Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Lee Buffington, LIC, originally wanted to become a doctor but along the way, he found another career path in landscaping.
What had started as a summertime job to earn money for college turned into a full-fledged business that has been operating for 28 years now. Buffington is the founder and CEO of Thrive Outdoor, based in Fort Payne, Alabama.
“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset,” Buffington says. “I started mowing yards when I was six. I was never afraid of work and I am always thinking outside the box, thinking what’s next, and what’s possible and try to be as efficient with everything you do.”
Thrive Outdoor currently serves the commercial sector with both maintenance and construction work. Majority of their construction work is on the development/homebuilder side. They provide commercial maintenance services to spaces like retail shopping locations, office complexes, multifamily units and industrial properties.
Buffington says both their maintenance and construction sides are currently booming with the state of the economy. He says they’ve experienced a 30 percent plus growth rate in recent years. Their current revenue is just under $10 million currently.
Thrive Outdoor doesn’t have a current revenue goal they are trying to reach but is focused on explosive growth and creating opportunities for their team.
“Our philosophy is not driven necessarily by revenue, as much as it is creating options for our people,” Buffington says. “What motivates us is having the engagement of our people internally say, ‘We want more, we want to do more, we want more challenges.’”
Buffington says if they aren’t growing at a fast enough rate, they can’t offer these opportunities in a timely fashion, and the ones who want to move up will end up leaving.
Keys to Success
Buffington credits their success to honoring the deal, having great people and having the commitment to stay the course. All three of these are intertwined into how Thrive Outdoor operates on a daily basis.
While it seems simple, doing what they say they are going to do provides Thrive Outdoor a strong foundation that attracts quality employees.
“If we commit to something, we’re going to commit to the deal good, bad or ugly, and we’re going to see it through so that’s just that’s a mindset we have,” Buffington says.
Buffington says they see their clients as a relationship rather than just a business transaction. They value relationships by actively being responsive, reliable and realistic. He says when things go wrong, they will do everything in their power to make it right.
“We commit to success,” Buffington says. “If we lose today, we’re going to learn from it. We’re going to figure out what we could have done differently to make that be a success, or do we need to completely reroute our direction and the way we’re going toward that.”
Thrive Outdoor labels the business as a people company serving landscapes, rather than a landscape business serving people. Buffington says during the first 20 years of business, they were more externally focused. They’ve made a shift in the last two or three to concentrate more on their internal team. He says they have also narrowed their services to improve their focus.
He says when they’re caring for and nurturing their team, the customers come running.
“The customers are really not a problem,” Buffington says. “If you’ve got the right mindset, the right team is there to take care of those customers.”
The business’s vision is to become the most desirable workplace in the landscape industry throughout the Southeast. Thrive Outdoor works do to this by providing competitive pay, affordable benefits and staying the course with their people.
“We want to create an environment that you can have a good time, be challenged, feel like you’ve accomplished something and yet you’re being paid above market price for all of those things,” Buffington says.
Thrive Outdoor’s core values start with grit and end with nurture as they believe one is not effective or sustainable without the other. Buffington says while they’ll nurture their people and take care of them, this doesn’t mean the work isn’t still a grind and they need to have some grit.
“There are certain aspects there where we have to buckle down and drive this thing forward,” Buffington says. “There are other times when you need an arm around your shoulder, we’re going to do the same thing there.”
Recruiting and Retaining Talent
As Thrive Outdoor has grown, Buffington says one of the hardest parts has been acquiring talent. They currently have 115 full-time employees. He says pay has been one of the main methods for recruiting and retaining their team members.
“Pay is the gatekeeper if you will,” Buffington says. “In the current economy, like everybody else, we’ve had to raise pay for current people and raise pay for newcomers as well.”
Buffington says providing opportunities to advance and grow is also helped with retention. They use referral programs and are constantly recruiting.
“Whether you have experience in our industry or not, we first look at character and quality of a person,” Buffington says. “And then we can always train to the expertise you need in the industry if you’ve got the other parts.”
He says with the abundance of work in the industry the key is finding people, bringing them up to speed and then keeping their attention long enough to get some traction so they can start to see the landscape industry as a true career.
“I think that’s going to get much, much better as we go through in the next several years because the perception in current workplace and in educational fields is the green industry is a great career path,” Buffington says.
He says the beautify of this industry is you’re not capped and you’re not a number.
“This is a career that can take you from gate to gate,” Buffington says. “You can go from an entry-level position to a very high-level management position, managing lots of people and lots of revenue. You can make any amount of money in between those two bookends, if you’d like. It’s just a matter of your skillset, your attitude and your willingness to drive to get there.”
When Buffington entered the field, people tried to talk him out of it. It was viewed as a last resort job at the time. He credits NALP for helping parents learn more about career opportunities in the industry.
“I think the single biggest thing that I love about NALP is the unified voice across the industry,” Buffington says.
Plans for the Future
The company currently serves clients in the greater regions of Fort Payne, as well as Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Birmingham. In the coming five to ten years, they have goals of expanding to ten additional cities throughout the Southeast.
“The customer is generally who takes us to the city,” Buffington says. “It’s a regional relationship.”
Thrive Outdoor tries to find local people already in an area to start a branch. Buffington says moving people from their headquarters to a new branch hasn’t worked in the past for them.
“They need to reside in the market and raise their families there,” Buffington says.
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