November 1, 2015
The basics, once again 


Rod McDonald I was delivering a lecture on garden centre management in Portage la Prairie, Man., several years ago. I looked out into the audience; sitting front row and centre was my longtime friend, Jan Pederson. Jan’s father had worked at Shelmerdine’s in Winnipeg for years, and typical of most immigrant fathers, he took his son to work. Jan started in the trade as a box boy at Shelmerdine’s and years later, he was one of the owners. He truly grew up in the trade.

After I had finished my seminar, I asked Jan why he was there, noting, “You could have delivered that seminar as easily as I did.” Jan was a wonderful garden centre operator. He told me that attending my seminar was similar to attending church. “I already believe, but I like to hear the gospel being preached again and again.”

Jan made me laugh. I had never seen myself as a preacher though my three sons have often asserted that I do sermonize, hold court and speak from a soap box. Kids, huh?

What you are about to read, as this column progresses, is not rocket science. I have never attempted to reinvent the wheel or claim that I once did. What I do is observe.

I watch how things are done, how people behave and I take note and I write about those events.

Years ago, in the late ’90s, I had a column in The Regina Free Press about everyday life. It was my take on what often passes unnoticed, yet still exists. A friend once asked how and where I got my ideas. My response was that when I was stuck (writer’s block), I simply went down to a coffee shop in Cathedral, the funky, artsy part of our city, took a window seat and I watched people walk by. “After one hour, I have at least three ideas for a story, just by watching the action on the street.”

That is the set-up for today’s column. I mentor and advise several young people. Most are from our trade, but a handful own other businesses. One even manages a nonprofit organization. They call, ask questions and discuss concerns. Fair enough. I hear things from their calls that remind me of when I was in my 20s, starting out, and how many wrong paths I followed. I often think that I blundered my way onto the success road but, in reality, I have to acknowledge that there were elders who guided me when I needed help the most. Here is a sampling of a few issues discussed with younger members of the business community this year. None of the topics are all that new to seasoned vets, but all are important.

A jaw dropper

Recently, I had a young landscaper drop by for a chat. He had been speaking to a retired landscaper who had told him that written contracts and estimates were not a necessity. “A verbal contract is worth as much as a written one,” he had said.

I blew a gasket. Nothing could have gotten my juices going as that piece of stupidity. A contested verbal agreement is reduced to nothing more than a ‘you said, did not, yes you did’ exchange. All, not some, business deals should be in writing, and if something is mentioned in passing, even just once, and it is not part of the body of work, it should be noted in the written part. “Work does not include repairing the eaves trough.”

I gave that advice to a fellow ten years ago. He was in the home repair business. He came to regret not having followed it. A customer had hired him to do some basic patch and paint. She asked for pricing for each area. When they arrived at her back hallway, it was a tricky area, expensive to complete and she felt the price was too high and she said not to paint it. He gave her a verbal quote and when he had completed the work, she asserted he was to have painted the hallway, claiming no memory of her previous instructions. He said to me, “I should have written it down that she did not want the hallway done and included it in the estimate.” He was right. No verbal agreements.

Go with your gut

If you are doing an estimate and you start picking up a vibe that something is not above board with the job or the customer, walk away. Your gut is often smarter than your brain. You are probably sensing a predator, someone who will eat you alive, once they have you in their grasp. At least three times a year, I have this conversation with younger contractors, regarding uneasy feelings they have when bidding a job. Most predatory customers never call experienced tradespeople. They usually call the newbies who don’t know any better. There was a young man opening a brand new greenhouse and he had received an order worth $70,000 from a garden centre. He was ecstatic. One problem: The ordering garden centre had a reputation for rarely paying its bills, often seeking out the new operators who were not aware of that reputation. Life sucks when you don’t get paid.

When I receive a call from someone I mentor, they are often complaining about some aspect of a job. The job has gone over budget; the customer has been extra fussy; employees have not shown up for work and so on. I get it because I have lived it. You can do many, many things to improve how you run your business, you can install all sorts of safeguards, but that does not mean everything will go according to plan every day. Be prepared to have things not go as planned, no matter how much planning you have done. As my mother, the Scottish farm girl, used to say, “Some years you get corn, some years you don’t.”

Don’t play the blame game

Along these same lines of plans not always working out, be very careful with explanations to your customer. Perhaps one of your staff was incompetent and you have to redo his work. Do not, I say imperatively, ever explain this to your customer. It makes you look like a fool — someone unable to supervise or control staff. If you need to fix something that has already been done, simply explain, “I am not happy with the way it turned out so I am redoing it.” That makes you sound as if you have high standards and you care about the work you are doing for the customer. Customers buy products and service, not excuses.

There was a fellow, fairly new to the grounds maintenance business, and he was complaining loudly about his customer, a wealthy, retired businessman. He had given the man a fixed monthly fee, and the customer was always demanding more and more. I laughed. The same customer had burnt me back around 1982. I had to tell the young man that he was not the only one to suffer from this man’s incessant cheapness and demands. I asked him if he had realized that every year there was a new maintenance firm at the yard. He had not. Walk away. Life is just too short.  

I was visiting one of my mentees on a job site. The cost to the customer was $80,000. I looked around and took the fellow aside. I pointed out that his brick work, paths and grading were impeccable. “Did you spend around $6,000 just for the gravel and another couple of thousand on topsoil?” I asked. He had. “So, you spent $8,000 for something the customer will never see, yet you only spent around a thousand for small plants that are quite visible?” My mentee justified that he spent so much on the gravel to provide a lasting base and I understood. “But, when the customer pays you the $8,000, and all he sees is small plants that he could have easily purchased at any box store, he or she is not happy. Nothing special and where is your ‘wow’ factor?” It is always easier to collect your bill from a customer who has been overwhelmed by what you have done for him. Always leave them saying ‘wow’.

A perennial conversation I have is the one that goes, “I should have handled things differently.” Join the line, brother. I cannot begin to count the number of times, in the last 40 years, that I wished I would have said or acted differently, either to a customer or a staff member. I often think that experience is a fancy word we old guys use to explain that we have screwed up more often than other people. Never speak when you are enraged, indignant or upset. The adage is that When you speak in haste you recant at leisure.

Way back in 1987, I spoke in haste out of frustration, to a customer who had annoyed me. I was wrong to say what I did. The customer still holds hard feelings.

These are a handful of the issues that I have noticed and the conversations that I have had with others this past year. Again, not rocket science, but basic rules of business.

Talk with others within the trade and those you respect from other business areas. Read, think and reevaluate what it is you do, continually. Always remember that when you break the basic rules of business, you pay a price for that decision. Make your choices wisely and you will stay on the road to success.    


Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years. He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.