Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Leap of Faith

Working in a struggling landscape and snow removal business at age 25 gave Mike Jones a few“a-ha” moments that ultimately changed his life. When the company’s financial woes prompted employee layoffs, they lacked the resources to honor their contracts.

“Back then, most landscaping companies used their own employees,” Jones says. To help save the business, Jones and his colleagues started outsourcing work to meet their obligations. They soon noticed that profits were better when they outsourced than when they self-performed services. “We started using 90 to 95 percent contractors, which was a very upside-down approach at the time,” Jones says.

Although that company eventually failed, Jones gained a lot from the experience, including the realization that he loved the snow removal business. “Having played sports in high school and college, I loved the all-out battle,” he says. The adrenaline rush, preparation, plus the pressure to win and get things done in a short timeframe were all familiar to the former athlete.

Two years later, Jones went out on his own, and founded Kansas City-based True North, starting with snow removal services and the outsourcing principles he learned through his former employer. True North was the fulfillment of an idea he had been nurturing for a long time. “I was passionate about the business, I thought I was good at it and I knew I could utilize other people’s assets to make money,” Jones says.

By his own admission, it was a modest start, but Jones caught a lucky break in his first year. “Our office was an RV that we parked at one of our properties,” Jones says. “I was reluctant to sign a lease, but it so happened that we hit the third-largest snow removal year in the history of Kansas City.”

With its low-cost, outsourcing model, True North was soon a profitable business, ready for growth. Jones leased the company’s first office space, and expanded into landscaping and parking-lot sweeping, but never lost the focus on snow-removal.

By 2004, True North was a large, local company offering several exterior services. About that time, Jones noticed the snow-only competitive trend in the marketplace. He also read Good to Great, by Jim Collins, a book that stoked his desire to be the best in a core business. Jones knew where True North could excel: snow removal. He began selling almost everything that wasn’t connected to snow removal, which became True North’s primary business and expansion mission.

During the past decade, True North has executed an ambitious growth plan, garnering snow removal accounts in a nine-state area. “For year one, we went into St. Louis, a market that’s very similar in weather pattern and snowfall to ours,” Jones said. “We then ventured further north into Omaha, Nebraska, and the Twin Cities the next year, having learned how to manage a remote business, and how to handle projections.”

One of the biggest growth challenges was finding and hiring the right people. Jones says a snow-oriented business takes a different type of person than one that pairs snow with something else. “We had to find the people who would have a sustained career, and a passion for what we did,” Jones says.

Learning to manage a business with multiple locations wasn’t a slam-dunk, either. True North had to learn how to price and pay for work in cities with various snowfall patterns and economic conditions. Hiring local people with real-world experience helped True North meet all of those challenges, Jones says.

The path toward growth changed more than True North’s business practices; it also transformed its leader. In the beginning, Jones says he was focused on growing a large company. Later on, that mattered less. Building a company based on excellence and profitability became more important.

“There’s also been a transition from being a young entrepreneur, where it was all about me, to making it all about us,” Jones says. As someone who fell into the entrepreneurial role, Jones admits that his early ownership was about realizing his personal vision by delegating things he thought were necessary. Eventually, the company’s retention pattern motivated a change in his management style.

Realizing the need for his own development, Jones became a conscientious reader of business and leadership books. “I wanted to create a sustained relationship with our staff, so the company wasn’t about me having my DNA all over it, but allowing others to have the same opportunity,” he says.

Jones compares the way his company is managed to an NFL team: A new coach can make changes in policies, personnel and systems, but he can’t transform the entire brand. “Our branch managers don’t get to do anything they want, because there would be no cohesiveness to the branches,” Jones says. “But they do have a tremendous amount of latitude to put their own stamp and DNA on the branch.”

As Jones loosened the reins, he says True North’s retention rate improved. That allowed the company to tap a deeper bench of experience than most in the industry. All but one branch manager—a recent hire—has been with the company between seven and 13 years. Their longevity allows Jones to be confident about including branch managers in decisions about how things are done.

Giving people a voice, he says, has been an effective employee retention tool, but True North’s success also stems from two practices Jones adopted: 1) offsetting the industry’s crazy hours with policies that help employees lead balanced lives, and 2) a profit-sharing program. “We let the people who create profits to share them,” he says.

Offering employees the kind of work-life balance he wants for himself forced Jones to be less “over-the-top” about control. “If you do that, I think you get people who have to pull themselves away from work because you’re not creating such a rigid structure,” he says.

In the demanding business of snow removal, True North’s employee policies are achievable because everyone understands the business goals and what they need to do. During winter, the company’s work is as relentless as any other snow removal contractor’s, Jones says. When there’s a break in the action, comp time helps employees manage the ebb and flow of work. “I want you to get your job done, enjoy it, love what you do and make money at it,” he says.

Crystal Hammon is an Indianapolis-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.

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