November 10, 2016
Bob Allen
Bob Allen

Community commitment

After more than 40 years in the green profession, Bob Allen of Allen Horticultural Services in St. Thomas, Ont., has scaled back business to enjoy time with his family and travelling with his wife Ruby. The Allens funded a scholarship in 2014 designed to help mature students transition to careers in horticulture through the apprenticeship program at Fanshawe College in London, Ont. Allen’s leadership experience includes serving on the boards of the Canadian Agricultural Safety Association, Communities in Bloom, the Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation and serving as president of Landscape Ontario.

What are the keys to success in rural or small town markets?

When we started out in the early ’70s, there was only one other landscape business in town. St. Thomas was a smaller community then, and believe me, if you didn’t meet a customer’s expectations, word spread quickly. So the first thing, of course, is to do business in an honest way and treat every customer — and every employee — with respect.

I’m proud to say we have had customers for 25, 30 and even 40 years. We’ve even worked with some families through multiple generations. And I’d say the reason is the consistent level of quality we provided. On the maintenance end, for instance, we tried to be proactive, and to take care of things before a customer would even bring it up. The little things can make a big impact in customer service.

And the other thing I would mention, is building good relations with other local businesses in our industry. We decided long ago we weren’t going to get into construction work that required large equipment. Over the years there were plenty of customers who would call, looking for something that really wasn’t our specialty, and we were happy to refer them to someone in town who would be a better fit. And down the line, the other companies would often send customers our way, who fit better with us. We were also fortunate to develop great relationships with businesses in our community across a number of industries and services. 

Why was community involvement important to you and your business?

If you want the community to support you, you have to support the community. It really is that simple. However, if you’re going to take part in community building projects or committees, your motivation can’t be to promote your business; people can see through that from a mile away. But if you have a genuine interest in making a positive difference in your community, getting involved in programs like Communities in Bloom is a great way to meet people and to learn.

What defines a great entrepreneur in the green professions?

As a business owner, you have to set the example for your staff and train them so they understand your expectations. Then, you need to give them the latitude to do the job, without micromanaging them to death. Our staff knew that if I had given them a list of things to get done, but I had missed something, they could add it in themselves. They also knew that if a piece of equipment broke, they could take it to our repair shop and pick up a rental; there’s no sense having a crew sitting around all day because equipment broke. 

Another thing to keep in mind is to try to avoid putting all your time and energy into one big customer. I’ve always said that I’d rather have 10 $100-customers than one $1,000-customer. The reason of course is that if the big client — particularly for commercial maintenance work — closes or goes bankrupt, you’ll be in big trouble.

I often tell younger people in the industry that it’s important to allow your staff to have a good work-life balance. We always tried to stick to a set schedule of eight-hour days, and we really didn’t work Saturdays. That way, our staff didn’t get burnt out and they were able to spend quality time with their families or their interests outside of work. I believe they were better employees because of it.

And lastly, and it goes with the other points, the goal of great business owners should be to run their business so that it can run just as well when they’re not there. That goes back to your ability to train employees and to empower them to think independently and to solve problems.