My guest on this episode is Philip Hussey, CEO of Outerland, a landscape maintenance, new build, and snow removal business in Cape Cod, owned by Chenmark. Philip took the CEO role through Chenmark’s GVP program in January 2022. A concept he spends a lot of time thinking about that we discuss in detail is their focus on their internal customer, i.e., the Outerland team.
They believe by serving and delighting their internal customers, they will do the same towards their external customers. I love the concept and think CEOs of any business can benefit from hearing their philosophy. We also talk about being the high-end service provider and what that looks like, recruiting for high-end and customer service-oriented companies that Phillip admires.
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(00:03:44) Outerland and executing a rebrand
(00:08:11) Describing the ideal Outerland customer
(00:09:58) How Outerland differentiates themselves
(00:12:26) Building trust with customers
(00:16:37) Recruiting talent
(00:22:16) Internal customers
(00:26:10) Off-season opportunities
(00:28:58) Upsell strategies
(00:32:05) Studying other companies that create “Wow” moments
(00:43:28) Making sure Management gives a damn
(00:46:20) What strongly held belief have you changed your mind on?
(00:48:05) What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Alex Bridgeman: I think in kicking off the episode, it’d be fun to get some more background on Outerland. I know it’s a company that Sean Joy, who’s another podcast guest from Chenmark, was a part of for a little while too, but I’d love to hear the background from your perspective and joining back in January. You have enough time under your belt, I would love to hear how it’s been so far and what the business does and focuses on.
Philip Hussey: Yeah, of course. So, I joined in January 2022 of Outerland, so I’m going on 18 months here. And Outerland is a commercial and residential landscaping company based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. We do about $12 million a year and service roughly 400 customers across a handful of different lines, which is sort of landscape maintenance, which is routine mowing, blowing, mulching, gardening, irrigation. We have a landscape construction line, which is essentially anything that you can build outside of your home that is not physically your home, so pools, outdoor kitchens, large scale plantings, lawn renovations, patios, walkways, walls, etc. And then we have a fine gardening division. We have an irrigation division. And in the winter, when it does snow in Cape Cod, it did not this year, we plow snow as well. So, we’ve been around since 1994. We rebranded a couple years ago to be Outerland Landscaping. As we sort of shifted who we are as a business, we brought it under a different name. And after a couple of years running it, transitioned to who we are today is Outerland Landscaping. So, I guess the other component I’ll add, our workforce size, we have sort of heat of the summer upwards of 90, a team of 90 employees. That’s about 70 crew members and roughly 20 managers in the back office, account management, production management functions.
Alex Bridgeman: What drove the rebrand?
Philip Hussey: So, one, it was before my time, before I started here, I was at Chenmark, so did have sort of a front row seat to it, it was a push to really focus and position ourselves as more of a high end company, customer focused, a little softer. It was a change in logo. But I think more importantly, positioning ourselves in the market as a sort of landscape customer focused entity. The previous company had incredible processes, the previous name and brand, incredible processes, incredible people. It was much more of a volume game. And we wanted to really establish ourselves as a premium player in the market.
Alex Bridgeman: So, what goes into like the premium look- if you’re looking at the digital side, so logo, website, were there any key components of that rebrand that we were missing before or just not done nearly as well as they could have been that you felt were crucial for that digital side of the rebrand?
Philip Hussey: So, where the team was very successful at the rebrand was in call it the look and feel. But there’s a lot more plant focus in our logo, on our website, in our colors, really focused on landscaping and horticulture, which, particularly for the market that we’re trying to serve, these high end premium residential customers, that is I personally think a much more inviting feel. And that included rebranding all the trucks with different types of flowers on it, uniforms, rolling out sort of a model of landscapes with care, understanding that landscaping requires people to focus really on the craft and the trade, and it’s an art and not something that you mass produce is the message we’re trying to deliver to our customers.
Alex Bridgeman: Yes. You mentioned it there, but I’d love to dive into what a high end landscaping and snow business looks like, functions, how you recruit, how the team is structured and whatnot. But I’d love to just dive into the kind of ideal customer for Outerland. How would you describe that ideal customer that you’re looking for and then if there’s kind of customers around the periphery of that, too?
Philip Hussey: So, our ideal customer is someone in a house between worth a million dollars, upwards of $5, $10 million. And down here on Cape Cod, that’s most likely to be their second, third, fourth, maybe even fifth home. And they are interested in what we call a full suite of services. So that means they’ll take spring cleanup, fall cleanup, residential mowing, probably a fine gardening package, irrigation, and they may need other work done throughout, enhancement type work done through the year, whether that’s a new patio, whether that’s additional plantings, sod, holiday decorations that are installed outside their house. And that’s really our target customer, and they’ll spend anywhere from $7,500 a year on a contract to we have some residential customers that spend upwards of $30,000 a year just on their contractual landscape maintenance. And then at the periphery, we have a handful, more than a handful, I guess, we have commercial customers as well. And that includes anyone from a 500 home homeowners association, a hospital, an office park, doctor’s office, the coffee store next door to us. And that’s more of a hodgepodge, depending on the type of property it is and what they’re expecting from a service level.
