“We grow our own people,” he says.
What else would you expect from a landscaping company?
Though tongue-in-cheek, the comment isn’t far from the truth as ValleyCrest Cos. has grown to become the largest independent company in the United States specializing in landscape and horticultural services.
While many factors have contributed to the company’s success, Sperber is quick to point out that the biggest key has been recruiting, training and retaining its employees. ValleyCrest has been so successful at the process that, after starting in the San Fernando Valley with little more than a truck and a few hundred dollars in 1949, it today has more than $700 million in revenue and offices across the country.
“Our competitors can buy the same lawnmowers and trucks and fertilizer,” says Sperber. “But it’s our people that set us apart.”
Finding the right people starts with the recruiting process. ValleyCrest focuses on colleges and universities to find its future leaders. The company works with more than 30 schools to offer scholarships and internship programs, some of which have been in place for 35-plus years. Sperber says ValleyCrest has to dig to to find recruits for its 8,000-member work force than it used to, when an interest in horticulture was stimulated by the schools.
“When I was growing up, junior high schools and high schools all had horticulture departments,” says Sperber. “There were a lot of different clubs you could be involved in. With cuts today, there are no more horticultural departments in schools.”
Changes in education have forced the company to adapt, and ValleyCrest doesn’t limit itself to people looking for a career as a gardener or landscaper.
“There are not a lot of kids who say they want to be a gardener for the rest of their life,” Sperber says. “So we look for people from all walks of life. We look for people with different skills sets. Then we recruit, recruit, recruit and train, train, train and let them have wings to do things themselves.”
While ValleyCrest looks for people experienced in the industry, it also seeks those from outside the industry who have potential. Then it assembles them at ValleyCrest’s Calabasas headquarters and puts them through training sessions of three to seven days.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t want to hire the kid who mowed lawns as a summer job. In fact, that’s exactly who it wants.
“That’s the person we’re looking for,” says Sperber. “The kid who says, ‘That was a good gig I had in junior high and high school.’ We recently hired a guy who did that. He became a master gardener in California. Then he decided he didn’t want to make $50,000 for the rest of his life, went to college, got an MBA and works for us.”
ValleyCrest also has grown much of its own leadership. The result is a young leadership corps with the experience to help the company grow.
The average age of the company’s 115 branch and corporate managers is 42, and they have an average tenure of more than 17 years; the company’s corporate officers have an average tenure of 12 years. In other words, ValleyCrest is a company people like to work for.
“We’ve gotten a lot bigger in the last seven, eight years, and we’ve injected some new people with new ideas and new thinking,” says Sperber. “But we still have people who have been working here for 35 years.”
Sperber, 43, is a perfect example of ValleyCrest getting a young mind and holding onto it. His father, Burton Sperber, and his uncle, Stuart Sperber, founded the company in 1949. Today, they oversee the business while Sperber runs it.
Sperber cut his teeth at ValleyCrest sweeping out shops, watering plants and doing whatever else needed to be done before studying ornamental horticulture and business administration in college. He then held positions in each of the company’s divisions before becoming president in 1994
During that time, he learned that support and recognition are a critical component of the people-first strategy the company employs. As part of that strategy, last year ValleyCrest celebrated its 55th anniversary by coordinating events coast-to-coast to honor the employees who made it what it is today. More than 7,000 turned out.
Also last year, four members of a landscape crew were killed and another severely injured in an automobile accident. The company set up a memorial fund and matched employee donations 100 percent.
“Our family atmosphere means staying close to our own,” says Sperber.
And in 2003, the company presented five of its workers with Ford F-150 trucks as a reward for their safety records on the job. That kind of recognition helps it keep the best employees so it can deliver the best service possible.
“The biggest thing is keeping your employees happy and motivating them to take care of your customers,” says Sperber.
One way to do that is to create a family-like atmosphere, something that is helped by hiring members of the same families. Sperber estimates that more than 70 families have two or more members working for ValleyCrest.
“We have one family that has had about 52 people working here,” he says. “That’s three generations. There are employees who worked here before I was born and still work here.”
Sperber says that while some companies frown on family members working together in the same divisions, ValleyCrest encourages it. Happy employees equal better service to customers, and besides, it’s a family effort that runs the company and a family effort to recognize contributions from everyone.
“My dad, my uncle and I personally pass out every bonus check (at the end of the year),” says Sperber. “It takes three weeks. We go to every single location and say thanks for all the hard work and pass out the checks.”
Part of ValleyCrest’s growth comes through acquisitions, and an important part of that is successfully integrating new employees into the company culture. A little more than a year ago, that ability came in handy when it acquired Omni Landscape Group, adding more than 600 employees.
“We’ve never been an acquisition machine,” says Sperber. “We’ll do another this year, but we do acquisitions to get great management people. We spend a lot of time with a company (before an acquisition). We think we need to spend a year working with those people.
“If someone has great customers and an average management team, we won’t do it. We all have the same access to the customer. In the end, you need great people to take care of customers.”
How to reach: (818) 223-8500 or www.valleycrest.com