Returning to work safely as a landscaping company

Hey, there! I’m Trent Schrock. My brother Troy and I are co-owners of Paragon Landscape, Inc., and Crown and Blade, LLC (A lawncare company).

We grew up in central Illinois where we both worked for our local landscaper during our high school and early college years. Troy went on to become a CPA and now works as a consultant helping medium-sized businesses around the country develop leadership teams and establish strategic rhythms. I studied Landscape Design at Illinois Central College and the University of Illinois and graduated in 1992.

In spite of my love for the outdoors and my degree in Horticulture and Design, I briefly considered becoming a counselor. So, after graduation, I packed my belongings in my tiny Ford Escort and moved to Leo to work a stint at Gateway Woods Children’s Home. While there, I got to know Heidi, who is now my wife of 27 years. We fell in love with the community, put down roots, and are currently raising our five children here in the Fort Wayne area. 

In 1997, Paragon Landscape was born. We focused on residential landscape design, construction, and maintenance. Our long-term goal has always been to deliver beauty to our friends, while at the same time growing young managers who are positioned to be successful in their personal lives and personal finances. Our passion for these twin goals remains the driving force of our business to this day.

When any difficulty hits, we take a step back and reassess. Sometimes our path changes, but our desire to deliver beauty to our friends and to grow young managers has remained the same throughout our 23 years in business.

When COVID hit and tossed a marketplace full of apple carts on their side, it caused a lot of scrambling. We went through phases of, “Oh, wow, how bad is this thing?” and “How will businesses survive,” to “Ok, how do we get our feet back on the ground? How do we protect our people, tighten up our costs, be more careful with cash, and find additional revenue flows?”

When the stop-work order was issued in mid-March, we sent our people home. It was unclear if landscape services would be considered essential under either the construction or agricultural exemptions, and we didn’t feel comfortable moving forward without a clear open door from the governor. But rather than lay off our full-time people, we paid them to listen to some good audiobooks as an extension of the manager training we had done throughout the winter. (“Good to Great” by Jim Collins was the first book of choice. “Total Money Makeover” by Dave Ramsey was the second).

We also gave our employees a week of PTO for that nebulous period between Indiana’s shut down and the April 1 date when COVID-related PTO reimbursements would supposedly begin. Our key division managers worked extra just to communicate, read up on the virus, and make plans. I think we adjusted our plans twice a day those first two weeks.

By Friday, March 27, word began to trickle in that landscape services had been exempted by the governor. This word first came through our state landscape and lawncare associations. But we were uncertain if it was official. To clarify, we reached out to one of our state associations asking where they had received this information, and I was super impressed when they responded to my email within 10 minutes with a link to a video of the governor’s press conference addressing landscape companies. Shout out to the IPLLA for such a quick response!

We returned to work March 30, but with a lot of new practices in place. Here are some examples.
  1. Only one person per vehicle unless they are siblings.
  2. Mileage reimbursements as needed for longer trips, like when we work at the lakes.
  3. Regular disinfecting of trucks and tools and regularly touched surfaces.
  4. Emailing of all paperwork so there is no paper changing hands.
  5. No tool sharing on site.
And many more minor tweaks to our standard operating practices.

But the most important practice is an extension of one we already hold dear. Every employee has the “red switch” in their hand, by which we mean, “If you are ever uncomfortable or feel unsafe, you can ‘flip this switch,’ stop production, take a step back, and contact your manager.” This applies to COVID just as it does to being assigned a task for which you feel you have not been adequately trained or if you have been asked to work in conditions you feel are unsafe.

Those promised-but-unused PTO days were put in the “bank” for our employees to use later.

The most demanding aspects of this strange new COVID world continue to be data-driven decision-making and clear communication with our staff. We are still making adjustments to our practices. However, changes are now occurring at a pace of once per week rather than twice per day. I’m proud of how quickly our staff has adapted to this new normal.

Through the coming weeks, good data will help clarify the exact shape of COVID. We will certainly have to adapt our practices even more than we have adapted them so far. Some of those changes will be temporary, but some will stick around to become good, long-term practices. They will make us a safer and more effective company in the future.

Through it all, our goal will remain: “Beauty to our friends” and “grow those excellent young managers.”

This blog is part of an ongoing, weekly series in Input Fort Wayne, following local small business owners as they navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. To see Trent's next blog, subscribe to our free weekly email newsletter, or check next week.
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