John Richter, right, uses his coaching techniques to manage his design/build, irrigation and maintenance crews at Richter Landscape.
Photo courtesy of Richter Landscape Company

John Richter wasn’t a standout athlete on the baseball field, but his high school coaches took notice for another reason. Now, it’s the same trait he looks for when hiring employees at Richter Landscape Company.

“My coaches saw that I was a hard worker and that I had a desire to get better,” Richter says. “It wasn’t that I was the best athlete – far from it – but I was coachable.”

Through one of his first summer jobs at age 16, Richter found his future career in landscaping – where he saw similarities to the sports he loved.

“I really enjoyed the work and the camaraderie (of landscaping), and I knew right away I’d enjoy it as a career,” he says. “Playing football and baseball is really tough. It’s really hot, but when you have success, there’s something fun about celebrating a victory as a team. It carried over into (landscaping) with the heat, the dirt, the grime and getting over hardships together.”

By applying lessons he learned on the athletic field, Richter has coached his company through consistent 10 percent annual growth, with more than $2.5 million in 2017 revenue.

Building team loyalty.

Richter Landscape started in 2004 with a focus on landscape design and installation – not maintenance. But after one of the company’s first design/build projects, the customer asked for a quote on maintenance. Richter explained that he didn’t offer that, but the customer persisted.

Realizing the opportunity for a long-term relationship, Richter decided to make Fridays maintenance days and focus on design/build work Monday through Thursday. Fridays soon filled up – and then Thursdays, too – so Richter added a full-time maintenance crew.

Now, the company runs two landscape installation crews, an irrigation/lighting installation crew (plus one service tech), four maintenance crews (soon to be five), and an enhancement crew focused on property improvements for maintenance clients. Landscape installation makes up 57 percent of the company’s revenue. One-third of the revenue is maintenance and the remainder is irrigation/lighting. More than 85 percent of installation revenue comes from residential clients, 70 percent of maintenance and 90 percent of irrigation/lighting.

Richter doesn’t target commercial clients (especially companies that put property maintenance out to bid every year), but will perform commercial work for residential clients who own businesses. These relationships tend to build more loyalty, he says, and long-term relationships are more important to him than whether they’re residential or commercial.

To make sure clients get the “exceptional service and quality craftsmanship” the company tagline promises, Richter focuses on internal training and teambuilding. The way he treats employees is key to the company’s success, he says, because that determines how they, in turn, treat clients.

Richter doesn’t target commercial clients, but will perform commercial work for residential clients who own businesses.
Photo courtesy of Richter Landscape Company
Finding the right fit.

“Coaching my sons and being involved in youth athletics reminds me how much fun it is to be part of a team, where we don’t start the season as the best in the league, but we all work together to find everybody’s talents,” says Richter, who started coaching his oldest son (who is now 13) when he was 6, and also coaches his middle son, who’s 10.

At the start of each season, Richter tells players’ parents that every child will have equal opportunity to play every position they’re able to play. “We’ve got a season to figure out where they’re best skilled,” he says, but then when championship play begins, “it’s time to put the starters in the starting positions.”

Richter applies the same strategy to his nearly 30 employees, often moving new hires around to understand where their skill sets fit best. He calls it “pulling a Steve Spurrier move,” referencing the Heisman-winning college (and later NFL) quarterback who most recently coached at South Carolina.

“If one of his quarterbacks wasn’t getting the job done, he’d grab a guy off the bench and put him out there,” Richter says.

On a landscaping crew, that might mean giving a “team member” a shot as “team leader,” or crew foreman, “just to see how he can perform.” To explain it to the team leader who’s getting benched, Richter emphasizes the team goals, and the importance of good sportsmanship while finding the best position for each person.

“Now, if you go and sulk on the sideline, your bad attitude could get you kicked off the team,” he says. “We all want the same thing, right? We’ve just got to figure out the right spots.”

Asking two key questions.

Richter recently got a call from a long-term client about some services that weren’t getting done. Richter drove to the site, ready to fire the two employees responsible, but then wondered if he had failed as a leader to equip them for the job.

When he got there, he asked his employees two poignant questions.

“One of them is your problem, and one’s my problem,” he told them. “First: Do you want to be here? They said, ‘Yes, we want to be here.’ Then the second thing is: Do you know what you’re doing? If you don’t, then that’s my fault, because if you truly want to be here – not just come in and get a check, but advance within our organization – and you’re not doing a good job, then we have not properly trained or taught you what you need to do to have success at your job.”

Richter spent the rest of the day with those employees, talking about edging techniques and pruning tips. He wishes he had more time for this hands-on interaction – and jokes that maybe one day he’ll hire a CEO so he can go back to working in the field. Plus, he says, it’s much easier to terminate someone’s employment after you’ve exhausted resources by training them directly, in various positions, and they still don’t improve.

Staying unified.

Growing three different divisions – installation, maintenance and irrigation/lighting – is, in a way, like growing three separate teams. When that separation became an issue, Richter had to remind crews that they all played for the same team.

“I started noticing a lot of division – there was a lot of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between installation and maintenance,” he says. “So, a couple of years ago, we started doing a companywide safety meeting on the first Monday of every month at 7 a.m. sharp.”

“The last thing I want to do is go outside to hire people to fill those leadership roles.” John Richter, owner, Richter Ladscape Company

This gives crews an opportunity to intermingle, while Richter gets to interact with them all. He provides breakfast and coffee, as division leaders take turns discussing safety issues. Afterward, he acknowledges birthdays and announces the monthly efficiency winners. “It’s a good way to unify everybody,” he says.

At a recent meeting, Richter gave his team this pep talk:

“We’ve grown almost to capacity, where four trucks can’t manage the (maintenance) routes we have. We need to buy another truck and fill it with another crew,” he told them. “The last thing I want to do is go outside to hire people to fill those leadership roles.”

His last piece of advice to his team doubles as good advice for other LCOs:

“You’ve got to be willing to train up some of these guys,” Richter told them. “I know you don’t want them to leave your truck, but the goal is for them to grow as we grow the company.”