One landscape company’s secret to profitability and employee retention

Read Time

6 minutes


Kim Oswalt


Feb 3, 2022

One landscape company’s secret to profitability and employee retention

Backyard Reflections doesn’t just create meticulous, beautiful landscapes. They put the same level of care and precision into their processes behind the scenes as they do in their one-of-a-kind designs.

And those processes have helped them develop greater visibility into their profit margins, make smarter estimates, and keep employees longer. So how do they do it?

We sat down with Chief Operations Officer (COO) Anthony Cole to find out.

Backyard Reflections

Backyard Reflections is a Minnesota-based landscaping company with branches in Nisswa and Annandale. Started in 2000, the company has over 40 employees and focuses primarily on construction and enhancement projects for the residential market.

With two branches about 90 minutes apart (each serving a 60-mile radius), Backyard Reflections is able to work with a wide variety of customers looking for specially designed landscapes.

Cole has been with the company for the past three years, after moving from the gutter business. He worked his way up from managing maintenance to running projects and finally to the COO role.

“Working with the customers, working with our team, it’s been really great,” Cole says. “We have a very well-defined set of processes that we follow for our customers.”

Those processes, and the intentionality behind them, have been key to his company’s success. In an industry with notoriously high employee turnover, Backyard Reflections may lose one or two seasonal workers each year (or the occasional employee who moves across the state), but that’s the exception.

Their “lean” mindset (using resources wisely and minimizing waste) and adherence to their own core values hasn’t just helped them maintain steady profit margins—it’s also created an attractive environment for high-quality workers.

The difference can be seen in three core areas:

  1. Processes and job roles
  2. Communication and feedback
  3. Prioritizing culture

We’ll take a closer look at Backyard Reflections’ approach in the sections below.

Processes and job roles

When a potential customer contacts the office, it kicks off a process that’s the same for everyone—regardless of whether they’re a contractor, referral, or just someone who ran across Backyard Reflections online.

Since the company uses Aspire’s business management software, anyone who answers the phone can collect initial information about the prospect and pass the lead along to Cole or Backyard Reflections’ president, Lars Raisanen. They then set up a “get to know us” meeting and put together a free estimate based on that initial conversation.

“We have that first meeting and talk about a high-level budget, high-level scope of the project just to make sure the customer has realistic expectations for what we can and can’t do,” Cole says. “There’s nothing worse for the customer or for us than if they’re thinking a $100,000 project is going to cost $20,000 and you go through all the pain of designing it and then you hit them with the price tag and no one was on the same page.”

If a customer wants to move forward, the designer and project management team get involved. The project manager stays with a client from beginning to end, working with the designer in phase one, and the production manager and foreman in phase two.

Distribution of roles

Project managers are primarily responsible for handling customer relationships. They manage payments, change orders, updates to pricing, subcontractors, and other details related to the smooth completion of the project.

“Our project managers have a lot more field experience,” Cole says. “Both of our project managers in each location currently were field techs, foremen, or managed some production for many years in the field before they got into project management.”

Designers, on the other hand, are responsible for designing the project, building the initial estimate, and making any revisions. Their involvement with the project typically ends once it’s active.

At that point, things are turned over to the production manager and construction foreman to execute the designs and manage crew members.

Guaranteed 1-day response time

This division of responsibility allows each team member to stay focused on their piece of the puzzle, and has enabled Backyard Reflections to offer a guaranteed response time of one business day for all inquiries from current or prospective customers.

“Even our foremen and field techs in the field, if the customer asks them a question and they don’t know the answer, they take it back to the office within that day to make sure we get a response back to them so the customer isn’t just sitting there wondering what’s happening,” Cole says. “Really it’s just a team approach and culture we’re building of exceptional customer experience.”

Tracking job costs in Aspire

Backyard Reflections started using Aspire’s end-to-end business management software in 2019.

Since then, they’ve tightened their approach to estimating (allowing them to offer more competitive pricing), and they’re now able to review the company’s performance daily using the platform’s real-time job-costing features.

“We can present a clear picture to the entire company of how we performed the previous month compared to our goals, and have confidence in those numbers,” Cole says. “In the past, it was always kind of a guess how we were going to end the year, and now we can use Aspire to look back and project forward, which has really helped.”

Communication and feedback

To keep things running smoothly, Backyard Reflections has a regular cadence of meetings, training, and brainstorming sessions.

Weekly “hub” meetings among project managers, designers, and production managers at each location help people stay in constant communication and provide a forum for discussing issues and special requests. Foremen also get together, along with their staff mechanic, every two weeks to discuss any construction-related issues. And once a month, everyone gathers in each location for a state-of-the-company report.

“In the off season, since we don’t do snow plowing, we typically get bigger groups of people together for an all-day training event or brainstorming session for how they’d like to see things run differently for the following year,” Cole says.

Something that’s come up in those sessions over the past couple years is the distribution of tasks between project managers and designers. Conversations during these large group brainstorms have helped Backyard Reflections hone its process and clarify distinctions between the roles so every employee knows exactly what they’re responsible for.

Prioritizing culture

Backyard Reflections prides itself on a strong, healthy company culture. That culture, built around their core values, plays a large part in their high employee-retention numbers.

“I think it goes back to, no one likes meetings, but when you share the numbers with the company and you live by the core values like we do, it starts to create a culture that people enjoy working at,” Cole says. “And we enjoy having everyone come back.”

At Backyard Reflections, their core values include being eager to learn and share, working smarter (focusing on efficiency and communication), behaving professionally, practicing candor, and having a positive can-do attitude.

This year, they’re planning to implement a program called 2-Second Lean, based on a book by Paul Akers. The main idea of 2-Second Lean is that if every employee separately takes two seconds to improve their own workflow or space every day, the entire company benefits.

“The idea is everyone in the company making two-second improvements continuously over time adds up to a lot of lean improvements,” Cole says. “So it’s less focused on what other people are doing and more focused on the individual.”

What it takes to get there

Backyard Reflections’ retention numbers alone are enough to make most landscape business owners envious.

Those numbers don’t happen by accident any more than high profit margins do. The difference is that Cole and his company have been willing to invest time, effort, and resources in building systems that contribute to a strong culture and streamlined operations.

And Aspire is one of the key tools they’ve used in developing those processes.

“You’re going to spend a little more time implementing something like this, and you’re going to spend a bit more money running a program like this, but the clarity of whether you’re winning or losing on any given job, any given day, week, or month is just too big to ignore,” Cole says. “When you have that data and you can trust it, you can make decisions for the future of the company.”

Interested in seeing how Aspire can help your landscaping business achieve this level of insight and control? Request a personalized demo today.

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