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“We love challenging projects”

December 10, 2020

In this episode of the Green Industry Perspectives Podcast, Ty Deemer welcomes Kevin Shackleford to the show. Kevin is the CEO of Shackleford Landscape Group. He shares how his experience has driven his company’s core values and set up his employees to be happy and prosperous. Tune in to hear about Kevin’s experience as a minority business owner in the Green Industry.

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On this episode, you’ll learn:

  • How Kevin’s business as a landscaper all started with an MP3 player.
  • The importance of establishing core values and not letting them go by the wayside.
  • Kevin’s insight into the value of being a minority business owner.
  • How Shackleford University has set Kevin’s employees to enjoy their jobs more.

Links to love:

Full Transcript:

Ty Deemer:
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. All right, everyone. Welcome back to Green Industry Perspectives. I’m your host Ty Deemer and today we’re going to welcome Kevin Shackleford to the show. Kevin, welcome.

Kevin Shackleford:
Thank you.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, really glad to have you, Kevin. So, we always like to start off every episode with the exact same question to our guests and we ask them what are the top three common things or threads that have made your business successful?

Kevin Shackleford:
So, I would say the top three are living out our core values, not letting them go to the wayside. Our core values are quality, safety, honor, accountability and training to develop. That’s my personal favorite. Just really living those core values. It’s a good guiding fundamental principle of the company and my people have really bought into our core values. And I mean that’s been like a huge success for our company, like really just hammering home on our core values. Another one is that team Shackleford has 45 years of outdoor facilities experience. That’s one of the reasons why we’re able to solve very challenging projects whether that be landscape maintenance one day and parking lot maintenance, seal coating another day or even cutting a tree and then going to go do some general facilities maintenance on a particular property all in the same day. I know one example of a challenging project that we solved was last year we had a million square foot industrial client call us and they asked us to put numbers together for grounds maintenance on the property and we did with the assumption that we would be taking the property over the following year. And that wasn’t the case. We actually got a call from them in late July and said, hey, can you start next week? So, that was pretty interesting. We said, yeah. And with that yes meant I was going back into the field due to it being so late in the season. I developed a seven guy team to tackle a 30 acre hilly property. And I mean like when I’m saying hilly, I mean like just straight dropping off the side. So, this particular property, we have zero turns in our fleet. We didn’t use them at all. Like the only time the zero turn would go on the property was when I was on there and I was the only designated person using the zero turn. And I would only let my guys use either walk behind machines, stand on machines or even just string trimmers just because it was that steep. I just didn’t want to risk anyone getting hurt, even the very experienced operators just on really steep hills. It’s very easy. So, that was pretty cool and that was a challenge that we sold for that client. The last part I would say is that we’re a self-performing minority-owned company. I think that really separates us apart in the marketplace. It leads to the part that we’re a self-performing company, leads to the best-in-class quality for our clients and that’s a big thing. We want happy clients. And also, the fact that we’re a minority-owned company, diversity is a huge initiative in my company. I’ve had whites, I’ve had blacks, I’ve had Latinos, I’ve had Middle Eastern, I’ve had people from the Islands. I mean a very diverse group of people work in my company. I mean it’s definitely something that I would say has definitely set us apart, me being a minority owner, understanding where these people are coming from, understanding different groups of people and how they interact. Like hey, they might have preconceived bad nations about this particular ethnicity versus this one and just training my people to have like an open mindset. Like hey, just because this person’s Middle Eastern and this person’s African-American doesn’t mean that they’re bad or anything like that. Like Everybody can get along. We’re all people. Judge people more so off of what they do, not what they look like. So, I definitely would say that’s definitely the three big things.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah. Eight episodes into this season and I think that might have been my favorite intro yet. That’s awesome, Kevin.

Kevin Shackleford:
Hey, I’m learning as I go. So, this is 15 years of experience.

Ty Deemer:
Aren’t we all? Yeah, absolutely. So, that’s a kind of a great segue into kind of our next portion of the show. I always like to ask the guests on our show to provide their background and how they got involved in the green industry. We know that the people in this industry love their jobs. They love what they do. They love being out in the field. And I’d love just for you to be able to share how did you get involved with the green industry.

