Jeff Schwartz’s drive for learning keeps Greenskeeper Environmental on track for continued growth.
Whether he is teaching his employees a better business practice, lecturing at the community college, mentoring the new contractor on the block or enrolling in a class to acquire a new certification, the world is a classroom for Jeff Schwartz. Sometimes he is the teacher. Sometimes he is the student. Either way, he is always on the go.
Sitting at a desk in an office has never suited Schwartz. He would rather be out in the field with his crews. He learned to take advantage of technology early in his career and stays plugged in to his clients, other crews and the office via a laptop mounted in his truck and two cell phones, one on each hip. His truck is also equipped with GPS, as are all of his company’s work vehicles. The systems save time, fuel and keep employees safe. “For a landscaper, I’m a big tech guy. It makes me more efficient,” Schwartz says. “I try to work smarter, not harder.”
Today, Schwartz is checking on a reforestation project his company, Greenskeeper Environmental of Ashton, Maryland, recently acquired from the Maryland highway department. The reforestation project includes planting more than 20,000 native trees on public land.
While on site, Schwartz discusses plans with the foreman, glad hands with crew members and discusses the options for replacing a piece of broken equipment. As he takes a call from a client on one of his phones, Schwartz meanders along the rows of trees, head bowed while he intently listens to the voice on the other end. His black lab, Ovie, who usually accompanies him in the field, trails faithfully behind. Multitasking and always being on call are part of the game, Schwartz says. So is mentoring and supporting his crew and others in the industry.
The reforestation project is worth $1.3 million
and is his biggest government contract to date. “When the economy slowed down, we made a conscious effort to steer toward government work,” Schwartz says. “If we had relied solely on residential, we would have been dead in the water.” Greenskeeper has worked on a variety of government contracts in Maryland, including two dune restoration projects and several reforestation projects.
The loads of paperwork and red tape that accompany government bidding and contracts don’t deter Schwartz and his team. “It scares a lot of people off, and that’s OK with me.” He even hired a full-time estimator to crunch numbers to ensure contracts were bid properly. With a Master’s Degree in environmental science and the experience he gained overseeing large restoration projects for other companies early in his career, Schwartz was well prepared to take the lead on procuring and managing these types of projects for his business.
While the government contracts bring in the big money, Greenskeeper’s residential projects are steady and encourage creativity. One such project included a complete overhaul of a 3.5–acre yard encompassing a beautiful, historic home in Ashton, Maryland. While majestic oaks, a stone fire pit and blankets of colorful flowers catch the eye, the real star of the property is the custom vinyl fence, according to Schwartz. After searching locally for the materials to no avail, Schwartz and client Paul Mangus drove to Atlantic City to peronsally inspect and pick up the special order fence. “It was particularly hard to find a custom vinyl fence that was durable, quality built and had the curves and lines this fence had,” he says. The construction also had to accommodate stone columns built into the fence in a seamless fashion. People still rubberneck, driving down the busy street as they admire it, he says.
“For a landscaper, I’m a big tech guy. It makes me more efficient. I try to work smarter, not harder.”
Schwartz’s initiation into the landscaping business was fairly typical. “I started pushing a lawn mower around when I was about 12,” he says. He started cutting neighborhood lawns with his twin brother, Barry, about two or three times a week, and the business grew from there. Barry is now a real estate developer in Northern Virginia and often sends landscaping business his brother’s way.
Schwartz went on to earn a degree in environmental studies from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, later joining the team at McCarthy and Associates as a field biologist and project manager. There, owner Milt McCarthy became his mentor. “I learned a ton about the business of business. He set the bar for industry professionalism and reputation,” he says.
After two years at McCarthy and Associates, Schwartz joined the Environmental branch of
Ruppert Landscape Company as a purchaser and then a production manager, overseeing $3.8 million in environmental restoration projects. Later, Schwartz “came full circle,” as he puts it, realizing he would have better opportunities with further education. He went back to school, earning his Master’s Degree in environmental science from John Hopkins University. With the support of his wife, Jamie, a physician at John Hopkins, Schwartz worked for two years setting up Greenskeeper Environmental, which became a full-time business in 2002. Today, the company has grown to exceed revenues of $4.5 million annually. Schwartz and his wife have two children, Taryn, 5, and Max, 2. Juggling two demanding and successful careers along with the needs of two small children can be hectic, he says.
While Schwartz has realized the importance of education for himself, he’s also an advocate for others. He is a guest lecturer at Montgomery College. “I am happy to mentor those who work hard and do their homework,” he says. He often loans equipment to younger contractors, just starting out. He also invites them and their crews to attend his weekly safety talks, which are conducted in English and Spanish. He has more than a dozen certifications, licenses and affiliations and is always working for more. “Whatever your level is, pick a goal each year and run with it. Do something that sets you apart from the next guy,” he says. He is always striving to work to improve his Spanish so he can better communicate with Spanish-speaking employees. A volunteer firefighter/EMT, he knows the importance of safety. He recently put 10 of his employees through CPR and OSHA training courses.
Surrounding himself with capable employees and taking good care of them has been key to the success of Greenskeeper Environmental, Schwartz says. Some of his employees have been with him since Schwartz started his business. “I can’t be on every job site, so it’s important that I am able to trust my team to do their jobs and do them well,” he says. “I tell my customers, ‘You don’t need me. You need my team. But I am always available.’”
Schwartz not only expects his employees to work efficiently, he also counts on his team to help recruit and maintain a strong employee base. “These guys don’t want to bring in someone who won’t work. It will fall back on them,” he says. Schwartz currently has four sets of relatives including a father and son on his team.
“My relationship with my employees is important to me. I hire people with the right core values and provide a challenging and motivating environment for them,” he says.
He provides them with company subsidized flu shots and a soccer field adjacent to the office where they can play and spend time together. He has even given members of his crew loans during tough times. “It builds loyalty and shows I care. And I’ve never been burned,” he says.
Back at the job site, Schwartz calls everyone in for a group photo. As the crew huddles, shoulder to shoulder, smiling for the shot, Schwartz squeezes into the middle of the group — part mentor, part teacher, part boss — like a teacher posing for his annual class picture.
Keys to Greenskeeper Environmental’s Success
1. Learning is a life-long process. Education and training are vital building blocks for both employees and employer.
2. Simply do what you say you will all the time. Avoid overpromising or underdelivering. Your word is as valuable as your work.
3. Bad news never gets better with time. Don’t delay speaking with your customer, colleague or employee. Don’t delay delivering information or addressing conflict even if you are uncomfortable with how it will be received.
4. Strive to always be networking, meeting people and learning about their business. In addition to finding opportunities, you may build valuable relationships.
5. Invest in your employees and community. When employees know they are valued, they perform better. Also, non-monetary compensations (recognition, support and caring for your employees and their families) can be as important as pay. Sharing the company success with employees and community is a priority.