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The Power of Automation in the Green Industry

July 23, 2020 · 40 min read

GIP BLOG Ep4

Automation can be a scary thing, but not for Joe Langton. He thrives off of it. Joe, a self-described serial entrepreneur, is the president of Langton Group, a full-service landscape and snow removal company that figured out automated equipment was the key to growing and scaling.
In this episode of the Green Industry Perspectives Podcast, Sean Adams and Joe chronicle the unique story of Joe ended up in the Green Industry, outlines his “serial entrepreneur” mindset and shares some keys to his successful scaling and automation of his landscaping business.

 

You can tune in above on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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On this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How to hold your team members accountable. 
  • How to look at your landscape business as an entrepreneur. 
  • Why automated equipment isn’t a friend, not foe.
  •  Details on how to use automated equipment in your landscape company. 

What to listen for:

[2:34] Joe’ unique path to owning his own landscape business
[8:25] How the Langton group took the next step in growing their business
[11:15] Holding your team accountable by keeping score
[14:30] Attracting good employees through extreme transparency
[18:55] Understanding your fully burdened labor rate
[25:30] Why automation?
[33:03] How to rally your team around automation.

Links to love

Full Transcript:

Sean Adams:

You are listening to The Green Industry Perspectives podcast, presented by SingleOps, a podcast created for green industry professionals looking for best practices, tactics and tips on running their tree care or landscape business. Joe, welcome to the show. 

Joe Langton:

Sean, thanks for having me.

Sean Adams:

Yeah, it’s our pleasure. So, Joe, like we always do, I like to jump in with some immediate value if somebody just turns this thing on. I don’t want them getting to minute 20 before they can actually pull away a couple things. So, in the spirit of being concise here, wanted to hear in your business, you’ve scaled a landscape company which we’ll definitely unpack a bit about, what are the kind of top two or three things, common threads or themes that you’ve seen that really helped you achieve success as you define it? 

Joe Langton:

So, basically, I think if you’re going to be successful on anything, you have to be passionate about it. So, I’m a very passionate guy and that passion spreads to my team. Okay. I look for people like minded and passionate people. Second, that leads right into the people that I’ve been able to surround myself with since I got started in 1999 has been the key to our growth and success. I honestly could not have done it all myself. When you get really good people, all you have to do is keep them focused and inspired and sometimes I feel more like, how I’m going to put it, like a social worker sometimes, like picking up on people’s facial expressions or whatever and I can kind of see maybe they’re disengaging and I kind of turn into the guy that tries to get them re-engaged. So, that’s second. And lastly, my mom and dad were very humble people, working class but they always treated people well and when you treat people well, they always come back. So, it’s a few easy things. If you are passionate, you treat your people right and you treat your customers right, business is really kind of easy. That’s it. That’s my top three. [inaudible 00:02:08] get it I guess.

Sean Adams:

Love it, love it. Yeah, those are pretty good soft skills for anybody to tackle in any part of life, specifically in business and even more relevant when we’re talking about employees and having to navigate, like you said, sometimes being part coach, part social worker, part therapist and everything in between and all the personalities that we have to try to manage. So, that makes a ton of sense. So, you mentioned that you’ve been in the industry a long time, since the late 90s there. Let’s unpack that a bit. How would you kind of crystallized your experience? Give us an idea of the Langton Group, what you’ve built and just kind of your background, how you got into the space. 

Joe Langton:

Okay. Well, I kind of have a unique background and I think that’s quite possibly what’s one of the success drivers. So, I got married young. I was 19 years old, engaged. I had an opportunity to play college football. That’s important to talk about because sometimes I feel like I run my company like a football team. So, it’s kind of an important little note. So, I’ll give you a background. First job ever had, I was a carry-out at Menards. Taught me a lot. I was interacting with people right out of the gate. I’m loading people’s cars and the better job I did, I got tipped even though I wasn’t supposed to. I got tipped all the time. Secondly, I went to work at Best Buy. I was in retail. Right away they gave me an installation bay. So, this is back when car stereos and alarms were like a big deal because cars didn’t have them in the 90s. So, I was doing that. Ran my own day and I have to plug this. I learned a ton from that experience. It was retail and they let me run my show. I was able to monitor dollar per hour and P&L and I learned a lot. I was a 17-year-old kid that felt like I was on top of the world. From there I went to college. When I got out of high school, I decided not to play football and I went to college for small circuit and analysis. So, nothing business-related. It was electronics related. From there, I got recruited to IBW which was an electrical union, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Now why that’s important is a guy that was in the union, they were very much about like the people. I also learned how to treat people. I think one of the things that I’ve always thought like as a business owner I’ve kind of been on both sides of ball. So, I always like to think I’m a leader, not a boss. 

Now how do I get in the business in 1999 because the math doesn’t add up. I was doing a side job for a guy which was a union no-no in 1999. The guy owned a snow removal company. I was 20 I think. Yep, 20 I would have been. And he asked me to start plowing snow and I did. Fell in love with it. I mean literally the first time it snowed and I was out plowing snow, I was like wow, this is, just I love it. It kind of went with my just get it done kind of mentality. Worked with him for a couple years. He was one of my mentors. He kind of trained me a lot. A lot of what I learned right out of the gate in the industry was by him. So, I wanted my own show. Started Langton Snow Solutions. Right away I was a subcontractor for him. And in 2005, I decided I was going to go full tilt with this. I asked my brother John to be our vice president. So, John Langton is the other owner of Langton Group. And man, things just went crazy. Like the whole time, I was still a union electrician. So, I’ve got to tell you, like I was working my day job and growing my business and now to look back and see where we’ve come is just crazy. And to kind of go full circle where we’ll get to, I thought when I was doing all this stuff as an electrician and the college for small circuit analysis, now that I’ve gotten and become a leader in outdoor automation, it’s like the universe has like wrapped it all up and put it together and we’re set to go. So, anyway, that’s it. Hopefully, that gives you a background. That was a long ramble so I’m going to see if you do want to redirect me or if you want me to keep going down that path.

