An Interview with Michael Becker, Certified Landscape Professional and CEO of Estate Gardener
By Julianne Jackson and Jami Coop, Creighton University MBA students
When you meet Michael Becker, Certified Landscape Professional and the CEO and President of Estate Gardeners, Inc. of Elkhorn, NE, it doesn’t take long to get a glimpse into how passionate he is about ethics. In 2005, Estate Gardeners was named a recipient of the Better Business Bureau Integrity Award and it’s easy to see why; the company is a great role model for any small business that wants to base their business model on a strong ethical framework.
Estate Gardeners was founded in 1993 by Becker and his wife, Patricia Burleson. They had moved to the Omaha area from Atlanta, GA to be closer to their families and get back into the Midwest, where they both were raised. They started their business small, going job-by-job and advertising in the classified ads to get more business. Today, the company is responsible for the design, development and maintenance of some of the finest high-end landscapes in the Omaha area. In addition to the Better Business Bureau Integrity Award in 2005, they have also received PLANET’s prestigious Environmental Improvement Award for three of their residential projects. The company currently has six employees but has had as many as sixteen employees at one time.
Becker’s background clearly shaped who is he and helped him get to where he is today. He grew up in Denver, CO and got his start in landscape as an 8-year old, mowing lawns and shoveling sidewalks for his elderly neighbors. After finishing high school, Becker went to Colorado State University in Fort Collins, CO, majoring in Art. During his summers, he ventured back to Denver and installed sprinkler systems to save up money. After graduation, Becker began working in a foundry, casting bronze statues, but quickly realized that was not the career path for him. From there, he moved to Atlanta to start an irrigation division for a large company. That’s where he met his wife and future business partner, Patricia. The rest, as the expression goes, is history.
Michael Becker shared his thoughts with us on running a small business, integrating ethics into business, and being a leader in his profession and in the community.
Is there a specific framework you use to guide ethics within your organization?
We thought a lot about this when we were applying for the Better Business Bureau’s Integrity Award. We realized at that point that there were three primary ethical principles that have really guided who we are as a company.
Ethics should be proactive. Proactive ethics can mean something as simple as buying good tools for your employees. It also means providing training for your employees and giving them the knowledge they need to make ethical decisions. That is a constant struggle in any business.
Ethics should be timely. If we have an ethical issue come up, we address it as soon as humanly possible. My stepson who is in the army has a saying: “Bad news does not get better with age.”
Our ethics are OURS. We own them. We are the ones that put ourselves out as professionals in the market. It’s up to us to do the job we were hired to do. It’s our job to do the right thing. It all comes back to us. We have to accept the responsibility for the promise we make to our customers.
Do you have a specific or written code of conduct you abide by?
Our written foundation is our employee handbook. Every employee required to read the handbook and sign off on a statement that verifies they understand the guidelines. We have non-disclosure and non-compete policies. These are important because we want to be able to be open with employees. We don’t really have any secrets; we try not to keep secrets. If employees want to know something we want to be able to share that with them.
When we began brainstorming and working on our ideas for the company, we put our ideas and ideals on a white board. The board has our values and principles documented clearly. The white board is still hanging in our office. Even today, it’s still the one source for everyone in the company to understand the foundation of the company.
What training programs do you have in place to teach ethics to your employees?
Estate Gardeners does some in house training and also leverages outside training programs. I am a Certified Landscape Professional, which requires a certain amount of training. Certifications show what a person has accomplished and what they are capable of. I firmly believe that it is up to us to make sure our industry and our line of work is viewed as a profession. Industry certifications help solidify that. I’m on PLANET’s certification committee for that reason. We just adjusted requirements to require CLP’s to participate in some form of continuing education.
How do you deal with subcontractors that don’t adhere to your ethics code?
We don’t work with them! We are very cautious when we hire a company to subcontract for us. Last summer, we had a customer with a very tight timeline. None of the subcontractors we normally work with were available. The customer still had a desire to stick to the timeline and provided us with a list of contractors to chose from. We selected someone from the list that did not seem to have the same ethical standards as ours. In the end, mistakes were made and the relationship did not end positively. We learned from that experience.
