Contractor of the Year Finalist: Brian and Dick Churchill

Although hard work can take you a long way as a contractor, adaptability and a willingness to consider new ideas can truly set you apart from the competition. Brian and Dick Churchill of The GroundsKeeper, a commercial landscape contracting firm in the Boston area, have done just that. Intelligent choices paired with meticulous attention to detail have allowed this father-and-son duo to excel in their field.

Role reversal
Father and son contracting teams are a common story, with the son often assuming a front office role while dad remains in the field. With the Churchills, though, the roles are quite different. Brian, the son, is the one addicted to dirt while Dick serves as the business mind behind the company. David Levy of Sterling Services, a condominium real estate and management service, says it works. “They are unique in that the dad is the businessman and the son is the craftsman,” he says. “Plenty of people can do the craftwork but most of them don’t run their business well. The GroundsKeeper goes the extra mile – goes beyond the contract to take care of customers.”

All in the details
The Churchills’ success depends largely on preparation, communication and an obsession with quality. They are early adopters of new technology and techniques – Dick is particularly keen on investing in the latest equipment. The GroundsKeeper is one of the few companies in the area with a snowmelter, for example. The two quickly purchased the machine when they discovered condo associations wanted snow moved, but didn’t know what to do with the plowed snow. They also serve as a distributor of Magic, a molasses-based de-icer mixed with rock salt that prevents snow and ice from bonding to pavement. Brian is a Massachusetts Certified Landscape Professional (MCLP) and a Snow and Ice Management Association Certified Snow Professional (CSP).

Extensive proposals and a fixation on customer satisfaction lead to fewer call backs, Dick says. “We developed systems that keep our clients informed of our progress on weekly jobs,” he comments. The Churchills say they want to beat their customer’s expectations on every job. “Each job is quality checked by an account manager to ensure the job was done properly,” Brian says. Phil Lambert, vice president of Dartmouth Group, a condominium management company, says he can’t say enough good things about them. “Both Dick and Brian are truly professionals and their word is their bond,” he says. “They always complete tasks as scheduled, and if there may be a delay due to unforeseen circumstances, they will contact you.”

Partner Insights
Information to advance your business from industry suppliers

The company’s insurance agent, Tim Kane of McSweeney and Ricci Insurance, agrees the Churchills are proactive in problem-solving. “There was an issue with one of their subcontractors on a high-end condo job – he messed up during snow removal,” he says. “The Churchills could have filed a big claim, but they just handled it themselves to keep the customer happy.”

Kane says the company’s level of business acumen is rare in the industry. “They are sophisticated with computers and financial management and are good about implementing safety training,” he says. “This helps them keep their insurance rates down.”

The fastidiousness extends to the company’s equipment. Except for some winter operations equipment, the Churchills purchase all of their equipment and maintain it in-house. Alan Grekula, The GroundsKeeper’s mechanic, performs preventive maintenance on everything from the company’s Caterpillar 930 loader to weed whackers, and has extensive contact with the crew. “I’ve set up a schedule where I don’t come to work until 11:30 a.m.,” he says. “This lets me greet all the crews at the end of the work day to discuss equipment problems and get repairs completed before the next work day. Sometimes my day ends between 9 and 10 p.m., but 90 percent of the time the crew has their equipment back the following morning.”

Grekula manages much of the company’s light equipment. Each crew is assigned a set of tools and has a private tool crib for storage. Special purpose tools such as chop saws, chain saws and bed edgers are stored in the garage and assigned as needed.

With respect to equipment, preparation is essential. The Churchills know their needs between 6 and 12 months in advance of large equipment purchases, allowing them to take advantage of special deals. They rely on their Cat dealer for large equipment purchases and snow machine rental, and established a relationship with a local dealer for mowers and backpacks.

The company now looks to expand their fleet – which includes mowers, blowers, sweepers and skid steers – to include larger machines. The expansion plans include more commercial customers, so they are considering acquiring a backhoe or compact excavator. “All of the condo customers want to be mowed on Friday so they look good on the weekends,” Brian says. “All of the commercial customers want to be mowed on Monday so they look good during the week. A proper mix of the two types of clients will help to level out our mowing schedule during the week in the summer.”

Stumbling blocks
Brian and Dick learned the trials of business ownership early by facing a difficult crisis soon after the company’s formation – losing many of their commercial customers. “The second season after purchasing a commercial landscaping business to supplement the residential side, more than half the clients sold their properties,” Brian says. “This meant new owners and new property managers who mostly brought in their own new contractors. We lost a substantial part of our base business.” The company survived by concentrating on more stable condominium associations. Within two years, 90 percent of their clients were condo association boards. They added winter snow removal to their list of services, ensuring year-round work.

Like many contractors, the Churchills struggle with recruiting and retaining workers, and count labor issues as their greatest challenge. They pursued workers through the H2B nonimmigrant program, which allows employers to bring foreign workers to the United States for one-time, seasonal, peak load or intermittent work.

Initially, H2B worked well for the company, but a cap of 66,000 foreign workers per year limited the labor available. “We haven’t received our authorization in time to beat the visa cap, so we have not been able to bring in any H2B labor the past two years,” Dick says. “We just haven’t been able to fully staff during the peak season, and this has hurt our expansion plans.” Ashland has a large Brazilian population, though, and Dick and Brian have been able to attract some temporary workers through some of their full-time Brazilian staff members.

To offset hiring problems, Dick and Brian actively promote retention by offering promotion opportunities and job stability. Supervisory positions are filled from on-staff employees, never from new hires. Supervisors also keep their jobs over the winter, working snow storms and in their 4,000-square-foot shop, rather than being laid off.

Good roots
It’s not much of a stretch to say the company sprang from the mind of a 12-year-old. With Dick’s help, Brian turned his part-time job mowing neighborhood lawns into a fulfilling career.

While Brian mowed lawns, Dick handled the administrative side, lending a business approach to the fledgling enterprise. Brian used the money he earned to purchase his first piece of equipment, a used Bunton 52-inch, belt-driven mower. Before he was even old enough to have a driver’s license, Brian had bought a pickup truck, trailer and another mower. Since he couldn’t drive, he hired a high school upperclassman – a licensed driver – to join his crew, ensuring he could get to his mowing jobsites after school.

Even while still in high school, Brian joined the Associated Landscape Contractors of America. Brian then attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, receiving a degree in Landscape Management. The spring of his graduation, he asked his father to go into business with him. “I told him I couldn’t afford the overhead with just the residential lawn customers he had,” Dick says. “So, Brian found the commercial landscape business for sale. By that June, I’d made the deal to buy the company.” After a year of running the companies separately, Dick and Brian combined ventures in 1996 as a single company.

Plan for prosperity
The company now has a good mix of clients, which include Chestnut Hill Realty, Pulte Homes and Wellesley College. The combination of Dick’s business savvy and Brian’s operational know-how keeps the company ahead of the competition, but Dick cautions there is no substitute for experience and good business decisions. “Be honest with yourself,” he says. “Don’t ‘think’ you are doing okay; take the time to do a cost analysis. A lot of young contractors don’t want to know the financial details – they are so interested in getting the job done.”

Allowing customers to drive your business is another mistake, Brian says. “When you are inexperienced and every customer is crucial to your staying alive, you try to do too many things to keep customers happy,” he says. “We eventually learned a new word – no – and it helped to focus our business. We knew what we were good at, and said no to everything else.”

Winner, Wacker Light Equipment Award
As part of their Contractor of the Year finalist honors The GroundsKeeper also won the 2007 Wacker Light Equipment award, which honors contractors for productive use and forward-thinking application of light equipment on their jobs.