Specialty software, apps help to make operations more efficient.
By Mike Jiggens
New technology in the form of specialty computer software and mobile apps are giving landscape contractors a leg up in the business world and are allowing them to be more efficient in their operations.
Mark Bradley, CEO of Toronto-based TGB Landscape and founder of LMN landscape estimating and timekeeping software, said both his and other software available to the industry have been instrumental in helping to grow his landscaping company and have enabled him to smoothly run his operations.
“I was always looking to do technology to help control the growth and ultimately run a little smoother operation with ideally a little bit more profit than the industry average,” he said in February during a webinar arranged by Jeffrey Scott, a business growth expert in the landscape and contracting industries. It was the second of a three-part contractor conversation series of webinars presented by Scott.
Bradley began his landscaping company in 1997 in a “pickup truck and wheelbarrow scenario,” but said he didn’t have the business background he felt he needed.
“I felt I had the work ethic to make up for that.”
By 2007, TGB Landscape was doing about $7 million in business. Bradley said he was looking for business software at the time, but couldn’t find what he wanted, acknowledging he was experiencing issues related to his rate of growth.
“I knew I wanted to grow the business beyond where it was, so I thought it would be a good idea to build our own software at that point in time.”
He set aside $300,000 to build the ideal software “and somehow managed to spend a couple million within a few years.” He aspired to build a software program that could also be used by others in the industry.
By 2009, LMN software was available for sale in the industry. Today, it boasts 35,000 users, making it a leader in the landscape operational software industry. Users of LMN software have generated a total of $4.1 billion in landscape estimates.
Bradley expanded the software to support the growth of his own landscaping business whose peak revenue has stopped just short of $50 million.
“The past few years I’ve been trying to slow it down a little bit,” he said, noting TGB Landscape was doing a lot of highway construction work and large scale civil jobs in addition to its own landscape operations.
“I’ve always focused on keeping my overhead really low so that I can compete in a competitive market and make profit where my competition can’t. Right now my overhead is hovering at about four per cent, and I think the reason we’re able to operate with such a low overhead is because we use technology in every area of the business to eliminate middle management.”
Bradley said many contractors are “petrified” of adopting technology to better streamline their operations. He said that when he gets to know his LMN customers, he soon comes to realize they’re not taking advantage of readily available software to take care of the day-to-day issues.
“There’s a big problem in the industry with the labour shortage. A lot of times business owners are afraid of millennials. They’re afraid of this young workforce.”
But Bradley said he figures those who will be best at using technology and helping to bring such traditional industries as landscaping into the future are the millennials. The younger generation doesn’t like doing things “the long way,” he said, adding they realize the better way involves working with technology.
“I really think that millennials are the answer to the labour shortage. Keeping millennials engaged and getting them to work at their best involves using technology. I feel a lot of business owners dismiss their suggestions, and I think that millennials are more likely to move on when they get the feeling that they’re stuck in a rut with a business owner.”
Bradley said he has heard from several landscaping employees who say they would love to work with the software available today, but their business owners don’t understand the technology and can’t comprehend its usefulness.
“I am amazed at how many great millennials are out there who really have it, but the owners just aren’t listening.”
Greg Wildeboer, CEO of Whispering Pines Landscaping in Orangeville, Ont., is an advocate of technology designed to streamline a business’ operations.
“Technology needs to be instrumental in your business,” he said, speaking in the same webinar. Technology has allowed his company to grow yet remain lean and nimble. The software Whispering Pines has adopted is a combination of that which is already available on the market and that which the company has custom developed.
Having embraced technology has allowed Whispering Pines to become a paperless company.
“The frustration of having to fill this paper out and that paper out was very high,” Wildeboer said. “By simplifying the process, the information can get entered within seconds in most cases and it’s accurate. They (employees) can do their job, they can be productive and we’re not hounding them for proper information or new information or ‘why did you not do something?’”
Bradley offered a brief outline of the various software technologies TGB Landscape utilizes, including his own LMN (Landscape Management Network) software. Its uses include scheduling and routing, automated invoicing, job costing and analysis, job site photos and file storage and mobile GPS time tracking.
Basecamp is a project management and team collaboration software, available as both an app and in a web-based format. It creates a virtual file for a project where people can collaborate. It often involves pre-construction when efforts are made to get jobs out of the ground. It allows users to go through checklists and issue tasks to ensure things have happened before a project begins. TGB Landscape uses the software for its larger projects and especially those in the commercial sector.
“It really provides that portal for all parties to collaborate and get things done,” Bradley said.
Dropbox is a program that allows the sharing of drawings, pictures, files and ideas to eliminate the need for meetings. Bradley said the software has allowed his company to reduce the number of its meetings by half, noting it’s much easier to share information electronically than to drive to a customer’s location and sit down to review a document in person.
“Everybody’s too busy to have these countless meetings.”
The software permits easy sharing of files, allowing a simple telephone call to discuss details.
To better manage its fleet of equipment, TGB uses two different Caterpillar software programs to track preventative maintenance, schedule maintenance, order parts online, get online diagnostics before a problem exists and generate costing analysis. Bradley said one of the reasons he chooses to use Caterpillar equipment is because of the quality of its software and its “forward thinking.”
Fleetio, powered by GPS truck location tracking software Geotab, is software that manages TGB’s preventative maintenance records, safety records, paperwork and fleet inspections as well as operating costs, fuel consumption and preventative maintenance planning.
“It helps to keep the fleet in order.”
As TGB started to take on larger projects, commercial work and large residential work, it found that having accurate grading plans before getting to the site had a huge impact on build time and labour and material costs. The company turned to Trimble grade control systems to allow for faster build times, reduced labour costs and reduced material waste. The software also permits less skilled operators to work. Skid steers, some excavators and small dozers are fitted with GPS equipment to allow teams with hand-held units to shoot grades quickly.
“Things that were taking days are done in hours using that kind of technology. Things are set perfect the first time.”
Bradley said the Trimble software goes hand in hand with AutoCAD, a design software that allows better collaboration. TGB designers can work more efficiently with homebuilders because homes are built based on AutoCAD drawings that show landscape plans and exterior features.
Jobsite Watch is a software program that gives customers access to crew locations in real time and helps to sell high priority, high profit work, he said.
Greenius is a software program that provides online training for workers.
“I think people come and go in the landscape industry because we don’t train them enough. I think online training gives a company the flexibility to train their staff from a distance and at a much, much higher level of detail than any one company could create.”
Most landscape companies, Bradley said, aren’t doing as well as they could with their marketing in the area of social media and other web-based strategies. Facebook ads, Google ads and Google Analytics can drive some targeted leads and effectively grow a business at a low cost, he said.
Bradley said he has seen many weak websites.
“If your work is far nicer than your website, then your No. 1 priority should be to get your website to look as good as your work.”
Wildeboer is an advocate of LMN’s software as well as Dropbox and Greenius, and has created its own truck and equipment management software.
A strategy he has enacted – called “3 o’clock snapshot” – was devised in conjunction with a company policy that prohibits employees from visiting suppliers to obtain materials. He said crews at one time would visit their local supplier where they would be lined up with 10 other crews, each trying to obtain material. In response, Whispering Pines Landscaping developed the “3 o’clock snapshot” so that information pertaining to anything needed the following day would come into the office, prompting the operation manager to order supplies for delivery by day’s end. Crews would have the needed material first thing in the morning and could go straight to the job site.