Sean Adams:

No, that’s all great. I’d love to hear you keep expanding. As you got into that next section, you mentioned how you were transitioning from the side gig to now I’ve got my brother involved, we have another decision-maker, we’re taking those next steps. So, a lot of people I’m sure can resonate with that backstory. I’m sure a lot of us came from that sort of upbringing. Talk to us about the tipping point, when you realized that we’re going to make this a full fledged entity. What was what helped you catapult? Because if we go mid-2000s up to now, we got what? 10-15 year swing there. You guys made some quite large jumps in growth. Love to unpack like what were some of those drivers behind that scale that you guys saw? 

Joe Langton:

Yeah. Okay. So, when I started this, I said I was going to be a snow only company because this is when I thought I was going to stay a union electrician and kind of have my snow removal company that I did when the trades are slow especially in northern Illinois. But the tipping point was when our customers for snow which we would do work for Costco’s, [inaudible 00:07:08] Lowe’s, Walmart’s, Sam’s, like big-box retail was kind of our niche, started saying hey, man, we really want you to do our landscaping. I’m like literally telling them I only want to do your snow and they’re like no, no, no, we want you to do it all. So, this is funny when I look back on it. I was like pushing them away for a couple of years and finally, I just said fine, I’ll bid it. I’ll give it a try. And that was the tipping point. That’s when I realized okay, if I’m going to do this, I need to bring my brother on who loved the green part of the industry. As a matter of fact, now we own like the nursery and we grow our own plants and that’s my brother’s favorite part. We’ve reached a point where I’m kind of branching this way with the snow and the automation and my brother is really staying with the green side, growing plants. But that was the tipping point. 

And then another big thing for us, another tipping point was we were driving—now I look back on it and it doesn’t seem like a lot—but we’d gotten up to about a million and a half in sales and it just felt like we were working really hard for nothing. So, then our next tipping point, we hired a management company actually out of Florida and they came in and man, they really beat us up. They took a look at some of our processes and systems and said hey—they used this analogy which I use today all the time which was you guys are like you’re going to the dryer and instead of bringing a laundry bin and put everything in and if you need two laundry bins, you’re trying to do it all in your arms and you’re dropping socks all over the place and the socks are the profit. Now this was like an eye-opener for me because I realized I need to hire more people, I need to recognize what I’m really good at and stop doing what I don’t really need to be good at. I could pay other people to be good at and that was it. I mean that was like the massive growth right after that because we put the systems in place to monitor the people, make the people realize we were keeping score and that’s where the explosion hit. 

Sean Adams:

Yeah. That’s a great piece to bring up and something that we find these thresholds that companies hit and they ladder up, they take another step and another step and in each growth stage, there’s specific bottlenecks, specific growth points we have to kind of push through. So, you mentioned you brought in a management company, a strategic consultant coach and fill in the blank with whatever vernacular you want to use and you mentioned that they started to kind of help you align document processes, implement systems. Conceptually, a lot of people understand what that means that they need to do it but what I hear all the time is how the hell does that work? Like where do we even start? So, pick an example you want. Maybe it’s the team mentality or keeping score. I think that’s a good way to put it. Can you unpack that a little bit more on what you really did tactically there? 

Joe Langton:

Okay. So, I’m going to talk to snow removal side. So, we have 290 employees at Langton Snow Solutions. One of the things that makes us different than most snow contractors is we’re a self-performer. So, I don’t subcontract that work. So, when I say 290 people, that’s 290 people on my payroll. They get paid every two weeks and the reason for that is I can manage that person. In a subcontractor model, you can give them the work and give them the scope but you really can’t manage them by law. Most companies, I don’t know how they get away with it but they do it all the time. So, then what we did was is I said—this is going back the football thing—I needed practicing not because I didn’t like hitting people and knocking them around but it was just at the end of the day, nobody knew who really won in that. But the game though, you knew who won. So, what I said to the management company was I need to figure out a way when I managing 290 people to not allow people to get lost in the shuffle. 

So, the first thing we have to do is define industry standard. So, we’re part of Snow and Ice Management Association and we said to Snow and Ice Management Association what can a shoveler do every hour? Well, that number is 1,600 square feet. Right? So, now when we’re doing our bids, we’re bidding shoveling at 1,600 square feet an hour. Okay? But then when the people are clocking in and out of their tasks, we are monitoring how many square feet they’re shoveling in a snow event to break down what it is in an hour. Now what we do is we separate top five performers and bottom five. Okay? Top 5% and bottom 5%. What we do is we have supervisors retrain the bottom five to figure out why they can’t perform the industry standard and then the top five performers, we reward with as cheesy as this sounds shirts that say you’re following a top performer in the snow and ice industry. Okay? That’s it. It’s on the back of their shirt. You would not believe how many people fight for getting these shirts. It’s the easiest thing we could give them but we did this in all of our segments. Okay? So, if you’re pushing in a machine, we do this. If you’re salting a parking lot and we define this. Now what we did was we tied this into our billing, we tied this in to our timekeeping. So, basically we’re keeping score. We’re seeing how they’re performing. They have to clock into it for that. We can also take those clock ins for billing. We can take it for productivity. It’s like management. 

