HighGrove CEO Jim McCutcheon was recently on the air with Business RadioX’s John Coffin, sharing the mic with Lee Pritchard, CEO of ProMove.
Founders Club Radio offers listeners behind-the-scenes insights from the founders and leaders of businesses like HighGrove. Jim opened up about everything from his beginnings in the industry to where HighGrove is headed in the future.
Listen to the audio file here, or read the transcript below.
And remember, for more news and updates directly from Jim, check out his PLANET Year in the Life blog.
Founders Club Transcript
Announcer: Broadcasting live from the Business RadioX studios in Atlanta, Georgia, it’s time for Founders Club Radio.
John Coffin: Welcome to the Founders Club, where each week we talk to the founders and leaders of great private companies. I’m your host, John Coffin, and this morning here in the studio we have Lee Pritchard, the CEO of ProMove, and Jim McCutcheon, the CEO and founder of HighGrove Partners. Good morning, guys.
Lee Pritchard: Good morning, John.
Jim McCutcheon: Good morning.
John Coffin: We flipped a coin and, Lee, we’re going to start with you. It’s so great to have you in the studio. Tell us about ProMove and what your current scope of business is.
Lee Pritchard: Sure. ProMove helps people find apartments. We’ve been in business since 1991. And we are an Atlanta-only company at this point. This year, we’ll be responsible for about 18, 000 apartment leases in the metro Atlanta area, which is roughly 12 percent, 13 percent of the total market for leases.
John Coffin: So if I’m looking for an apartment and moving to Atlanta or just looking for a different setup, what does ProMove do for me?
Lee Pritchard: Basically, property specialist and then we send you a customized search, your favorites. We actually make the phone calls for you, check availability, make sure that they have a unit in the timeframe that you need within your budget, before you actually go out and visit.
All of this is free to the renter and we get paid out of the marketing and advertising budgets at the apartment communities.
John Coffin: Wait, so this is free? I thought there was no such thing as a free lunch.
Lee Pritchard: There is no charge to you, the renter or the consumer. So, similar to travel agents and other things.
John Coffin: Okay. Fantastic. Lee, you’re a serial or repeat entrepreneur. Take us back towhenyoustartedgettingtheideaforProMoveoryourother companies. I know they’re somewhat intertwined so I’d love to hear some history.
Lee Pritchard: Yeah, they are.Actually, my first venture was an appliance rental business that was focused on serving upscale apartment communities and their residents. It was a business that was a niche business, so a big media campaign, brand building wasn’t in the cards.
We found out pretty quickly that we needed to get our offer to renters between the time they got approved for their apartment lease and when they moved in. I thought of an idea, I said, “You know what? I need to go find a company that helps renters connect all of their utility services because the timing would be perfect to present my offer.”
John Coffin: So when you’re in transition you just have to deal with a lot of stuff. Lee Pritchard: A lot of stuff.
John Coffin: So every headache that a mover has, you were kind of thinking about addressing those things.
Lee Pritchard: That’s exactly right. So I looked for this connection service, couldn’t find it, and so that spawned an idea for my second company which was Allconnect. Which did exactly that. It was actually part of my strategy to launch Allconnect that I ended up acquiring ProMove so that I could have a customer base to develop the Allconnect platform.
John Coffin: Did you ever actually merge the two companies? Or they were always separate?
Lee Pritchard: They were always separate.They were under a holding company umbrella at one point, but Allconnect, we needed venture financing. And so we ultimately raised over $100 million of venture capital for that business. And so they are completely separate at this point.
But ProMove was actually started by somebody that moved to Atlanta from North Carolina looking for an apartment in 1990. Had just a terrible time. And so from personal experience was like, “I think I can do better.” So that was the genesis of the company.
John Coffin: Got you. So you’ve had this experience where you take an idea and kind of figure out how do you operationalize that. Sometimes that’s an R&D type of effort but it sounds like yours was just really a complete start-up. Talk about that.
Lee Pritchard: It was.
John Coffin: Pretty gutsy move to do something like that.
