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The foreman: a landscape contractor key employee


February 8, 2016
By Mike Jiggens

A crew foreman can be a powerful ambassador for a landscape contractor, and can be instrumental in a company’s growth and profit-making ability, but he must first and foremost know everything there is to know about the business and his company and be prepared to sell it.

Mark Bradley, owner of TBG Landscape in Brooklin, Ont., spoke at Landscape Congress in Toronto in January about how to build an entrepreneurial spirit in key employees, including foremen.

“Often as owners, we think that our staff should just know exactly what it is we want them to do without really telling them,” he said.

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Reflecting on his early years when he founded TBG 18 years ago, Bradley said he realized he made the mistake at the time of not training his foremen to be at a level which they should have been. He said he now tries to develop and nurture foremen from within, although some key employees are hired from other companies.

“I’m always looking for potential foremen. Every time we hire somebody, we’re trying to hire somebody we think has that in them.”

Even newly-hired crew labourers are looked upon as potential foremen.

A system of bonuses and incentives help to ensure the process works to the company’s satisfaction. Bradley said his foremen are well paid and have benefits and a pension plan, but their potential earnings can increase in accordance to how they are able to grow the company and bolster its bottom line.

Bradley said how much his company has to spend on labour is a factor used in the hiring process and in developing people into foremen. Twenty-five per cent of the revenue a crew will generate goes toward that crew’s wages. If that crew produces $200,000, one-quarter of that amount, or $50,000, will be earmarked to pay the crew.

He said it’s important when adding crews and buying more equipment and making decisions to grow, that those numbers are kept in mind. Often a company will want to have more foremen, more trucks and more crews, but, if the revenue isn’t sufficient enough to support such growth, it won’t make sense, he added.

When deciding upon how much he should pay his foremen, Bradley said he adheres to a set formula based on the revenue the forman and his crew are able to generate.

“We only have so much money in the business to pay people, and it’s directly reflected from the revenue that that crew is capable of producing.”

In other words, the foreman of a crew which produces $300,000 in construction work revenue should not be earning as much as the foreman of a crew which generates $1 million in revenue.

On the maintenance side of the company, if a crew produces $200,000 of maintenance work in a year, the only way that foreman and his crew can increase their sales and wages is by doing more enhancement business and add-ons.

Using the 25 per cent formula, Bradley said if $65,000 is to be spent on wages, then that crew will have to reach a revenue goal of $260,000.

When hiring labourers who could be groomed to become potential foremen, Bradley said he likes to advertise his wage range when posting jobs he wants filled. He said the approach opens the door to a broader range of applicants and brings in better people who are closer to becoming future foremen.

“I think it’s really expensive when we try to always hire cheap and pay our staff too little. I think it’s expensive because what tends to happen is we end up with everybody else’s sort of throwaways in the process.”

People who don’t have the credentials to find a job in another trade or start an apprenticeship tend to go from job to job and look at low level entry positions, Bradley said.

Advertising a wage range and explaining there are apprenticeship opportunities available in the company will attract a much different applicant, he said.

“When you start to post these jobs and look for these incredible people who will eventually run projects for you and make money for you when you’re not present, it’s important to have a clear approach so that you attract these excellent people.”

Bradley said that can be difficult when first starting out or if an owner has a smaller business. He said he finds it challenging even today because he’s competing with other companies to attract a good labour force, and it’s equally hard to retain key people if they see an opening with a bigger company which might pay more.

“So you have to have some kind of formula to attract them and keep them inside your company.”

He said he calls that “stickiness” or the challenge to keep good people within a company, adding it means a lot more than just money.

When hiring labourers, Bradley said he strives to sell the position as a career. During the first number of years after founding his company, Bradley said he experienced significant turnover, noting there were always new faces and that it was stressful getting out of the gate each year.

“But, by starting to look at the business as a career path, as people come in, the stickiness starts right there.”

Although he admitted it can be difficult to accomplish in a job ad, it’s wise to indicate what the company has now and what it’s going to have in five years and beyond.

When selling a labourer’s position as a career, Bradley said he posts all the opportunities available as well as pay rates so that a posting will attract the best possible applicants, from apprentices to those already skilled in the profession.

TBG Landscape typically posts its job openings over the Internet and accepts only emailed responses. From this process, pre-interviews are conducted by sending out forms to be filled out by those who respond. Applicants are asked where they are at and what they are looking for in a career. The process allows Bradley to learn where job applicants wish to begin with the company and where they want to go. He said they are being asked to plot their career paths as part of the interview process.

“One of the biggest criteria we’re looking for when hiring are what their long-term plans are. Where do they see themselves in 10 years? In 15 years? Are they looking for a job they can retire at?”

