Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
“Business is full-time, not part-time.”
David Koehn’s father told him this when he said he wanted to start his own landscaping business on the side.
Koehn had grown up working for his father’s construction business in Virginia. When he moved to Florida, he found his passion for the landscape industry and wanted to start his own company at the age of 24. His father said he’d only help him start his business if Koehn quit his job.
“He loaned me $12,000,” Koehn says. “I bought my truck, trailer, equipment and got started in 2004 with that small loan from my dad and essentially put in my notice at my job and decided to dive in.”
Koehn Outdoor, based in Jacksonville, Florida, has an annual revenue of $9.5 million.
“I feel like we should be able to double in five years with the momentum that we have currently,” Koehn says. “My five-year plan right now is to try to be around the $20 million mark.”
Shifting Customers and Service Focus
Koehn Outdoor started with residential work for the first six to seven years. Koehn decided he wanted to focus solely on commercial work, so he ended up selling off his residential accounts.
He got his foot in the door with commercial clients by going to hotels and asking to speak to their chief engineer and explaining why he could do things better than bigger companies. A few local hotels gave him some opportunities.
“I piggybacked on those and essentially was my foot in the door with some larger hotel work downtown that we used for references,” Koehn says.
They started connecting with property management companies and now the business serves HOAs, industrial locations, multi-family communities, business parks, and other types of commercial properties.
Landscape management makes up 75 to 80% of the company’s business, as Koehn says they are focused on recurring revenue. He says they previously worked a lot with home builders and did lots of new installation work. Five years ago, they were 70% install and 30% maintenance and they started to feel the stress of cashflow as general contractors tended to take a long time to pay and they had to pay upfront for the necessary materials.
Koehn says five years ago was a turning point for them as they brought on Envisor Consulting to look at their business model and structure to provide feedback on what they were doing right and wrong.
Envisor’s analysis found they needed to focus more on recurring revenue versus chasing one-time construction jobs. At the time, the company was focused on top-line growth, while their bottom line was always struggling.
Koehn says they were working on large construction sites in multiple cities like Tampa and Orlando so once those contracts were complete, they retooled the business, restructured their team and condensed their focus to Northeast Florida. They reduced their focus to this region because their mission is to become the market leader in commercial landscape management. Koehn says they have been implementing various types of technology to help reach this goal.
Koehn Outdoor has been utilizing Weathermatic for two years and is piloting urbanEye AI, which provides geospatial analysis to optimize their workflow.
“We want to be on the forefront of technology,” Koehn says. “We’re willing to invest in technology to improve efficiency. I want to make sure that we will lead the market here in Northeast Florida, and I want to have all the tools to be as efficient and profitable as possible.”
They also strongly emphasize customer service, with a client retention rate of 95%. Koehn credits this to their communication as their account managers must have at least two forms of communication with each client monthly. They use SiteRecon and the Plato app to send out reports to clients as well. He says not sugarcoating things and owning up to any mistakes is the other big thing that helps protect their relationship with the client.
“I think when you hide from the problems and the challenges is when you start to really start to lose grip on the relationship and when your retention starts to come into play, especially during a growth phase,” Koehn says. “When you’re growing 20-30%, and you’re adding four or five teams a year. That’s 25 new people a year, so you got new faces and that’s another thing where training comes into play.”
Keys to Success
Koehn says the coaching and mentoring they received from Envsior Consulting helped provide the foundation that has allowed them to continue to grow. For three years, they dealt with stagnation, struggling to grow beyond $5 million in sales before turning to Envisor.
He also started to look for available resources and connected with other landscape professionals like Joe Chiellini with ASI Landscape Management and Chase Mullin with Mullin. Koehn says the company has been growing steadily since he started seeking mentors. He makes an effort to sit down at least quarterly with other owners and learn their tips and tricks of the business.
“I think now a big part of my success has been learning from mentors and learning from other business leaders to see what they have done to just fast-track us instead of me hitting those same roadblocks,” Koehn says.
