It’s all smiles at Green Lawn Fertilizing, where employees are incentivized in a number of ways.
Photo courtesy of Green Lawn Fertilizing

A trip to Disney World isn’t just reserved for the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player. At Green Lawn Fertilizing in West Chester, Pennsylvania, it’s a way to get better ideas to improve the company.

It’s called the Disney Challenge and, last year, it called on all non-management employees to come up with an idea to improve the business based on the book “Be Our Guest: Perfecting the Art of Customer Service” by Ted Kinni.

Michael Bradley, an inside sales representative, won in 2018, the first year the company ran the contest. Bradley’s idea to improve the company’s onboarding was the best of nearly 100 ideas submitted to the contest. In addition to Bradley’s $5,000 Disney vacation, his direct supervisor, Wes McCorkle, also won $1,000.

The contest was so successful at keeping team members engaged in working to improve the business, it was brought back in 2019 with another $5,000 vacation on the line and another book, “The Service Culture Handbook” by Jeff Toister, as the basis for inspiration.

At Green Lawn Fertilizing, contests like the Disney Challenge are just one example of the incentives that they have put in place.

Employees at Green Lawn are encouraged to take some paid time away from the office to volunteer for charity events like Habitat for Humanity.
Photo courtesy of Green Lawn Fertilizing

Celebrating good service.

Three years ago, the company started an awards program to celebrate its best employees and express gratitude to top workers.

The awards aren’t a total surprise since only the winners are invited to the awards dinner, but no one knows what they’ll be winning until the ceremony. Awards can be anything from top lawn production to top door-to-door salesman to lawn rookie of the year, with 25 in total.

Each winner receives a plaque and a gift card, but the President’s Award winner, chosen by company President Matt Jesson, gets an engraved clock.

To keep things fair, everyone is made aware of the criteria and the numbers are made public. And while the competition has the potential to breed some unfriendly rivalries, Green Lawn hasn’t run into that problem.

“What we’ve seen is usually everyone gets standing ovations and everyone is excited for them,” says Alex Wolfington, vice president of sales. “Numbers don’t lie, so a lot of the awards are based off of just the numbers so that’s never been an argument. As for the Manager of the Year and all of those awards that are selected, it usually is going to the person that deserves it.”

Ben Schloss, director of marketing, says that’s something that causes a little bit of concern, but the positives far outweigh any negative feelings about being overlooked. “We feel it creates drive, too,” he says.

Wolfington adds, “Everyone understands why the winners win. There’s no shock so far.”

The awards started off small with a catered lunch at the branch, but evolved into a dinner at a local restaurant the second year. Then there’s a second dinner, to which all award winners, the management and their spouses are invited. The management team hires magicians, comedians or live bands to perform as well.

“It’s just starting small and then growing it every year and then just when it comes to the awards – just setting the parameters and celebrating who the winner is,” Wolfington says.

He also recommends setting up a panel to choose award-winners, putting the criteria out for everyone to see and having a scoreboard so that people can see how they’re doing.

Pictured with his management team, President Matt Jesson, fourth from the right, chooses the President’s Award winner every year to recognize an exemplary employee.
Photo courtesy of Green Lawn Fertilizing

More ways to win.

Twice a year (once in the spring, once in the fall) the company runs a sales blitz where the entire company breaks down into six teams (usually 20 to 25 people a team) and everyone is encouraged to sell.

“Everyone still continues to do their job,” Wolfington says. “I know some other companies send everybody out and sell over the weekend, but we keep it business as usual just with that extra motivation for everyone to participate in the sales process. Everyone is getting a lot more competitive.”

Each day, management sends around a spreadsheet with updated team sales totals so everyone can see how their team is doing. With a PTO day on the line for every member of the winning team, things get competitive around the office during those two weeks, but it also keeps things light.

“It definitely creates a good, competitive environment,” Schloss says. “I’ve heard around the office where people are talking to their team members like ‘Hey, where’s your sale for the week’ and there’s a little bit of competitive banter as well.”

Throughout the year, the company also pits employees against each other for Super Bowl squares, raffles, March Madness and more.

The winners of March Madness and the Super Bowl squares each get a paid day off. “Everyone is allowed to play whether you watch or not,” Wolfington says. “People watch the Super Bowl because of it and everyone talks about it and everyone gets all excited about it.”