Such a detailed hiring process builds a company’s sustainability, he said.

During the pre-interview process, applicants are analyzed for more than just their skill sets. Bradley said he’s even more concerned with their attitudes and their ability to train. The process allows him to focus on those looking for a long-term career, who are open-minded, who have a positive attitude, who wish to be part of a team, and who are looking for job security. He said it’s his job to let the applicants realize all those things are available.

“You’re really selling your company with your job ad and with the pre-interview form.”

The pre-interview form allows the applicant to feel like there is a career to be sought, and he will consequently take the position much more seriously.

The interview itself is the last chance for the employer to hire based on personal character and to get a feel for what the applicant is really like as a person. Bradley, who said he still prefers to do the hiring himself, said an applicant can look good on paper and adequately answer the various questions on the pre-interview form, but it can sometimes be apparent during the actual interview that the applicant isn’t the same individual who filled out the form.

Once a person has been hired, the opportunities afforded to him can begin to be realized. Bradley said the owner can take new hires and train them in a way that allows them “to finish our sentences” and allow them to grow within the company so that one day they may become foremen. The potential to be promoted to foreman could occur in as little as three or four months and not necessarily three or four years. Promoting labourers to foremen overnight and expecting the company to grow isn’t likely to happen overnight, he said, adding it would simply set them up for failure.

Companies which don’t have a standard wage program or career opportunity program should consider investing time into developing them, Bradley recommended. The various roles within the company and their corresponding pay rates should be indicated.

He said it’s difficult anymore for young people graduating from high school or college to find this type of opportunity. In the past, one could go directly from high school to a manufacturing job and earn a good wage, receive benefits and have job security, but those types of opportunities are few and far between these days.

“As an industry, we should really be capitalizing on that because there is an opportunity for us to create that security for workers in this industry if we set up our businesses in that same fashion.”

When job applicants understand that although they will start at the bottom yet can work their way up the ladder, enjoy a benefits and pension plan and realize a long-term career with a training program, better people will come forward who can be relied upon to do more, Bradley said.

If the right training isn’t provided within the critical first few months after an employee has been hired, he may seem confused by what is happening around him and may wish to move on.

“The foremen have to be providing that training on the job every day of the week.”

Not only are foremen entrusted with training staff, Bradley said they are the company’s ambassadors who “finish the sentences” of the owner every day to the staff, vendors and customers. He is the one who keeps the owner’s promises when out selling a job. When the owner signs a contract, the foreman takes over from there to ensure everything goes as planned.
“I think they’re (foremen) the most important people in our company.”

He said the foreman is the owner’s representative, and if he’s not told how things are to be done and isn’t properly trained and coached over a five-year period, it’s unlikely he will become a true ambassador for the company.

Making someone a foreman is a long-term relationship and will take years for a newly-appointed foreman to become a good foreman, Bradley said. He might be good at maintaining properties and running a snow business, but there is more to the position than that. He must also be the safety trainer and provide on-the-job training for his crew. He’s also the watchdog, and it’s the owner who has to give him all those qualities, he added.

Bradley said one of the most embarrassing things an owner can experience is when an employee quits his job, claiming it’s unsafe.

“When they give me good examples of us working unsafe, I know I’ve got a problem with the foreman, and that’s happened lots of times over the years.”

If such matters come to light, it’s important for the owner to listen to what is being said, Bradley said, adding that sufficient time must be invested in the foreman to teach him about such things as safety.

“Training for the foremen should never really stop. They need to be estimators, they need to be safety people, they need to be leaders, they need to be HR (human resources) people, they need to be sales people… Their job list never ends.”

The training provided to a foreman should be at a level in which they are trained as best as possible in all areas, Bradley said, adding training of foremen should be done year-round.

Foremen should adapt to the latest technology when performing their jobs, using smart phones at the very least, he said. Smart phones can be used for time keeping, to take progress photographs at a job site and to fill out electronic forms for estimates. Many companies, however, don’t take the time to properly train their foremen to adapt to such technology.

When TBG Landscape launches new ideas, flow sheets are created which the foreman will examine and will comprehend what is to happen. It’s important the foreman understands the entire process, Bradley said, and flow sheets make a huge difference when training people.

Technology is used in the landscaping industry for various things, but, if sufficient training isn’t provided, employees won’t buy into it, he said.

“It’s all about the training when we bring in these new ideas.”

Purchasing a big screen television set or a projector and screen for the office is a worthwhile investment, allowing power point presentations to be made to better illustrate a point. Bradley said employees tend to learn better by seeing and doing than by simply listening.