And then I can also use it because, Sean, if there’s somebody that’s a bottom five and they keep on being in the bottom five, maybe it’s not them. Maybe somebody underbid a project. So, what we’ll do is we’ll take a top five performer, if we can’t retrain a bottom performer, we will take that performer and put them in a top five account. Let them perform the task at that account and then we’ll take the top performer and put them at that account. If a top performer all of a sudden falls into the bottom line, now we know we have an issue with the bid. Our people love this because we’re not finger pointers. We’re trying to figure out where are we missing a step. We’re problem solvers. We’re a group. So, that’s what we do that and hopefully, I didn’t lose you in that. But that’s what we do. 

Sean Adams:

Not at all. I’m glad you walked through that because that’s a really great example of using data to make what I call unemotional decisions, right? On our smaller companies that come into the mix and they’re looking to grow, they’re in their first few years and they’re scaling and they’re like I can’t get my people to do what I want them to do. When I’m on the job, they work faster or I always can do it quicker than them or we don’t have a good consistent way in which work gets done in our business if we’re talking strictly operations and climbing the tree, mowing lawn, pushing the shovel, whatever it might be. And so, what you’re saying is let’s actually track those things. Let’s let the data speak for itself and let’s let that define this in a more gamified system, right? Everybody likes a game. Everybody likes to keep score. Most people are inherently competitive specifically in an industry like this. They want to be the one with the shirt. They want to be the one moving faster. There’s a sense of accomplishment there. It’s not strictly tied to twenty cents more on their paycheck, right? There’s something intrinsic about being a top performer and that’s got to be very motivating for people to have that level of like I’m in this grouping. So, talk to me about how your team has responded when you switched to this model? You mentioned they’re really liking that. What has that done for your retention in the company? 

Joe Langton:

Well, yeah, I mean it’s amazing what it’s done for us. I mean it helps us find people when other contractors seem to be saying they can’t because the best employees, we get our referrals like other employees say hey, come work for this company. That’s helped exponentially. Secondly, it’s really helped to the team managing itself. So, when I go back to playing football, when you’re out on the field, the coaches are on the sideline. Okay? So, the best teams hold each other accountable. Okay? So, I was the lineman and if I was a guard but then I was a pulling guard. So, if I had to pull down the line and the other guard got blown up, when we get to [inaudible 00:15:17], they’re like hey, man, I can’t make it to the end on this 38 strong trap if you keep getting blown up. The coach didn’t hold him accountable. We didn’t wait for game films. Okay? Which at that point it’s too far in the past. We held each other accountable then. So, that’s what it does because when you think about snow removal and I don’t want to stay too long on snow but it’s the one honestly, I think I’ve automated the best because I’ve been doing it the longest, there are shovelers, there are equipment operators, there are so many people. Like most people that are not in our industry don’t understand the orchestra that is snow removal. At the end of the day, if a shoveler shovels out from the front of a Costco and the machine operator takes a pass and pushes all that snow back on the sidewalk, now instead of the shoveler saying like what the hell, I have to do this again, the shoveler actually tells the operator hey, man, you know Langton tracks my time on this. How am I supposed to key in operator pushed the snow back on the sidewalk? So, it keeps everybody in check. 

I mean I think that was the biggest thing. And then when you go to what the customers see, the customers see people working together because that’s what doing this does. Everybody works together. So, the customers notice a massive difference in what Langton does versus what they’re used to. I’m so proud of what my people do in snow. I mean most people don’t realize they’re out in the worst elements all night. They’re cold. People are coming in because they want to get a gallon of milk and don’t understand that person’s been in a machine for 13 hours already. But they keep their cool. They know it’s what they do. That’s it. Even down our coding, I mean we figured out a way with light bulbs to code snow salting events so that we can change a party lamp so nobody has to wonder how many pounds per acre they have to apply because we basically change the color of all our loading facility and then they use a spreadsheet to know. So, if you automate this, there’s no bottleneck. You send the information out. Everybody’s running off the same information and if we have to change based on test lots, we just change the color of a lightbulb and instantly when they come back to reload with salt, they change the rate they’re applying the salt at. We don’t have a phone tree to call 290 people. They just see that the light changed. 

Sean Adams:

Beautiful stuff. And you used a word in there, orchestra, right? Orchestrating this beautiful operational process and how it all fits together. I think that’s a great way to phrase it and all the work we do, tree removal, even lawn mowing, all of this. There is a sequence, a cadence in which work happens and it’s all in synergies with other crew members, with other services, with other vendors, right? There are all these different factors that can place and odds are you as the owner, you as the top management staff, you’ve got most this information in your head but it’s in this ball of yarn with all this other crap you can’t sort out. So, like what Joe is talking about is sitting down and talking about what would this look like ideally. If I were to actually take all the noise out and map this process out, this project, this service, what is that going to look like and then how can I reverse engineer checkpoints within that so that we’re all kind of checked and there’s going to be data to back up these decisions? I think that is extremely powerful. So, let’s kind of transition gears here too as we move out of snow and then you started doing full service, maintenance, landscape work as well. I want to get in the automation side of things too. So, let’s talk about your transition into the landscape side. How did you apply some of these principles of production rates and tracking data on that minute level into the green side as well? 

Joe Langton:

So, the green side turned into a we have to figure out what dollar per hour each crew needs to hit, right? So, in the green side, what we did in our company and we do it different. Some companies just take it all and say okay, I’ve got to get 65 bucks an hour through all my green stuff. What we decided was that’s unfair because in our market, there’s people mowing grass for 30 to 40 bucks an acre and I know for us like right now, our fully burdened labor rate is 52 bucks an hour. That’s like what it’s costing me to put trucks on the road. Now I’ve been surprised since I got into the automation and I’m talking to some other contractors, trying to help them with their automation, how many contractors don’t even understand what a fully burdened labor rate is Okay? So, what I did was if we figured out what our fully burdened rate was in every segment so lawn mowing, sprinkler, we do irrigation work, so irrigation, hardscape, even down to how much we need per hour for a 50,000 six wheeler going down the road. Figured all those out and then me and my brother said okay, when we first worked with that management company, we said okay, ideally, we want to make like 18% to 20% margin, right? 

