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Small Business Spotlight: A Yard and a Half Landscaping

Small Business Spotlight: A Yard and a Half Landscaping

By: Donna Fenn

“If you’re not happy, you’re wasting your life,” says Eileen Michaels, the owner of A Yard and a Half Landscaping, a Massachusetts-based $1.4 million full service landscaping company. A corollary to that philosophy might be “if your employees aren’t happy, you’re wasting an opportunity.” 

Michaels, who started her company with one Toyota pickup truck at age 40, lives by those words and has reaped rewards because of it. Recently, A Yard and a Half Landscaping was named a “Top Small Company Workplace” by Winning Workplaces.

Taking a Chance on a New Start
Back in 1988, Michaels was working for large utility company. But as a passionate gardener, she was becoming more and more disenchanted with “being cooped up.”

Her restlessness came to a head that summer when she drove her sister to Wyoming to take a seasonal job with the National Forest Service. “I was driving home and I was feeling so envious of her,” recalls Michaels. “Then I thought, I don’t have to be envious. I could do something like that if I had the courage.” By the time she arrived back in Boston, she had decided to quit her job and start her own landscaping company.

Michaels learned an important lesson from her former employer, where benefits were so generous that it was often difficult for people to muster up the motivation to leave. But Michaels knew first hand that hefty benefits don’t necessarily make employees happy and productive, and she took that lesson to heart as she grew her own company.

“The benefits that we’ve established have come directly from the needs of our employees,” she says. She pays 50% of health insurance premiums for all employees and began offering dental insurance this year to accommodate her employees’ growing families. The company also offers a Simple IRA and belongs to a credit union where employees can get low cost loans that can be paid off through payroll deduction.  The company is very family friendly; one office worker brought her new baby to the office three days a week for a year.

By tailoring her policies to her employee base and by aligning benefits with company goals, Michaels has succeeded in building a highly engaged, stable workforce. The result is that she spends little or no time and money on recruiting because current employees are eager to bring friends and family into the company. Beyond basic benefits, here’s how her company culture drives success:

Hire the right people. Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? When Michaels first started her company, she hired college students looking for summer work, which doesn’t sound like a bad choice for a landscaping company. “But they didn’t see it as a career,” says Michaels. After a frustrating few years, one of her steady employees laid it on the line for her: “You need more employees like me,” he said. “Bring them on,” responded Michaels. Now, her field workforce is largely made up of Hispanic people who come from cultures where landscaping is viewed as a prestigious career.

Invest in employee development.  “We’re constantly doing training in the field and sending people to workshops,” says Michaels. One of her project managers is taking a course to learn about property maintenance. “We’re paying for that 100% and also paying him for the time he’s in school,” says Michaels. 

But it’s not just managers who are offered training. Michaels provides tuition reimbursement to all employees for job related education. She also sends field staff to training sessions offered by vendors who might teach them how to, for instance, install outdoor lighting, or build a pond.

For Spanish speakers, English classes were offered on Saturdays until employees told Michaels that they would rather work overtime in the summer. Now, English instruction takes place in the winter. “People who speak English have a leg up in the company because the first step up is to crew leader and have to be able to talk to customers,” says Michaels.

Open the books.  A Yard and a Half practices open book management, which means all employees are given access to the company’s financials. “It’s the best thing you can do,” says Michaels. “If they can see what the company is doing and how their contribution makes a difference not only on sales but on expenses, they feel much more engaged.” 

Once a month, the entire company meets and Michaels goes over the P&L statement, line by line; she asks everyone to evaluate how the company is doing in comparison to the budget. If expenses need to be cut, employees brainstorm on how that will be achieved. 

At one meeting, an employee pointed out that trips to the dump during construction jobs resulted in too much downtime. His suggestion: rent a dumpster from a third party for the job site. “It was a no brainer,” says Michaels. “We started doing it at the beginning of this year and on any given job, it saves us $2,000-$3,000.”

Acknowledge and reward.  Michaels used to give out bonuses on a quarterly basis, but stopped because employees eventually took them for granted. “Now, we give bonuses all the time,” says Michaels. But, she says, the rewards are given “when someone does something that heads the company in the right direction.” For instance, when a work crew finished a job earlier than anticipated, Michaels surprised the team leader with a $200 drill set that she knew he wanted. Members of the crew received $100 gift cards.

“We always try to celebrate accomplishments and we do it in a public way,” she says. Smaller rewards might include gift certificates to Duncan Donuts or McDonalds. “It’s in keeping with the value to the company and it’s typically left up to the project manager,” says Michaels.

Michaels estimates that her $1.4 million company is more than twice as profitable as the average landscape contracting company. That clearly didn’t happen by accident. “We have people who have been with us for 12 or 15 years and that’s what has allowed us to grow,” she says. “People feel part of the business in a way that I never felt part of at a larger company.”