Chris Lee admits he can’t pinpoint exactly what got him into the landscape business. But he is certain that the opportunity to “do his own thing,” and to “put his stamp on something bigger than himself” were driving factors.
Since founding Earthworks Inc., in 1979, Lee—who serves as president—has adapted and evolved the business many times. He’s been through various hardships and continued to come out stronger on the other side—always learning and growing as a result. In 2008, when the recession struck, Earthworks was performing quite a bit of construction work. As that dried up, Lee managed to shift his focus toward maintenance and forge ahead.
Today, one of Lee’s biggest struggles has been with the H-2B program and he’s fighting to do something about it. Lee serves on the NALP National H-2B Advisory Committee and was even on Fox Business talking about the issue.
Like the issues he’s faced before, Lee continues to use these adversities to grow stronger and ultimately improve Earthworks.
Annual revenue (2018): $22.1 million
Location: Texas (DFW and Houston)
Year founded: 1979
Client mix: 90% commercial, 10% municipal
Service mix: 55% commercial maintenance, 25% design/build/install, 15% irrigation/conservation, 5% tree care
Business motto: If we genuinely do our very best for our clients and employees every day, I’ll never be disappointed in the results.
What is your proudest moment in business at Earthworks?
It was surviving the 2015 season when we found out in March that we weren’t getting our 120 H-2B workers. We not only survived but got stronger in every way as a result. As miserable as it was at the time, it is one of the best things that ever happened to us because it ultimately made us stronger.
What is your biggest business challenge at Earthworks?
Hiring and training entry level workers, as well as keeping our client pricing in line with the rapidly increasing labor rates that are necessary to attract new employees.
What motivates you on Monday mornings?
Coffee! In all seriousness though, I really like my job and love our team, so seeing them grow is what motivates me.
What business worry keeps you up most at night?
Labor and the corresponding wage increases continues to be a worry. While the wage increases are constant, the maintenance piece of our business is locked in for one to two years at a time. We’re actively trying to maintain a larger year-round workforce and trying diligently to “front load” as much of the work possible into what used to be our “slow” time. Also, we are placing a much larger emphasis on training and retention to try and combat our labor worries.
Who is your business mentor or idol?
This is a tough one. I’ve learned so much from so many it’s hard to narrow it down. Overall, I would say Dale Carnegie has had the largest impact on how I operate and how we as a team operate. It’s all such simple stuff but it’s also so often overlooked. Just treat people the right way—essentially, it’s just “The Golden Rule.” It applies to all of us.
What is your favorite business book ?
“What Got You Here Won’t Get You There” by Marshall Goldsmith. I’ve read a lot of books on sales, business and relationships and I’ve gotten something good out of most of them. This one was different, it truly was a game changer for me. It made me take a hard look at every aspect of my personal and professional life and opened my eyes to many things that I believed were part of my success but, in reality, were part of what was holding me back. I mentally refer to this book and its principles daily and have for about seven years now.
What does it mean to you to be a landscape professional?
It means not just being a landscaper but truly being a professional. We need to be as professional and polished in everything we do as any other industry. We need to hold ourselves to a much higher standard than what most people perceive us to be. That’s how we change the perception.
What does it mean to you to be a member of NALP?
This is something that was truly lost on me my first few years in this business. I was only worried about what we were doing and how we were doing it. But at some point, along the way I realized that we have a responsibility not only to ourselves and our employees but to our industry as a whole. A responsibility to improve it, grow it and learn from others so that not only are we moving forward but our industry as a whole is as well. What’s good for our industry is ultimately good for us. Being a part of NALP allows us a voice and opportunity to help shape the future.
In five years, where do you see your business going? Where will you be?
I expect that we will continue to grow and learn. We will not only be a bigger company in five years but a better one. How much bigger? I don’t know, but as I said earlier, regarding our motto, if we genuinely do our best every day, we’ll be just fine. As far as me, I’ll be here enjoying the ride—at least most of the time!