But if we all of a sudden start telling our guys and girls, 20% once we figure this out, this might be difficult because what we realized was we were losing money. We were making money in snow season and losing money in landscape season which I think is a perpetual cycle that a lot of people in our industry deal with. Okay? First year, we got going with this we shot for an 8.9% margin and by GM—who’s a great guy by the way, there’s a story in itself about Tanner because quit off shoot. He was a busboy at Blue Valley Ford and drove me home, saw my house with a couple of trucks and ended up now he’s my GM. I met this guy when he was 17 years old and he’s been with me ever since. The best guy ever. He’s like family as much as a GM. But anyways, I’ll get back on track. Here’s what I realized. We could make money doing brick pavers, I could make money putting down mulch, I could make money in any type of hardscape but I was losing it all cutting grass. That’s where I was losing it all. And how we realized this was what we would do is if you were a foreman for me, your name would be on a wall and if you were a hardscape foreman, you would have to be at 79 bucks an hour. If you’re at 79 dollars an hour or higher, you would have that number in green next to your name and we’d do this daily. Like as we build daily, all the jobs you did, we kind of see what you’re rolling dollar per hour is, if you are not in the green, the number would be in red. It might be 62 an hour but it’s in the red. We don’t do this to embarrass people. We do this to hold people accountable to the team because everybody has to come in at the end of the day and drop their job packets and hang up their truck keys and stuff and we just have a board. 

Now I have to say I got this idea. Walmart’s a big customer of ours and most people don’t realize this but I challenge people to notice this next time they go into Walmart. When you use the bathrooms at a Walmart on the back of the store where their employees go to the bathroom, Walmart has a whiteboard that they post what their stock price is every day. I’m not a publicly traded company so I can’t report stock but I can report Langton Group’s dollar per hour every day and when my people come in, I want them to see it. I am not ashamed to ask my employees to be profitable because if we’re profitable, they’ve got new trucks, they have new equipment, they have nicer tools. If we’re not, we just look like a bad company. So, I kind of push them to do that and they respond. I mean they like it. They want to see they’re winning. Back to the score keeping, the dollar per hour is just a score. So, that’s what we do there. 

Maintenance, I started to feel horrible for my guys though and girls because I’ve got especially maintenance, I’ve got a lot of girls. And I started to feel really bad for them because they were always red. So, [inaudible 00:23:22] construction to be like yeah, we carry your asses I say or we carry this and that. I said I got to figure something out different and that really is the lead into automation. I realized that there was no way we could be profitable mowing grass and it’s not because I couldn’t buy equipment to do it fast enough or even bid more money. Okay? Like if I wanted to push my price per acre up, I could but what I cannot account for is environmental pressure. This is the biggest untalked about thing in our industry and what it is, you do five days a week of mowing, then it rains two days a week. You run out of days, you can have even makeup on Saturday and Sunday, right? But if it rains three days, you’re out of time. Okay? So, people skip weeding, they skip edging, they skip picking up leaves. Now in maintenance, this becomes accumulated problem. It’s a cumulative issue. So, now you start going into overtime. Two or three weeks out, you’re an overtime. Customer is unhappy. They think you’re unreliable. 

But the biggest thing that challenge landscapers to realize is when it rains, what do our landscapers do? We cut twice? We don’t want to bag it. So, we cut once, realize there’s clumps, then we go over it again. Well, if I just bid a job at 40 bucks an acre but I cut it twice, that cost me 80 bucks. Now when you get to a company my size, if I’m going to spend in a week of payroll for maintenance a hundred grand but I did everything twice, I just cost myself 200 grand. This is simple math because we’re just talking payroll. So, my payroll is going to double because I did everything twice. Automation solves that problem. I mean completely fixes that problem and this is why I urge any landscaper that wants to talk about automation, this is what I want to talk to them about. That’s what it is. 

Sean Adams:

Perfect segue. You’re making my life easy here. You’re guarding your own outline. That’s awesome. Let’s just jump right into using the word automation. Some people might be coming in this net new. What do you mean by that? Autonomous machinery? Like what does that mean? Talk us through the light bulb moment of when you said holy crap, I’ve got to look into this. This might be a solution to those issues. When that happened, what the first couple steps were of that? 

Joe Langton:

All right. So, this is it. So, we’re going on five years ago now. I went to a landscape show in Illinois, Schaumburg Convention Center, and I literally could see from a distance landscapers were pointing and laughing when they walked past a particular booth and it intrigued me. I wanted to know what everybody was laughing at. So, I get down there and I’m at the Husqvarna booth and to show how far things have come with automation, Husqvarna has their 450X auto mower and they’ve got it on carpet. Why would they bring a vacuum cleaner to a landscape show? I mean this is what it looked like. It looked like a massive commercial Roomba. Okay? So, I go to the guy. I go why’d you bring a vacuum to a landscape show? And obviously, I offended the heck out of him. I mean he literally looked at me like he was going to [inaudible 00:26:36] back at me. And that’s saying a lot because I’m 6’4”, 270 pounds. So, usually people don’t look at me that way. But anyways, so the guy goes it’s a lawnmower. And I go really? And he goes yeah, but you’re a landscaper so you’re worried this is going to take all your work away so you’re probably not going to be interested. 

