Travels with Jim follows Jim Huston around the country as he visits with landscapers and helps them understand their numbers to make smarter decisions.

© Nastco | Thinkstock

The winter drive from Wyoming to Iowa on I-80 was treacherous. Black ice, winds gusting over 60 mph, snowflakes the size of quarters and whiteouts were all too common. The stretch of interstate between Rawlins and Laramie was particularly nasty. I saw more than one 20-plus vehicle pileup with deadly consequences.

Pickup trucks, SUVs, 18-wheelers and autos were all pancaked together. The cause of such a chain reaction was often a whiteout, where a driver enters what is thought to be a small mist of fog that turns out to be a bog of thick white soup hundreds of feet in depth.

Iowa wasn’t any better than Wyoming. Two inches of fresh snow covered the highway. Traveling around 5? mph, I kept a glancing eye on the two automobiles trailing me at a relatively safe distance. I didn’t see the 18-wheeler sneaking up to pass me. When I did, it was too late. He passed me going about 65 mph and his draft instantly sucked up all the snow on the road. My visibility went from the length of a football field to only 1 foot ahead. Knowing that the cars behind me were in the same predicament, I couldn’t slow down or slam on my brakes.

The 10 seconds of blindness seemed like an eternity. I strained to see a reference point to grasp onto and provide me with direction. I was concerned when my passenger-side tires hit the rumble strips on the right side of the road. My concern turned into panic when the driver-side tires did, too. Fortunately, the reflector pole was only a slender pole. Unfortunately, it disappeared under the passenger side of the rental car, taking the air dam with it.

Had I been able to find a reference point (something that would point me in the right direction) outside of the snow-laden fog that engulfed me, I might have been able to avoid the pole and the $1,500 bill to repair the Hertz rental car. However, being totally smothered in it, I wasn’t able to see or find any way out.

“Whiteouts” in the field.

It was mid-August when a landscape contractor told me that he thought he’d end up doing just under $800,000 in sales for the year. However, he was burned out after months of directing the field crews, selling all the work and running the office. Labor production issues and bad pricing had gotten him into a financial “pickle.” He really needed to increase his sales by about $150,000 for the year (just under $1 million) in order to reach the amount that we had planned for the previous spring. This amount of revenue would give him sufficient profit to pay off his debt. Unfortunately, this young landscape entrepreneur was so wrapped up in minutia that he couldn’t see the solution to his problem. He was in a business “whiteout,” if you will.

This landscape contractor had worked in the minutia of his business instead of delegating it to competent staff. He was like a one-armed sailor attempting to row a boat with two oars. The more he pulled on the one oar with his one arm, the more he went in circles.

The solution to this contractor’s situation became clear as we talked. He had two very good crew members with management experience, one of whom could run the production side of the business. This would allow him to focus on the strategic issue of selling more business. The second crew member could eventually become an account manager to take care of customers and their needs. This would allow the owner to sell more business while maintaining a high level of quality control.


This young entrepreneur had fallen victim to his own business whiteout. He was blinded by all the minutia and felt powerless to do anything about it due to his burned out emotional state. To break out of this fog, he needed to rethink his whole business. He also needed objective reference points to keep him going in the right direction. These were provided by his annual budget which contained sales goals. However, he also needed emotional support and encouragement in the form of competent counsel.

Unlike my whiteout, which was fast in the making, a business whiteout usually festers for years before it reaches critical mass. Because it is so insidious, it can permeate a company undetected. Breaking out of this vertigo is often difficult. It requires one to get help in the form of objective reference points and competent counsel. If you get the right kind of help, good things can happen. Your vision will improve and you’ll be able to see a bright future far down the road. If you don’t get help and develop these objective reference points to tell if you’re going in the right direction, you may wander for years going in the wrong direction. You may also wonder for years if you could have done better.

Jim Huston runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm.