Rafael Garcia of Grasshoppers is a 2020 Employee of the Year.
Photos courtesy of Grasshoppers

Last year, Mike Murphy and his team asked employees who deserved a new company award for the worker who showed the most dedication to Grasshoppers. The answers they heard were almost unanimous – the award belonged to Rafael Garcia, the lawn maintenance foreman supervisor who has spent nine consecutive years and counting at Grasshoppers.

His credentials proved overwhelming: He mentors other employees, even ones that Murphy worried about before Rafael worked with them to make them better. He’s been picking up several coworkers for years, ensuring they have a reliable way to get to work, although he has to be up at 5 a.m. or earlier as a result. Rafael has even purchased work boots and clothes for other employees who weren’t able to afford them, and Murphy says he did it without expecting anything in return.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence – or perhaps it runs in Rafael’s family – but the award he gratefully accepted last year is named after his father, Felix Garcia, who spent roughly 18 years at Grasshoppers before retiring a few years ago.

“I started here because my dad worked here,” Rafael says. “Like we always say in this company, we’re like a family here. We take care of everybody. It’s not just the guys on top.”

Murphy, the company’s vice president of operations, has been with Grasshoppers for three years and has watched both Rafael and Felix hard at work.

“His dad was very beloved by everybody here,” he says. “We’re very, very fortunate to have those two in a row. It’s just kind of ironic that Rafael wins it, but hands down, he deserved it.”

Call it a comeback.

Those who are at the top of Grasshoppers’ chain of command have basically known Rafael since he was a child. Felix was an employee at the company shortly after Tonya Windham and her husband, Ryan, started the company in 2002. Landscape Consultant Mike Williams fondly remembers working with Felix, who “never said no” and made sure every client was satisfied.

“Felix Garcia was a very hard worker. He was always dedicated and went above and beyond for the company,” Williams says. “He always rolled up his sleeves and did it. That’s why they created the award when he retired.”

But once Felix retired, it wasn’t as though that same high-level production went away. Rafael’s work ethic and drive closely mirror that of his father’s, Tonya says. She had a mental checklist of all the things she wanted out of potential employees when the company first opened. Now, it’s up to 52 employees and Rafael “exceeds that checklist.”

“The funny thing about our relationship with Rafael is that me and my husband have had the privilege of watching him grow up for 18 years,” she says.

“We’ve seen him grow and excel in all the different stages of his life. He’s a loving husband and awesome dad. To watch him be the best in all aspects of his life, it’s been a true inspiration.”

Rafael even worked with the company in the early 2000s before moving on after a two-year stint. But he left to try working for other employers, primarily to sample the market and see what other companies had to offer.

But Rafael continued to only work short stints rather than find a long-term place to develop his career. After a series of employments that only lasted a year or just months before he moved on, his father urged him to rejoin Grasshoppers, where Rafael’s worked ever since. The decade of being away from Grasshoppers turned out to make him actually miss it most, Rafael says.

“I’m really happy here,” he says. “The owners, they’re really nice, they really take care of everybody. I always try to be better and better.”

“We’ve seen (Rafael) grow and excel in all the different stages of his life. He’s a loving husband and awesome dad. To watch him be the best in all aspects of his life, it’s been a true inspiration.” Tonya Windham, co-owner, Grasshoppers

Taking care of business.

As Rafael continued to receive promotions during his second time around at Grasshoppers, Tonya says it’s helped him relate to the rest of the team because he’s been there before. He adds that he remembers what each job on the team is like and often keeps that in mind as he advises them on how to handle each position.

That said, she believes he’s a natural-born leader. She recalls a time when he and her husband were out on a property doing traditional maintenance work, and Rafael suggested they start mowing at a different angle.

While she couldn’t remember exactly what his suggestion was, and though it was a bit unusual, it ultimately proved to improve the way the lawn appeared immediately.

“He’s not just out to do his job and go home at the end of the day. He wants everything pristine,” she says. “That was an eye-opener for both me and my husband. He’s one in a million.”

Rafael’s work doesn’t go unnoticed. Williams says that when Grasshopper is showing their properties to prospective clients, they are often looking at properties that Rafael maintains. His accounts “always look the best,” Williams says.

And Murphy adds that he spends time getting to know the clients well, even meeting some of the members of a commercial property’s board of directors or HOAs.

“You should see him in action,” Murphy says. “He’s always willing to help a lending hand to his people. He’s hands-on, he leads by example. He’s that kind of guy.”

Rafael says he’s constantly trying to educate his clients just as much as he is taking care of their properties. He wants them to understand why his crews are doing what they’re doing.

“I really try to be honest with the customers. I try to be honest with everybody. I feel good doing that and I like when they’re really happy,” he says. “They thank me for explaining this (service).”

A big heart.

Perhaps most vitally, Williams says Rafael’s leadership among his coworkers brings tremendous value to the company. Murphy adds that the company’s employee retention rate is high because Rafael is turning every employee into a “superstar.” Even workers who showed early signs of being difficult to teach have become good pupils under Rafael’s watchful eye.

“He’s a mentor to a lot of the guys. He teaches them. He’s not just someone who gives them orders,” Williams says. “He helps them grow.”

Murphy commends Rafael’s work ethic and says he has a “whatever-it-takes” attitude, though he never drops his trademark optimism. He recalls instances where crews have been stranded out in the field after hours, still handling some work they fell behind on, and Rafael volunteered to jump into a truck to help out. He easily could’ve just gone home much like other coworkers, but he opted to instead help his fellow employees.

Even in moments where he could easily get frustrated, he rolls up his sleeves – much like his father – and gets to work.

“He’s got a big heart,” Murphy says. “He wants people to succeed.”