Birthday Reflections

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Ohio Nursery & Landscape Association
The Buckeye
July/August 2018
By Marty Grunder

At the end of April I celebrated my 50th birthday. I can’t say I exactly looked forward to this milestone but, as my mom likes to remind me, aging sure beats the alternative. And while I’m not as skinny or as fast as I used to be, I’d like to think I’m a fair bit wiser than my younger self, and I know for certain I have a tremendous lot to be thankful for. 

This was abundantly clear the morning of my birthday when I headed into what I thought was an early meeting with my leadership team and instead found my staff gathered for a surprise celebration.  

As we feasted on bagels and pastries and coffee, Amber, our director of human resources and a longtime member of our team, proceeded to take us all on a walk down Memory Lane with a slide show highlighting key moments in the history of our company, which I started as a high-school student to make money for college. The show was moving and hilarious and humbling—there’s nothing like watching a video with your team of your 16-year-old self, tube socks pulled up to your knobby knees as you push a garage-sale mower over a lawn, to stop you from taking your current self too seriously.  

The slide show also prompted me to reflect back on what I’ve learned over the years and what I wish I’d known when I was a young person starting out. By no means do I have all the answers now but, like all of you, I am always striving to get better. Here’s what I’ve figured out the hard way, so you don’t have to: 

Know your worth and ensure you’re compensated for it. The video Amber shared of me in the tube socks is actually from an old TV spot the local news station did after I called them to complain that the Holiday Inn had not paid us for mowing their grounds for ten weeks running. We charged $80 a week, and when you’re a high-school student in 1984 trying to launch a business (or just stay solvent), $800 is a lot of money. Unsurprisingly, once the TV spot ran, the hotel paid their bill.  

Today, though our prices have gone up quite a bit since 1984, we have no problem collecting our due and don’t need a TV station’s help to do it. 

That’s because now I know to be clear with our clients up front about their and our expectations and to get a signed contract in place. We require a deposit, and we invoice immediately once we’re done with a job and our clients are happy with the work we’ve done. If you find you have an accounts-receivable problem, you may very well have a customer-service problem; talk to your clients to see what the hold-up is and work to get any issues resolved. Above all, be proud of the work you do and don’t be afraid to insist you’re paid accordingly for it. 

Hire smart, then delegate—but don’t abdicate. It took me a long time to grasp this. In typical first-time business-owner fashion, I used to think the only way to get something done right was to do it myself. I also thought that, as the owner, it was my job to know more than anyone else on my team and to make every decision. 

But the truth is that the only thing that approach will get you is an ulcer and a very limited future. No company can grow or scale if it remains reliant on a single person. What’s more, no one person has the market cornered on knowledge and wisdom. Hire smart, communicate and instill in your team the vision you have for your company, and then empower them to make their own decisions and execute. Keep your eye on the bottom line and help correct course when you need to, but you’ll be surprised how much more your team can accomplish when they’re given the space, the tools, and the trust to deliver. 

The customer may always be right, but you might not be right for the customer. In our line of work, we’ve all faced difficult clients from time to time. Some want to override our horticulture knowledge and ask us to install a full-sun plant in a shaded area. Others expect us to repeatedly perform tasks at their property that we haven’t contracted or budgeted for. And then there are those who seem never to be satisfied no matter how much we do to accommodate them. 

When I was younger I would try to please everyone all the time. I’d politely defer to clients’ wishes regardless of how much I disagreed. I’d do everything to make them happy, even when it meant losing money on a job. 

These days I still treat every prospect and client with respect, but now I know that not every customer is the right fit for my company and we’re better off politely passing on those jobs than filling our days with frustration.  

Count your blessings. As we watched the slideshow at my birthday celebration, I took a look around the room at all the wonderful team members gathered there who have helped make my company successful and my career fulfilling. I’ve been at this 36 years now and I still love coming into work every day, in no small part because of the people. And that is a milestone I’m proud to have met.