3 Lawn and Landscape Leaders You Can Learn From This Winter

Jerry Schill

Schill Grounds Management, Ohio 

Jerry Schill is the owner of Schill Landscape Management a full-service Landscape Maintenance and Snow and Ice removal contractor providing services to Commercial, Industrial, Apartment, Retail, and HOA across Northern Ohio.


Company Expansion & Growth Without Pains 

He’s a mover & shaker in the Green Industry and this winter, Jerry’s top priority is successfully moving into his new location. They have 2 big branches and 2 satellite locations. The new office will be the largest branch for the team.

He laughingly admits he “over-did it” as he told me about how the ½ acre building is jam packed with a huge formal meeting room, a training center addition, full kitchen, and a robust fenced-in parking lot.

They found, purchased and closed on the property all within 30 days. Like you, I was wondering how he’s keeping his head on straight.

“We’re blessed to have our problems.” Jerry said with a smile.

He’s put his trust in his VP of Operations so it doesn’t bog him and the rest of the team down. Simple things like the wall color decisions are already made and they’ll match the other locations. His main goal is to make sure that the building is not disruptive to his business.

Jerry is a self-proclaimed “Frank Ross guy” and understands the difference between having an investment versus an expense mentality. He bought out his brother for $50,000 which taught him some lessons about being a business owner and entrepreneur and not limiting himself to being a landscaper.

When I asked Jerry what advice he would give to someone looking to expand into another location he said, “Go as big as you can. Get to the point where you can’t sleep at night. Spend as much money – if you’re serious about it – as you can possibly stomach.”

Preparing for Spring with Winter Goals

 You can tell when talking to Jerry, that he sets sky high goals for himself and his team.

He used a metaphor to describe his team as ants who are always preparing and moving. His job is to set the goals and then spend the winter months motivating team members to achievement.

“Execution is the easy part, but preparation to execute is where the owner’s plan and vision should be. There’s nothing worse than setting goals so low you can hit ‘em.”

Jerry believes that one of the biggest mistakes a business owner can make is to not spend time educating oneself, getting better and striving to improve.

As for his personal winter goal, he wants to network with two other companies AT THEIR location to analyze their business and find experts outside of the industry. He networks through Vistage yearly, two times per month and sees tremendous benefits.

He likes to use consultants on a per-project basis and looks for one new consultant each year. One example he gave is that he gained an immense amount of knowledge about content marketing and thought leadership from Chris Heiler at Landscape Leadership.  They’ve also utilized J.P. Horizons and Kevin Kehoe for specific niche learning opportunities.

“I like to take in the process, teach it to someone in our organization, and then let them step up and run it internally.”

This is why they have one HR person who comes in 1 time per week to help out. However, there are a few outside consultants that stick like our friend Frank Ross who visits Schill Landscaping 2-3 times per year for 18 years because he is irreplaceable when it comes to budgeting and financial planning.

Overcoming Difficult Hiring Challenges

Due to difficulties in the program, Jerry has vowed not to let his company become co-dependent on H-2B. Two years ago, they lost $1,000,000 in contracted work because the government program let them down. Now, less than 20% of their work force comes from the H-2B program.

When he was on Capitol Hill in mid-November with fellow lawn and landscape professionals, he heard that there is a 30% increase in demand for the H2B program in 2018.  Also, in mid-December the first cap was reached. With this in mind, he’s seeking other ways to find reliable employees.

Jerry’s a forward planner. He knows they need 142 employees to hit their 2018 company goals. But they can get away with 130 and make it up in overtime at 48 hours a week. To fill some of the gaps, he’s utilizing Martin Recruiting and Consulting to bring in about 15 crew members from Puerto Rico in the early spring. 

He expects 2018 to be another great growth year for Schill Landscaping!


Luke Melograno

Mariani Landscape, Illinois 


Luke is a fellow ambassador for the National Association of Landscape Professional’s Young Professionals group.  He participates frequently in our Facebook group conversations, so I reached out to ask him a few questions about what he does as a Production Coordinator at one of the most well-known and respected landscape maintenance companies in the United States, Mariani Landscaping.

A Focus on Dormant Pruning and Employee Training

Typically, a production coordinator at Mariani has 8 crews working in their specific territory during the season. But in the winter that number goes down to about 1 crew. This gives the production coordinators like Luke the ability to spend more time with individual team members providing hands on training.

This winter they’re focusing in depth on hand pruning training.  

Dormant pruning helps the longevity of the plant’s health and keeps plants to the size the design’s intent. Sometimes it’s an upsell, but Luke explained they’re trying to add it to yearly agreements. This can prove to be tricky of the property is large.

In the case of large properties for an annual pruning contract, they might keep a consistent price, but split the property into zones and rotate on an annual basis. They take before and after photos to document this for their clients and keep them on record.

This dormant pruning enhancement push occurs about every 3-5 years at Mariani. 

Always Ready and Prepared for Snow Events

Other projects that fill their winter hours include working around the shop, office or the yard. But, when a snow event is in the forecast that takes precedence.

