The commercial landscaping industry, like much of the economy, is up against several challenges and market forces brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here, Schill Grounds Management CEO & President Jerry Schill discusses these issues and shares what property managers can do to limit their effects and ensure a successful partnership with their commercial maintenance provider of choice.
What are the key trends you're seeing in the commercial landscaping market in 2022?
Jerry Schill (JS): One of the biggest things that has everybody in the industry up at night is the disruption of the supply chain. It's got everybody a little unnerved, both from an availability standpoint as well as a cost standpoint.
These are very real problems. We're hoping to get the trucks we ordered last summer before spring this year. We used to be able to buy a semi-load of mowers and have them here in a week. Now it's months to get them. Not only has the cost of fertilizer gone up 100 percent or more, you can't even get it. There are similar disruptions in the supply of and pricing for plant material, especially larger trees. Not to mention the cost of gas and fuel going up.
Other challenges include the labor market and less access to our customers than we used to have just two years ago.
How is the labor market affecting your business right now and how are you handling it?
JS: Labor always has been a challenge in our industry because we do tough work. COVID is making it even more difficult to stay staffed.
We’re doing our best to use technology and every piece of equipment that you can imagine to overcome this challenge. We have plans to implement autonomous commercial lawn mowers soon. We have GPS and other software that gives us information in real time, allowing us to run our businesses that much better and pivot that much quicker.
Because of the sheer size of our organization, we’re also fortunate to have five HR folks on staff and a marketing director. They place ads strategically, optimize them, get out in front of people, attend trade shows, pound the streets in the local communities, and look for recruiting opportunities. We're constantly working on it, every single day. Recruiting is the one thing we do the most of around here, aside from cutting grass.
We’re also focusing on retention with an employee engagement program called SGM Cares. We’re having monthly and quarterly events to feel connected as an organization. We also do quarterly town halls at every location, not to mention competitive pay and an industry-leading benefits package. We want to be the employer of choice, not just in Ohio, but in the industry.
What overall advice do you have for property managers when it comes to purchasing commercial landscaping services in 2022?
JS: Whether you're up for renewal or you're looking for a new contractor, buy early. Otherwise, you may get stuck with a contractor who says yes, they can service your account, but the reality is they're not going to be able to service you the way you expect to be serviced.
Smart landscape companies know their limits and what they have the capacity to do, and are going to sell to those limits. If you don’t buy early, you're going to be stuck dealing with tier two and tier three contractors versus having a quality contractor working for you.
When there's a ton of demand and a limited workforce, you need to get your affairs in order quickly. So if you own a shopping center or manage an HOA, and you know you're going to need the grass mowed and the snow plowed, you need to sign on with a contractor as soon as possible.
How else is SGM helping customers manage economic challenges?
JS: We're looking at ways we can be flexible with the scope of work. Maybe you’ve been doing 32 visits a year for the last 15 years, but you can scale back to 28. We're proposing alternative solutions when it comes to landscaping, such as choosing plants that will require less maintenance and fewer input costs.
We continue to see multi-year contracts as the smartest play for customers. We get better at servicing their property from an efficiency standpoint, and we can pass along those savings to the clients, so it’s a partnership.
We're looking at technology and sustainability, which go hand in hand. We're routing more efficiently. We're using alternative fuels like propane. We’re using bionutritional products, limiting the use of synthetic pesticides.
Is there anything else commercial property managers can do to balance their needs with the challenges in the marketplace?
JS: People are a lot less accessible than they were pre-COVID. We understand some people aren’t yet comfortable meeting face to face, but it’s still important to build a relationship with the person that you're working with.
We recommend sitting down with us and reviewing your scope of work, which we find in many cases was written 10 years ago and has not been revisited. There are so many different and better ways to do things today. When a property manager spends a little bit of time with their account manager, they may be able to find some dollars here or there and still see the same level of service.
SGM is growing quickly through acquisition. What changes should I expect if I’ve been a customer of McCoy Landscape Services, The Ohio Valley Group, Ward + Thornton Landscapes, Fredericks Landscaping, or Envrioscapes?
JS: We’re buying these companies because they already do things very well and they have a very good customer base. We do everything in our power not to disrupt customer relationships or processes. You’ll still see the team driving Ward + Thornton trucks, for example, and showing up in Ward + Thornton uniforms. You’ll still be getting the same great service, and in some cases better.