Lee Pritchard: So with the appliance rental company I had relationships established in the apartment industry in Atlanta. And so I went to a handful of my relationships and said, “Hey, I’ve got an idea for Allconnect. Would you guys be interested in helping me test it?” And so, literally, I created a fax order form where their residents would have to fill out this one-page form and then it would get faxed in to my home office above my garage.
And then I had somebody who would actually call in the orders to the utility companies and then we would send the confirmation back. Before we invested a whole lot of money we wanted to be sure that people were actually interested in using the service. And then from there, after you prove that you can acquire customers then you start investing in your capabilities to scale it.
John Coffin: So it was real life garage R&D.
Lee Pritchard: Yes. Absolutely.
John Coffin: That’s great. Okay.
Lee Pritchard: Not Silicon Valley, but it was Lake Forrest Drive.
John Coffin: We never knew there was that hub at Lake Forrest Drive. That’s great.
Serving literally thousands of consumers a year, what are some of the cultural cornerstones or core values that you’re trying to push through your company?
Lee Pritchard: Well, first and foremost, be a force for good. The great thing about both ProMove and Allconnect is they are convenience-oriented services. And so we’re solving a pain point for our customers.
John Coffin: Okay.
Lee Pritchard: And then we’re also providing cost-effective traffic to apartment communities. And so it’s really kind of a win-win model. But basically we want to treat everybody with respect ; that includes customers, co-workers, our vendors, everyone. We just want to be a pleasure to do business with.
John Coffin: Okay.
Lee Pritchard: And then just bringing a positive attitude every day to work, even if you don’t feel like it.
John Coffin: That’s sometimes easier said than done, right?
Lee Pritchard: Yes. Absolutely.
John Coffin: Now, you talked about your relationship with the apartment complex. I guess this is a huge service to them ultimately, and that’s the basis of your revenue model. Describe how that all works.
Lee Pritchard: Sure. It’s a results-oriented revenue model. It doesn’t cost apartment communities anything to list with our service. We simply invoice them when we generate a lease at their property and our client moves in.
John Coffin: Okay. So it’s like a lead-generation effort for them.
Lee Pritchard: That’s correct. And they’re not paying per lead, because the people that show up at the property don’t always lease. In our case they only pay us if one of our customers leases at the property. We typically get a base fee of about a half a month’s rent.
John Coffin: So how many apartment complexes or properties are now on your site?
Lee Pritchard: We’ve got just about 900 communities right now in the metro Atlanta area.
John Coffin: New properties that are coming on, as well as long standing, existing
Lee Pritchard: Yes.Absolutely.And we typically represent professionally-managed communities, where they have on-site leasing staff. So the smaller, mom and pop landlords that don’t have the on-site leasing staff is not really part of our model.
John Coffin: Okay. The other thing that’s been very interesting in the press these days isthewholeconceptofmanaging, leading, andinyourinstance, marketing to Millennials and Gen-Y folks. Talk about some of your observations about that. Because I know that a lot of your product specialists probably fit that spec, as do a lot of your consumers.
Lee Pritchard: They do. Virtually everything we do is online in terms of our marketing. I think we have one offline marketing campaign right now. And many of you have probably seen the yellow wrapped MARTA buses running up and down Peachtree Street. But everything else we do is online.
Some of that is paid search, some of it is organic search. And then we also syndicate a lot of our listings out to national apartment listing sites. Those sites are typically advertising based models, so on a good day, they might have half the number of listings that we would have.
So we then, for example, in Atlanta would have over 400 listings that those partners don’t have. We send them a feed and then phone calls and emails come to us, which helps out on the property side. They don’t have to take those calls and emails.
John Coffin: Okay. So how in the world do you measure the ROI of a yellow ProMove MARTA bus cruising around the city?
Lee Pritchard: Well, if you don’t have multiple offline campaigns running it was easier because we really track all of our traffic sources. And there’s a bucket that we call brand which are direct visitors to the website, direct calls into one of our locations or our internet lead team.
