Who’s your mentor?

August 1, 2016 -  By
Eric Remeis (right), president of Yard Solutions near Columbus, Ohio, and one of his mentors, Elliott Tobias.

Eric Remeis (right), president of Yard Solutions near Columbus, Ohio, and one of his mentors, Elliott Tobias.

Landscape pros and their mentors prove how these relationships can accelerate growth.

Eric Remeis knew his 26-year-old landscape company was in a position to grow, but he needed some advice getting there.

So why not ask for it?

In 2015, the president of Yard Solutions in Groveport, Ohio, engaged a few people he knew could ease his company’s growing pains.

He credits these mentors—a former neighbor-turned-consultant and a landscape industry veteran—with facilitating the company’s 30 percent boost last year to $3 million. And he expects to continue that trend.

Mentors come in many forms, and few people dispute their benefits. But only a sliver of small business people—8 percent—have one, according to a 2015 survey by Spark Business from Capital One. The reasons for not having a mentor include lacking the time to cultivate these relationships and not knowing where to begin.

But Remeis and other landscape professionals show how a mentor—or two—is well worth overcoming these obstacles if you’re willing to put in the hard work.

“Working with a mentor doesn’t get you where you want to be,” he says. “But it helps give you a path, and it will help you speed up the process. I haven’t hit the promised land, but it should fast forward things.”

Second-hand learning

That fast-forward effect is what Jeremy Thorne is getting out of his relationship with mentor Scott Burk, president of Scott’s Landscaping in Centre Hall, Pa.

Thorne, owner of ThorneCare Landscape Solutions in Sugarloaf, Pa., is in his second year of business. He met Burk a few years ago as a student at Penn College of Technology, earning his associate degree in landscape/horticulture technology. Burk, a Penn State grad, often guest speaks at both Penn College and Penn State.

“I picked up quickly that Jeremy was pretty serious,” Burk says. Burk hired Thorne shortly after to intern, and he stayed on at Scott’s Landscaping for about a year and a half.

Before long, Thorne realized it was time to scratch his entrepreneurial itch, and he began talking with Burk about his plan to start his own company in another part of the state. Thorne still remembers that day.

“Scott took me out for lunch—it was a three-hour lunch,” he says. “It wasn’t about trying to keep me. It was about, ‘This is what you need to do to be successful.’”

Burk also recalls that conversation and similar ones he’s had with other mentees over the years.

“I’m trying to help people get where they want to be,” he says. “I’m not trying to hold them here, but I want to be very honest with them. I tell them, ‘You’re going to lose money.’ I ask, ‘Are you prepared to work 20 hours a day?’ ‘Is your significant other prepared for this?’

“I never try to talk anybody out of (starting a business) if it’s their goal, but you really need to know the good and the bad before you make the decision to jump in.”

Today, Thorne, who is active with the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) and earned the association’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award last year, speaks with Burk several times a week.

“I’ll tell him my situation, and he’ll see how he can help,” Thorne says. He credits his mentor with many things, including teaching him estimating and the importance of having good attorney and banker relationships.

“It’s a very good relationship. He’s a great mentor to me,” Thorne says. “Having that person who understands where you are is helpful.”

Mentors have been invaluable to Burk, as well. He counts his former Penn State Professor Dan Stearns and fellow members of the Pennsylvania Landscape & Nursery Association as some of his best resources.

“You can learn so much, and you don’t have to learn it out of your own pocket,” he says, adding that he learns from Thorne and other mentees, too.

During a Trailblazer visit in 2015, Mike Rorie (center) advised Eric Remeis (left) and his team, including his brother Scott Remeis.

During a Trailblazer visit in 2015, Mike Rorie (center) advised Eric Remeis (left) and his team, including his brother Scott Remeis.

“We’ll work through problems together,” he says. “They may not be my problems, but I still learn from them.”

Meet your match

There are many ways to connect with a mentor, inside or outside the industry. Understandably, many landscape professionals seek industry-specific mentors, and some state and national landscape associations offer formal programs to meet that need. In fact, connecting with peers and potential mentors is one of the primary reasons many people join associations in the first place, says Chris Kocel, member services manager for the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC). Many mentor/mentee relationships evolve casually from networking, he says, but some members prefer a structured program where they’re paired up with a member who has volunteered to be a mentor.

ALCC’s mentoring program is called Peer-to-Peer. It has a handful of participants at any given time, says Becky Garber, director of communications. Those interested in being a mentor or mentee complete a short application and the association acts as a matchmaker.

NALP also has a mentoring program called Trailblazers.

Trailblazers are “an elite group of landscape industry leaders who were nominated by their peers for making significant, long-term contributions to the industry,” NALP says. Members who are interesting in spending a day with a Trailblazer apply for the program by Dec. 31 to be matched with a mentor the next year. After being matched, the mentor and mentee set up a time to meet and one travels to the other’s facility. Mentees pay the travel costs.