Kevin Shackleford:
So, it’s a pretty funny interesting story how I started. When I was 11, I wanted an MP3 player like a Microsoft Zoom and my dad was like, hey, I’m not giving you money for it at all. Like when I was your age, I was cutting grass and shoveling snow. So, I’m like great. I guess I got to go out there and do something. So, I took his push mower that fall and I didn’t barely make enough money to pay for the MP3 player. But luckily, snow came and I made enough money shoveling driveways and whatnot and I brought the MP3 player. And what I started doing with the money was buying hats. Like I love hats. And my dad kept taking me to the mall and saying, hey, stupid hats, what are you doing? Why are you buying stupid hats? They’re expensive. Go do something productive with your money. So, he kind of convinced me to buy a push mower. He said, hey, I’ll go half on a push mower with you. Go buy it. So, I bought a push mower and that’s how I started. And many years has turned into something I never imagined 15 years later.

Today, I’m currently the CEO of Shackleford Landscape Group, a fully integrated outdoor facilities company servicing commercial clients exclusively throughout the mid-Atlantic region. And as we go into winter operations, we’re going to be around 18 to 20 team members and on the spring side slash like landscape side, just regular outdoor facilities maintenance part of the business, we’re more project based. So, if there’s a project that normally required four team members and if we can send two team members, two highly trained team members to do it instead of four, we’ll send two. And also, on the flip side, I mean some of our projects that we take on, they require 20 team members to go to them. Pretty massive large mow jobs or mulch jobs or pruning jobs where we’re under tight deadlines where we got to get in and out. So, we’ll send a group of guys like that to get in and out of the property. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to be a speaker at the National Association of Landscape Professionals, the NALP technology and innovation forum. I’ve also been a contributor to various industry publications like Landscape Management Magazine, Snow and Irrigation. I am the 2019 Alan Steinman award recipient from SIMA, the Snow and Ice Management Association and I’m also an ATSA traffic control technician. I’m also an ATSA flagger. So, these are very big safety things for me. And then I’m also a licensed pesticide applicator in the areas that we operate in throughout the region.

Ty Deemer:
Thank you for providing that background. It’s always helpful for the guests to share kind of what their day-to-day is and I love hearing how people got into the industry. I’m sure you’re pretty thankful that your dad didn’t buy the MP3 player for you now.

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah, it’s a very surreal, crazy story. But hey, never would have thought 15 years later, that’s what I’ll be doing now.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, that’s incredible. Well, I’d love to go a little deeper into those three common threads that you shared earlier on in the show. Let’s just start with the first one you provided. You really emphasized how one of the things that’s contributed to your business’s success is really living out your core values. I love that you mentioned that because we’ve heard that through a lot of the different companies and the conversations we’ve had with people over the last year or so. I think it would be helpful if you could share kind of with other owners that are listening to this show maybe why it is important to establish core values and what you were thinking through when you chose the ones that you mentioned earlier.

Kevin Shackleford:
I’m glad that you asked this question. So, our core values, a lot of them have just came to us like over the years of just experience. I would say before last year, they were kind of like loose core values. They never were really written down or anything like that. So, what I ended up doing was getting all these core values and we actually wear it on our backs. So, when we’re out there working in the field, each one of our team members sees our core values, our clients see it, prospective clients see it. So, that has really helped as far as like buy-in too. But quality has always been I’d say the one thing that I’ve always done that that’s one of the reasons why my company has really grown. We’re really known for superior quality in our marketplace. Let’s take an example of a bush, right? Let’s say a bush, there was like a dead stem or a dead portion of the bush. We won’t leave that dead portion there just the save time. Hey, if it takes extra 5-10 minutes, let’s prune it up. Let’s make sure this place looks great all the time. So, just kind of using that quality standard has really helped our company expand and has also helped clients call us because the properties we do, it could be next to someone else and our property just shines. We take quality in the products that we get on our property and stuff like that. So, yeah, I mean quality has definitely been a huge thing for us.