During the holiday party in the middle of December, everyone gets a raffle ticket for a chance to win prizes like TVs, drones, cameras and video game systems. The company spends more than $3,000 total, but by shopping on Black Friday, they’re able to get some great deals.

There are lots of other job perks like free lunches for the office if they are able to hit a weekly goal of preventing customers from cancelling accounts, or events like branch barbecues, plus an annual golf outing.

The company also is involved with several charities like Habitat for Humanity. Employees are encouraged to take some paid time away from the office to volunteer for these events, instead of doing it on their own time.

“We do a lot of small, periodic things like that for individual teams to kind of just get everyone in line with the goals in the departments or things like that, too,” Schloss says.

Green Lawn Fertilizing hosts a yearly dinner to recognize employees who have won awards at the company. The awards range from top door-to-door salesperson to lawn rookie of the year.
Photo courtesy of Green Lawn Fertilizing

Budgeting for bonuses.

Every department leader is given a discretionary budget for the year to spend however they see fit, whether it’s a pizza party, a bowling outing or something else they’d like to do.

“Our employees definitely work pretty hard, so this is a way for the department leaders to say, ‘Hey, let’s take the team out and say thank you,” Schloss says.

All of the incentive programs add up to about $100,000, but with an annual revenue of $15.7 million, it’s less than half a percent of income.

In fact, Schloss put together a company yearbook highlighting the awards dinner, charity initiatives and more. Green Lawn distributed the yearbook to every employee and even those who come in for an interview to showcase the company culture.

NUMBERS DON’T LIE: Alex Wolfington (left), with Ben Schloss, says a lot of the awards are based off numbers so there are no arguments about who wins.
© Grace Winter

Implementing incentives.

Schloss says when it comes to starting an incentive program, companies should start small and do what they can. It could even be something small like buying lunch for the office, hosting a barbecue or putting out Gatorade for teams after a hot day.

“It’s really important to incentivize your employees in any way you can, even if it’s just a single employee of the year or anything,” Schloss says. “Just having something in place where people can have something to strive for I think is good.”

Green Lawn might have a robust incentive program now, but the key is to start with something manageable. They award 25 employees now but started with just seven or eight three years ago.

“There’s different ways that you can do it without spending thousands of dollars, but once you start it, you’ve got to be consistent,” Wolfington says. “It can’t be a one-and-done thing because that doesn’t mean anything, and then when you start it again, they’re going to think it’s just going to end again.”

Kate Spirgen contributed to this article.

Fun and games

Lawn Doctor of West Lake County • Griffith, Indiana • 14 Employees

Lawn Doctor of West Lake County is in the same boat as a lot of landscape companies right now: They could grow the business if they had more reliable workers.

The lawn fertilizing and weed control business grosses over $1 million and allocates up to 1 percent of their revenue for fun activities for the staff. “Part of running a business is not only attracting good talent, but keeping the ones you have happy. So we pay competitively, but we do a lot of group things,” says Nick Shaw, owner.

For example, last fall, the whole team went out for a team combat laser tag competition. “The first thing we realized is that we’re too old and we should not have scheduled three hours for that,” Shaw jokes.

© Alex Eben Meyer

They’ve also done whirly ball (a cross between bumper cars, lacrosse and basketball), skating parties and ski outings. Some of the outings, like the ski trip, are last-minute adventures, but others take a little more planning.

Shaw’s wife used to handle the event planning, but now he and his office manager, and occasionally the production manager, are in charge of organizing. He says the most important thing it so choose something that won’t require a lot of work on their end.

“So small business owners – we wear a million different hats – and a lot of times we can only focus on the few things that we have to focus on and that’s what’s right in our face,” Shaw says. “We basically want to hand you money and get the expected result out.”

But the outings all depend on how the company is doing that year. If it’s doing well, Shaw will put together a few more things than if it’s not as successful. And if the company is really suffering, they might just end up at Pizza Hut a few times during the year.

Back in 2011, the company went all out and told the staff that if they could hit their retention and production goals before Thanksgiving, they would all head down to Orlando for the Lawn Doctor conference.

“I talked about it once a week in our weekly meeting,” Shaw says. “They talked about it every day, sometimes every hour. They’re like, ‘Look, I’ve got to get these customers done so that we can go to Florida.’”

