a lot of things.”

Seeking help

To help guide them in their growth, the Leahys have relied on a group of mentors and peers.

On the lawn care side, they count Matt Jesson, owner of Green Lawn Fertilizing in West Chester, Pa., as a major influence. On the pest side, they’re grateful for Don Jamison, who helped them map out their pest business model.

“Some of these people we’ve met along the way, they proved it could be done and said they’d help us do it,” Brad Leahy says.

Blades of Green also draws knowledge from its four peer groups. Three are industry-specific, managed by Dan Gordon, CPA, principal of Turf Books.

One is a local group, which is part of The Alternative Board.

The value in these groups is accountability, says Brad Leahy, who estimates he spends about 10 percent of his time with peer group involvement.

“There is no one else holding us accountable, and I don’t want to show up to these meetings without completing a task I said I would do,” he says.

Photo: Dennis Drenner, Blades of Green

Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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