Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
In 1998, Cardinal Wilton Gregory, the Bishop of the Belleville, Illinois Catholic Diocese at the time, encouraged John Munie to start his own business and was his first customer.
When Munie brought up the idea of starting his own business, Gregory immediately requested a proposal for his residence. A proposal was put together and forwarded. When Gregory called to award the job, Munie told him, “I’m not sure if I can do this; I don’t even have a mower yet.”
Gregory responded, “Then use mine!”
After that, Munie sent out letters to the nicer neighborhoods offering turnkey full-maintenance services as Focal Pointe, based in Caseyville, Illinois.
“The response rate wasn’t great, but I got a few,” Munie says. “That first year, we did $45,000 and I put myself on a $10,000 salary. Luckily, my wife was a big-time money-maker as a 24-year-old first-grade teacher. The second year, I got a big raise. I went up from $10,000 to $12,000 in salary, and we went from $45,000 to $90,000 in revenue. You just stay humble, work hard, do what you say you’re going to do and if you do that, you’ll pick up work.”
By 2005, Focal Pointe had the opportunity to provide a proposal for St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium and was awarded the work.
“After adding the Cardinals in ‘05, we slowly started picking up some commercial work. Then in 2010, two of the high-end shopping malls signed up. In 2012, we sold the Edward Jones corporate campus, and then universities, and it’s just kept rolling from there,” Munie says.
Focal Pointe currently services clients in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma. They will close out this year with annual revenue around $38 million but anticipates their revenue next year will be north of $50 million.
Munie says they don’t have a set growth goal, they just want to build a great company.
“Wherever that takes us, as long as we don’t lose what makes Focal Pointe, Focal Pointe, we’ll keep growing,” Munie says. “But if we start to evolve into a culture that’s not humble, not honest, not authentic, doesn’t ache for the customer, no longer values each other or try to inspire each other; if we start to drift away from that, then I’ll know we’re growing too fast.”
Focal Pointe’s Ideal Customers
While Munie started out offering full-service landscape maintenance for high-end residential customers, Focal Pointe’s main service is commercial maintenance. He estimates only five percent of their portfolio is still residential work. Munie isn’t sure if they’ll ever move away from residential fully, but it is not their growth focus.
Munie says they like to specialize in caring for owner-occupied sites where the brand image matters.
“We just do a really good job of understanding our client’s brand, what brand message the landscape needs to convey and then building a service solution around that,” Munie says.
Munie says that how well they align with the facility manager usually determines how successful they are at conveying the appropriate brand message for the property. They prefer to work with facility managers who view the landscaping as an asset that adds value rather than an expense.
“When you have customers who appreciate what you do, it gives your work purpose,” Munie says. “We are not the best in the world of maintaining landscapes where our work doesn’t matter.”
He says brands like the Cardinals are very appreciative of what they do for them. They see the impact landscaping has on the fan experience for over three-million visitors each year. Munie says he loves the responsibility that comes with high-expectation properties like that.
“It’s a source of pride for our team, too,” Munie says. “You can’t take care of those types of properties and be bad at what you do. It just can’t happen. There’s an expectation out of our people that you’re expected to be on point, and great employees like that pressure.”
Keys to Success
Munie credits his company’s success to quality work, having a servant mindset and building a strong company culture with low turnover. He says he also learned a tremendous amount at various LANDSCAPES sessions in Louisville over the years.
“If I imagine me running a business without NALP…I mean, the education provided, the people I’ve met, the peer groups, the consultants…if I imagine me trying to figure it out on my own, I can’t see a scenario where I’m still in business,” Munie says.
He says the Financial Benchmark report was particularly helpful and was what encouraged him to get a consultant.
“I knew where I was messing up; I just didn’t know how to fix it,” he says.
He hired Kevin Kehoe in 2011 and Kehoe helped him learn how to budget and run his business well. Munie says one of the keys to growth is being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
“There are challenges to growth, absolutely,” Munie says. “Just by its nature, you’re pushing yourself out into new territory. The more you can anticipate those challenges through peer groups and lessons taught at NALP, the more you can be educated and look forward, the more you can stave off some of those mistakes. But just by the nature of growing, you’re going to put yourself in awkward situations, and you’re going to make mistakes. Just make sure they’re not the fatal ones.”
Focal Pointe has only shrunk twice in the company’s history. In 2009, they shrunk from $2.5 million to $2 million in revenue and in 2020, they went from $17.5 million to $15.5 million.
For 25 years, the company didn’t do any acquisitions and then this spring, they completed three acquisitions in two months. Munie says they have been able to double in size in a two-year period because of their organic growth and recent acquisitions.