And then safety, I mean I’ve always been a safety guy since I started. It sounds a little crazy. When I had a Ford Ranger many years ago, I would have a safety vest on with my company on the back and hey, that’s how I would do my commercial properties. I always would have safety. So, safety’s always been a big thing for us. And then accountability, how can we grow as a company if we’re not taking accountability as far as what our roles are and who’s responsible for this and that? So, that kind of came along with that. And I would say the last one, train to develop, it’s something I’ve seen I’d say probably over the last three years. If you take a novice person out there and you say, hey, go cut this grass, even someone with the experience, hey, go cut this grass, either one, they’re going to do it good or two, they’re going to do it bad. A lot of times they’re going to do it bad because they don’t understand expectations, they don’t understand how the machine works and all that. So, I noticed once I started training my people to develop them, their employee satisfaction has went up and also, going back to quality. The quality has remained the same as if I was out there in the field doing the stuff as well. So, that’s what I would say definitely with the core values. They just have come over the years together really.

Ty Deemer:
All right, Kevin. So, I think that’s a good segue into talking about what you mentioned before we started recording the show and how when you’re training your employees, specifically your newer employees on how to use new pieces of equipment or teaching them new skills as they’re going onto these properties, how you’ve really focused on becoming a master technician and teaching them those new skills. I’d love for you to share to some of the owners that might be listening how you’ve developed the training program based off of that.

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah. So, when I first started, I started out as a novice technician. I didn’t understand striping. I didn’t understand even maintenance. For instance, I went through personally very painful lessons but I’m glad I did. It helped me create a pretty rigorous maintenance program. Three engines, three different lawn mower engines, I’ve blown them up. I’ve done that on various either hot days, really, really hot days trying to cut a lot of grass and not letting them cool down. Like for instance, by me doing that back in the day, now when my team members go out there that are cutting grass, we do a pre-morning mower check and we do a post-morning mower check. And that’s covering all the components of the machine from the engine, the belts, the hydros, the oil, the gas just so our people know how to take care of the machine. And if something’s messed up, they can report it to their supervisor versus me when I was out there just back in the day cutting grass, I could have avoided blowing up these engines if I was doing some kind of check because I would know hey, the oil’s very hot or the oil is getting really pasty. I probably should stop cutting grass today versus cutting it until it just blows up. So, that’s definitely something that I would say has helped as far as me passing on my knowledge as a master technician onto my people.

And then also, I would say just like getting a mower unstuck, for instance. That happens way more often in the spring because it’s like raining every other day. So, training my people how to get the mower unstuck was like a really big thing because a lot of them would get frustrated. They’d be like, hey, I don’t want to cut grass or hey, I don’t want to ride this hill or whatever because I’m going to get the machine stuck or whatever and really just showing them how to get the machine unstuck and also how to ride the slopes properly, leaning their body towards the hill to counterbalance or even in certain instances they really don’t feel extremely comfortable on the hill. Hey, they’re perfectly fine with walking behind the machine, putting sulky up, walking behind the machine and cutting that portion of the hill and if that they’re not comfortable with the machine at all, they can even use a string trimmer to cut an area to make sure it’s done and that’s a really safe way to do it if that’s how they feel comfortable. So, yeah, I definitely would say a lot of my in-the-field experience has definitely helped me train my people to develop them. A lot of that, like times where I would blow an engine up, get a machine stuck or stretch a chainsaw chain out, brand new chainsaw chain out, all those little things are definitely helping the train to develop mentality I have at the company now.

Ty Deemer:
Absolutely. I love how you’re sharing your experience and how your experience matters to your employees. Do you have a formal system to train your newer employees? Like is there a checklist you put them through of things you need to train them on or is it more of like a one-off system that you use?