Koehn says he learned the importance of investing in employee recognition and paying attention to budgeting by attending industry events like ELEVATE, NALP’s Field Trips and Marty Grunder’s GROW conference.
“For years, we just shot from the hip, and we looked at the top line and assumed we always had enough money to pay the bills,” he says.
Another aspect that has helped Koehn Outdoor is the development of a mission, vision and core values. Kohen says for many years they didn’t have any of that.
“I learned that from coming to some of the conferences and learning how important it is to have a mission and a vision and core values,” Koehn says. “Ever since then, there has been a tremendous change in the growth side of the business, the retention of employees and just the overall culture.”
Koehn says once they had the right structure in place, they were able to put people in key divisional roles, which has greatly helped their success. He adds bringing on a dedicated business developer with the experience to build a sales force and pipeline was another huge benefit.
“Essentially, it was me getting out of the way and bringing in dedicated division leaders that can look at each individual department,” Koehn says.
Becoming a Destination Employer
Koehn Outdoor currently has 125 employees. The company uses a number of different recruiting methods including attending job fairs and using platforms like Indeed, JazzHR and Team Engine. They also have a full-time recruiter who goes out to local churches, soccer fields and other locations to meet potential employees, as well as a strong employee referral program.
“There’s no magic wand for the recruiting and we tackle it from all angles,” Koehn says.
Koehn says they have been considering using H-2B but were hesitant after hearing about other companies not getting their workers.
“We just opted to battle through internally,” Koehn says. “I felt that if we could win in the culture war, then essentially the people would come to us.”
Koehn says the fact they are still a family business is also attractive to people coming from the corporate world where they were just a number. During orientation, Koehn makes a point to introduce himself and shake the new hires’ hands. He is also relatable to them as he started out working in the field just like them.
He says they provide top pay, full benefits, paid time off and are currently working on profit sharing plans and incentivize their employees at all levels. Koehn says their recognition program has been particularly effective at improving their employee retention.
Their superstar program is held once a month, where they bring the whole team in, provide breakfast and share birthdays, anniversaries and company wins. Afterward, they will vote on categories like crew of the month, cleanest truck, and more. Winners receive a star, and after earning a certain number of stars, employees can trade them in for a paid day off.
“The team really bought into it, and they thoroughly enjoy it,” Koehn says. “Now they keep their trucks more organized. They want to win. We created these internal competitions, which have helped the culture and it has helped drive the growth in some ways. Because, of course, we all know those are the guys doing the work. We can sell it all day long, but if you can’t get your team to do the work, you’re not going to grow.”
They also give annual awards at the company Christmas party for categories like top salesman or top production leader.
He says just like with customers, employee retention really comes down to communication. They often check in with team members and pride themselves in caring for anyone in need.
“Doing everything that we can as an employer to the guys from the bottom all the way to the top has really served us well,” Koehn says. “Sometimes it burns you; sometimes you get it back tenfold. We’ve always just tried to really be there for our team, listen to them and hear them and support them.”
As the company has grown, Koehn says it’s a balancing act to maintain the same level of culture, but they have a number of events throughout the year where they will gather and get to know each other on a personal level. He says this has helped them maintain a more tight-knit family environment.
Koehn Outdoor also strives to give back to their local community. One of the organizations they frequently work with is K9s For Warriors, which provides service dogs to military veterans.
They are also very intentional with their training, where new hires go through a three-day orientation. New hires spend one day at home reviewing the Greenius information and then two days they are at the office going over everything they need to know, such as the safety policies and how to operate the equipment.
Implementing this level of training is very costly. Koehn says they are looking for a way to be more effective with this training as they encounter new hires who decide they can’t handle being out in the field after spending three paid days being trained.
“There are multiple people involved in the trainings and then they just walk out the door,” Koehn says. “So, we’re trying to brainstorm how do we make sure that doesn’t happen? That’s something that our recruiter’s working on now is just making sure that we’re vetting who we’re bringing in.”
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