So we looked at the year-over-year growth rate of that category before we launched the MARTA buses and then after. And we were able to come to a reasonable conclusion as to the success of that.
John Coffin: So it has been successful?
Lee Pritchard: Yeah, it really has.
John Coffin: It’s like a big moving billboard. That’s great.
Lee Pritchard: Yes.
John Coffin: Taking advantage of the traffic in Atlanta.
Lee Pritchard: Absolutely.
John Coffin: That’s great. Okay. Thanks, Lee. We’re going to come back together but, Jim, maybe I can shift to you. Tell us about HighGrove and what you guys are up to these days.
Jim McCutcheon: It’s such a great company. I’m so proud of it. We are one of the largest independent landscape contractors in the city. Atlanta is arguably one of the toughest, most competitive markets for our business in the entire country. There are estimates of nearly 3, 000 landscape companies in the metro Atlanta area.
We work very hard every day to differentiate ourselves. We currently have about 600 properties that we maintain all around the city. Turner Field, Concourse, Northside Hospital. As a matter of fact, the building we’re in today is one of those. We have a little over 200 people, about 80 trucks running around the city every day, and are adding our third location. It is a very people-intensive business.
John Coffin: Both your clients and your employees. It’s just a high touch, high interaction type of business model.
Jim McCutcheon: It is. Very much. And that’s really how we built our differentiation. It’s very difficult for us to differentiate just on the work that we do. I had a situation with nursery companies years ago and I told them, I said, “You guys all think if you hand me a pamphlet I can look at it and determine who’s the better company.”
I said, “I really can’t. The problem is, all of you folks end up thinking like nursery people. What I need you to think of is to be like logistics people. And help me make sure that things get to my jobs on time and so forth. And that’s how you help me.” We look at this and approach this in a very different model.
John Coffin: I love your quote on the website.You’re a “Service company that happens to do landscaping well.”
Jim McCutcheon: Very much so. Yeah. And the other mantra that we have all the time in there is, “Stop thinking like a landscaper.”
John Coffin: I’m not sure I’ve ever thought like a landscaper, but how does one stop thinking like one?
Jim McCutcheon: Well, if you think this business is about the plants in the ground, it’s not. Look, we’ve got great customers all over the city that expect us to do a good job and we’re going to do that. That’s what gets us there to the table. But what keeps us there is the ability for us to build a strong relationship and build value of their asset and really help their business.
John Coffin: Your teams of people are literally in multiple locations every day. I’m quite sure that stuff hits the fan occasionally. How do you deal with that as a leader, but also, what are your expectations for your employees?
Jim McCutcheon: You know, look we have very high expectations but we’re also realists.
We realize that yes, you’re right, stuff does hit the fan every day. Sometimes it’s stuff you can’t understand how in the world that that happened, and other times it’s explainable.
But the biggest thing is, nobody is going to get shot for making a mistake. It’s just, if we keep making the same mistake over and over that’s a problem.
It’s a learning model, each and every day. In a lot of cases, we have great systems and we understand exactly what we’re going to do. But sometimes you’ve got to pick it up by the seat of your pants and figure out what’s going to happen next.
John Coffin: What’s one of the craziest things that’s happened on-site, so to speak?
Jim McCutcheon: Oh, goodness.
John Coffin: You guys deal with big machines and lots of moving parts.
Jim McCutcheon: Yeah. What do we always talk about in Atlanta? Traffic, right? One day I was coming back, I was doing some work down in Columbus, and I was coming back to my office. Bad traffic jam, I see that there’s an accident on my GPS.
I’m just like everybody else, going, “Doggone it, why does this have to happen?” Only to find out, I get a call from one of my competitors that says, “Your truck’s laying on its side in the middle of the highway.” I was just kind of kicking myself at that moment.
John Coffin: I know you have trucks all over that have big advertisements and wrappings. Maybe not quite like the yellow truck, but that’s the one day that you probably got a little bit of advertising that you didn’t want.
Jim McCutcheon: Yeah, exactly. That’s exactly right.
