Mike Sharpe, owner, Sharpescapes
Photo courtesy of Sharpescapes

This is our personal experience of how and why a top employee started and built his own business while working for us. The most surprising part is we unknowingly helped him do it.

Here at Sharpescapes in Greenville, South Carolina, we hired a top candidate based on other employee recommendations as well as hearing of his reputation around town working for other companies. Let’s call him “John Smith.” John quickly moved up among the ranks and became project crew leader within one to two years. He did this by performing some of the best quality we had ever seen in the industry and were very proud of him and the product we were able to provide our clients.

As time passed and raises and incentives were passed on to John, he was given more freedom than most. He began building his own crew and even having some talks with clients while working on their job sites.

He always expressed how fortunate he was to be employed here and was very thankful for the upper management and ownership at Sharpescapes, so we had no real cause for concern. We thought he was a “lifer.” We also allowed John the freedom to organize his schedule, make quick decisions, and even be involved in hiring, firing, and purchasing of select equipment to benefit his crew. In effect, we gave him the experience of running his own business under our corporate umbrella and personal guidance.

Planting the seed.

It was about halfway through his tenure, John informed us that he had begun mowing side jobs and also suggested he would like to purchase older Sharpescapes equipment from the ownership. We agreed to allow him to buy a couple of mowers and small equipment at a good discounted rate. We were happy to reduce our inventory and use the income to upgrade our equipment.

We service many HOAs, and often we receive calls from individual homeowners requesting small cleanup or planting projects for their homes or enclosed patios. We usually have to pass on these due to our structure and overhead would be more than what the person is looking to spend. This is where John came in. We would pass on his contact info, and he could add the work to his growing collection of side jobs on the weekend.

This also pleased the caller because they knew of his good work ethic as well as the expectation of a cheaper price. At the moment, all parties involved were happy with this arrangement. In addition to this, Sharpescapes was also performing several single family renovation or landscape installation type projects. Obviously, the client noticed John was the supervisor on these jobs, and the quality was impeccable.

Most of our business at Sharpescapes is commercial maintenance, so we were not in position to handle the ongoing residential maintenance of these projects once the initial work was completed. Our larger crew structure and equipment does not allow for small landscape maintenance accounts.

However, mostly in order to appease the client who was desperate for a quality person to provide the maintenance, we passed on to them John’s contact info, and our guess is many of these maintenance accounts were also added to his “weekend book of work.”

Another huge factor in building an employee’s side work is time off availability. With rising fuel prices and in order to try and limit overtime, Sharpescapes decided to try out the four-day work week, at least throughout the slower seasons.

This was great for us in keeping a tighter watch on overhead, but the byproduct was it opened up all our hourly employees for an extra day per week for side work and growing their business, especially a highly productive employee that doesn’t like to sit around, like John Smith.

I believe this was the biggest factor in influencing and building his book of side work. With all employees having most Fridays off, this also supplied unlimited, trained, and experienced labor to help John with his jobs, i.e. several other Sharpescapes employees that needed something to do and the pay associated with it. Several months later, John had the benefit of three main resources, all generated from his full-time job at Sharpescapes:

  1. Referrals from Sharpescapes clients and contacts
  2. Equipment that he was trained on and experienced with
  3. An experienced labor pool to help him with side work on company days off

This was truly a recipe for success that, looking back, we really should have seen coming, and we had no one to blame but ourselves for allowing it all to fall into place.

After Mike Sharpe allowed an employee to start doing side jobs, he eventually went on to start his own business servicing residential customers Sharpescapes wasn’t able to focus on.
Photo courtesy of Sharpescapes
Time to talk.

As things progressed and the busy spring season got closer, there is no doubt that John was getting calls and referrals that continued to build his business. He did complain from time to time that he was having to turn down some work in order to juggle both jobs. John also seemed irritable and stressed if he needed to work late on some days; a clue that he needed to get to a side customer’s house before the end of the day. As the owner, I decided it was time for a sit-down and discussion with John about his future with the company. I urged him to maintain his focus on Sharpescapes and reiterated the potential for growth within.

We even did an annual performance review and rewarded him with a significant pay raise. Still, John did not seem significantly motivated by these things. We felt that he had it in his heart to continue to devote any free time and energy to growing his business.

All things considered, John came in one Monday morning and said that after much thought and inner turmoil, he needed to receive a guaranteed day off every week to pursue his business. Even in the case of weather delays or company-observed holidays, he would, from here on out, need that day off every week. We were quite disappointed, but hopeful we could all reach an agreement.

Over the course of the week, we had several serious conversations with him and explained that one guaranteed day off would simply lead to two to three days off down the road, and neither Sharpescapes, John, nor our clients would be pleased with this.

In effect, we gave him the experience of running his own business under our corporate umbrella and personal guidance.

As a final incentive, we offered him another raise and incentive to stay and focus solely on his career here at Sharpescapes. However, by the end of the week, John decided he could not pass up on the opportunity to grow his personal business, and we regrettably agreed that his tenure here at Sharpescapes had come to an end. This would be best for both parties involved, and he needed to see this opportunity on his own through and make it his No. 1 priority.

Truly, this was a devastating loss for us, and it continues to affect us to this day. However, we could not make the same allowances for all employees, and we felt our client base would suffer as well if we agreed to John’s terms. We shook hands, wished him well, and told him to keep in touch but please respect our client relationships and employees during his pursuit. We then focused on finding John’s replacement and looked at it as an opportunity to bring in some fresh eyes and skills for the future.

This was a very tough lesson learned, but a valuable lesson none the less. We were able to incorporate the following changes and improvements to prevent this issue from happening again:

  • We no longer make referrals to our employees for side work.
  • We would trade in large equipment rather than selling to employees at a discounted price.
  • We no longer permit days off to pursue side work. Our employees’ careers with us are their No. 1 priority.
  • The manager retains control of crew schedules and closer supervision of crew relationships.
  • We asked clients not to suggest side work to our team while on their jobsite.
  • We explained to the entire company that we will not make individual exceptions unless it is a benefit to the whole company and is focused on our goals and mission.
  • We will continue rewarding our loyal employees and re-focus on showing them direct and rewarding career paths and opportunities here at Sharpescapes.

The author is the owner of Sharpescapes, a corporate and fine residential grounds care company in South Carolina.