Kevin Shackleford:
No. So, we actually have an internal training program called Shackleford University. That’s what we normally put our people through and it’s pretty comprehensive. It has skills assessment tests and all that stuff like that in there. Once our team members come out of it, they’re pretty equipped to go out there and just really being productive and happy employees. That’s something that I’ve definitely seen is a huge difference, especially with the labor shortage going on right now. We got to do the best that we can with the labor pool we have and I definitely have seen that by us taking the time. Yes, it’s burning some. Yes, it takes time. Yes, it takes money. It’s an investment in our people. Some might not stay around. Obviously, that happens. But by us taking the time and investing in them, definitely has helped with employee satisfaction because now they know how to go out there and do their job. And I feel like once people know how to do their job, now they come to work happy, ready to roll and no one wants to get yelled at. Like hey, why isn’t this area cut or why did you do this in an unsafe manner? Like no one wants to hear that stuff. So, the training has definitely helped.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah. I love even the idea of it being called Shackleford University because it’s kind of the idea like at the end of it, you get your diploma and you’re ready to go out into the real world and start doing work.

Kevin Shackleford:
Shackleford University has really come along from I would say 15 years of experience really. The stuff I know how to do is just really from literally just doing and either screwing it up or hey, this worked out well or hey, how can we improve it and really discussing that stuff internally with my team members. And hey, is there a better way that we can go sharpen chainsaw chains, for instance. There’s different products on the market. I think there’s like a robotic chainsaw chain sharpener. But what we found that is the best for us is we just take it to the dealer and let them sharpen it versus us spending our time just messing around with it. So, or even getting new chains in certain instances. So, just communicating internally just has really helped us develop Shackleford University and our company in general.

Ty Deemer:
Absolutely. when we were talking about that, you kind of mentioned the labor shortage and that’s a topic everyone in the green industry understands and knows. It’s difficult to find good employees. Before the episode started recording, we talked about team member management and how to ensure that you have happy employees. What are some of the ways that you ensure your employees are happy other than making sure they’re prepared and trained to do their job well?

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah. So, we even go a little bit of a step of above just normal I’d say in the field training. So, we also do like conflict training. Like how we should communicate with each other, how to understand where other team members might be coming from like a point of view. Because I’ve seen it. I’ve literally done almost like everything in the in the green industry. So, I’ve even seen it when I was in the field, I would have like novice technicians, right? And I’d say, well, hey, you guys hit this hilly slope, make sure it’s cut or whatever. And I didn’t see a problem with why they couldn’t ride it with a walk behind but some of them didn’t like it. So, that really made me start to think about how to look at stuff in other people’s perspectives, how to defuse conflicts and that’s one of the reasons why we actually have that in our training program. Like hey, for instance, if someone’s showing up late, right? Routinely showing up late. Not just immediately going to them and saying like why are you late? Like do you want to get fired? Like not using that mentality, not using like an aggressive mentality. Going to them, saying, hey, is there something going on at home? What’s kind of going on? Like this isn’t routine of you to be late. You were on track a few weeks ago always showing up on time. Do you need a ride to work? Like what’s going on? And really using that has really helped because sometimes we found out that some of our team members are experiencing things at home with loved ones or family or they may have had a car issue or something like that and that’s the reason why they’re having the problem of showing up late. So, really kind of understanding where people are kind of coming from versus like just using that aggressive why are you late, do you want to be fired approach. Like that definitely has helped with our culture and also developing our people too.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, I love that. And I can definitely see how y’all seen some benefits from that, just having a team that really tries to understand each other and listen to each other. That’s really cool. All right. Great, Kevin. So, kind of going back to those three common threads that we started at the beginning of the show, you mentioned what it’s like being a minority owner, being a black man owning a landscape company and I’d love for you to talk about your experience in the green industry with that. What have been some of the highs and lows as you’ve grown in business over the last 15 years?