John Coffin: HighGrove is also the official landscaper of the Atlanta Braves. Tell us about that relationship and how you started that?
Jim McCutcheon: That’s a perfect example of a great relationship. We could easily go over there and just take care of the landscaping. Which, by the way, we do not touch the field. I told everybody, if they touch that field we’re in trouble.
But we have a very strong relationship with them. We are a certified real-estate school as well. We put on seminars for our customers and so forth, and give them continuing education credits. We do it down there with the Braves. So we’re renting facilities from them, they’re doing tours for us. And so we’re continuing to build their brand at the same time we’re doing ours. That’s been a great relationship.
John Coffin: I’d love to hear about the start. You’ve been in landscaping your whole career, and designed and built and some of the beautiful cityscapes that we see are literally the work of your hands. How did you decide to start HighGrove? What was the genesis for that?
Jim McCutcheon: I decided that I loved the University of Georgia so much that I was going to stay there forever. I was almost done with the business school and came home one day and told my parents I wanted to be a landscape architect. One of the things I’ll never forget is when my father looked at me and he said, “Son, nobody’s ever made any money knowing about trees.”
I’ve enjoyed proving him wrong on that. I went to landscape architecture school and ultimately was hired by Post Properties. Lee and I were discussing the multifamily business today. My charge with my former partner was to build a landscape company for people other than Post.
We built that company up inside the Post environment, did work all over the city, and then in 2001 took that company private and formed HighGrove Partners at that point.
John Coffin: Fantastic. You’ve been in business for 13 years, you’re now the number four, number five professional landscape company in the city?
Jim McCutcheon: I like to say I’m the No. 1 professional landscape company in the city.
John Coffin: I stepped right into that one.
Jim McCutcheon: You did. Thanks for that.
John Coffin: That’s some free advertising right there.
Jim McCutcheon: Yeah, but you know, even being the number four company in the city in terms of size, by our estimation we still have less than 2 percent of the market share. So it is a massive marketplace. We’ve got big plans to be the number one company in the city.
John Coffin: Great. You are literally at the growth point of the green industry. Talk a little bit about how our attention to green matters over the last ten, fifteen years has impacted your business and perhaps what you’re doing differently as it relates to that.
Jim McCutcheon: Yeah, you know, the whole sustainability movement… I’m currently the president of a national landscape association. PLANET is the name of it. I need to travel around the country, see lots of folks, and I learned a lot of things. Particularly out on the West Coast.
And what I find is so interesting is that a lot of the practices that are accepted and desired by consumers out there, in our city they’re not ready for that yet. People won’t allow those things.
John Coffin: What would those things be?
Jim McCutcheon: Well, for instance… and I often ask this question. If I say to somebody, “Hey listen, who would like organic lawn care?” And everybody in the room will raise their hands. So I say, “Okay, great. Now how many of you with your hands up, if I told you that it’s not going to be completely weed-free and it’s probably going to be a little bit more expensive, how many of you are going to keep your hand up?”
That quickly drops. Our city is not there at that point yet. And we may get there. But there are a lot of practices, particularly as it relates to water. During the drought in 2007, we started a whole new company called KnowWater, K-N-O-W Water. And at a time when most of my competitors were shutting down their irrigation companies, we nearly tripled that business because we found a solution to help our customers not only save money and save water, but also do a great service for their tenants and make them look great as well. So we like to try to think of things very, very differently. Stop thinking like a landscaper.
John Coffin: Gotcha. Okay. And I guess part of that is convincing and educating your clients, commercial real estate owners, that maybe there’s a way to do it differently. Maybe there’s a way for your property to look differently than everything else.
Jim McCutcheon: Absolutely. We have something internally we call the “Why wouldn’t you?” filter. If we had a solution, say a sustainable solution, and we could bring it to a customer and it brought all of those great attributes of being green and at the same time it could save them money, then why wouldn’t you?
And so if we can get it to pass through the “Why wouldn’t you?” filter, we’ll bring it to the marketplace.