People were coming in on Saturdays and going way above and beyond what they usually did. And nearly eight years later, they’re still talking about it.

“It’s just like when you get a good customer. It’s so much easier to keep harvesting a good customer than it is to grow a new one,” Shaw says. “It is so much easier to harvest and develop your staff if you keep them and train them and do well by them than it is to hire and train new ones.” – Kate Spirgen

Plays, ballets and giveaways

Blades of Green • Harwood, Maryland • 85 Employees

Giving out anything from baseball tickets to flat-screen televisions, establishing a high-quality company culture has always been pertinent at Blades of Green says Daniele Collinson, pest division manager.

When times get particularly tough on her staff, Collinson says her company incentivizes employees by creating contests or raffle drawings for prizes. She adds that with the labor market already thin, making employees feel like they’re valued is a must. Gamifying the program becomes essential, Collinson says, ensuring people have a reward at the end of the day for their quality work.

Take last summer for example: When the weather cleared up after extended periods of rain, crews were exhausted since they had to catch up on all their missed work. Blades of Green decided to reward one lucky employee with a flat-screen television. Crew members who reached a 90-percent completion rate or higher submitted their names into a drawing. This contest wasn’t initially planned, but Collinson and the rest of management felt the employees deserved something to boost their spirits.

“These guys are really working extremely hard to get caught up on production. They’re putting in long days,” Collinson says. “We’re huge on culture at our company, and I think that the incentives programs are a part of the culture that we’ve established. That’s part of what makes a culture fun and makes people want to come to work.”

Collinson estimates the company does at least eight contests a year, though they’re never sure when the giveaways will be. In terms of budgeting, the company sets aside a pool of money for the programs but doesn’t specify when or on precisely what competitions the money will be spent.

After surveying the employees on how they liked contests when the program first started, Blades of Green started tweaking their giveaways. In one instance, the company gave away tickets to a popular upcoming sporting event, but now employees who win the drawing can select what they want to attend. Collinson says one crew member went to the ballet, while another decided to go catch a play.

Some still go out and attend football or baseball games, but Collinson says that as long as employees keep price within reason – she says a good rule of thumb is under $200 a ticket – the company will provide it. The biggest thing is just making sure the employee feels the reward is worth the work.

“The whole point of an incentive program is it’s something the team wants and looks forward to,” Collinson says. – Jimmy Miller

Billy Bucks

Akehurst Landscape Services • Joppa, Maryland • 130 Employees

At Akehurst Landscape Services, employees are no strangers to recognition. Bill Akehurst, founder of the company, says he budgets about $50,000 a year for incentives.

The “Billy Bucks” program (named after Billy, naturally) is a way to give employees a boost, but also helps the company when labor is sparse.

If a worker recruits a day laborer to help out with a heavy work load, the employee gets $10 in Billy Bucks for each day the day laborer stays on the job. The Billy Bucks then translate into actual money on pay day.

When it comes to budgeting for the incentives, Akerhurst says it all depends on the type of incentive. With Billy Bucks, the incentive pays for itself in a way, he says. More workers means more profit, so the company doesn’t budget for those incentives.

A tool incentive is offered to crews as well, which is easy to budget for. Crews start with $1,500 and as their tools need to be repaired or replaced, it comes out of that budget. At the end of the season, whatever money is left gets distributed amongst the crew.

“If they don't use the money at the end of their year when everything's inventoried, if everything's good and nothing needs to be replaced, it can go in their pocket or they can save it to the next year to buy new equipment,” he says. – Lauren Rathmell

Shovelin’ in the cash

May’s Lawn Care • Glen Raven, North Carolina • 30 Employees

Living in North Carolina means snowfall is rare, but when it happens, Corey May says it pays to be prepared.

In the offseason, May used to contract out snow and ice management instead of asking back his full-time employees. Their hourly wage is usually somewhere between $13 and $22, but May couldn’t get people to come back enough to help with plowing snow, so he would pay others $25 to $35 an hour just to make the job attractive to them.

© Alex Eben Meyer

But May decided that wasn’t fair to his employees. So, to incentivize their attendance in the offseason and to compensate them appropriately for the extra work they put in, May started paying his employees a snow bonus. Almost instantly, May says his employees started coming in voluntarily to help with clearing snow.