Among the training provided to TBG Landscape foremen includes upgrading of their driver’s licences so that they can operate bigger trucks, getting them equipment certifications for safety and efficiency, or getting them certified so that they may be qualified to train others.

“Your foreman becomes your waste eliminator. Your foreman needs to be the person who is in the field every day eliminating waste, but he can’t do it alone. He has to be the on-the-job trainer. On-the-job training is where everything happens.”

Training can’t be done only once a month with the intention to “change your culture,” Bradley said, adding foremen must become teachers. He enrols his foremen in a leadership training program provided by Dale Carnegie from which they graduate with a different attitude and learn to effectively communicate with others and approach their staff with less aggression.

“These foremen need to think of themselves as teachers because if they got into that position of being a foreman, then they want to teach the rest of the staff how to do it. They can’t just be the best worker—the guy who puts his head down and gets the job done. That may have got them to that position, but they need to be leaders.”

The foreman must take improvement ideas from the crew and actually want to know those ideas and bring them forward for the good of the company, Bradley said.

“They really play the role of an owner at the end of the day.”

Because of this, the foreman should be properly compensated, he said, adding that although a fair wage is important, what is even more important is that he knows that he has both a benefits package and pension plan.

“The small cost per hour of providing benefits and having a good pension program, when you have the time to develop that, your staff will stay with you and be loyal.”

Such an incentive program works well, Bradley said, because as the foreman helps to grow the business, his wage grows accordingly.

At TBG, Bradley will typically meet with his foremen in February to look at whether or not the company reached its sales goal for the year, discuss what went right and what went wrong, and note efficiency rates and key performance indicators. The seasonal recap goes into great detail and lasts three or four hours.

“It should be clear to everyone how the year went.”

The meeting also serves to solicit feedback from the foremen about things which didn’t go so well and to seek ideas from them which they see as opportunities.

A SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis is conducted between the foremen and their crews.
Bradley said the foremen are taught how to budget and to fully understand their costs and goals for the year. The key when creating a budget is that they understand it—both the costs and the hours—and ensuring they understand the estimating philosophy and then tracking it as the jobs progress.

Bonus opportunities are tied into the crew budget. At this stage, Bradley said, the crews work for their foremen, and the foremen essentially work for themselves. The budget meeting is the key to having the foremen become partners in the company.

“Taking the time to create this is well worth it.”

Bradley said he wants to know his hours bid vs. actual hours, suggesting it is the only measurement there is, and measuring dollars all the time can’t be done.

Certain information is requested daily. “Were the time reports submitted yesterday or today? Do we have all the vendor paper work?”

A job progress report is expected each week on every job. Bradley said he wants to see where the hours are by work area and where crews have gone over and where they’ve gone under.

He said that if a company wishes to initiate an incentive program for its staff, it is important for employees to know where the money will come from.

A typical landscaping company will have sales, a certain amount of waste, wages and profit. Once waste begins to be eliminated and as the culture shifts, waste will decline a little, and wages and profit can increase.

“This doesn’t happen overnight. It takes three or four years to implement.”

Waste should be beaten down so low, he said, that wages and profit can increase accordingly to the point “that we can start to give really generous bonuses and incentives to our crews.”

It takes a team effort to accomplish this, he added, acknowledging that waste challenges will always exist due to weather and other unforeseen events. But waste can be substantially reduced, he stressed.

Waste can result from various things, including waiting, the way in which trailers are loaded and unloaded in the morning, forgetting tools, not ordering materials in a timely fashion, not having the right tools for the job, and taking too much time to face stones.

Bradley warned against keeping staff wages too low while offering big bonuses. He said his staff did a great job one year reducing waste and turning in a good season. With waste having been significantly reduced, he was able to increase his wages. The following year, however, waste reduction wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been the previous season and, by year’s end, not as much bonus money was available because it had gone toward increased wages. At the end of the season, a foreman said he had done everything he had accomplished the previous year, and his smaller bonus was unpalatable. The foreman was reminded that his per hour wage had increased substantially from the previous year.

Although bonus programs tend to create huge improvements for the company, everyone needs to know they must be sustainable, Bradley said.

Teaching crews that there is more money that can go into the wage and bonus pool if waste is eliminated, employees will buy into it, he said.

Bradley sets up his bonus system as follows: the foreman gets 50 to 70 per cent of the bonus, yet office staff will need some bonus because they are selling and designing more work, and the field staff must benefit as well. The 50 to 70 per cent is based on a four-person crew, including the foreman. As the crew complement increases, the bonus becomes smaller for the foreman because he has more people with whom to share it. But the dollar value shouldn’t get smaller because of the increased revenue, he added.

TBG Landscape has won several awards during its 18 years of operation, for its design-build work, and is among North America’s top 100 landscape contractors.