Kevin Shackleford:
So, there’s definitely been some highs and there’s definitely been some lows. But I definitely say it’s been an experience definitely worth going through because I definitely understand like, for instance, where my people are coming from, what discrimination looks like and how to definitely prevent that within my own company. Once I start seeing that happen, regardless of what ethnicity they have, just stopping that from the get-go. When I first started, I had a pretty rough start actually transitioning from residential to commercial. No one really wanted to give me a chance at all. They were looking at me like, hey, who’s this young black kid, like what does he know about landscaping? Although I did know a decent amount at the time because I was just doing a lot of residential homes and my fertility programs were really good at the homes we were doing, our milling patterns was good. So, it actually took me two years to actually break into commercial maintenance and I’m very grateful for this neighborhood and BEAR. They gave me an opportunity to take care of their neighborhood and I mean that place looked the best place in the surrounding area. So, I’m really grateful for that experience and I’m really grateful for the clients over the past few years that have really taken the chance. Because looking back, they did take a little bit of a chance with someone like me to really show them like, hey, don’t judge a book by its color. If someone is knowledgeable, give them a chance and let’s see what they got.

And I definitely would say that’s translated into my team because my team members look at me like I’m just one of them. If they’re another black male, they’re not looking at me like, hey, he thinks he’s above us or whatever or whatever because they see me out there working directly with them at times in the field. And I make that a priority too, going into the field and working toe-to-toe with them, just really relating to them. They can see that there’s going to be management opportunities within the company. Regardless of what ethnicity you are as long as you put the work in, I’m willing to move anybody up because myself, like how I said how I started, I had to fight to initially get in commercial maintenance. I wasn’t even given the opportunity in the beginning to just do it. I had to fight.

Ty Deemer:
That’s great and it’s cool to see someone in your position be able to be a leader for the next generation of future landscape owners and workers because they know hey, this is this strong powerful black man running a business. Yeah, I think it’s cool that you can be a kind of a leader for them.

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah.

Ty Deemer:
Well, to kind of round out the episode, I would love to kind of do some of these quick answer questions just because I think you’ll have some great insights. What is kind of the biggest mistake you see landscapers make in terms of their view of sales and business development?

Kevin Shackleford:
Oh, I was here before. So, I would say definitely getting caught up in the whole equipment game. Oh, I need the shiny new piece of equipment. Oh, I need this piece of equipment. Oh, I need this piece of equipment. You don’t necessarily need all shiny new equipment because one, that’s actually just like bad debt in a way. If your cashflow isn’t sufficient to offset let’s say buying a brand new truck or buying brand new trucks in general and you spend a bunch of money on these payments and let’s say something happens in your business, now you’re stuck with all these payments and now you’re burning through your cash reserves and now you’re in like a different situation versus buying something that’s kind of used but still good but at a good value and saving that money to reinvest back into your company later on. So, I mean I see that happen a lot. I see a lot of newcomers and I was there. Oh, well, I need this Ford F550 because I see such-and-such down the street has one, really not understanding that you really don’t probably need that F550 unless you’re really like doing very large jobs because one, it’s higher maintenance versus like let’s say a 150, for instance. Those parts are a lot cheaper and that’s something we’ve noticed internally like parts are way cheaper on a lighter duty truck than a heavy duty truck. And also, fuel, insurance and then also comfortability with team members. For instance, backing up a 20-foot enclosed trailer is a lot harder to do than an open 12 foot. People can see what’s kind of going on. And like in our company, for instance, those 20 footers aren’t going to like little tiny places because I just want to avoid and this is another thing with safety. Avoid situations where it can be dicey. I don’t even want our trailers backing up. I want our trailers to be able to pull in and pull out versus maybe a residential cul-de-sac area where they got to either back down the street or try to turn around down in the cul-de-sac and just stuff like that. So, I see a lot of new guys getting up in the whole we got to buy a shiny new equipment. Work on developing the business first and then as the business flourishes, then invest back into the equipment. I think that’s the smarter way to do it.

Ty Deemer:
That’s a great piece of insight. Yeah, it’s kind of when you go to big trade shows like the GIE or TCIA if you’re in the tree care space. That’s my favorite part about going to this and walking around because you can definitely tell people get excited about the newest and the shiniest. But you bring up a good point. Sometimes you just need to kind of pause, think like what could I invest that money in instead. I love that. The next question I have for you is if you could go back in time and speak to your younger self, what would be the one piece of advice that you would give?

Kevin Shackleford:
Oh, don’t worry about the growth game. Just focus on the experience. It will all pay off.