John Coffin: Jim, I know you do business with a lot of companies that would be the envy of everyone. What’s a recent new business win or new client relationship that you’re particularly proud of?
Jim McCutcheon: Well we just picked up all the Kaiser Permanentes in town. That was a relationship we’d been working for quite a while. We’ve recently picked up a lot of the Parkway properties. Right now, we have 22.5 percent net growth this year. We’re doing some things right. And constantly getting better.
The challenge for us is making sure that… Trucks and equipment is easy, it’s getting people in. So we have become quite a people processing company, folks ready to hit the ground every day.
John Coffin: I know there’s a seasonal element to your business from an employment standpoint. I would think that, perhaps for both of you but particularly for your business, Jim, the Affordable Care Act and some of those things that have been coming down on the healthcare side might have had an impact.
Can you give some advice as you’ve kind of wandered through that issue for the last couple of years?
Jim McCutcheon: Well, I can tell you, we certainly haven’t wandered through it. We’ve been through this thing knee-deep. We know it inside and out. It has a tremendous impact. Unfortunately, no matter where you stand on this thing, I can tell you for HighGrove Partners our employees will end up with a lesser product that is more expensive. And it’s going to take a significant chunk off of our bottom line as a company.
We had always offered healthcare to all of our employees. And now, unfortunately, it means less money for us to invest in the company. We’re studying it every day to try to find ways to make this work better for everyone.
The biggest piece of advice I have is get educated. Most of the folks that we talk to across all business lines really don’t understand what’s about to happen.
John Coffin: So what have been the best resources to get educated? Because it seems like one of those just thorny, huge issues that you want to push into the corner?
Jim McCutcheon: The biggest thing is of course your insurance brokers. They’re the ones that can tell you the mechanics of how this whole thing is going to work. But there’s a whole tax side of this thing as well. So talking to your CPA and finding out what that’s going to mean to you in terms of the penalties and so forth.
And I often hear a lot of folks say, particularly the ones that have less than 50 employees, “Well it doesn’t really impact me.” Oh, indeed it does. I’ve got friends all over the country that are in that situation that are seeing their insurance rates go through the roof as a result of this whole thing. Everybody needs to be educated on what’s happening here.
John Coffin: Lee, Jim mentioned the stunning growth that he’s had this year. Have you experienced growth in your business? And how are you driving that?
Lee Pritchard: Well, it’s interesting. Everybody that reads the news knows how well the apartment industry is doing. And everybody automatically thinks, “Boy, you guys must be printing money over at ProMove.”
It’s a little counter-intuitive. We have done a great job of growing our traffic and our number of searches. But when the apartments are at 95 percent occupancy, oftentimes we can’t find a suitable available unit within somebody’s budget. What we call our “conversion rate” of those leads goes down.
John Coffin: I see.
Lee Pritchard: According to most of our data sources, we’ve seen occupancy peak in Atlanta during the third quarter of this year. You can see all the new product coming in process. Occupancy levels are supposed to decline slightly over the next two to three years. So that creates opportunity for us to increase our conversion rate and also our average revenue per transaction.
So while this year, from a top line growth perspective, has been tough, we kind of have been investing in the product and training and everything, and are just really ready when the market loosens up a little bit. As it always does.
John Coffin: So there’s definitely kind of a volatility element to your business that’s directly linked to apartment capacity.
Lee Pritchard: That’s correct. And, of course, the apartment capacity is a function of new supply versus typically job growth.
John Coffin: Right. Okay. Now, as you come into that growth area, I guess you’ve operated in other markets too, and you’ve decided to narrow your focus, at least temporarily, to Atlanta. Talk about that, because that’s kind of an interesting concept for business owners.
Sometimes you want to have growth in lots of different directions, and sometimes people find that, by narrowing your focus and perhaps you’re increasing your competency, you get better results. Has that been your situation as you’ve kind of focused on the Atlanta market?
Lee Pritchard: Yeah, it’s interesting. It’s a combination of that and then also just kind of our entire industry being in a state of transition from what was an offline experience, perhaps a retail experience, to one that is more online. And so we’ve experimented with small sales offices in other markets and never really got comfortable with making a really significant investment.
