From its earliest days as a two-man team, Crimson Valley Landscaping endured bouts of uncertainty – until it became clear that a new paradigm was needed. The result is a company culture that puts a premium on improvement.
It was only a college paper, but something about its subject stuck with Mike Sanders.
“It was called ‘The Rise and Fall of the Entrepreneur,’ and what I found is that everything that made the entrepreneur or businessman successful led to his downfall,” says Sanders.
He found that, behind many successful companies, an inspired leader took command of customer service issues, external communication, estimating, and perhaps technology infrastructure. But inevitably, those same leaders became consumed by responsibility. They ran out of time to address every need.
“These things led to a bottleneck,” says Sanders. “They had to have their hands in the company communication and they couldn’t delegate, so their communication wasn’t great. They weren’t making all of the sales because they just didn’t have time to meet with everyone. They weren’t finishing estimates or production because they felt they couldn’t hand it off.”
Sanders might have made those same mistakes with his own company. But the owner of Crimson Valley Landscaping, in Rockford, was prepared. When unchecked growth and a chaotic work environment threatened to undo this landscaping and hardscaping specialty firm, Sanders made some crucial pivots.
Through a series of new processes and careful hires, Sanders has developed a tight-knit team and a dynamic culture that have honed every function and solidified every role on this team of more than 40.
Sanders is quick to celebrate the people he’s surrounded himself with. He believes it’s their work, not his, that makes this company.
“The minute you realize there are people who can do better than you and you give them a chance to excel in specific tasks in a company, and you’re willing to let them have autonomy, your company will keep on growing,” he says. “If you don’t, it’ll be your downfall.”
A Culture of Accountability
Early one morning when the crews departed for their job sites, someone noticed their truck was overloaded.
“It was mushroom compost and it was really wet,” says Sanders. “The amount we had in there, if it wasn’t wet, it’d be fine. But it rained the night before, and this compost was soaking wet.”
At first, Sanders shrugged it off. The truck wouldn’t have very far to travel, he thought. It would be OK. But the crew leader, Vincent, challenged him: “Does this really follow what we talk about in our safety meetings? Is this the standard you’re setting, boss?”
“I couldn’t say yes to that,” recalls Sanders. “I know that seems like a pretty small deal, but the small things, we think, are the most important.”
Sanders empowers team members to take ownership over their job duties. He’s built field crews that do only brick work or only planting. His office team is handed specific duties. He finds it’s helped to build quality and efficiency, and thus happy coworkers.
But he’s also careful to hire only the best. Cheryl Kirschmann, the company’s contract administrator, met with Sanders multiple times before being offered the job in 2015.
“It was just him talking about the direction the company was going and the steps he was taking to move this company to the next level,” she recalls. “This is different from any career I’ve ever been in before. The success we have – I feel like I’m part of it.”
Potential hires undergo personality tests to reveal their particular talents. Some casual observation helps, too.
“With the guys in the field, sometimes we can watch how they walk,” he says. “If they walk really fast, it means they’re a hard worker, but there’s a chance they won’t be a good machine operator. For our operators, we like guys who are laid back, in a way, because they’ll figure out how to make the machine do all the work. A hard worker will get out of the machine and do it by hand.”
Shannon Swanson, financial controller, believes her strong-willed personality is a natural asset to her position.
“Everybody teases me that my job is to be the controller, yet I’m controlling in more aspects than one,” she says. “It think it’s fitting, because I don’t let anyone get away with anything. It’s part of keeping an eye on everything – our billing, our outflow, our expenses. People can’t order a ream of paper without my approval, and my asking, ‘Is it on sale? How much are you spending? Is it in our budget?’”
Designer Dawn Stroup, who’s been with Crimson Valley for a decade, appreciates the careful hiring process. As one of the company’s earliest team members, she’s seen what happens when a personality and a job description don’t match up.
“Someone with a bad attitude can ruin everything,” she says. “I’m an eternal optimist, but we’ve had a couple of people in here that got to me, too. You can’t introduce that negativity.”
Many of the values and practices that guide Crimson Valley team members are the result of lessons learned.
Sanders was unhappy with his job at a landscaping firm when he left in summer 2001 to start Crimson Valley. A few weeks later, he was joined by a former co-worker, Christian Oyer. It was the peak of landscaping season and even though the pair started with just a few of the most basic tools, they scrounged up enough business to stay afloat.