Fast forward

Last year, thanks to the Trailblazer program, Remeis connected with one mentor, Mike Rorie, to help with the tactical side of building a landscape maintenance division. Then, he engaged another mentor, Elliott Tobias, to assist with strategy.

With their help, Yard Solutions saw significant growth last year, and its sights are set even higher with a goal to reach $10 million by 2020.

“My two main goals for having Mike here were to help us grow the business overall and to grow our maintenance division, since that’s what he specializes in,” Remeis says. Some background: Rorie sold his first commercial landscape maintenance firm, GroundMasters, to Brickman in 2006. He went on to found Go iLawn, an online property measurement service, and he got back into maintenance a few years ago with GroundSystems.

First, Rorie visited Yard Solutions in spring 2015. He spent a day touring the company’s facility, meeting the staff and hearing about its processes and challenges.

Next, Remeis visited Rorie’s operation in Cincinnati, and the pair spent five hours detailing how to grow the Yard Solutions maintenance division.

A Jeffrey Scott peer group convenes with Mariani Landscape CEO Frank Mariani and President Fred Wacker.

A Jeffrey Scott peer group convenes with Mariani Landscape CEO Frank Mariani and President Fred Wacker.

In addition to recommendations like tracking sales activity and close rates, Rorie encouraged the company to add a full-time maintenance salesperson, and Yard Solutions made it happen this year, in time for fall bidding season. The company transitioned former Operations

Manager Scott Hall into that role and added a manager on the operations side.

“We’re on our way to selling $1 million per year in maintenance for the next five years,” Remeis says.

Meanwhile, Yard Solutions is going strong in design/build, which makes up 70 percent of its business. In early spring, it had about $1 million in backlog.

“We’re solid there, and we want to keep it streamlined for low growth so we can get some momentum in the maintenance area at this point,” he says. “The money we make off design/build is going to fuel maintenance.”

Outside of working on the maintenance business, Remeis enlisted another mentor, Tobias, in strategic planning, and he is excited about the results.

Tobias, who used to be Remeis’ neighbor, is a former corporate human resources executive who founded consulting firm Intersect HR Strategy. He worked with Yard Solutions leaders late last year to set up a strategic plan and implement a structure to execute the plan.

The biggest takeaway, Remeis says, was rethinking the company’s operating system and organizing it around key meetings that allow the company to be proactive and more efficient.

Yard Solutions implemented the meetings, even though it required Tobias to push the staff outside of its comfort zone, as only a mentor can do.

“In the past, we always wanted to make things perfect before we made them live,” Remeis says. “He made us implement these meetings, and they weren’t perfect, but he said, ‘You have to start things before they’re perfect.’ We did, and we found we could move at another speed.”


Peer Mentoring in Action

Peer groups—within the landscape industry or within your region—are one way some professionals pursuing excellence find mentors.

Typically, these groups meet several times a year at one company’s location and participate in multiple conference calls.

Last fall, one peer group had a unique experience when it visited Mariani Landscape in Chicago’s northern suburbs. Rather than host the meeting at one of the member’s locations, facilitator Jeffrey Scott made arrangements for Mariani to guest host the event. Mariani Landscape CEO Frank Mariani, President Fred Wacker and the staff were generous with their time and information. The experience was beneficial for many of the members and demonstrated the value in one company opening its doors to other operators.

Following the meeting, Scott shared a few reasons he believes Mariani’s company is one of the largest, most successful companies in the industry. These include his focus on the long view, which means a continued pursuit of personal development and networking with key people in Chicago, like architects and bankers; his ability to build an excellent team; and his passion and generous nature—he always says “yes” when he can.

“He’s the hardest-working man in the landscape business,” Scott said, noting Mariani still goes on sales calls, often attends networking dinners and onboards new employees. “He’s invested completely, and that’s why Mariani Landscape continues to grow, and that’s why he’s one of the leaders in the industry.”

Scott’s peer group members agreed. Here are some of their key takeaways.

“What I gleaned the most was witnessing their financial review meetings. So we now bring in all of our satellite managers, VPs, account manager and sales and project managers. Each profit center presents their numbers to the group. As a group, we discuss, together, what has worked well, what hasn’t worked well, and what we should start doing, stop doing and continue doing.”
Nathan Helder, president, Gelderman Landscape Services, Waterdown, Ontario

“Last year, (Mariani) raised their starting pay in the spring. I loved that idea. So, we decided to raise the labor rate $4 per hour for all our snow removal staff. We went from having a hard time finding guys to having guys waiting in line, and they’re good guys. So if you make $15 per hour, during a snow removal event you’re making $19 per hour.”
Leigh Townsend, president, J.W. Townsend Landscapes, Charlottesville, Va.

“My takeaway was Frank surrounds himself with a lot of talent, and he has the ability as an owner to get out of the way and let team members excel at what they do. He got out of the way a long time ago, otherwise it wouldn’t be a $50 million company.”
Paul Harness, general manager, Plant Specialists, Long Island City, N.Y.

Photo: Jerry Mann, lm staff & mariani landscape

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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