Alex Bridgeman: And so if they’re not optimizing on price, it sounds like they’re optimizing on being a one stop shop or finding that one stop shop service. But what other parts of your business or other factors in their purchase decision go into choosing Outerland versus a different provider?
Philip Hussey: So, it depends on the service line. In our landscape maintenance service line, the one stop shop, like you said, is a big push for us. Another piece is the level of account management they’ll get. So, everybody gets a dedicated account manager. We have roughly every account manager has 100 customers. Our smallest segment is one account manager has 20 customers because they’re all very premium, and you get a lot of attention. You get the cell phone number. They’re going to come by multiple times a week, if needed. They are talking to you during specific occasions throughout the year, whether that’s Memorial Day, Fourth of July, they’re providing a color palette of the different type of flowers for you to select from. So very much more of a curated experience if that’s the type of customer you are. Similar in our construction, landscape construction process, we have two sets of customers. We have builders who are building or bidding more through a general contractor. And then we have direct to homeowners as well, who may be doing a half million dollar outdoor renovation of their landscape. They’re putting in a swimming pool, a firepit, an outdoor kitchen, and putting in a paver patio or a paver driveway with cobble edges, and they’re going to spend a half million dollars on it. We’ll do a design upfront, anywhere from $3 to $7,000 for the design and spend time with them just to figure out what that looks like; we have a designer in house who will do that. And what that is, is it’s just a relationship building time where we’re getting to know the customer, they’re getting to know our process, and we’re providing input into their vision for their outdoors. At the end of that process, when we’ve specked it out, they may take it to bid to other landscapers. But if we spent three months sitting at their kitchen table working on sort of the perfect garden plan, they’re less likely to go spend half million dollars with somebody else or nickel and dime for 50 grand. If you’re spending half a million dollars on your third home’s outdoor landscape, trust is the most important factor, not hey, can the guy down the street do it for 25 grand less.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, what are some things you can do to build that trust faster? I like the visual of sitting in their kitchen or living room with them and drawing out their plans. But what are some other things you can do that you’ve found build trust with clients of that type?
Philip Hussey: So, referrals are incredibly helpful. Bringing people to job sites that we’ve done – “Hey, do you want to hop in the truck with me and come down,” maybe it’s a mile down the road, maybe it’s 10 miles down the road. But, “Do you want to talk to Mr. Jones and hear about the pool we installed for him and the fireplace we installed for him, and you can chat with him.” Or we have a handful of clients that are happy to be referrals as well or serve as a source for us. So, we’ll give their phone number with their permission to somebody and say, “Yeah, well, call so and so and see how we did.” And not everybody is willing to do that. So that’s a big component. And then just being incredibly honest with the customer around timeline and expectations and not promising that we can get it done in June if our schedule doesn’t allow it until September. Basic pieces, but just expectation management.
Alex Bridgeman: Is there a- I imagine for folks who have this property as their, you mentioned, second, third, fourth, maybe fifth home, I imagine someone like that doesn’t want to spend a ton of time working on their third, fourth home and landscaping. But you also want to make sure you provide lots of service and they can communicate with you quickly and easily and that you’re in regular touch with them. Do you find that those are at odds at any particular time? Maybe they don’t want to spend a ton of time thinking about one of their properties, but good service from your end might require extra communication here and there. Are those at odds, or is that just in my head?
Philip Hussey: Not really. I mean, a lot of these- not a lot, some of the customers have property managers as well. So, they have people who take care of the granular details for them. So, we’ll let the property manager know we’re coming in to do the irrigation turn on, and we’re not going to bug said estate homeowner. But we have much smaller customers too. Much of those customers are the ideal customer. We do have smaller customers, but we’re picking up the phone and saying, “How are you doing? Happy Spring. We’re going to be over tomorrow for your irrigation turn on and mulch is going down next week, let me know if you have any problems.” And it’s less of a curated experience.
Alex Bridgeman: Gotcha. Okay, that makes sense. And with the we talked about digital in the rebrand context, but in terms of ongoing service with a client, how important is the digital side of that where they can have perhaps some portal they can log into and track progress and have invoices and whatnot? How important is that versus just the personal connection with having that dedicated account manager who perhaps could communicate that more effectively over the phone versus a digital side, or maybe they’re complementary?
