If you ask anyone who uses the NALP’s Trailblazer Mentoring Program why other members should consider using it, they’ll often say it’s a no brainer. The program allows member companies to learn from volunteer industry professionals who share their knowledge about how to run successful lawn care and landscape companies. Participants often meet at the Trailblazer’s company, learn about their operations and receive candid advice to help with business challenges.
Get Advice from Successful Company Owners
Deborah Wade, co-owner of Wade’s Lawn Service, based in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, says years ago they were trying to turn the corner with their company and reached out to a larger company in Tennessee to see if they could learn from them.
“I felt that we needed to get connected with someone who had paved this road before so that we could learn some of the do’s and the don’ts,” Wade says.
She says she also wanted to see how other companies functioned so they could implement systems that would help them grow their business. The company declined because they were concerned about Wade’s Lawn Service eventually growing to be their competition.
She began contacting different companies in Georgia and the only one that got back to her was HighGrove Partners, LLC, based in Austell, Georgia. CEO Jim McCutcheon, LIC, got her connected with NALP and they began taking advantage of the different programs and events. One of those programs included the Trailblazers.
Both McCutcheon and Maurice Dowell, LIC, president of Dowco Enterprises helped Wade’s company as Trailblazers. Wade says she’s stayed in touch with her Trailblazers and they have always made themselves accessible if she has a question.
She says their site visit to HighGrove Partners was amazing and she liked how efficient the company is getting its crews out in the morning.
“One of the things that he (McCutcheon) told us was how to basically set up our customer base, in terms of instead of doing bi-weekly mowings, take those mowings to weekly mowings,” Wade says. “It would just be better for you all around because you won’t have to have as many customers, but the customers that you have, you could do just as well.”
Wade says when they implemented that change, they were anxious and expected to lose half their customer base.
“When we went to weekly mowings, we gained more customers,” Wade says. “We didn’t lose anybody.”
Wade says their visit to Dowco was very impressive as well. She says they were allowed to sit in on staff meetings where the company discussed their vision and forecast for the business. They also visited several of Dowco’s jobsites to see how the crews worked together on the properties.
“They gave us access to look at those different forms and those different systems that they have in place, and then not only that, but they even gave us a copy of some of those things that we could take back with us,” Wade says. “So we’ve been able to take those things and use them in our company and implement different policies and procedures and different things like that because they’ve already done the work and they were so gracious to share it with us so that was a major blessing.”
Benefits of Participating
McCutcheon says based on the feedback from the mentees he’s worked with over the years, participating in the program was a leapfrog event for them.
“They say, ‘I could have spent many more years trying to figure this out, but by the time I left I had years of experience,’” McCutcheon says. “That’s why it’s a no brainer.”
Wade encourages other companies to consider using the program if they haven’t tried it yet.
“It is one of the most important things that you can do for your business,” Wade says. “It is one of the most important things that you can do even for your own professional development. We know that Scripture tells us that iron sharpens iron. So, it’s good to be around other people who have done it, who are doing it, who are successful, and who can show you things.”
Wade points out that Trailblazers can show you the ropes and some of the mistakes you don’t have to make on your own.
“You don’t have to fall in the same ditches,” Wade says. “You can avoid those things when people who have done it before you can just tell you, ‘Here this is the way I did it and this is what worked for me.’”
Tom Heaviland, LIC, one of the Trailblazers and president of Heaviland Landscape Management based in Vista, California, encourages members to not be shy and to take advantage of the free program.
“I always take something that somebody is doing, I don’t care how big or small, there’s always something that they’re doing that’s unique,” Heaviland says. “I always gain something tangible. It’s always rewarding to participate.”
Big Changes Can Result From the Trailblazer Program
As for how large your company can grow after using the Trailblazer program, Heaviland says he need only point to his mentee Joe Chiellini’s company ASI Landscape Management, which he says is now as large or larger than Heaviland Landscape Management. McCutcheon says company growth can vary. One mentee he was able to help shift from doing residential and commercial work to solely commercial jobs.
“In other cases, it’s people where they’re probably doing the exact same thing before, but they figured out how to price better and actually make money,” McCutcheon says. “It’s not necessarily a top-line issue. It certainly can be, teaching you how to sell better, but in most cases where it really helps is the bottom line.”
The Trailblazer program isn’t just for smaller companies either. Heaviland says Dowell has also utilized the program and visited his company.
“I said, ‘Well let’s just make this a two-way street,’” Heaviland says. “’We can look at each other’s organizations and best practices,’ so I don’t think you need to be the small company that’s looking to improve and develop. There are guys like us, the Maurice Dowells of the world, that just want to get out and meet other people.”