The HR team at Mariani has a paperwork day where they reclassify all of their snow plow driver’s due to their change of pay. The production coordinators put together safety slideshows and do their best to make training fun.

Luke described, “One unique thing that we do during training day is physically drive the snow plow route with new driver’s or drivers whose routes may have changed. Typically, this is about 4 or 5 of our 45 routes.” 

Before a snow event, Luke and another production coordinator perform a pre-check on all the machines, count equipment like shovels on trucks, loads salt into salt spreaders and fuels about 30 pick-up trucks. During the event, Luke is responsible for participating in zero tolerance accounts only. This allows him to be free after the event to review the equipment after the event too.

Keeping Morale Up During the Holidays

In December, Mariani Landscape offers the typical additional services in the winter such as holiday décor & holiday lighting. They also have a unique service called Mariani Holiday Shop where they sell Christmas trees to the community. They sell pre-made pots and bows there and they can even drop off Christmas tree and winter greens to client’s homes.

This brings the holiday spirit into everyone at Mariani, but when I asked Luke what his favorite part of winter in the green industry was, he laughed and said, “paid time off”.

Every year about 2 days before Christmas and 2 days after the New Year, each exempt team member at Mariani gets paid vacation time. While they’re “on call” during this time, Luke said they usually get lucky with the occasional exception of minor things like somebody’s holiday lighting blowing a fuse. Non-exempt crew leaders and higher are eligible for 1 week paid vacation during this time.

Zech Strauser 

Strauser Nature's Helpers, Pennsylvania 


I met Zech serving on the board for the Come Alive Outside non-profit organization. We’ve connected at several industry events over the years and he’s known and respected by hundreds of people in lawn and landscape profession.

Benefits of Snow Removal in the Winter

Like many other landscape professionals, Zech and his team are ready for snow. Their company has grown to service about 75 commercial accounts this year of which they’ll self-perform about 50% of the work. The rest will be done by sub-contractors.

This is the first year Zech empowered his team to fill the subcontractor spots and he focused strictly on the sales. He laughed and said, “The most successful way I’ve been able to find help is to scroll through my Rolodex, that is a phone, and dig deeper into my relationships to see if someone knows someone who can help.”

He paused to reflect, then he shared that snow isn't his favorite service because of the unpredictability of it. But, it gives him the opportunity to provide year-round help to his clients, keep him employees engaged through the winter, and keep the company growing. The trick is to find great subcontractors that only do snow, and don’t compromise any of the landscaping work.

2018 Recruiting Strategies

Strauser Nature Helpers is also focused on securing their sales for next year. Their mostly commercial line of work is booked to show 20% growth at the end of 2018, and will be at 30% if all of their renewals come in.

Zech knows that to hit his revenue goals, he needs to retain his employees.

“If you ask people what their client retention is, everyone knows. But rarely does anyone tell you about their internal retention of employees or even knows how to grade it – is it season to season? If high schoolers come back? Year to year?”

Zech explained that their internal retention is at a low 70% mark from Spring to mid-November. His goal is to retain 90% of that 70% over the winter going into next spring. He plans to do this by budgeting more time and money for training, engaging the entire staff between snow storms, as well as hosting weekly Meet-n-Greets.

Hosting Weekly Meet-n-Greets

Meet-n-Greets are typically Friday or Saturday mornings at 8:00am. Strauser Nature Helpers opens their doors to the public in an attempt to hire new workers. They talk about the company history, positions available, introduce a crew member, and give a shop tour.

When Zech started these a couple years ago, unemployment was at 10% and they’d have about 10 people show up each week. This year, unemployment in Pennsylvania is at 5% and 2 people show up weekly. Despite limited attendance at these events, they continue because the hiring competition is fierce. 

Hosting a Career Open House Day

But, there’s one event that really gets Zech energized. In the spring, they have a big Career Open House Day which Zech says is his favorite day of the year. He empowered a team of about 10-12 staff members to help setup, move trucks, hang balloons, entertain guests, etc.

“The best part was that our team felt empowered and they enjoyed being a full part of the day. They gave tours, shook hands, and helped make people feel comfortable.”

The company had 25-30 potential new recruits visit during the 5-hour event on a Saturday in May. Most of the recruits filled out applications before they arrived, but if not they did so on the spot. The success rate? Zech said 2 of the 20 people are still working with the company today which to him means it was time well spent.

Zech has always struck me as a really great leader and team player. He proved this again when I asked him to give me one tip or piece of advice for someone looking to setup a career fair. He moved the phone away from his mouth, shouted for “Katie” in the other room, and together they brainstormed this list: 

  • Get the whole team involved
  • Get the right person in charge of each aspect and then have ownership over each level
  • Start early with advertising, at least 40-60 days out and then ramp it up a few days before
  • Try to get people to RSVP to keep a pulse on numbers
  • Have a script for each role and do a role-play with each team member prior to the event
  • Make sure that confidential stuff is kept in locked rooms and maintain a bit of privacy keeping in mind that you could be giving a tour to your competitor
  • Most importantly - be flexible.