Philip Hussey: I imagine they’d be complementary. We have an incredibly robust backend ERP system, I’d say best in class from a landscaping perspective. The front facing component of that ERP system, the customer facing, is not there yet. So, we do allow people to pay invoices through that. It is not seamless. It is not smooth. All of it goes, is pushed on to account managers or construction, our director of construction to manage that relationship through the end because once you- what we’re selling is relationships and service. And once you try and put up other sort of tech features in the way of that that is replacing that relationship, then we’re not- sure, we’re easy to use, but you’re not selling relationships anymore or trust. You’re saying, hey, you use this portal instead of talking to me. It’s like no, talk to me anytime, call me, whatever you need.
Alex Bridgeman: What does the recruiting program look like for finding a team that can deliver that kind of service to a higher end clientele base?
Philip Hussey: Yeah, great question. So, a couple of ways. We beat the drum really hard with our refer a friend program. Our management team walks around and in particular walks around on a daily basis in the morning from sort of team rolls in between 7 and 7:30. And I’m down there telling folks work is more fun with friends. And there’s a $1,000 referral bonus if you refer your friend. They have to stay with us for 90 days and then for 180 days; they’re paid out sort of 500 after the friend stayed for 90, the second 500 after 180 days. But really push to have people bring cousins, siblings, we’ve had uncles and nephews, neighbors, classmates, you name it, bring in people who they trust into the fold. They’re much more likely to stay and the barrier in that interview is higher. We find our current team of field employees provides that first layer of screening in that they don’t want to refer somebody who may wash out. So that has been a phenomenal tool, sort of just the organic friend referral program. The second way is Indeed, which I’m sure you hear all the time. Indeed is tough because they control, particularly I’d found in Cape Cod, they control the hiring market, and my guess is it’s elsewhere. But the more you spend, the more volume you get in candidates. You have to sponsor to get any meaningful sort of candidate volume through the door. And then it’s on our hiring managers to really focus on fit, on attitude, on scale, to get the right folks in the door. So those are the two main ways we work on the talent pipeline. We have a dedicated HR manager here. And we’re tracking our sort of headcount needs, which let’s say they start in March, we’re ramping up from 30 people all the way to mid June where we need 60, 70 people, and then it plateaus a little bit until we get into fall cleanups, and then it ramps back down. But we’re tracking labor, capacity needs pretty closely on a week over week basis.
Alex Bridgeman: Are there any- Once folks get into the top of funnel, let’s maybe use Indeed as an example, what are some things you look for to screen and find that first handful that you’ll with start interviewing and working with?
Philip Hussey: So in the market that we’re in right now, I wish I could say we were incredibly picky on who we’re bringing in for an interview. We’re eager to get individuals in for an interview and sort of see what they’re like, what they’re interested in, what their goals are. We’re willing to teach anybody landscaping, they just need to be committed. Because again, we’re in the service business. So, anybody can learn to garden or to mow or to lay brick. But you can’t learn to be respectful to Mrs. Jones or to have a good attitude when you show up. And that’s what we’re focused on. Obviously, the sort of top skills you have to hire- you either have to train or hire for, and we spend time internally focused on what people need to do to sort of get up that skills curve a couple different ways. The landscape community is relatively robust on Cape Cod. I like to think it’s the landscaping capital of the world given the density of high end markets here, but the tech schools are relatively supportive of the industry. And so, we had a couple individuals this winter, during the offseason, go through a landscape management certification program where they learned about design, they learned about best learning practices, they learned how to do estimates, they learned about hardscapes. And we support that. Individuals get promoted and raises when they come back, and it’s celebrated. And so, encouraging more sort of opportunities and supporting programs like that, allow us, instead of buying talent, allow us to build talent, which is critical. I think the other piece that I’d add, too, is we have this term, internal customers, and that’s what we call our field teams. And that’s a strict focus on making sure that the employee experience here is best in class from a landscaping experience on Cape Cod. So, our management team wants everybody to leave, even if they provide notice, they go back to school, they’ve taken another job, saying Outerland is the best place to work in Cape Cod because of how I’m treated, because of how I’m communicated with, because what the managers do for me. Easier said than done, and we’re by no means there, but we are working day in, day out on it. And it’s just doing the little things right, like cooking egg sandwiches, 85 egg sandwiches at six in the morning for folks, providing schedules in advance so people know that, hey, tomorrow’s a hard day, there’s 15 yards, mulch going down by hand. That’s a lot of work. So, you can sort of mentally prepare. Doing the little things right from our respect from a communication standpoint with the teams in the field go a long way in sort of professionalizing the industry.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I haven’t heard that concept explained that way, the concept, the key word, internal customer. Could you spend more time on that?