McCutcheon agrees that even larger companies can find value in the program and it is a good way to learn from each other.
What To Expect
Trailblazer site visits are typically just a day with the visiting company often coming in the night before to get acquainted with the Trailblazer before spending the following day at their headquarters. Heaviland says he prefers to visit his mentee’s headquarters but the program can work both ways with mentees visiting the Trailblazer’s company as well.
“I want to meet their people,” Heaviland says. “I want to see their operation firsthand. I want to be there in the morning when the crews get out. I want to meet their leadership team. I think it’s more beneficial for me just to see firsthand.”
McCutcheon says early on he would visit the mentee’s operations, but he says he’s found having folks visit HighGrove has had greater value over the last five or 10 years.
“Not only do I spend time with them, but they spend time with our head of sales, head of customer service, head of operations, so it’s a much more well-rounded experience,” he says.
Both McCutcheon and Heaviland say they request a fair amount of information from the mentee to properly prepare. McCutcheon has a phone call with the mentee to find out what they are hoping to gain from the visit. He requests information such as three years of financials, an organization chart, an explanation of the company and their challenges so his team can be up to speed when the mentee arrives.
“I give them a laundry list of things that I’d like to see like financial statements and a sales and marketing plan, vehicles and equipment lineup, their people and their accounts,” Heaviland says. “I like to get as much information as I can and then I spend a fair amount of time poring over it. I’ll give the financials to my CFO and have her take a look and see if she sees anything. I really want to be prepared.”
McCutcheon says he will provide the mentee with all the pieces of information they requested, and he encourages them to contact HighGrove if they have any other questions in the future. After the site visit, he says it’s dependent upon the mentee to stay in touch.
For those thinking the Trailblazer program is similar to a peer group, Heaviland explains Trailblazers is more intimate and allows for one-on-one focus on certain areas your business may be struggling with.
“The Trailblazer side of it really allows a longer duration of focus on that particular company than one peer group meeting,” McCutcheon says. “It’s a way for them to let their guard down a little bit and understand what it means to share and be willing to be open because if you can’t do those things in the Trailblazer environment you’re not going to do well in a peer group.”
Making the Most Out of the Program
To make the most out of the program, make sure you understand what kind of company you want to be. While any Trailblazer may be able to help you to a degree, it’s best to match with one that has the same company makeup you are trying to become.
“Really do your due diligence and look for that right mentor with the right scope that you’re looking for,” Heaviland says. “Don’t be afraid to say maybe it’s not a good fit on both ends, whether you’re a mentor or mentee.”
Wade advises when you do your site visit to listen and ask plenty of questions.
“You’ll be amazed at what you come back with,” Wade says. “Everybody I think needs to do a Trailblazer visit. Even the ones who are really developed in their company could still do a Trailblazer visit with someone else because you can always learn something. You never get to the place where you’ve just arrived, and you know everything. So, you can always learn, and you can always grow and you can always develop.”
Becoming a Trailblazer
Heaviland has been a Trailblazer for at least 15 years now. He was mentored by Trailblazer Wayne Richards, former president and COO of Cagwin & Dorward, based in Novato, California.
“Wayne and I are still very close friends to this day,” Heaviland says. “He was terrific. He was very forthcoming with information and always available. He’s a great guy and very well-regarded and respected.”
Heaviland says he felt like there were no secrets with Richards. He says his Trailblazer was generous with his time and sharing information.
“I’ve always tried to do that with the companies that I mentor,” he says. “Whatever you need, whatever I have that I can share, it’s yours. No need to recreate the wheel if you need job descriptions or a chart of accounts.”
He says the program has been fun, rewarding and the biggest benefit is making lifelong friendships.
“I’ve been in the green industry almost 36 years and you never walk alone,” Heaviland says. “There’s always people along the way that have guided, mentored and helped me. I just have that pay it forward attitude.”
McCutcheon says serving as a Trailblazer is wonderful and he learns a lot himself when working with mentees.
“While my business might be 10 times, 20 times or 30 times their size, and I can tell them a lot about the operations and sales, there’s always things that as the mentor that you that you gain from this, not to mention the friendships,” McCutcheon says.
“This probably some of the greatest investments of your time that you’ll ever make,” McCutcheon adds. “It will certainly pay off financially. I think everybody gains from this kind of relationship. It’s really just a matter of having the courage to share.”
This article was published in the Jan/Feb issue of the magazine.