How do you think ethics differs in a larger company as compared to a small business?
My personal philosophy is that ethics are ethics, no matter where you go. The challenge of a larger company is to be able to instill that corporate culture through a larger pool. Their advantage is they have more resources to dedicate to the challenge. I would also say that the more regulated a company becomes, the more likely they are to view ethics as a compliance program.
What is it like doing business in Omaha, compared with other areas you’ve worked in and observed?
Omaha business is very friendly, and we have a very business friendly environment. Just living in Omaha and doing business here, it seems to be a more honest community. There is a trust you don’t see in other cities. It seems to be very easy to do business here. The market is open, there’s growth and the environment is dynamic. There’ s a basic honesty here that is very refreshing. In 15 years of business, we don’t have one uncollected bill.
Can you share with us a specific ethic situation you encountered that was particularly tough for you?
There’s probably not an aspect of our business that does not create ethical challenges from time to time. We once encountered an ethical dilemma with a fantastic employee. He did his job right and had a great vision for landscaping. But, he undermined everyone around him. We’re not sure what his motives were, but it drove other great people to leave the company because they did not want to work with that person. It was an ethical dilemma and a hard decision to let someone go that has a family and does a good job, but everyone else around that person has a right to expect respect. We had to let him go. It was literally like cutting off my right hand.
What drives your passion for ethics?
The reason I have somewhat of a passion is because I believe good ethical decisions and good behavior is good business. By acting ethically, making sure employees know what that means and empowering them to act that way, it will always be the right decision. I don’t think it would ever be possible to have a conflict between making a good business decisions and good ethical decisions. I just believe that your reputation is paramount. It’s really all you own. Everything else can go away. If you protect that, you will always have it.
I’m not saying it’s not painful sometimes to make the right ethical decision. Sometimes it will cost you in the short term, but it will pay off in the long-run. When you stand back, the answers to ethical dilemmas should all be easy, but they are not. We encounter extremely difficult decisions.
Have you had any mentors in your business that have had a specific influence on you?
My wife is my biggest mentor and has made the biggest impact on me. She has a great ability to almost immediately recognize the right and wrong in any dilemma, to distill it down to black and white. Whenever I face a dilemma, she’s the person I go to. If you asked my wife, I think she would tell you that her mentor was her mom. She was a single mom who raised nine kids, first female engineer in the Army Corp of Engineer. My wife was also very close to her aunts and her religion was a very important part of her upbringing.
What are the biggest ethical challenges you see in the business world today?
Dealing with media and with what kids grow up seeing today is a challenge. There’s not a rigid ethical structure in youth like there used to be. We are a law suit culture. There’s a lack of structure and as you take some of the structure away, people are left to make ethical decisions without a framework. That’ s a challenge. You have students coming out of school that have expectations that are bizarre. It’s almost a sense of entitlement. That is an issue. It can be overcome, but it’s going to take a concerted effort from the business world.
When you are bringing new people into your business, you have to have programs to teach ethics. Later today, I’m teaching my first ethics class at Elkhorn High School for Junior Achievement. I get people today who come to me, just out of high school, who don’t even have the skills to gain skills. They’ve never even been taught how to learn. I consider me going to teach an ethics class to high school students a responsibility of mine to help prepare the future workforce.
What advice would you give someone that is looking to start their own business?
Pick something you are passionate about doing if you are going to start a business. If you start there, everything else will more organically fall in line. If you are working from dawn to dusk to do something you want to be doing, you are not going to tolerate unethical behavior and you will be intolerant of risk. We’ve learned things that we need to do to protect our reputation. Also, ask advice from people who have been successful at starting their own business. The Chamber of Commerce is a great resource. Seek out people who have been successful, ask their opinion and emulate them.
What ethical issues do you frequently encounter in your business?
Theft, honesty, truth in dealing with your customers, and dealing with your employees are the ethical issues we encounter most frequently.