And I said well, here in lies the problem. First of all, I don’t cut grass. Secondly, you’re at a landscape show so if every person that walks past your booth, you say you’re not going to be interested, you might as well pack up now. What are you doing here? Because the whole room is landscapers. So, he says well, it’s just because every landscaper that’s walked past this booth in the past two days has been so abrasive, I don’t want to be here. Like I’m just going to be honest with you. I’m ready to go. So, I said well, listen, when I said I don’t cut grass, it’s not that my company doesn’t cut grass. I’m just telling you I don’t sit on a lawn mower. I’m an entrepreneur. I’m a businessman. Tell me how it can work. Give me the cost per acre to mow grass with your auto mower. I don’t know. It’s 3,500 bucks. I go but what does it cost per acre? And he’s like I don’t know. 

That was the light bulb moment for me. I literally realized I could be that guy. I can be the guy that figures out what my cost per acre to mow with a robot is. I can be that guy to figure out how to business model and make all the business plans because nobody else is doing it. So, this is then where I realized okay, I just need to buy a few of them. So, I said how do I buy some? So, they say well, we’ll hook you up with a dealer. Well, I told them, listen, I’ve been buying power equipment from these dealers for years. Nobody’s told me about this. You’re not going to hook me up with somebody that doesn’t have any passion for it. I want to be a distributor. I want to sell these things. So, I was lucky enough—and I shouldn’t say lucky because luck is part of just being in the right place at the right time—I was able to set up my own deal and I started Automated Outdoor Solutions and the reason I made a different name company is I want to be able to help other landscapers because in our industry I feel like landscapers, we’re so low margin, nobody wants to talk to anybody about bringing the industry up like we’re doing even right now on this podcast and I thought I’m not going to be what everybody else is and keep it to my little secret. Because I would rather tell people how to do it successfully so we can all start to be seen as successful business owners and not just guys that landscape or girls that landscape because I live in a really nice house, I’ve got a really nice car and people will be like what do you do for a living? And I go I own a landscaping and snow removal company. And they go you’re a landscaper? And it pisses me off every time. Every time they do it. It makes me so upset. But I think I’m speaking for a lot of landscapers because this happens to a lot of us. 

Yeah. So, that was one of the light bulb moments. But I had to use them, right? And I didn’t want to use them for my customers so I used it for me. I put it at my house, my brother’s house. My brother was a skeptic because it did not mow lines. I was like I love my grass. It just is always green. I don’t need to see the lines. But my brother lives on an acre and a half and when you have an acre and a half, you see the lines. My house was only three quarters of an acre and I didn’t see as many lines. They’re always going around my beds. Started using them, saw how many people were intrigued and my first thing I thought I was going to do was just sell them direct to homeowners. Realized very quickly that wasn’t the answer and the reason that’s not the answer is I realized people don’t want to fire their landscaper. People want to keep their landscaper. So, then I realized the way forward was my landscape company had to buy them from my other company I started and now we have the largest fleet of robotic lawn mowers in the country. We’re probably close to 150 mowers at this point that Langton Group owns. We put out on a four-year service agreement and what I’ve done is I’ve lengthened the time of a landscape contract so instead of getting a one year and having to resell it every year, I’ve figured out a way to get four-year deals and my customers are ecstatic. They love it and now it’s turning into an issue. All my employees are asking when they are going to get promoted to be robotic lawn mowing technicians. So, it’s a good problem to have right now. 

Sean Adams:

Awesome. Well, what a story. So, let’s unpack that a bit. So, light bulb goes off, you start using it at your property, your brother’s still skeptic, you’re starting to see that the homeowner is not the answer, you start to integrate it into your true operating business. Let’s talk about those first couple of steps. How did you bridge the gap? The first thing everybody’s going to think is well, I don’t want to be replacing my key employees or whatever that misstep in mindset is there. Talk to us about how you structure this as a true service offering for your clients or I guess the first step how did you sell it to your employees? 

Joe Langton:

Okay. So, great questions. So, first, I’ll start with the employees. When there’s only a few lawn mowers, I think all of my employees know I’m always going to be looking for the latest. I’m a serial entrepreneur. Okay? So, I think at first, everybody thought yeah, this is just Joe’s little pet project. It’s going to go away. Okay? And this is true I think for the first couple of years. And then I started buying more bots and I think once I found a bank that understood what I was trying to do, especially my general manager who had a holy crap moment of like this is real, like we’re going to start putting out robots. But what I did was I had a meeting actually with the employees and said listen, if you can run a zero turn, you can run a skid steer. It’s literally the same type of idea of how you run the machine. And I took some of my best maintenance foremen and said listen, do you want to cut grass the rest of your life? And every one of them said no. 

And I said so, here’s the dilemma. You’re my best maintenance foremen. If you’re all here, it’s because you’re the best. You’ve made it. You’re here and you’re going to hit this ceiling eventually where $40 an acre mowing can’t support $20 an hour work, employee or management. So, in my mind, where it supports it—and now this goes back to the whole dollar per hour on the wall, right?—I told them I can bill more per hour for hardscape work and machine time but I can only bill $57 an hour for maintenance in Chicago market and I know I’m high. There are people that are only $45 an hour in my market. So, I said so, here’s what I want to do. I want to take my foremen and turn you into hardscape foreman. I’m going to have you start working with brick crews and you’re going to learn the next level. Then I’m going to take the people, your best mower, the guy or girl on the lawnmower and just put them as a construction laborer to run the equipment and then the person that you have stuck on that line trimmer for the past three or four years that they’ve just kind of fallen into a they’re not good for anything else but string trimming, I’m going to train them with the robots. 

