Jim Huston runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm.
My first article was submitted to the editors of Lawn & Landscape magazine 10 years ago this month. Because of this anniversary, I thought a little looking back and then forward was in order.
The occasion also seemed appropriate for introducing my new book, “Benchmarks for Landscape Construction Professionals,” the first of a five-book series for green industry construction, maintenance, irrigation, chemical applicator and arboriculture professionals. I’ve dedicated this series to the late Charles Vander Kooi.
One reason why I am so excited about this new book project is that virtually all of my new clients have one primary question in common: “How does my company compare to other companies in the green industry?” Hopefully, this book, and the four to follow, will help answer this question.
It was the summer of 1987, mid-June to be exact, and I vividly remember my first consulting “gig” working with Charles Vander Kooi and Associates. The company that I consulted with was a small landscape installation one located in Youngstown, Ohio.
I worked with this company for the better part of a week putting together their annual budget, calculating labor burdens, general and administrative overhead percentages, cost per hour rates for all of their equipment, break-even points, labor rates for their crews, etc.
All of this I did with paper and pencil. It was a painful experience. No sooner would I calculate a labor rate when someone would come up with a different scenario that changed all of the calculations. Fortunately, I had lots of erasers.
I realized no one was talking about benchmarks for the green industry.
This consulting experience went very well. However, it was very painful and slow. There simply was no way I would continue to do this kind of work without the aid of a spreadsheet program. Lotus 1-2-3 had been released in 1983 and it changed everything.
So I took some Lotus 1-2-3 classes and, for the remainder of 1987, I applied it to Vander Kooi’s estimating methodology. I’d put together my spreadsheets and Chuck and I would go over and fine tune them.
Meanwhile, Chuck and his computer programmer were busy putting the finishing touches on an estimating software program written in Lotus 1-2-3.
Once these Lotus 1-2-3 worksheets were developed and put into place, they not only saved me a lot of time (I could do in half a day what took me days with paper, pencils and lots of erasers) but they also helped me to identify patterns and trends in all of the data. Gross profit margins, net profit margins, gross and net profits per man-hour, etc., began to surface.
With a couple of keystrokes, I could create a formula that would calculate a new ratio from all of the data. Drawing on my MBA background in finance, I began to mold all of this data into legitimate and useful business information that landscape contractors could use to run their daily operations. Landscape benchmarks for all aspects of green industry operations (construction, fine gardening, tree care, etc.) were born.
While writing my second green industry estimating book in 2002, “How to Price Landscape & Irrigation Projects,” I realized no one was talking about benchmarks for the green industry. So, I decided to include a chapter and appendix in it with hundreds of benchmarks for all aspects of the industry.
Not too many years later, the people at Lawn & Landscape magazine asked me to write a monthly column for them. Shortly after that, the team at Lawn & Landscape asked me to work with Kristen Hampshire on their annual benchmarking issue. I’ve been assisting Kristen with this issue now for almost 10 years.
About one year ago, I realized the green industry lacked a book – or a series of books – specifically addressing green industry benchmarks, standards, and critical numbers.
They needed to take into account not just production rates but also financial, estimating, organizational, marketing and personal standards that covered individual companies, the green industry and individuals. Hence, this series was born.