Nestled back along Blackjack Ridge in Birmingham, Alabama, is the landscaping company Blackjack Horticulture, which prides itself on being an efficient and effective team that focuses on integrity, excellence and reliability.
Originally part of Blackjack Gardens, Inc., Blackjack Horticulture became its own entity in 2004 when Bryan Word, current president, and another co-worker had the idea to branch off and create a company focused solely on landscaping.
An Auburn University graduate with a Bachelor of Science in landscape horticulture, Word says he has always felt a calling to the great outdoors, and he, like many others in his field, started his landscaping journey mowing lawns in the summer.
As he got older, Word says his parents had the desire to re-landscape their yard, and when the landscaping crew arrived on site to begin the process, he jumped right in alongside them to help. This, he says, is when his love for this line of work truly came to life.
After graduation, Word says he had opportunities to work with companies outside of Alabama, but he knew he wanted to try and stay closer to home when it came to his career. This is when he had the chance to begin working with Blackjack Gardens, which eventually lead him to where he is today.
Inviting from the get-go
Today, Blackjack Horticulture has around 60 employees, and Word says since it’s become more and more of a challenge to attract and retain hardworking employees, they try to make sure everyone feels invited to the Blackjack family upon arrival.
“It’s an ongoing challenge,” says Word. “We’ve shifted and changed what we’re doing a little bit here. With field labor, we’ve tried to onboard and train differently than we used to, particularly on the first day or two. We’re trying to make sure we’re giving them the tools they need to be successful and making them feel welcome and part of the team.”
Word says that when new crew members join the team and begin the process of orientation, they learn right from the start about the history of the company, as well as what culture the team works to cultivate every day.
Word says new hires are also walked through the company’s values and focus, and for those working out in the field, they are showed an in-depth look at machinery and are given safety and operation training. Employees are also paired up with their crew leader to see where the machines are fueled up, how to run and maintain each piece of equipment, the safety protocols that accompany each individual piece and at the end, the employee is asked to demonstrate the use of the machines back to the crew leader.
Word adds that depending on the amount of time left in the day, they can sometimes allow employees the chance to perform a bit of maintenance around the office so they are able to show their hands-on abilities and ask any questions before hitting the jobsite the following day.
Along with ensuring new hires are properly trained, Allison Kanne, director of communications, says the company works to maintain an inviting and family-like atmosphere that brings people in and allows them to enjoy their time at Blackjack.
“There is a big emphasis on the fact that it is very much a team effort and we all play a part,” says Kanne. “Blackjack would not be what it is without every person who makes it up. Everyone values and displays hard work.”
To help boost morale and keep employees at the top of mind with customers, Kanne says she actively tries to showcase the hard work and talents of their crew via the company’s social media channels.
“I think it’s important to give them the recognition they deserve because of these long hours and the work that they do,” says Kanne. “I want clients to know that these men and women are the heart of our company. If we didn’t have them, we would not be here. So, I try to give them the credit they deserve.”
With the labor shortage not looking like it will let up anytime soon, Word says the Blackjack crew is looking to the younger generations to help supplement.
“As an industry, we have to be proactive,” says Word. “Gone are the days where people just walked in your door and they were all hirable.”
Since 2000, Word says Blackjack has partnered with Auburn University to recruit interested horticulture students, and they have also had the opportunity to work with the university to teach a bidding and estimating class.
“Our primary relationship for years has been with Auburn because we have so many Auburn graduates here,” says Word. “But we are trying as a company to reach beyond and develop relationships outside of that.”
Blackjack also offers the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) student group the chance to come to their facility every winter for an equipment day. This, Word says, gives them time to work with equipment hands-on, which also helps them prepare for the National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC).
“They are preparing for those competitions, but for some of them, this is the first time that they have gotten on certain pieces of equipment,” says Word. “We try to keep a close connection with them.”
Along with working with four-year colleges, Word says they are also actively working to create opportunities to partner with local community colleges and high school agricultural/horticulture classes to get the word out about the green industry at an earlier level.
Last year, Word says he had the opportunity to speak to a fifth-grade class about the ins and outs of horticulture, and even worked on a little bit of landscape design with them. He was able to offer suggestions on their designs and talk to the students about how different plants in the landscape will attract different insects and animals.
Word believes that this type of encouraging and interesting hands-on approach to learning about horticultural practices could prove to be an asset for the green industry later on when these students begin to choose career paths.
“I would certainly encourage all different landscape companies across the state and nation to find those elementary and high schools that you can plug in to and get involved with,” says Word. “The younger we can get them interested, the better it is.”
Robert Davis, hardscape division manager for Blackjack, has worked as a mason for over 40 years and says he has always been an advocate for more vocational schools and training programs, as every student will not pursue a four-year college degree.
“The vocational schools I went to collapsed in the late 80s and through the 90s, and I think now in 2019, there’s a little spark coming back,” says Davis. “People are finally realizing there is another way to make a living other than going to college. You don’t have to go to college to make a good living; all you have to have is the work ethic.”
As someone who came from a rural county high school, Davis says he has found in the past that many of the interested younger people that were drawn towards the green industry were those from rural communities that were used to physical labor and working outdoors.
He also notes that school counselors in those rural counties played a big part in showing students green industry opportunities because they were familiar with these careers that allowed students to go straight into the workforce instead of stressing the college track to each student.
Check back tomorrow for part 2 of this series, where we’ll take a look at the daily tasks and hands-on work of the field crews.