And so we have been iterating our model and now have kind of a centralized ProMove online model, which we feel very, very good about. And actually we’ll be able to grow our employment base here in the metro Atlanta area and actually serve customers who are looking for properties in other markets.
It’s much more scalable and a very good, capital-efficient, strong margin opportunity.
John Coffin: So rather than going to a new market by throwing people at it, you’re kind of building your technology first and then getting prepared to take a next step. But really doing it technology first, it sounds like.
Lee Pritchard: That’s right. And then we have the traffic relationships that we’ve developed over the past five years are national in scope. And so, for example, if we decide to enter the Tampa and Orlando markets we can basically with the flip of a switch turn on traffic equivalent to over 50 percent of what we’re doing in Atlanta.
John Coffin: Wow. That’s remarkable. That’s a huge leverage point. Jim, are there ways that technology is affecting your business?
Jim McCutcheon: In many ways. Frankly, from our standpoint, one of the biggest things is, as I mentioned having 80 trucks on the road every day. Being very, very efficient in routing and making sure that our vehicles are where they’re supposed to be when they’re supposed to be and so forth. A lot of the fleet technologies are really helping us quite a bit.
John Coffin: Do you have GPS on every truck?
Jim McCutcheon: We do.
John Coffin: You’ve got a command center at headquarters where you know where everybody is.
Jim McCutcheon: We do. Absolutely.
John Coffin: And when they’re eating lunch and all?
Jim McCutcheon: Absolutely right. And we’re very intentional as to routes that people take and so forth. We’re kind of borrowing a little bit from the UPS philosophy and those types of things. But this business is really about managing the pennies. When you have three folks in a vehicle traveling on the road, and the fuel cost and so forth, we’ve got to keep our costs down for our customers.
John Coffin: Both of you are so focused on the service side of things. How do you really drive that client service excellence mantra through your company? Lee, I’d love your thoughts on that. Because it’s really at every touchpoint that you’re affecting folks.
Lee Pritchard: Right. One thing that’s kind of inherent to our business model is we don’t get paid unless we do a great job and somebody moves into a property that we recommend. Right in our guiding principles is, we think about the customer experience and how to enhance it as part of our organizational thinking.
John Coffin: Okay.
Lee Pritchard: We’re constantly improving, investing, training. It’s really a cornerstone of the company’s success. The latest customer satisfaction ratings we’re getting, close to 80 percent are giving us five star ratings on our service. So we’re very proud of that.
John Coffin: That’s remarkable.Your property specialists, the people who are interacting with interested consumers are obviously doing an incredible job. Do you have special interview techniques to find these folks or things that you’re particularly looking for?
Lee Pritchard: We have seen great success with those coming out of the hospitality industry.They’re just naturally people persons.It gives them an opportunity to perhaps improve the hours and work schedule that they have and take Sundays off.
John Coffin: Okay. Jim, staffing is just a huge issue for you as well. How do you find the right people, and then how do you ensure that they’re really getting that. They have very specific tasks that they need to do and a tight time frame. But client service has got to be a key element of their business, too.
Jim McCutcheon: Yeah, no doubt. Really, we’re looking for two different groups of folks.
Obviously the crews that are on the ground each and every day, and that process for finding them and training them, that’s a very intensive, hands- on training process.
We use something called training within industry, which is the way that the US… Rosie the Riveter, many, many years ago during World War II when they had to put all these women into the factories and get them up to speed real quick, there was a methodology there. And that’s what we use as the basis of our training program for our field guys.
John Coffin: Fascinating.
Jim McCutcheon: And then when you look at the folks that are customer facing, the service folks, what’s interesting about our business is that the vast majority of people that go to school to study this or get involved with this business don’t do it because they want to be with people. They want to be with plants, they want to be outside, all these other things.
So actually finding people that understand this business and want to be with people is a challenge. And it’s a great opportunity for us to bring other folks in. We’ve brought folks in from other industries and really trained them in the fine arts of landscaping, but then taking their personal skills and used those with our customers.