Now that was a problem at first because they’re like why aren’t you training me on the robot? Like train me and I’m like because you’ve already proven you don’t want to be on the string trimmer. I’ve told you as my foremen, the guy or the girl on the string trimmer is the detail person. I’ve asked you to do it. You’re always the person on the mower when I pull up, right? You’re laughing because this is the way that it is. So, now you’ve proven your colors. You like the machine. You want to be on the equipment and at the end of the day when you have a robot, the only thing you need is somebody pulling weeds and string trimming. So, let’s reward them. So, how I did it in my business is I took two of the people on a three-man crew, put them into construction because there’s a huge labor shortage and was able to promote them. Okay? 

And then I took the other person that hadn’t seen any possibility for promotion, taught them auto mowers and now said you are a robotic mowing technician. Then you do the string trimming and you also change blades on the robot and then I gave them a cell phone and said you are responsible to monitor 50 robots and every day your day starts with how many robots need reset which the reset rates between 5% and 7% on a large fleet like mine and then they say okay. And I say here’s how it goes. You’re going to do your install, you’re going to do whatever I have you do but before the end of your day, you can do it on the front end or the back end, these resets need to get done. Very simple business model. Because the app shows it all. So, now we made our own app. It’s the AOS Langton app and it’s a total CRM. So, my sales people can literally measure accounts and figure out how many robots they need on an account, schedules, technicians. The technicians use it. So, once again, we’re all automated. So, that’s it. That’s what I did for the labor side of it. Okay? The customer side of it was actually harder than the labor. 

Sean Adams:

Let me jump in there real quick because I want to add one thing on the employee end. I want to get your thoughts on this because there’s this idea of mechanization that’s going on and we have a lot of tree care oriented, arbor culture clients that listen to the podcast that are also involved in our communities and the same thing persists. There’s a shelf life for a climber. There’s a shelf life for a guy dragging brush. Nobody wants to do it forever. The climbers do to an extent but also they would like their lives to be easier. They’d like their backs to hurt less and their knees to not need to get surgery every couple of years, right? And so, there’s this logic of like where can I add machinery from the owner’s perspective to make things more efficient. And so, we’re seeing this trend something I prescribe to our clients is to recognize the direction that industry is going and there is automation, there are tools out there like these grapple-mounted trucks and there are auto mowers and there’s going to be more and more operator or machine oriented employees than are going to be labor-oriented. And I think it ties nicely into the crisis that’s happening, right? People aren’t willing to go out there and shovel dirt for 12 hours a day in 100 degrees. And so, the shift to a robotic technician, to the grapple saw, the truck mounted operator, you’re almost like a guy with a collared shirt on now, an employee that’s taken that next stage and you’re in essence like a drone operator. It’s like a video game for a lot of these people and the younger demographics are flocking towards this because that’s what they grew up with. It’s just like all the controllers they’re used to and it’s something that’s much more desirable than breaking your back for the next 30 years because nobody wants to do that, right? So, how have you seen that? Has that tied in? Have you seen a trend in that direction towards this mechanization and a little bit more of an appeal towards the operator versus the endless string trimmer cycle? 

Joe Langton:

A few of the people in the automated side of the company. My daughter is actually COO of AOS. She does a great job. But my two stepsons work on the Langton side and they were on maintenance. And going back, so, we go to my fiancé’s every other year so every two years in California so this kind of makes sense to you. Two years prior to every other time we go, they ask, Kevin and Ray, how they were doing with Joe? How’s work with Joe? And they’re like we mow grass and that’s all they said. Like yeah, we mow grass. And Scott who’s their uncle was like oh, that’s good, honest work and they’re like yeah. Okay? So, then we go to Christmas the next time when I converted both of them to robotic mowing technicians. Actually, Kevin is an installer and Ray is the technician. And once again, the family says hey, what are you guys doing? How’s it going with Joe? And like dude, we’re lawn mowing technicians and Kevin’s like yeah, I install them and program them and Ray‘s like yeah, and I maintain them. I literally sat back and just let them explain the whole thing. Okay? And you want to talk about a light bulb moment? Guidance counselors are not saying hey, sit down, let’s talk about the classes you’re going to take and then when they’re all done, be like I think you’ll be great at mowing grass. Like it’s just not going to happen. Okay? 

So, yes, when it comes to automating things in our industry because I’ve had some hate things on Facebook of like oh, you’re a job killer, you’re just like all the rest. And it’s like listen, you have to be in my industry to understand nobody wants these jobs. Okay? Like I’m not killing any jobs. It’s the fact that nobody wants the jobs that’s keeping me from being a hundred million dollar contractor. I can’t get enough people that want to do it. So, when it comes to this, I definitely see scalability. I’ve actually been, going back to the school thing, we’ve been installing them at schools because I offer a fleet discount to schools if we put them in and every time I put them in at a school, they ask me to come and do a training in their like technologies classes to tell these kids that there is a future in this. And you want to talk about job creation. I mean the big thing and I know this from working with Husqvarna is having a dealer network, which we’re hoping to capture this at AOS also, is to service the robots. When you need to upgrade an MMI board, I mean since I got into this in 2015, it went from 2G boards to 3G boards to 4G boards. We have had to change those robots not only for our customers for ourselves three times. Okay? This was all paid for either under Husqvarna warranty or then I had to pay for it myself but I had to pay a technician to do that. This is all done in an air-conditioned, climate-controlled building on a static mat and it’s like they’ve got their iPod and earbuds playing. They’re happy. So, yeah, it’s a huge opportunity. So, I don’t see it as a job killer. I see it as a job shifter. You’re shifting people from being out in the rain and getting coated in grass and now I also see these younger people all have allergies. So, it’s like you put them on cutting grass and they’re coming back like I can’t do this, I have allergies and it’s like what the heck is happening right now. So, anyways.