What will they change next time?

  1. Ensure that each team member can competently give the full tour, instead of assigning them different stations. This way nobody has to wait and stations aren’t empty.
  2. Empower team members to make job offers on the spot, pending completed drug screen or background checks.
  3. Schedule the event 2-3 weeks before their spring really kicks off. (It will probably happen in March instead of May this year)

Zech reminded me, “If you have a career fair, you better have something great to talk about, not just OT & benefits. Talk about how you are changing the world with landscapes.”

Utilizing Social Media Marketing for Recruiting

Strauser Nature Helpers are executing a lot of best digital marketing practices in addition to the Meet-n-Greets and Career Fairs. 

Zech said that they post frequently on Facebook and sponsor their ads directly to their target market. They only ask for essential information like name, phone number, and last job to keep it simple for recruits. Their company page upholds a 3-4-hour response rate on Facebook messenger and they are excited about the results they’ve seen from that.

Diverse Recruiting and Hiring Strategy

After being in business for 20 years, they’ve only used the H-2B program for 4 of those years because their hiring game plan is built on diversity. Their company culture promotes recruiting everywhere like there is no right answer. 

Which means they don’t shy away from hiring women, men, 60-year olds, high school students, etc… They plan to bring in 9 crew members from Puerto Rico in the spring using Martin Recruiting and Consulting.

It makes Zech feel good to be able to give career opportunities to so many people who are providing a lifestyle for their family. He admits the hiring game isn’t easy, but said

“Even if it’s tougher now to hire, what are you going to do about it except tackle it head-on?”

Growth, Development & Goals

In late fall, Zech went to a J.P. Horizons event in Asheville North Carolina where he was armed with a list of 13 goals for 2018. Fortunately, Jim Paluch and the participants at the event were able to help him get clarity and walk away with 3 goals.

GOAL ONE: His team goal is to attract, train and retain employees specifically at the field manager level.

They’ll do this by implementing all of the above diverse recruiting strategies.

GOAL TWO: His personal goal is to interweave his purpose, value and mission through as many people that work for him that he can impact.

He plans to do this by meeting with his 6 direct reports on a 4-6-week basis with this as the number one subject to find out how they’re trickling this down to the rest of the team. They give away awards at the end of each month based upon each of the company values. A team member could win an award for Best Gardener, Made a Difference, Protector, Outdoorsy, Leader, Teacher, Resourceful, etc.

GOAL THREE: Their leadership goal is to practice “A Better Way” which is another Training Program developed by JP Horizons.

The focus is on eliminating waste and introducing better environmental practices. Unlike many others in the industry, Zech rewards his sales people for making the right choice for the client and the environment such as skipping mulch and install 400 ferns for ground cover instead.

Making a Difference in the Industry

It’s easy to see why Strauser Nature Helpers is successful when you talk to Zech. He has a true passion for the industry and is ahead of the curve in many ways.

They focus on the environmental side of commercial maintenance and installation by promoting bio-swales, rain gardens, and clean water.

“If you are around water in any major way, it’s a great way to position yourself and become a shaker and mover in the industry”

It also provides meaning to the work that they do. He’s tired of the traditional landscape that we’ve seen for 40+ years. He wants to design and create landscapes that people want to interact with versus coming home, looking at it then hitting the garage door and going inside.

“Is the 16-year-old kid who is sitting inside of the house that you’re fertilizing going to grow up in 10-15 years and really care about a weed free lawn?” Zech thinks not.

He challenged the industry to change the way we view the younger generations. And to actually hang out with them. He believes that kids who are in high school today will use social media and other technology as an outlet of execution, not to watch dog videos.

“Kids in high school now saw their parents struggle in 2008 so they have a fighter mentality. That’s why I hire them.”

Zech practices what he preaches. He sits on advisory board for a Vo-Tech college and in the last meeting the principle admitted she had no idea that the landscape industry needed people so badly. He believes that solving our hiring woes starts with educating 7th grade level guidance counselors. He’s looking into the option of doing a “Meet the Employer” event for middle schoolers. 

I know we're all rooting for Zech and his team in 2018!

Talking to these 3 great people really inspired me to take action around the green industry and address some of their concerns and struggles for the upcoming season.

The biggest challenge is by far recruiting and hiring employees.

That's why I developed an at home study course called Online Recruiting for the Green Industry where you'll learn about:

  • Online vs. Traditional Recruiting Methods
  • Build 3 Parts of a Comprehensive Marketing Plan
  • Enhance Your Website for Recruiting
  • Important Details on Your Careers Page to Convert Visitors
  • How to Design Your Job Posting Ads for Maximum ROI
  • Is it Beneficial to Post Ads on Facebook and Social Media
  • How to Optimize Your Ads for Craigslist
  • How to Optimize Your Ads for Linked In
  • Ways to Build & Communicate With Your Applicant List
  • How to Gain Reviews and Engagement From Your Current Employees

Click here to register! 


And, if you liked this article and know other people who can learn from these 3 lawn and landscape industry leaders this winter, please feel free to share it with them.

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