John Coffin: I know landscaping skills are something that obviously a lot of people go to multiple years of college and graduate school for. That’s something you can teach, I guess, without them going back to school. That’s really cool.
Jim McCutcheon: Right. Absolutely.
John Coffin: Okay. I really want to get some viewpoints from you guys on the best business advice you’ve ever received. It could be from anyone. Lee, could you share with us on that?
Lee Pritchard: Sure. This was early on at an Allconnect board meeting. Dr. Jack Scheff from Emory, we had, of course, a table full of venture capitalists and gung-ho folks. This was 2000 so it was back in the day. Jack very calmly and assertively pointed out that, he said, “Gentlemen, you will find that this is a marathon, not a sprint.” What great insight and advice that was.
John Coffin: How true that is. We’ve been through a couple of miles or years here of difficulty but it’s remarkable to me the resilience of so many business owners through this period of time. When you take the long view, it’s 26 miles not 100 yards. Jim, what about you?
Jim McCutcheon: You know, years ago I started working with a consultant, a gentleman out of Chicago named Frank Ross. Great friend of mine. And he’s been working with our business for many years, kind of on the financial side of things.
At one point, many, many years ago, I was expressing frustration with some of our leadership. He looked at me and he said, “You know, you’re a talented guy.” He said, “But you’ve got to have the courage and the strength to go find people that are better than you and put them in charge.”
And so I look at my executive team today, it’s a four-member executive team, and I can do each and every one of their jobs but I cannot do it as well as they do it individually. So it’s a much stronger team.
John Coffin: What an incredible piece of advice for everyone. You really have to build that team around you. Lee, I know at Allconnect you had that experience of going from the founder to the primary leader and driver of the business. And now you’re still affiliated with the firm but in a board relationship. Talk about that, how that works. Because that’s…
Lee Pritchard: You know, it’s very interesting. People tell me that is atypical of founders to be able to continue once it’s time for the founder to move on. And so I guess it’s just in the way that I’m wired. I served as CEO and/or executive chairman from ’98 when we founded the company through 2004 and then moved into just a board role plus some consulting as called on from time to time.
I just remain on the board today, and of course on call when they need me for anything that’s kind of in my wheelhouse.
John Coffin: I also want to just ask you both about your dynamic, high-energy leaders. If you could just give a couple of words or observations about your leadership style, I’d love to hear about that. Jim?
Jim McCutcheon: I can tell you I am not a micromanager by any means. My folks would tell you that I set very high expectations. Probably my best strength is the ability to paint the vision and get people motivated to be a part of that vision, to make that happen.
But I let them do what they do well. If we have a problem along the way, we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to fix it. But day in and day out, they’re in charge of their business.
John Coffin: As you kind of look out at the next five or ten years for HighGrove, what’s the vision for the business and for what you’re trying to accomplish?
Jim McCutcheon: You know, it’s interesting. I read all the time, but one of my favorite business books was “Good to Great.” Ten years ago or so I read that. It’s one that if you’ve never read, everybody ought to read it.
John Coffin: Jim Collins, right?
Jim McCutcheon: That’s right. Jim Collins. And there’s a great simplicity in the message there. What I found at times through the national organization that I’m president of, and through my own business, is that complexity had crept in, and we kind of lost track of what were the most important things.
So we have a very simple and refined mission now. Our company retreat this year, we rolled that with everybody. We got everybody engaged in it. We’re moving down that road. At the end of the day, we will be the number one landscape company in the city. And we have a plan to make that happen.
John Coffin: That’s great. Would that be doubling your sales? I don’t know, you know, what the difference between one and four is.
Jim McCutcheon: Let’s put it this way: number one and number two are both $1 billion landscape companies that just merged. They’re nationwide companies. And their Atlanta revenue is about $80 million.
John Coffin: So you’re going to just kind of knock away at the big gorilla in the market.