Sean Adams:

Couldn’t agree more. I mean this is how things are iterating and improving, right? The guys who were working on horse and buggies and were in the stables all day long were super upset by the Model T and everything that was going to happen. But when you started to adopt like this is where it’s going, you can hate it, but this is the reality. So, you can become a mechanic. Think about all the offshoots that are going to happen because of the rate in which technology is infusing it into all these industries. And so, I think it’s a positive overall and I 100% agree it’s a shift from here’s a job, go and work it to your earlier example of I want to put that T-shirt on that says I’m the top five percent. I’m an operator. I’m a technician for robotic mowers, right? There’s a pride to that. There’s something that’s super attractive and you want to be a part of that and it’s apart from money and everything else. It’s like this company gave me that opportunity. I got a cool little business card that has this little clause on it, right? So, like that’s all part of the mix. So, I’m glad you took a couple extra minutes to explain that. So, I cut you off on the client side. Let’s dive into that and then we’ll kind of round things up here. But talk about the sale to your clients and how you started to present that as an opportunity. 

Joe Langton:

So, when I realized that the clients weren’t just going to buy them direct because that’s what I thought I was going to do, I said okay, how am I going to approach this? So, I thought I was just going to convert people and my brother remember I said was a little skeptical at first. So, John was like I’m not converting my customers to those things. Like we mow lines. We fire people for not mowing good lines. And this is important to talk about because this is what’s good about my brother and I. We’re yin and yang to each other. We’re total opposites. But we come out with a great product in the end. So, I said okay, well, fine, here’s what I’m going to do. It won’t affect anybody’s customers. I want to call the people that fired us and I am going to tell them that I think—so, anytime I’ve ever been fired, if I take the call, I tell my customer listen, if I could clone 50 Joe Langton’s, a) I would be a multi-millionaire and b) I would never have trouble finding work. Okay? And it always diffuses them enough to say yes, I hired Joe Langton but you’ve gotten too large. So, you have Joe Langton doesn’t do all the work. Okay? That’s what happens and I think every business owner, they feel that as they grow. 

So, with robots, I realized I can’t clone me but I can get the next best thing because a robot does the same thing every day. I know a certain robot is going to do an acre and a quarter every day, every 24 hours and it’s going to do it the same way all the time. So, what I did was I called the customers and these are customers that fired us for spraying grass into a freshly mulched bed or my guys or girls when they turned around a tree, they dragged the tire on the zero turn, all typical stuff that landscapers get fired for. Or the big one was for being unreliable because it rains on Monday and Tuesday and the Friday mow forgets that it rained Monday and Tuesday so when we mow them Sunday, they think I just come whenever the hell I want. So, I call them, tell them hey, you fired me because I was unreliable. What if I could put a robot at your house for $2.50 more a month than I was charging you but you get seven mowings instead of a weekly mowing? Okay? To my surprise, about half of the people I called said yeah, I’ll give that a try. That was my first 17 mowers. Like the first 17 clients I sold were them. 

So, I said my brother listen, if these people stick with us and don’t fire us, you have to stop fighting me on this because this is proof. This is proof in the pudding right here that if these people that already fired us, if I can turn them around with a robot, everyone at Langton Group should stop resisting my lead. He said fine, do whatever the hell you want. You’re not affecting my customer. They already fired us. So, I did. So, we did it and holy cow, they were happy and they started referring us to other people. So, then I said to my brother okay, now the conversion time happens. So, then that’s when I realized I had my next issue because it was funding, right? You call a bank and you say hey, I want to buy these robots and the bank says okay, so, the first ones you bought, we were okay with that but what are you actually doing here right now? This is a lot of capital you’re asking for. So, I’m trying to convince them that unlike a traditional lawnmower, if I buy a $15,000 zero turn, I have to put a $35,000 a year employee on it. So, it’s like I would tell the bank like if I buy an auto mower, there’s no employee I put on it. So, you need to change your banking parameters here because when you’re looking at a cash flow model on a P&L, everything is different. 

And I will tell people this is one of the reasons—I’m plugging myself a little here—but this is one of the reasons why people need to work with AOS because I know how to convince the bank to get people money to buy automation. I figured this part out. So, I finally found a couple of banks that understood that and I started converting my commercial customers. So, I have 15 acre sites with 11 robots, I have HOAs with eight robots. So, yeah. So, that was the start with the customers. Once I knew I could take customers that fired us and make them happy, I did not wonder or worry at all if the other customers would fire me because I put automation at their house. 

Sean Adams:

That’s a great synopsis of that and I’m sure we could talk for a couple more hours. I’m sure there’s going to be a flood of questions with all sorts of different elements in this and I wanted to have you on yes, for the technical operational focus of the automation, the mowers, that side of things because I know a lot of our audience would be interested in that. But secondly, I wanted to bring up the way your brain works being that serial entrepreneur, you’re recognizing differentiation is what I can tell. Like anybody can mow lawns or you don’t want people to lose money but there are segments, pockets of our market. We’ve got to find what works for us, what’s going to make us different, what’s going to make us more profitable or have this brand, some sort of differentiator there. So, quickly here in the next minute or two, can you give me an idea of what that looked like. I mean we’re always having people to contact us like I cut down trees, right? So, like at the end of the day, whoever’s doing it quicker, faster, cheaper is going to be getting the work and that’s not necessarily true. What is it about this that’s helped your brand kind of level up and people to recognize that when I’m calling out for a landscape or commercial property, residential, doesn’t matter, I’m getting a different experience when I’m working with Langton Group? 

