Things were going great for Lloyd and Julie Stunkel. The co-owners of The Natural Touch Landscaping & Supply in Elk Mound, Wisconsin, had just put in an offer for their own piece of land to house the growing company, they had six months of contracts signed and after nine years of hard work, their company was thriving.
Then, in 2014, Lloyd started having trouble with his shoulder. Thinking that he had torn his rotator cuff, he went to the doctor expecting the worst case scenario to be a surgery.
But it was worse than he thought. The pain was actually a large mass right above his shoulder blade pressing on the surrounding nerves. It was sarcoma – a cancer in his soft tissue.
“It was hard because obviously my arms are my livelihood,” says Lloyd, who was only in his mid-40s.
With all of the unknowns surrounding a diagnosis like cancer, Julie was ready to close up shop and withdraw the offer on the land, but they decided to fight instead.
“Lloyd had said ‘I’m not rescinding. We’ve worked too hard. I’m going to beat cancer and I’m going to end the year without having a lost step in this business,” she says.
Keeping things moving.
Not yet sure about how to move forward, the Stunkels sat down with foreman Brandon Goebel and gave him the news that Lloyd would be undergoing cancer treatments. Goebel, who had only been on staff for two years, didn’t hesitate for a second to step up to the challenge and offered to do whatever he could to help.
“When we met with Brandon, the first words out of his mouth were, ‘What do I need to do? What do you need me to do? And that was huge,” Lloyd says.
“Out of all the insecurity that goes around the word ‘cancer,’ to have Brandon was just that one secure spot that said we could go on – an anchor that said we could keep going.” Julie Stunkel, The Natural Touch
Julie says she has no idea what they would have done without Goebel. “It just brings me to tears to think about that,” she says.
“Out of all the insecurity that goes around the word ‘cancer,’ to have Brandon was just that one secure spot that said we could go on – an anchor that said we could keep going.”
Goebel worked with the Stunkels to find a way to keep the business operating smoothly while Lloyd was fighting cancer.
He took over daily operations, making sure that crewmembers knew where they were going and what they were doing, that they had what they needed to get the job done and that customers were completely satisfied with the work.
He even filled in to do consultations when Lloyd was unable to make it out to properties.
“Brandon could have just bailed,” Julie says. “It was still early enough. We’re a small business in a small town and Brandon would have had no problem had he just said, ‘I’m not up for what this year has to bring.’”
But Goebel wasn’t interested in finding another job. His only concern was for Lloyd and the success of the business.
Even though he was a relatively new employee, he had gotten to know Lloyd and Julie well, and his first thought was about what he could do to help them during an incredibly hard time.
“It’s just the type of person Lloyd is. He’s one of those guys you want to work for and when a situation is going bad, he’s that guy you want to rally behind,” Goebel says.
“I don’t know if I can put into words what type of respect I have for him, so when you see somebody going through something like that, you want to make it as easy as possible for him.”
A good fit.
When Goebel joined The Natural Touch, Lloyd and Julie were putting out ads for someone they could mentor into a supervisor role.
They wanted an employee to manage properties and sell so that Lloyd could spend less time on jobsites and more time working on the business. They put out the call in the fall rather than the spring, hoping to attract more motivated candidates, and they did.
But Goebel stood out. One of the first things the Stunkels noticed was the way he approached the job. He had previously owned his own concrete company so he thought like a business owner rather than an employee, and understood the ins and outs of running a business.
After deciding to leave his business behind, Goebel turned to landscaping because he loved working outside and dealing with residential customers, which makes up 75 percent of the company’s business.
“The ability to get in with a new company and to be able to expand upon it and grow with that company was I thought something that they offered that nobody else in the area really could because they were already established at that time,” he says.
Onward and upward.
Lloyd has been cancer-free for a year and as Goebel transitions to a more managerial role, Lloyd plans to focus more on the business itself and catch up with its recent growth.
The company has eight fulltime employees operating as one crew, splitting off as needed, and Julie hopes to grow the business to the $1-million mark, expanding to two fulltime crews.
This summer, Goebel will train two new employees to step into the role of foremen, leaving him free to supervise crews.
He wants to take The Natural Touch to the top, improving as much as possible each year and offering the best service in town, eventually becoming a one-stop shop for all outdoor needs. “When we can get to that point and we can continue to get good references and have people happy with the work that we’re performing for them, that’s the best,” Goebel says.
“There’s nothing better than seeing someone you did a job for out in public and having them come up and shake your hand and ask you how you’ve been and this and that. I think when you can start achieving that, you’re doing something right in the industry.”