Jim McCutcheon: We do every day. That’s who we beat on every day. But our important thing is, it’s not so much about that top line number. It is making sure, first and foremost, that we stay profitable and we have the money to reinvest in our business. And we build the kind of business that we’re proud of and that we want to be a part of.
John Coffin: So really, quality growth is what you’re focused on.
Jim McCutcheon: Absolutely.
John Coffin: Great. Lee, leadership style.
Lee Pritchard: I’m also a hands-off type. My strength really is in business model design, customer experience design, setting the strategy, articulating the vision, coming up with the right timing to make significant investments. And then it’s really up to the team to make it happen.
When I’ve been CEO, I’ve typically had a very strong president or chief operations officer that is very, very, very detail oriented. That is my style. I think we’re going to stick with it.
John Coffin: That’s great. Thank you. That’s excellent. We’re going to shift to the speed round. We have a few minutes left here. And this is where I’m going to just ask you some off the cuff questions. Lee, when you were growing up what did you want to be when you grew up?
Lee Pritchard: Initially a dentist until I took high school chemistry. John Coffin: What turned you off about high school chemistry?
Lee Pritchard: I just didn’t like it. Have you ever heard that from one of your boys? John Coffin: Yeah.
Lee Pritchard: Okay.
John Coffin: We got it on the biology side, though. Chemistry was okay. What about you, Jim?
Jim McCutcheon: Of course my dream was to be a professional baseball player but there’s no speed here. I could hit the ball but there was no speed. So that was a done deal.
John Coffin: Okay. Favorite movies.
Lee Pritchard: Probably a tie. I’m a comedy guy, so Airplane and Caddy Shack.
John Coffin: Airplane and Caddy Shack. Two classics. Excellent. Jim, what about you?
Jim McCutcheon: On the comedy side I’ve got to say Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. My favorite is The Godfather. The whole trilogy. You just can’t beat that.
John Coffin: That’s great. Okay. Marlon Brando at his best back in the day. How about charities? What charities or boards are you guys involved in?
Lee Pritchard: Hands down for me it’s Buckhead Christian Ministry.
John Coffin: And what do you like so much about Buckhead Christian Ministry?
Lee Pritchard: It’s a homelessness prevention ministry, and it focuses on the working poor. And helps them in times of crisis. Not only does it help them through the crisis, it then equips them to avoid crises in the future.It’s just incredibly effective and cost effective, compared to watching a family go homeless.
Jim McCutcheon: Within HighGrove we have something we call High Hopes, which is our internal giving club. We have three groups we work with.There’s a special needs school, a battered women’s shelter, and a children’s home. We’re constantly on those properties, doing things with them, helping them out, fundraising and so forth.
Also personally, I’ve been heavily involved with our educational foundation for our industry. I’m constantly fundraising for that as well.
John Coffin: Remarkable. One other question I’ve got to ask. I know you both are into sports. If you could be a professional or a college athlete, what team would you play for and what position would you play? Jim?
Jim McCutcheon: I’ve got two teenage boys that are serious lacrosse players. I never touched that sport when I was growing up. But now I am the greatest lacrosse fan in the world. I feel like I’m on an airplane every day taking them somewhere. I absolutely would probably play for Duke or North Carolina or one of those schools. I’ve got to be a defenseman. A big, long stick I can beat people with. It’s great.
John Coffin: There you go. In no other sport do you get to run around and beat people with a stick. That’s great.
Jim McCutcheon: That’s exactly right. John Coffin: Lee, what about you?
Lee Pritchard: Well let’s see. I was tennis player but in watching my kids, boy, I have really gotten interested in soccer. I’ve got three girls that have played soccer and have just really enjoyed that. My son plays baseball. It is a difficult, difficult choice. But I think I might pick center back in soccer. I went to Ole Miss, but Ole Miss doesn’t have a men’s soccer program — so I guess I’d better pick North Carolina, which is where my wife went.
John Coffin: Okay. There we go.
Jim McCutcheon: They sure have a football team now.
John Coffin: Fantastic. The Ole Miss football team is fantastic this year. Thank you both for being here in the studio. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate all of your insights.
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