Joe Langton:

So, the first thing talking about differentiator is we’ve decreased our carbon footprint by 81,000 pounds this year. Okay? So, the first thing that our website actually shows, we have a countdown if you go to AutomatedOutdoor.com and that is what I’ve done with my landscape company, Mariani Landscaping, CT Veach, all the different landscapers in my market I’m working with now as a supplier of what we’ve reduced. Okay? The other thing that makes us different is because the robot stays at their place, we’re more reliable than anybody because the robot is always there. Okay? They’re never waiting for someone to show up. So, you want to talk about differentiation? Every day they look outside at that robot, they know Langton is there. The other thing that the robot does that this is the most under thought about thing is it reports problems back to me. So, if there’s a windstorm in Elgin, I typically know before the people know they lost the tree branch because auto mowers are moving around randomly all over. I will call the customer and say hey, I see there’s a mower trap. I’m going to send somebody out tomorrow. If there’s a downed tree, do you want me to cut it up for 75 bucks an hour? And they’ll be like oh my gosh, I can’t believe you already know about this. 

This is what makes us different. With automation, I don’t have to wait for the phone call. With automation, use everything the bot can do. Don’t just use a bot to cut grass. Okay? And now what’s happened for me is I have Husqvarna, Ambrogio which is the Italian robot. We picked up Left Hand Robotics in our market. So, it’s the machine that does 20 miles of sidewalk and mows 20 acres of grass. SWOZI Field stripers, I can stripe a football field in 22 minutes. The goal for me being a serial entrepreneur is to take these manufacturers that make the stuff and figure out how to put it in our market better than anybody. So, they come to me and say we need AOS and Langton to do it in the real world so landscapers can see how they use our product and put it to use. That’s my goal. Like that is what I want to be in our industry. I’ve actually said in 10 or 15 years, take the money aside, I want people to say like Joe Langton literally figured out how to bring us all together and make us better business owners with automation. 

Sean Adams:

Yeah. Raising that that business standard and also helping the economic effect of what we do and the environmental or ecological effect that we have on our industry and our world. 

Joe Langton:

I just have to add this. Like when I go on a sales quote, so, I have a 93% close rate when I’m on a robot and we track this and we always laugh because I’m at like 93%. My salesmen are not there. If my salesmen could do it, oh my gosh, it’d be amazing. But it’s because I kind of have figured out how to have an answer for everything. But one of my last things, if somebody tells me no, I ask them how they feel about climate change and it’s crazy because some people like don’t even bring that up to me and other people like oh my God, it’s terrible. But I’m an observant guy so when I pull up, if I don’t see a Tesla in their driveway, I say so you believe in climate change. Why don’t you own a Tesla? And they go because I drive too much or I can’t afford one. And I go well, let me tell you what. With me, you can have your little Tesla in your yard, robotic lawn mower that a mower idling makes as much carbon as eight idling vehicles. One lawn mower running rpm makes as much carbon as eight vehicles idling with today’s emissions. There’s no emissions on lawn mowers. So, I explain this to the consumer and say so, if you can’t make a change at your business or at your house with your vehicles, you can make a change with what you mow grass with. They can’t say no. If somebody tells me they believe in climate change but then they don’t want to get my auto mower, they’re a hypocrite. So, anyways, we figured this out and, like I said, it’s a goal of mine to just help other people. That’s why I’m on this podcast with you today is to help other people figure it out because it’s a massive market and I think that we all benefit from starting to utilize it because it will bring the level of professionalism in our industry up a notch. 

Sean Adams:

Couldn’t have said it better myself. Yeah. I think that that’s why I wanted to have you on. We hit it off when we talked a month ago or so and seem to be like-minded in that. That’s the goal is to really help others that you know we’re all struggling with profitability in these different segments, these different service offerings. Offer solutions for that. So, that’s why I wanted to have you on. I know we did a lot of plugging for you but that’s intentional because I think it is a valuable service and a valuable insight you bring to the market. So, it’s people listening, they’re intrigued, they want to learn more, there’s a lot that goes into something like this, what’s the best way for them to reach out to you, learn a little bit more about if this is remotely even a fit for their organization? 

Joe Langton:

Yeah. So, AutomatedOutdoor.com is our e-commerce website but it has my contact on there. You can find me on Facebook. I’m on there all the time. So, people, believe it or not, message on LinkedIn, whatever. But I mean I would literally say my email right on this which is JoeLangtonGroup@gmail.com. You can shoot me an email, we can talk. My phone number is on the website. Yeah. I mean as you can tell on this podcast, I am an open book. A lot of people get mad at me because I give so much information and I think that there’s no reason to hoard this information right now. 

Sean Adams:

Not at all, not at all. 

Joe Langton:

LangtonGroup.com by the way is Langton Group’s email. That’s kind of cool because it shows what we’re doing there too. Just another thing people can check out. 

Sean Adams:

Yeah. We’ll aggregate all those links and resources, your social platforms, your websites. We’ll put that all in the show notes so people can check that out. Reach out to Joe directly if you want to learn a little bit more about this. Definitely get some insight from someone who’s doing this at a good scale. So, Joe, my friend, I think you’ve said it all here to get us at least teased up and interested in some ways to differentiate ourselves. So, thank you so much for being here. 

Joe Langton:

Thanks for having me. It was awesome. Time flew by. 

Sean Adams:

Thanks for listening to this episode of Green Industry Perspectives presented by SingleOps. If you got some value out of this episode, drop us a five star review on your favorite streaming platform and don’t forget to become a pro member of the podcast at SingleOps.com/podcast. As a pro member, you’ll get notified of each new episode, access to exclusive bonus content and be entered in to win some great prizes. Thanks for listening and don’t forget to tune in next week.