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Phillip Fortenberry and Robin Blackwood install an irrigation system as part of the landscaping work for Athens-Limestone Diagnostics Center near U.S. 72. Fortenberry has been in the landscaping business for 16 years.
Daily photo by Emily Saunders
Phillip Fortenberry and Robin Blackwood install an irrigation system as part of the landscaping work for Athens-Limestone Diagnostics Center near U.S. 72. Fortenberry has been in the landscaping business for 16 years.

Trouble on landscape
Biggest problem in industry is finding employees willing to get their hands dirty, owners say

By Eric Fleischauer
eric@decaturdaily.com · 340-2435

What’s the most frustrating thing about being in the landscaping business? Poison ivy? Fire ants?

Wrong. As if reading from the same script, area landscapers had the same answer: finding workers.

None regretted being in the business, though, even as cell phones interrupted every shovel of dirt and every trimmed shrub. Phone calls mean customers, and even in the busiest season of the year, they’re happy to hear from them.

The grass would be greener, though, if they had more people to do the work.

“Everybody wants a paycheck. Nobody wants to work,” said Jason Fortenberry, owner of N2Grass Landscaping Inc. of Decatur.

High turnover

He stressed that he has many excellent employees and depends on them, but turnover is high and finding replacements is a headache.

“Nobody seems to care about our career or what we’re doing,” Fortenberry said. “They want the paycheck, but they don’t want to get involved in the procedure, in the right way and wrong way to do things.”

Welcome to Morgan County, home of a 3 percent unemployment rate. Full employment is an indication of a healthy economy, but it’s no help to Fortenberry.

“Finding good help is our biggest enemy,” he said. N2 has about 15 employees.

Promoting the energetic

He pays from $7.25 to $15 per hour, but he said increasing pay does not seem to have much impact on production. When he gets an energetic worker who shows an interest in the business, he tries to promote him quickly to a crew leader.

“We have high turnover as far as our general labor,” Fortenberry said. “We don’t have a lot of employees that stick around long enough to get bumped up to (higher paying) positions.”

The consequence of an inadequate labor supply is less revenue.

“That’s the biggest limiting factor of our business, employees,” Fortenberry laments. “We turn a lot of work away every year, especially in the springtime when everyone starts calling. If we could double our number of employees, we could double our workload.”

He suspects he could tap into a more dependable labor pool if he could offer health insurance, but the expense is prohibitive.

Fortenberry has grown despite his struggles finding labor. Some landscapers, like Michael Crow of Crow’s Landscaping, have intentionally remained small. In business since 1995, he has only one employee and likes it that way.

“That’s why I stay small, for that very reason,” Crow said. “People don’t want to work. I don’t want the headache.”

Expansion

Fortenberry, who has been in the business for 16 years, is not always sure his expansion was wise, especially when he’s trying to hire employees.

“If I had known years ago what I was getting into,” he said, “I might have tried to stay a smaller company. It would be simpler.”

The seasonal nature of landscaping exacerbates the problem. Fortenberry said homeowners would do well to embark on their landscaping projects in the fall. The results are just as good, he said, and the wait for a landscaping crew is not so long.

Language issues

He has occasionally filled his labor gap with non-English-speaking employees. The language barrier is a problem, though, even though he has a longtime employee who knows some Spanish.

The language problem is at its worst, he laughed, when he has to reprimand an employee. “ ‘No comprende’ is what I hear then.”

“The work we do is very physical, tough labor. I understand that,” Fortenberry said. “But when I hire a general laborer for more than $7 per hour, I expect them to hustle and to try to learn. I shouldn’t have to tell them everytime they plant a shrub how to dig the hole.”

One solution, mimicked by several local landscapers, is to hire family members. Fortenberry’s brother runs his landscaping division, and his father helps with deliveries.

By keeping good supervisors in place, he is able to keep crews smaller.

That’s essential, he said, given the erratic quality of the laborers.

Size does not just complicate Fortenberry’s labor woes. He said the larger he gets, the more regulations — especially relating to his vehicles — that he must follow.

Weekend warriors

The regulations serve a purpose, he said, but he is competing with what he calls “weekend warriors.”

“They buy a truck, a trailer and a lawn mower and here they go. No business license, no door signs, no (Department of Transportation) stickers, no tags on trailers, no insurance,” he said.

“We can’t compete with those guys. I have no problem doing it if that’s what Uncle Sam wants us to do. But let’s all abide by these rules.”

Both Crow and Fortenberry avoid some of the seasonal swings in their cash flow by servicing commercial customers on a near-weekly basis.

Crow landscapes new houses for several area builders. Fortenberry maintains the lawns of area banks and industries.

“The industrial-commercial stuff is a little more profitable,” Fortenberry said, “but at least 50 percent of the maintenance end of our business is residential work.”

Started as teen

Fortenberry started like many landscapers, as a teenager mowing lawns for spending money.

He continued the work while attending Calhoun Community College full time. Unlike most who started out that way, he discovered he has an aptitude for business.

“I made a conscious decision to either continue the schooling or make a run for a landscaping business and see what happens,” he said. “I haven’t looked back.”

Labor difficulties aside, area landscapers find much to like about their jobs. Fortenberry’s assessment is typical.

“I love being outdoors,” he said.

“I love being my own boss. Mainly, I love seeing what we can do on the landscaping side from start to finish. We leave a mark on the city.”

That tangible accomplishment is central to his enjoyment of the job.

“I like being able to see what I’ve done when I’m finished. Lots of my friends are in the computer industry, but I wouldn’t get any pleasure from that. I like seeing the before and after.”

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