“Nobody likes to go work a 14-hour shift pushing snow or shoveling snow,” May says. “I get a whole lot less people miss snow (work) now that I do that.”

May devised the snow bonus system on his own because he recognized firsthand how hard the work can be. During the winter, he’ll evaluate how profitable his team was and split the earnings accordingly. Sometimes the money turns out to be worth double- or triple-time wages, but it ultimately depends on how many clients they serviced and whether or not an employee missed a shift. If somebody didn’t show up for a snow shift, it might affect how much goes into their bonus.

“I knew how hard of work the snow is, and I’m able to charge more for it than a regular landscape service,” May says. “I felt like it was fair that they made a little more and made it more attractive to them to come in when it’s nasty.” – Jimmy Miller

Punctual payment

Orlando’s Landscaping • Newport News, Virginia • 25 Employees During Peak Season

When the minutes employees were arriving late to work started to add up, Erin Snyder Dixon needed something to motivate employees to show up on time.

At the same time, she was getting calls that workers couldn’t find the right clothing or would arrive dressed incorrectly.

“We tried to figure out something we could do that would not only get them in the door, giving them incentive to get in the door, but that could also take care of another problem,” says Snyder Dixon, general manager at Orlando’s Landscaping in Newport, Virginia.

So, the company implemented a bonus for just arriving to work on time. Each month employees arrive to work on time every day, they are awarded $50. If someone is one minute late, they are disqualified for the month, unless it was an excused absence.

© Alex Eben Meyer

“At the end of the month, they know they've been awarded $50 – it's in their little kitty,” she says, adding they can use it immediately or save it up.

That money can then be used to buy anything employees could wear to work: gloves, boots, underwear, etc.

The company provides all the necessities to work on a job, but this allowance can be used for something a little nicer like an expensive jacket they couldn’t ordinarily afford.

“They don't have to wear it to work,” she says. “It just has to be something that they could wear to work if they wanted to.

“What that prevents is things like them going out and buying an objectionable shirt, or for us to be footing the bill for something that would be inappropriate on the job.”

The money is paid out in two ways – the employee is reimbursed when they turn in a receipt, or the employee can get a cash advance.

“They don't get it switched over to their bonus money until they bring me their receipt,” she says. “But that way they have the money in hand to go buy the stuff.”

Snyder Dixon says she had some concerns that if a worker missed one day, then that worker would stop trying for the rest of the month, but that hasn’t happened.

She had to show one employee that he was late 21 times in a span of 44 days. As soon as she did that, he started to arrive promptly more often.

“What has happened since then is he's late three or four times,” she says.

“We're still working on it, but his record has really improved because even though we haven't hit that mark yet to get that bonus, he's still working on it and he's starting to establish better habits. It's been one of our better programs.” – Brian Horn

Super snacks

FitTurf • Denver, Colorado • 54 Employees During Peak Season

It’s a simple concept, but FitTurf President Paul Wagner says offering snacks and drinks to his employees makes a big impact on daily operations and crew attitudes. While they try to keep the snacks relatively healthy, there are other options like chips available, too.

“Because of what our field guys do, it’s just having Gatorade or water in one of those 5-gallon water jugs so they can load up in the morning,” he says. “And when they come back at 3 or 4, they’re starving so they’re able to grab a granola bar, chips or whatever while they are wrapping up their day. There’s no one that doesn’t take advantage of it.”

Wagner says before he started providing the refreshments, he had heard of other companies offering coffee for 25 cents or so. He did the math and realized it’s well worth it to just provide those things free of charge to his workers.

© Alex Eben Meyer

“We’re a decent-sized company, so what if the cost is $150 or even $200 a week to load up on food for everybody?” he says. “Divide that out by however many people we have working there … I think it's great.”

Wagner says the cost of offering the snacks and drinks doesn’t have an impact on FitTurf’s bottom line, so it wasn’t something they planned ahead for in terms of budgeting.

In addition to the food perks, FitTurf also offers an attendance bonus to its employees. For perfect monthly attendance, workers get $150 at the end of the month. It goes right into their paycheck. Stephanie Wagner, CFO, says it’s the nature of the business to have hard workers who get worn out quickly.

“The attendance bonus helps them to develop a feeling of support,” she says. It especially helps at the end of the month when workers tend to call off for their last day or two of the month. – Lauren Rathmell