Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Eric Cross fell in love with landscaping at an early age, learning from his grandmother and also working for his neighbor.
“I just love the physicality of it and didn’t mind working hard and I enjoy starting out with a pile of dirt and making something beautiful,” Cross says.
Cross went on to study horticulture at Delaware Valley College. He always wanted to have his own company.
“I played a lot of sports and I always was good at getting people together and working for a common good and so I started my company in 1983 as a sophomore in college,” Cross says.
Duke’s Landscape Management, based in Hackettstown, New Jersey, started off with two trucks and Cross’s football teammates borrowing family mowers to mow properties. Now, the company has an annual revenue of $8 million and around 70 people on staff. Cross opened a second office location in Rockaway, New Jersey in 1998.
The company is currently looking to grow around eight percent a year.
Taking on the Right Amount
Duke’s Landscape Management specializes in commercial and HOA landscape maintenance, commercial snow & ice management, landscape design/build and holiday décor. Over the years, Cross says their services haven’t changed much as they work hard to be really good at what they do in their current markets.
“Whether you’re talking about people or customers, I want to be the easy decision,” Cross says. “If you look at a sports team that always wins, everybody wants to play for them. If you look at a sports team that always loses, nobody wants to play for them. If I can build a company that’s always winning, the customers want to give me more work. Employees want to refer their friends and family. It’s more trying to make sure we’re really, really good at what we’re doing than trying to sell more stuff to the same people.”
Most of Duke’s job sites are quite large, with an average landscape maintenance account being worth $60,000. Cross acknowledges that while other companies might have hundreds of customers, they aren’t built that way and prefer to focus on staying on large properties with long-term relationships.
On their customers’ properties, they have a dedicated team maintaining each site. Property managers have a specific account manager as their representative they speak to. Cross says they try to make it easy for the property manager.
Cross says they always assume they’re going to lose some customers whether it’s due to a building being sold, or a management company switching to another. He says they use a sales tracker to show any jobs in jeopardy, the value of that contract and how much they need to sell to replace those contracts. Cross says they track it on a weekly basis.
“We have our targets already set and if we’re ahead or behind we make adjustments accordingly,” Cross says. “Again, we don’t want to sell too much that now we’re going to have a problem servicing the account.”
With COVID-19, Cross says New Jersey got hit hard early on and a lot of their clients’ campuses are still empty right now.
“Some of our customers cut back on the budget,” Cross says. “If there’s no one there why do mulch and flowers and irrigation and all that stuff. The enhancement and construction jobs were down last year. But overall, we actually had a decent year.”
Snow removal makes up about 35 percent of the company’s revenue. Most of the snow and ice management customers are the same ones from the maintenance contracts. Cross says they try to cluster the snow removal properties close together so they’re easier to service. Duke’s works with a number of subcontractors to help with the snow work.
“We don’t want to take on too much if we can’t really deliver,” Cross says.
Keys to Success
Some of the company’s keys to success include implementing the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) recently and taking advantage of technology.
EOS provides businesses with a complete set of simple tools and a roadmap to improve your business processes. Cross says after watching two other companies in his peer group turn their businesses around by adopting EOS, he decided to try it out two years ago.
“I love it,” Cross says. “Everybody’s on the same page, we’ve got the same vision. Everybody’s on the right seat of the bus. We have our level 10 meetings twice a month. It’s got all the important stuff that’s made things just very easy. It’s made things that were complicated, and it’s really reduced them down to be simplified so they’re just easily handled. Everybody’s clear on what their deliverables are.”
Duke’s utilizes technology such as Aspire and Greenius to help their business as well. Cross says they started using Greenius three years ago and it has helped with their employee training.
“We used to do the big rodeos,” Cross says. “Everybody would get trained and if you hired somebody the next week they didn’t get any training so that had been a struggle.”
Commitment to Safety
Safety is a priority at Duke’s and last year the company earned several NALP Safety Recognition Awards: a gold level – Overall Safety Achievement award, as well as awards for no vehicle accidents, no injuries or illnesses and no days away from work. Cross says these safety awards have helped them win customers over the years. One safety challenge Cross didn’t expect was the pandemic.
“I thought I saw it all until last year,” Cross says. “But even that, I always feel like you have to you have to have a culture where you continue learning and continue trying to get better.”
Cross says they had only one employee early on who had to quarantine, but aside from that, they haven’t had anyone on their team get sick with COVID-19. Duke’s office is closed still, and they work remotely.
Some of the field workers report straight to job sites while others report to the yard. Cross says they’re still social distancing when it comes to traveling. For a four-door F-450 dump truck they’ll have one driver and one person in the back corner while if it’s a standard cab truck they’ll only have one person in the truck. Cross says it’s been hard, but their procedures have kept their crews safe.
Duke’s strives to be a lead employer in order to retain their employees. This includes promoting from within so their employees can see they have a career path. The company works to provide additional training as well.
“When you invest in people and keep teaching them, that’s probably when they’re going stay with you because they feel like they’re learning,” Cross says. “We’ll do anything we can do that would promote that and keep them engaged. It’s worth every penny.”
Cross says promoting from within also helps them maintain their company culture.
“If we wanted to double the company in three years and open new branches and all that, that would be extremely difficult to keep the same culture,” Cross says.
Cross says they host a number of parties and celebrations to let the staff know they appreciate their hard work. Once a month, the managers cook and feed the staff at a barbecue.
At the end of the spring rush, they will have a big party. Everyone receives a Target gift card with $50 and they also give out door prizes with everything from TVs to drones.
‘It’s like Christmas morning, and we hand out a lot of stuff,” Cross says. “People are just jumping up and down. They get all excited. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I tell my friends this is the best place to work.’ We’re doing it in a way that we want to make sure that they know why we’re doing this, that we appreciate them.”
In the fall, they have another celebration with a DJ and cornhole tournament. Last year, the company went 600 days without a lost-time accident. Cross ended up getting a dunk tank for their September party to celebrate.
“We’re always trying to do things to let them know it’s not just about work and they’ve got to enjoy their time here too,” Cross says. “They spend a lot of time at work.”
The company also recently started the Extra Mile program that grades crews on job costing, work quality & customer service, safety, leadership, asset protection and paperwork. The crew with the highest scores is compensated monetarily. Last year, Duke’s won the 2020 NJBiz Best Places to Work award, which Cross says is hard to win.
“A lot of what we’re getting from NALP whether it be safety or the things that all go into your culture have all been a part of that, and that’s an award we are very proud to have because with a seasonal business you can’t pay everybody a lot of money,” Cross says. “To have them feel like they’re appreciated is really important to me.”
When it comes down to it, Cross says it all starts with having a solid team, a good strategy and executing it. “I had a coach in college say, ‘The team with the best players, and the best strategy, and execute the strategy is going to win every time,’” Cross says. “That’s really stuck with me so that’s how I’ve thought about running this company this whole time.”
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