“I remember people laughing at me because I’d see new construction homes going up and I’d just knock on the door and see if they needed a landscaping bid,” Sanders says. “It was kind of embarrassing and hard to swallow, but we wanted to work.”
In its infancy, the business embodied no grand vision. Sanders simply wanted to build a company that he, Oyer and their families could be proud of.
Those first few years, experience was the best teacher. Through rookie mistakes, the pair learned new processes and procedures.
Like the day Oyer and Sanders started work around 11 a.m. First, they went to the nursery and loaded up on plant material. At their first job site, they discovered they’d packed in such a hurry that they couldn’t find the sod cutters. So, they laid sod the hard way. They were done by 5 p.m. and headed to the next job. Sanders was so frustrated with the day’s lack of progress that he pressed on to the final job – even though the sun had already set.
“It was maybe a quarter to 10 and we knocked on the door and the lady’s like, ‘Are you kidding me? Just do it tomorrow,’” Sanders recalls. “I was like, no, we’re going to finish this job tonight. We had our truck lights on, she turned the porch lights on, and we were out there until maybe midnight or 1 a.m.”
Despite a few bumps, Sanders and Oyer managed to double their business every year, those first few years. Sanders’ wife helped with bookkeeping. His father pitched in at the home office.
The work grew so fast that, by 2005, Sanders had hired Stroup to design full-time. Chris Bausman soon came on as a salesman.
“We were doubling so fast we couldn’t keep up with it, and it led to a lot of discord,” says Sanders. “And as we brought in more people, the discord didn’t necessarily go away.”
Whenever discord appeared, the instinctive answer was to add more people. Then one day Sanders received a casual reminder about that college paper. During a visit to the nursery, someone remarked that Crimson Valley was really taking off.
“Just be careful,” the guy told Sanders. “Once we see these companies hitting $1 million, $1.5 million, they can’t pay their bills and things seem to go bad for some reason.”
Sanders knew it was time to build a formal business model, one that could effectively relieve the bottlenecks that were happening at his desk.
“I saw that we were growing and I had to stop growing, get people that would come in and do the work that I couldn’t do, or do the work better than I could.”
Oyer’s job began shifting, too, as he moved from the labor side into more of the office duties. Today, he’s the senior estimator and works exclusively in the office.
“We weren’t having the success we needed and he wasn’t happy working in the field, because that wasn’t the right job for him,” Sanders says. “The right place for him was more of an analytical job. Once we made the transition, Christian was happier and we saw results.”
New processes in place, the business continued its upward trend. It pivoted to new markets during the recession. Business was good, but discord lingered.
In 2013, Sanders got a wake-up call during a trade show in Kentucky.
“This gentleman was saying that the adolescent stage of a business is what leads to the death of companies,” Sanders says. “Because that’s when you get frustrated and things aren’t organized. You’re going to lose key people. You’re not going to attract A-players because they’re going to see you’re not organized. So we really started digging in, redefining our business model and redefining peoples’ roles in the company. We realized the sell-more attitude was not the cure-all.”
Oyer recalls that the team spent much of the winter creating new processes, with the guidance of the consultant Sanders had met at that trade show.
“I think that’s when we really realized how inefficient we were, because we didn’t have that process,” Oyer says.
The Power of Process
Those new processes and procedures have empowered Crimson Valley team members with a critical framework for improvement and self-reflection.
Stationed at every desk, a board reminds team members about the company’s mission statement, vision statement, core values and operational philosophy.
“That’s our roadmap,” says Kirschmann. “Pretty much every task we perform, every phone call we make – everything we do touches on that.”
The value statement recognizes the team-centric nature of the firm: “To create a lifestyle for our coworkers by providing a great workplace where everyone has a voice. Our co-workers will take pride in knowing they are an integral part of pursuing our goals.” The ensuing bullet points encourage operational excellence, exceeding commitments to customers and coworkers, and profitability through quality.
Before crews disembark in the mornings, they review the mission statement. Inside the shop, it’s posted in both English and Spanish. The administrative staff reviews the company mission during each of its weekly meetings.
It’s readily apparent these values permeate every part of the company’s culture: proactive, not reactive; all team members are important to customer satisfaction; tomorrow is a new and better day; we exceed expectations; continual improvement; continually train. Conversations are often peppered with these keywords.
“We have guys who come in here and two days later, they’re done, because they can’t stand the pace,” says Swanson, who joined in January. “To them, it’s just a job. If you’re not going to take pride in your work, then why bother?”
