ack Nesteruck, Director of Construction Operations: I started out working in the field as a pipe fitter in the 1970’s. I worked my way up as fast I could to operating equipment, learned the trade and how to read plans, and after some time earned the right to manage the projects as a foreman. Back then there were no very large landscape companies. Crew sizes were much bigger and less efficient because more work was done with manual labor; I worked with old-timers who told stories about landscaping in the early days, when pipe fitters still needed union cards, just a decade or so before I started. As the years passed, labor costs dropped; anyone wanting to start a business just needed a shovel, a lawnmower, a weed eater, and a rake. There were no cell phones, no emails, or any water management technology. I remember driving from one job site to another in unairconditioned trucks to check on jobs and other crews to see what they needed and if they were on track. There were no computers, so simple things like getting timecards out and getting people paid or having any job book information were difficult. Not very many educated people wanted to be in the landscaping industry because it was blue-collar labor that offered few benefits and was considered a dead-end, “dirty” job.
I have seen firsthand how new technology and education have improved dramatically over the last few years — improving overall performance and enriching the lives of our landscapers, helping them to live happier and healthier lives. A major component of this is safety — while working with another company, an employee I was overseeing was hit and killed. After having to call the family and let them know what happened, I saw that job site death and injury had real consequences. Today we see major improvements in the health and safety of our employees, and our leadership team at Agave take the issue extremely seriously. We have seen enhanced mechanization of landscape equipment, making it easier on anyone performing regular landscaping labor, like granite shooters, mini excavators, and blowers. The landscape industry has also implemented many safety measures that help our employees return safely to their families each night. Bright fluorescent safety vests help the public see landscape crews clearly while they are working out by the streets. There are also required, regular safety and tailgate meetings that instruct them on several topics including preventing back injury, heat safety, hearing protection, wearing personal protective equipment, etc., that have improved the lives of our workers exponentially.
Communication is much simpler now that we have emails and text messages to monitor what is happening with the operation of landscape projects. We also have immediate availability to communicate with our crews and keep them on schedule. When I started at Agave, I was already a seasoned veteran. I knew of Mike McMahon and he knew of me and we shared a respect, but we each thought we knew more than the other. I came in with my systems and culture and Agave had its own for thirty years. Mike was big on the planning and accounting process and was numbers driven, Agave had management and accounting tools that were better than I had ever seen. What I saw though was a culture of superintendents that did not work or trust each other. Each superintendent had their own projects and equipment and talent set. They were good and they were fast. My main objective was to change the culture to one of teamwork and respect.
My second objective was quality. Some crews needed to work on their efficiency and speed while others needed to slow down and make sure there was a consistent product and process. Both Mike and I accelerated everything, and we could see the difference. Clients were amazed and we got projects done faster than the competitor with clean walkthroughs and turnover. All jobs came in on budget and actually beat expectations. Everyone received a bonus after the first year.
One shortly after I started a client who I had only done a little bit of work for in the past while at a former company walked up to Mike on a job site and said that he did not really want to work with me. Mike respectfully told him he had hired Agave and could have the same expectations as in the past, but that I was now in charge of operations. That show of unity and trust has built our bond. I know today that we have the best, most experienced crews in the industry with the best equipment and we lead our industry in innovation and use of technology. Strong employees throughout the valley know, and we get calls from them wanting to join the “A” team. We select our client base the same way. I am happy to say that the guys who were reluctant to work with me have now become as loyal to me as I am to them.
im Potts, Director of Maintenance: I started out in civil engineering as a surveyor. I was drawn to the outdoors and learned a lot of math, but also learned the basics of geology, drainage, and construction requirements. In the downturn of 1992, I wanted to have a stable income, and everything construction-related seemed to be too much of a roller coaster. I wanted to stay outdoors; I grew up gardening and was happy to get work in landscape maintenance when a friend who had his own business asked me to join him. After learning some basics, I started my own residential service and managed that for 11 years. Having your own business had its ups and downs and caused personal friction in my life; I also knew I would rather do larger-scale projects and not individual homes. I decided to work for a commercial company and ended up working for two of the larger commercial maintenance companies in Phoenix over the next 15 years. There was a difference in the way landscape maintenance functioned over the 30 years I have been doing this. Things today run much faster and more efficiently than they used to, and I also like being able to communicate immediately with the manager and give them up- to-date information on things like maintenance schedules, and let our customers know in real time if there is a problem. For instance, if a water valve is stuck, I can immediately contact them for approval to fix it.
As technology progressed, so did landscape maintenance practices. There was very little science or understanding of how plants responded to water, stress, and nutrients in the early days of the business. Since then, local universities, like the University of Arizona and Arizona State University, have been dedicated to understanding and testing the best way to install and take care of our plants, trees, and grass. Our team has taken, earned, and maintained many of the certifications in learning plant and tree installation and care of these important assets. We now understand if there is a problem with a plant or tree, what is wrong with it and what needs to be done to fix it.
This knowledge was put to the test when trees started dying in an east valley community, stumping the local board, which could not figure out what was happening with these trees. Board members consistently pressured their current maintenance company to figure out what was going on with their trees. They increased the water because they thought it was an irrigation problem, but nothing changed. Finally, they hired us for maintenance; we brought our tree director in, and he took the proper steps to figure out what is wrong. After a simple soil test, we discovered that the soil had Texas Root Rot and was killing all of the trees. We had to find some trees that would be resistant to this disease. After our replacement, the trees began to thrive, and look beautiful today.
Although I enjoyed the work, I was doing with those two companies, I also felt that I could be more productive if I worked with like-minded people who knew landscaping. I also wanted more autonomy to run things the way I knew they should and could be done, so I made the move to Agave. At first, I was not completely sure it was the right move. Although the company had experienced crews, they were too independent and didn’t get enough administrative support. Everything was in place, but the pieces did not seem to fit together. I worked for the first year with all the foreman of our contract maintenance group to develop best practices, and fortunately I was given the reins to do things my way. Once I had a strong team, I knew I needed to bolster three critical areas of maintenance: water management, arbor care and enhancements. I had the full support of the company’s leadership, and so many of the best people in the industry were asking to come to work with us that we were finally in a position to bring them in. At one point, we received a letter of praise from one of our larger projects; one of our key foremen who managed that project came to me and thanked me for my support, which was the most satisfying aspect to me. That acknowledgement reinforced my most basic principles — that people want to work hard and efficiently, and that given the opportunity; they will find self-fulfillment in this kind of work.