Munie says it was the encouragement of Kehoe and Bruce Wilson back in 2020 that he decided to scale up through acquisitions. He put together an advisory board in 2022 to help with the process. Munie says you can never have too many good ideas or be surrounded by too many smart people.
“I had no idea how to buy companies or the overall landscape of the M&A world,” Munie says. “That just wasn’t my skill set and I didn’t want to learn on the fly. So, I brought in a team of people that could help facilitate that and make sure I wasn’t making bad decisions.”
Focal Pointe chose to pursue companies in markets they were already familiar with and had a similar business approach.
“If I have alignment of values with the owners and employees, I feel like everything else is manageable,” Munie says. “That was mostly the case with all three of the acquisitions this spring, and it made the blending of cultures easier than expected.”
He cautions that if you are going to get into M&As without the help of a consultant or an advisory board, you need to put in a tremendous amount of work and be okay with being uncomfortable because it is something you’ve never done before. He compares it to reading how to fly a plane while it’s in the air.
“I think it’s important that people understand why they want to scale up,” Munie says. “M&A is the hot topic in the green industry. I think the first thing people need to do as a business owner is to be super clear on how you define success. If your definition of success is ‘I love running a fill-in-the-blank size landscape company,’ you’re loving what you’re doing, it’s funding a lifestyle that allows you to be present for your family and your friends and be happy…then why do you want to sell or why do you want to buy? Don’t let the hype of what’s going on cloud your thinking of what success looks like in your life.”
“If you are tired of the business aspect of your company, and it’s impacting your life quality, then you may want to think seriously about selling,” Munie adds. “Or, on the other hand, if you’re trying to challenge yourself and/or build something with a more impactful reach, then acquisitions may be the right fit.”
Recruiting and Retention
Focal Pointe has a staff size that is just shy of 500. Munie says most of their employees have come to the company through word of mouth.
They also have an internship program and recently hired a recruiter. Since adding their recruiter, they are reimagining the Focal Pointe experience for employees to be interviewed, onboarded and mentored. The company’s first core value is “We Put People First,” and Munie says this means all decisions filter through that core value before any other consideration. The opportunities created is part of their motivation to grow.
“That’s the exciting part of growth,” Munie says. “We need people that are going to step up and take on some of those roles.”
Although Focal Pointe also utilizes the H-2B program, Munie says six years ago, they started a green card program and that has helped stabilize their workforce.
“We’re always looking for win-win arrangements with our team members, and the H-2B employees that demonstrate the greatest cultural alignment are almost always the ones our senior production employees recommend assisting in getting them a green card,” Munie says.
Focal Pointe retains their team by caring about them on a personal level.
“Everyone complains about the lack of loyalty among employees now days, and I don’t see it,” Munie says. “People are still people. If employees know that you care about them on a personal level, feel respected, can build a great network of friends and family, get to work on amazing properties, get paid a fair wage, and have access to good benefits, why would they want to leave?”
Because the company is so large, Munie counts on his managers to continue the spirit of caring and knowing team members personally. He instills in his leaders a sense of empathy so they can tell when something’s off with an employee.
“You have got to take a genuine interest in people and understand that they’re looking for more than just a paycheck,” Munie says. “Everyone has things that weigh on them from time to time. How can we be more of a constant for them? They are looking for a sense of belonging, acceptance, respect and they want their family to be proud of them when they come home at the end of the day. Focal Pointe leaders must be able to feel the weight, or happiness, of their employees and become a partner in their story.”
Munie says constant reinforcement through communication has helped maintain a consistent culture across the different branch locations. Every weekday, all the employees receive an uplifting email from him talking about culture. On Mondays, he writes about their core purpose and the other days of the week, he focuses on one of their four core values.
“We do formal customer satisfaction surveys every fall, and that feedback tells me that our branch managers really believe in the culture as do their teams,” Munie says. “We have this pressure as an organization that we don’t want to disappoint. When you build your culture around doing what you say you’re going to do and delighting the customers, you don’t want to be one of the people that misses the mark.”
While Focal Pointe was recognized as one of the top places to work by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2022, Munie says he still has numerous ideas on how he wants to convey the respect he has for his team.
“I think we’re better than most, but there’s so much more we can do, and our people deserve that,” Munie says. “What’s cool about our growth is the added resources we have to work with. We can now invest more in training, personal improvement, and the small, extra touches that reinforce to our people how much they matter to us on a personal level.”
Munie believes Focal Pointe has the potential to reshape what it means to be professionals in the landscape industry.
“If we recognize the beauty and fulfillment of our work, and apply that view to how we see our employees, the game begins to change,” Munie says. “There’s no reason we can’t be one of most respected professions in the world. We just have to hold ourselves to that standard.”
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