Ty Deemer:
That’s great. Yeah, long term mindset’s always important especially when you can have seasons or times that are difficult or it’s not as rewarding. You got to be able to see the big picture. That’s great.

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah. Because I mean one thing I’ve noticed over the 15 years is that a lot of stuff when I was doing in year I’d say 1 to 10 are things that are paying off now like all my in the field experience. I’m able to train my people and send them out very skilled because of all the experience that I have gained from just going out there doing it. So, that’s something that unless I was out there grinding all those sun up to sun down days, I never would have that experience to pass on them.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah. And now it’s a core value of your business, that experience matters and you can pass that along to your newer employees. There’s definitely return there.

Kevin Shackleford:
Yeah. And it’s definitely going to help with our growth as we as we continue to grow, being able to pass that knowledge on. But first, we had to go gain it. So, I’m glad.

Ty Deemer:
Absolutely. For sure. Yeah. So, only two more questions for you. I always like asking this one is do you have a favorite failure so far, a moment where you’ve really looked at it and going wow, like that was really hard at the time but I learned a really valuable lesson there?

Kevin Shackleford:
I would say probably the maintenance side for sure. So, give you a little more backstory about those engines. So, I blew one engine up one season and I implemented a little bit of preventative maintenance, like hey, at least checking the oil every 50 hours, changing it every 100. And when I actually blew the other two engines back to back in the same month, that was very painful, spending thousands of dollars that I didn’t have at the time really to spend on that. Here’s my profit. There it goes out on the street because now I need to go buy these engines in order to stay in business. But a lot of that could have been prevented from just doing a pre-morning mower check and a post-morning mower check. It definitely has helped with the maintenance program that we have now as far as what we roll out like even on our trucks. Checking the oil, checking the transmission, checking the battery on a mower, doing those checks and even on chainsaws, making sure they’re tight and stuff like that. So, I definitely would say blowing these engines up was for the best looking back on it now because they really made me take maintenance serious and I’m really grateful for it because now we’re on a much larger scale. And if I was still having those same issues now, I would be out of business. I really would be out of business.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah.

Kevin Shackleford:
I couldn’t afford it now because it’s so much of a scale.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, that makes me think of like the old phrase fail fast. Like if you’re going to do it, like fail early, learn the lesson. That’s great. I always like to finish each episode, Kevin, with the same question and it’s just cool to hear the guest’s response on kind of what the future holds for them. I just basically like to ask what kind of comes next for you and what are you most excited about? Maybe it’s rounding out this year going into your snow ops portion of the year or going into 2021. What are you most excited about personally or with your business?

Kevin Shackleford:
So, I’m really excited about our core values, especially the train to develop. I’ve seen one of our team members in the last six years, like one of my very first people, literally like number two, I’ve seen him go from in the field labor to a seasoned landscape professional into a management position now. Having him along the journey with me has definitely been awesome and also, training him along the way, like passing all my knowledge onto him. And I definitely would say as I look back on the journey, how things have all happened for the development of the CEO I am today. Like going to me blowing these engines up, that helped me develop a very rigorous maintenance program that we use today. And then also being able to solve challenging projects. Like when that client called us, hey, can you start, just having the resources available to just take that stuff on is just from 15 years of experience really. So, I’m really excited about the future and continuing to see what’s next.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, absolutely. I’m excited to see how your company grows. Kevin, we’ve covered a ton of great stuff over the last 45 minutes or so. we’ve been able to talk about how your team established core values and how you’re living those out. Every day you’re out in the field. We’ve talked about team member management, how your wealth of experience has benefited your company and I’ve really enjoyed the conversation. I can’t thank you enough for your time. And again, I wish you and the Shackleford Landscape Group the best of luck in the rest of 2020 and going into 2021.

Kevin Shackleford:
Thank you and I appreciate you having me on the show. It was an honor.

Ty Deemer:
Yeah, absolutely. Kevin, talk to you soon.

Kevin Shackleford:
Talk to you soon. Thank you.

Conclusion:
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