Seven Years and Still Learning

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Lawn & Landscape
June 2017
By Marty Grunder

After having just gotten off the phone with Jim McCutcheon, CEO of HighGrove Partners in Atlanta, I had some great motivation to write this column. A trained landscape architect by way of the University of Georgia, Jim is also one of the savviest businessmen I know, steering his company to become an acclaimed leader in commercial landscaping services, and demonstrating a dedication to our profession that’s as contagious as it is inspiring.

I had called Jim to iron out the final details on a fun educational event the great Frank Mariani and I will be holding (“Frank and Marty’s Excellent Adventure”) with the National Association of Landscape Professionals at HighGrove in August. As with every conversation I’ve had with Jim in the seven years since Frank introduced us, I was struck by just how much there is to learn from the man.

Here are some of the most valuable lessons I’ve come away with:

It’s Not Enough to Have a Strategic Plan

You have to maintain a consistent and committed focus on it. I often marvel at the corporate organization Jim has succeeded in bringing to his business, particularly in what can sometimes seem like a fly-by-night field. In the 24 years I’ve been consulting, I’ve watched the green industry mature – all for the better. But while I encounter far fewer landscape companies today that don’t have a strategic plan than I used to, I don’t know many who are as keenly trained on following their plan as Jim’s operation is. At HighGrove, their strategic plan is not just a piece of paper in a drawer or a file on a desktop. As Jim puts it, their plan is not something that they do. It is what they do. That’s why they have a whole room devoted to it, filled with their key metrics on whiteboards, where the senior leadership team meets regularly to discuss what Jim calls their Drivers of Success.

Everything You Do, and Every Decision You Make, Communicates Your Brand

In branding, we all know how important it is to get the obvious right—the logo, slogan, color palette, website, signage, letterhead, and all the other usual suspects. HighGrove gets these right in spades and recently completed an impressive rebranding. But Jim will tell you all those items are only part of your brand. Your brand is also the relationships you foster with your clients, the way you treat your team, and the culture you instill at and in your company. That’s why HighGrove has a customer advisory council, why their sales team has a budget for client events, why the company holds regular town halls for staff and an annual retreat, and why they have a whole team devoted to community service.

Landscaping Is Not Just a Job, It’s a Profession

If we want the green industry to thrive, we have to continue to elevate landscaping as a profession with its own specialized knowledge, skills, and standards, and we have to shape consumer understanding of the value that professionalism brings. Jim is a leading advocate in this effort, having served as a past president of NALP and now chairing its public affairs advisory council. He donates his time and treasure to education and advocacy on behalf of our profession. If there’s an event or cause that will help landscape pros, he jumps right in. And then with his infectious enthusiasm, he turns around and motivates a great many of us to do the same.

You Can Be a Great CEO and a Great Dad

Like many of you, I’ve worked long hours to get where I am and I’ve struggled at times to balance the demands of my landscaping and consulting businesses with those of being a father. Heck, I still struggle, especially after an exceedingly long day at work when all I really want to do is go home and go to bed but my son has a lacrosse game an hour away. Jim makes all this look easy, leading a team of 250 employees, while always being present for his kids, taking weeks off to spend with them, and making sure he’s active in their lives. His example is a constant reminder and an inspiration that you can excel at both.