What drives you to get so involved in professional and community organizations?
I wanted to get involved in organizations and surround myself with successful people. It’s contagious. It’s better than a business degree. For example, we changed the way we estimate jobs and break our numbers down based on a suggestion of a friend of mine who I met through PLANET. We talked about numbers and margins. His advice has changed our bottom line.
What correlations would you draw between the economic viability of your company and your ethical framework?
I am very much a free market capitalist. Price is determined by what the market will pay. You have to find out what that is and you have to offer a significant value to get people to pay that price. This good reputation allows you to maintain or even increase your pricing in a challenging market where all costs are going up. There are companies out there who are literally cutting prices to get work, and all of their costs of business are increasing at the same time, that is a recipe for bankruptcy. When you have people that are working for you that need a job, To destroy you company is doing wrong ethically for the people that work for you. You have responsibilities to your suppliers, your customers and your employees.
One of the things people should realize is that our best clients, more often than not, are relationships developed out of a mistake that was handled well. If you work for a client and everything goes well from beginning to end, you may never hear from them again. If you take a client where you’ve corrected a mistake, they tell everyone they know. It’s a lot of work, it can be painful, but in the end, the joy is far greater than the other scenario. They become fanatics. And we want to turn our customers into fanatics.
What is the one ethical issue you face most often?
The ethical issue that I face most often would be the issue of honesty, specifically with employees. We’ve had an issue with damaged tools and equipment that no one will take responsibility for. It becomes frustrating because we buy high-quality tools. I preach to people that these are the tools of their livelihood. It erodes our trust when people are dishonest. They have developed a policy where if something is broken and no one takes responsibility, everyone in the company shares the cost to repair or replace that tool. I also have to reward honesty. They don’t know it yet but the first person that openly admits that they accidentally broke a tool will be rewarded for their honesty.
Is an ethical base an important criterion when hiring new employees?
Ethics is probably not as big of an interview topic for us as it is in bigger company. I ask questions to get an idea of what a person is like. I just ask basic questions to get a feel for a person. If I have a talented person with a good personality, we can teach them our ethical framework.
How does your ethical framework tie into your relationship with your employees?
I like my people to be able to make decisions and feel comfortable with making those decisions. I do exercises to help employees decide criteria to make decisions on their own. It has to be safe, it has to be cost effective, it has to achieve the goal in the end. It can’t just be activity, it has to be respectful of the client and the client’s neighbors. That’s how we do it. We tell people that if they make decisions based on those criteria, there will never be repercussions. If you empower someone you have to give them the tools to make the decisions, too. Setting someone up for failure is unethical.
The end results are that I have more time to focus on things I should focus on like sales and business development. It can be frustrating when I’ve got a lot of work going on and the phone keeps ringing with questions. Part of my role is to make sure my employees are well prepared to make decisions and they have all the information they need up front. That’s an ethical imperative. I can’t get mad at my employees for doing this if I don’t equip them to do their job. If my employees are making good decisions autonomously, it gives me time to get my job done. Empowering people and allowing them to act autonomously motivates the employees in my company. Even as early as the interview, I let potential employees know that they have to be willing to make autonomous decisions in our company.
A lot of people see our industry as an unskilled workforce. There is a very well developed, professional side of industry and that’s what I get involved in industry certification.
Is integrating ethics into your business really as seamless as you make it appear?
It’s not seamless. It’s a struggle. It’s a constant struggle. We stumble. We make mistakes. We have to keep it at the front of the mind. Involvement in ethics and talking about ethics energizes me. We’ve always got to take ourselves back to the foundation.
In the end, its worth it to do all of these things. My world is about distilling things down to black and white as quickly as possible. We don’t have time for gray areas. You have to make ethics make sense for the business.
You have to survive economically in your business. If we are going to sell ethics to small businesses, we have to show them how being ethical adds to their bottom line. Ethics will empower your people to make good decisions, it will grow revenue, and it will bring new business to your company.