Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
While working for a garden center in college, Robyn Schmitz realized she felt the most fulfilled and passionate when she was helping design gardens for customers.
After switching her major from journalism to horticulture/landscape design, she got a job with another landscape company after graduating. Schmitz began to feel the desire to start her own business after observing a significant level of corner-cutting and poor treatment of staff.
“I can recall sitting down with a client to present a design, and I couldn’t look them in the eyes and make promises about quality or reliability because I didn’t believe the company would actually deliver with that integrity,” Schmitz says. “That moment of not blindly accepting the low standards being set for customers was when the motivation to start a business began.”
In 2010, with a Jeep and a desire to help both customers and employees, Schmitz started High Prairie Landscape Group, LLC, based in Edwardsville, Kansas.
Schmitz says while they have company goals, they are not overly focused on top-line growth. She says net profit, staff retention rate, client satisfaction and retention scores, and team growth opportunities are some of the other signs of success. She says in order to perform well in these areas, they have to be “right-sizing” their organization.
“I’d rather be an $8 million company earning 13% net than a $20 million company earning 5%,” she says.
High Prairie will finish 2023 with an annual revenue around $6.3 million.
Growing Their Niche
High Prairie specializes in serving high-touch, high-style residential clients who value fine craftsmanship and lasting beauty in their outdoor spaces. Schmitz says that part of their strategy of being high-end is constantly pursuing new or better ways of serving the people who are already part of their client base.
“Over the years, we’ve improved or added several services,” she says. “One key differentiator is that we don’t sub out most of our work. We design and build our pools, hardscapes, most structures, irrigation, and softscapes. This allows for a level of accountability, quality control, and synergetic scheduling.”
One way they better serve their clients is through their customer portal, which they’ve had for about five years. Schmitz says the key to using a customer portal is understanding some clients will love it and others will prefer to receive an email.
“The portal is a useful tool for communication, scheduling, and managing all financials,” she sayd. “However, it should complement an automated system that also gives clients the option to use email or text for those same communications. Our system does both.”
High Prairie also has a garden style quiz that serves as a value addition to clients. Schmitz says this tool is a fun way to approach their discovery meetings and contributes to the client experience with their team and processes.
The company has grown steadily over the years, and Schmitz says they have not reached the full potential of their market or organizational capabilities.
“Our boutique business model means that if we grow too fast and dilute our craftsmanship or culture, we’ll lose our differentiator and ability to charge for that,” she says. “Therefore, we must balance those things as we work towards an optimum balance of overhead leadership to production ability for higher profits.”
She says that the demand for comprehensive outdoor living environments continues to increase. Their pools are particularly popular because they build them in-house.
“We are still growing,” Schmitz says. “While some organizations have had a decline in pipeline volume and leads this year, our current pipeline is about three times what it was a year ago for opportunities.”
High Prairie has also proactively added financing this year to ensure they’re a viable option for a larger group of potential clients.
Keys to Success
Schmitz credits her company’s success to aggressive marketing and branding in every economy, creating an organization that expects and attracts excellence and taking the time to differentiate themselves from a saturated market.
However, she doesn’t begin to pretend they’ve done everything perfectly. Schmitz says she could write an entire book on challenges or mistakes they’ve made along the way. The key is to learn from those things to prevent them from happening again.
“Some of our current challenges include continuing to match our sales and production to our adding of layers of leadership needed to get to our next level of organizational maturity,” she says. “We are aware that we’ll have temporary profit dips if we grow too fast or add overhead before we’ve matched revenue and production.”
She says NALP has been a keystone in her professional journey as she first got involved as a student and competed in the Student Career Days (now known as the National Collegiate Landscape Competition).
“For us, the NALP has always been a beacon for professionalism and learning,” she says. “As I was starting the business, we used to have access to past webinars and educational events on the website, which I used regularly. Other resources the NALP has provided over the years included example organizational charts, lawn applicator training programs, and several of their books from the bookstore.”
Schmitz says the largest impact NALP has had is the networking and relationships she’s formed with fellow members.
“Even when we were just starting out, we were part of the Trailblazer program where we visited Joel Hafner at Fine Earth Landscapes in Maryland,” Schmitz says. “None of that would be possible without the NALP.”
Another aspect that has aided Schmitz in her journey is her prior experience working on landscape crews for maintenance and installation.
“To me, there is no more valuable experience in helping me relate to our teams and provide empathetic leadership than knowing I’ve been exactly where they are,” she says. “Too many people want to jump straight to management without gaining the experience and wisdom that comes from doing the work.”
She says that her designs were better because she understood the complexity of building and maintaining these landscapes. Schmitz says her bidding and expectations were also more realistic.
“As far as being someone others want to follow, I think a lot of respect can be garnered when a leader steps in and rolls up their sleeves,” Schmitz says. “There is nobody, in any role in our organization that is ‘above’ doing the work. We’re all valuable members of the team.”
Working with Her Spouse
Prior to joining High Prairie as CFO in 2016, Schmitz’s husband Bret was working as a CPA. She says that even before he came on full-time, he was a pivotal part of their team.
“He wanted to help grow this special organization and deserved to be as involved as he wanted to be,” Schmitz says. “It was scary at first because he took a significant pay cut to join our team, but we’re so incredibly proud of what our team has built together since those days.”
Schmitz says working with her spouse is rewarding and complicated. They are both passionate about the company and gifted in their own strengths.
“Bret and I are a classic visionary/integrator combo,” Schmitz says. “He is gifted with executing of tasks and creating financial tactics and I’m gifted with strategic initiatives and coaching teams. Together, we balance each other.”
On the downside, Schmitz says they struggle with setting boundaries between work and home because they aren’t great at shutting off their business minds.
“In addition, I think the stresses during challenging times can be felt on a larger scale when both spouses are feeling the same strains,” she says. “Ironically, we had more time to catch up during the day when Bret was a CPA and I was running the business. Now, we’re both equally busy, so we don’t often get to catch up until the end of the day.”
Recruiting and Retention
High Prairie has 42 year-round employees and their only seasonal team members are interns. Schmitz says that like marketing, you must have multiple tactics to attract the ideal team member. They start by being an organization that attracts high-integrity overachievers.
Schmitz is actively involved in many teaching initiatives at nearby colleges and universities and participates in industry initiatives as well. High Prairie also makes it easy for their employees to be master recruiters themselves. They carry career cards with links to High Prairie job applications on them. She adds that having excellent job descriptions with clear perks and benefits is also key to recruitment.
Schmitz says they have industry-leading staff retention, which allows them to build a healthy culture and stable workforce.
“Imagine trying to control quality or train if you’re perpetually losing large chunks of your team,” she says. “That would be a nightmare for both leaders, team members, and clients.”
Schmitz says the first step is hiring wisely.
“We decline over 80% of applicants if they don’t fit our team or culture,” she says. “This creates a team who are very proud of the high-caliber people they work alongside every day. They’re proud to be an HP Pro.”
As the company grows, Schmitz says you cannot compromise on who you hire, no matter how desperate you may feel.
“As soon as you start compromising, the caliber of your team can decrease rapidly,” she says. “It takes years to build a healthy culture and minutes to ruin it.”
They also retain their staff by having clear career paths with pre-determined skills and pay levels. Employees can access personal and professional development coaching through their proprietary green industry leadership course they created called “Discovery Squad.”
Schmitz says they don’t compromise on their standards and re-enforce them at every opportunity.
“You can’t over-communicate what’s going on in the business, what growth means, and how finances are being used for opportunity or stability,” she says.
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