Living these operational values has opened up team members to finding new processes and procedures.
In one case, Sanders discovered the significance of time management. “One of the things we’re learning is that we are a manager of minutes and hours,” he says.
The insight led to an important revision in the morning schedule. Previously, crew leaders and workers had been frustrated that it took so long to leave for a job site.
“We know from reading about human productivity that people are most productive from about 7 a.m. to noon, because once people have lunch their productivity drops,” says Sanders. “So, we were eating up the most productive times in the morning when guys were loading up, figuring out where they were going, getting their work orders.”
Enter the contract administrator, an individual who prepares a packet that details the location of every job, directions to the site, blueprints, material lists and estimated timeframes.
That new position helped, but it didn’t eliminate the discord. “So, our new process is that we have job packets ready by 3 or 4 p.m.,” says Sanders. “Our process is that we load our trucks at night, and all they have to do in the morning is start it up when we have our safety meeting. Then they leave. Our guys are much happier and our customers are getting a more efficient job.”
The job packet process has also empowered Joel Rodriguez to take command over his crews and crew leaders. Because he knows where he’s going, what he’s doing on a job and how long it’ll take, he’s been empowered to lead his crew. As far as Sanders cares, Rodriguez owns this job.
“If he can’t do it in the assigned man-hours, there’s not a punishment,” says Sanders. “We’re looking to him and saying, ‘Tell us what we have to do better.’”
The customers appreciate his dedication, too. Considering Rodriguez and his crew are the most visible force of the company, their commitment to quality service is paramount.
“We have a certain customer who can be very particular, and one day when Juan and his crews were working, the customer basically told Chris [the general manager], ‘Stay away, we like Juan,’” says Oyer. “That’s great for Mike to hear because it takes risk off his plate, to hear that they’re handling the job to the point where the customer recognizes the crews are doing fine.”
No matter how well the job is done, the Crimson Valley team holds itself to a high standard. In fact, team members are quick to hold themselves accountable for successes and failures alike.
“Joel and the crew leaders want to see that they did the job under cost and under budget, and if they go over, they’re analyzing what happened,” says Swanson. “Even if we do have a success, we’re still asking what we could have done better.”
Sometimes, improvement comes in more subtle ways. When Kirschmann came on board in 2015, she was charged with fixing strained vendor relations.
“I was told to establish a relationship with them first and then let the business come second,” she says. “The ordering process and paying attention to the budget before a job started – I thought those were lacking before. I wanted to find ways we could save money as a company and extend the savings onto our customers.”
Sanders believes the new process boils down to one simple result: predictability.
“This business model allows us to have predictable outcomes, and when we have predictable outcomes we know how to manage things,” he says.
A Team of ‘A’ Players
As Crimson Valley’s first hire, Oyer has performed pretty much every job function at some point is his career. In the early days, that meant half a day in the field and half a day in the office. Now, he’s focused solely on estimating and avoiding interruptions.
“We never before had the tools to focus us,” he says. “By adding more of that process to focus on our skills, it’s made us better in the long run. Before, you always showed up and whatever needed to get done, you just pitched in.”
That’s not to say this tight-knit team doesn’t still help out from time to time.
“Everyone steps up and helps someone who is underwater at that moment,” says Swanson. “Even when it’s January, when it’s snowing out and our plowing service is operating, we don’t sit around and say, ‘It’s not my job.’ It’s a team culture that everyone thrives by helping one another.”
Sanders has carefully cultivated a winning team by drawing together top players and focusing them with specific processes. He empowers them on the job, and in their personal lives, too.
“I do plays, and there has never been a play where I have not gotten flowers from Mike,” says Stroup. “Cheryl just had to move to a new place, and Mike was there to help her out.”
The office team overwhelmingly agrees: their leader is a visionary who’s not afraid to dream big.
“I think he’s a great leader; he would never say that,” says Swanson. “The year he sought out a consultant, they had a really good year. He could see the things the company needed, but he just didn’t know how to provide that.”
Ask Sanders, though, and he’s quick to shift the credit.
“I can say that I’m the owner and seek all the glory, but the thing is that if we don’t have a tip-top mechanic, what good are we?” he says. “What good are we if we can’t get our trucks out in the morning because they’re all broken down? Is my position in this company any more important than his? I don’t believe it is. I think we all have different roles.”