Talking with Titans: Phil Key - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Talking with Titans: Phil Key

Phil Key is the CEO of Ruppert Landscape. He recently assumed this role in June 2023 after serving as Ruppert’s president since 2013. He has been working for the company for over 24 years and has over 30 years in the industry.

When you first started as an intern at Ruppert, did you ever think you’d be the president and eventually the CEO one day?

I started working at Ruppert when I was 15 as summer help and that continued through college. Not only did I not think I would have a path to become CEO, I didn’t even think of landscaping as a potential “real job” or career! After submitting a business thesis paper my junior year that included an analysis of the management styles at Ruppert, my professor asked me if I was considering starting my career at Ruppert. Up until that point, it wasn’t even on my radar screen as anything more than a summer job. That’s why I think it’s important we inspire people with the opportunities and careers that exist in the green industry.

What takeaways would you share with others who want to work their way up the ranks of their company?

Someone once gave me this piece of advice: think one position above where you’re currently working. Moving up in a company is hard work and the transitions between doing the work, to managing front-line team members, to managing managers can be challenging to navigate. It’s important to learn as much as you can in every position, but then always watch and learn from those around you. Work on the skills that will help take your career to that next level like developing good problem-solving skills and project management skills, and honing communication and leadership skills. Then work hard to find a company that has a track record of growth because there will be more opportunity available in a company that has that mindset.

How did you go about preparing to step into the CEO role from president of Ruppert?

While my title change to CEO has been recent, Craig deserves the credit for being methodical and deliberate over the past seven years, ensuring I had the training and development I’d need to be successful in the role. I was part of our board of advisors and then a director as we shifted our board responsibilities. I had the opportunity to lead our executive committee, influencing strategic direction with several rounds of our five-year plan, and gaining a deeper understanding of our landscape construction division.

He also encouraged me to build relationships and a knowledge base outside of the organization. To that end, I participated with a CEO forum group, sat on advisory boards of other companies and organizations like NALP, and attended Harvard’s Owners Presidents Managers program. And over the course of the last few years, Craig has delegated more and has started to step back from the day-to-day management, which has provided me the space to be able to step up and fill the role.

What has it been like stepping into the role of CEO after Craig Ruppert?

I’ve had a direct working relationship with Craig for over a decade, and I’ve been a part of his management team for 25 years — so our values and goals are in sync. Craig is a true entrepreneur, and we approach leadership in very distinct ways, but we complement each other. I certainly have big shoes to fill, and I will continue to rely on Craig in his role as executive chairman to ensure we are focused on scaling our culture and remaining true to our values.

What has been your biggest challenge leading Ruppert Landscape?

I think striking a balance between the growth we want to achieve in order to provide opportunities for our team and preserving the close relationships and personalized service that define our company. The challenge lies in preserving the values and principles that have defined us while adapting to a larger operational scale that we’re achieving through both organic growth and through acquisitions.

We want every team member to feel the same sense of belonging and support that has been a hallmark of Ruppert Landscape, regardless of the company’s size. It’s a challenge that requires continuous effort and adaptation to ensure that our growth doesn’t compromise the values and culture that have made us successful.

How would you describe your leadership style?

Probably like most leaders, I’m a work in progress. I try to be accessible and foster an environment where everyone’s input and ideas are valued. I’m open to feedback and always willing to listen to different perspectives. My goal is to empower my team to take ownership of their work and to ensure that everyone understands the key role they play as part of our overall success.

Who do you look to for inspiration?

One of my earliest influences was my father. He taught me the importance of building relationships and being loyal to people and he encouraged me to set goals and work towards those goals, whether it was a school project or a sports team I was on. Today, I’d say that I’m inspired by our team. The commitment that I see from our expanded partners group and from our front-line team reminds me on a daily basis how lucky I am to be surrounded by such talent. And I don’t want to forget my family and friends, who offer support and encouragement and are a great reminder of how important it is to make time to enjoy life outside of the office as well as inside of the office.

What changes would you like to see in the industry?

I’d like to see the industry recognized in a more professional way. It’s an industry that offers a lot of potential. For someone with an entrepreneurial spirit, there is a low barrier to entry for someone who wants to start and own their own business. For others, there are great opportunities to work for an existing company, learn along the way and progress in their career. It’s an industry that requires hard work and a willingness to work out in the elements, so it’s definitely not for everyone. But I like to see the progress we’re making, especially with the efforts of the NALP team, who are helping to get the word out about the professionalism and opportunities that exist.

Where do you see Ruppert Landscape in the next five years?

We’re embarking on a new chapter in our journey through our recent strategic partnership with the capital investment firm, Knox Lane. That partnership will undoubtedly help us grow at an accelerated pace compared to our history. That growth will mean expanded opportunities for our team. They’ll have a greater ability to explore new roles, acquire fresh skills, consider different locations, shoulder more responsibilities, progress in their careers, and ultimately, increase their earning potential.

As we ready ourselves for this period of expansion and the increased opportunities our team will have to transition into new positions, we are dedicated to expediting our training efforts for emerging leaders. Our goal is to guarantee that they possess the necessary knowledge, leadership acumen, and a robust foundation to sustain and perpetuate the core values of the Ruppert culture going forward.

What advice would you give to others trying to grow a successful business?

Don’t be afraid to reach out to your local competitors or bigger players in the industry for advice or guidance. Joining associations like NALP or local associations is a great way to expand those industry relationships. The green industry is supportive, and most companies are either struggling with the same challenges or have figured out a way to move past those challenges and are happy to share their experience.

This article was published in the January/February issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.