Philip Hussey: Yeah, I mean, we’re in the service business. So, our field crews are everything. And without them, we could have the best account managers, but if we cannot deliver on the services we’re providing, on cutting the lawn, on planting flowers, on weeding the garden, on mulching the beds, we’re going to lose every single day, and customers aren’t going to get what they paid for. So, our first job is to take care of our team. And if we take care of our team, then our team will take care of the customers. And so, whether it’s getting payroll right when folks are putting hours in, make sure those hours are correct because that’s step one of the basic bargain is that folks show up and clock in and we pay them. So, it’s sort of- and I know you’ve interviewed Palmer, one of the partners at Chenmark, he calls it stuff that doesn’t take any talent, take no talent skills. So those are take no talent management skills like getting time right. That’s, to me, the basic bargain. Providing uniforms, making sure equipment is organized, making sure the schedule is set ahead of time, making sure we’re not sending folks home because they don’t have- they only have half a day at work. That’s not fair. Our job is to provide plenty of sort of runway for folks. And the last piece is celebrating the wins. So, we have an all companywide Thursday morning meeting where we’ll talk about things people did really well, if people are identifying upsells in the field. I give out lottery tickets in the morning. There’s an employee of the week who gets an additional sort of cash bonus. We read complements that come in over the internet or phone or what have you. We also have sort of employee nominations. So, people are putting employee of the week nominations in a box, they’re nominating each other, and then we read those out in the morning to encourage and incentivize people to recognize outsized impact and talk about it. So again, constant work in progress. Because if you want to, again, we’re not there, but if you want to be the best, you’ve got to continue to sort of fight for it and earn the right to compete for talent in the same way you compete for customers.
Alex Bridgeman: What do you feel like you need to get better at in that regard? I love all those culture pieces. That’s pretty interesting.
Philip Hussey: So, the offseason is particularly difficult for seasonal businesses. When we are on- for the most of the business, construction excluded, we are on a March through December cadence. So, folks are laid off in the winter. Some may collect unemployment, some may take a part time job. Many of them work snow for us. And so, they’ll come on part time when it snows and work on an hourly basis, but depending on the year, that may not be much. So, we need to do a better job in providing sort of increasing or more meaningful learning opportunities and work opportunities in the winter. This year, we had a couple of training sessions. We ran a horticulture program sort of once a week where people can log in via Zoom and get sort of pruning training or horticulture training with our director of horticulture. We had a grant from the state of Massachusetts to put on an Ocean 10 training and a hoisting license training. But it’s a long winter. So, we need a lot more of those opportunities to make sure that we’re holding up our end of the bargain as far as committing to continuous learning for the team.
Alex Bridgeman: It’s interesting you mention or you are talking about doing snow removal. I think a lot of folks who want to get into landscaping and see the seasonality want to pair it with a business like snow removal to help offset some seasonality. In practice, that seems like a very difficult thing to do. But other similar businesses or things you can do in the offseason that dampen some of that expansion and contraction every year?
Philip Hussey: There’s a number of things people do. I don’t pretend that we do any of them well, but there are a number of opportunities for landscapers in the winter. One is just to keep a construction division running full time. You can put up, particularly in a sort of relatively mild climate like Cape Cod, because we stick out over the Atlantic Ocean, we get warm weather coming up from the Gulf Stream and have less snow than even Boston which is an hour west of us or Maine or Vermont or New Hampshire. We just get less snow because it’s warmer here from the Atlantic. And you can continue to do masonry work all winter. You put a tent up, you put heaters up, you can continue to build walls, you can continue to excavate if the ground doesn’t get rock solid. So that’s an option. There’s dormant and restorative pruning, vista pruning. And so that’s doing deep winter pruning or vegetation removal. Oftentimes, it’s to be able to see a view but also if folks are trying to get rid of stuff or do hard cutbacks to any plant material, winter is a great time to do it if it’s not snowing. So those are outdoors, outdoor related activities. Additional opportunities include holiday lighting or holiday decor line, so putting up garlands, wreaths, taking those down, taking the lights down, you can sort of have contracts and do that. Many landscaping companies do that really well. We have a small, very small handful of customers we do that for, definitely an expansion opportunity to try and extend the season. Other landscapers have an indoor plant division. If you have the clientele or if you’re by office parks or hospitals with sort of indoor plants, you could run an indoor plant care program as well. There’s opportunity there for us, probably a little harder given many of our customers aren’t here in the winter and there’s not a big tropical plant program in Cape Cod. But stuff like that, in addition to snow work provides opportunities for folks to keep your top talent going during the offseason.
Alex Bridgeman: Let’s dive into upsells more. In upselling any of these additional services to current customers, how do you go about doing that? Is there some systematic process with which current clients can hear about different services? Or is it more one to one and over the phone with their account manager? How does that work? Do you have a- What’s your process look like for upsells?
Philip Hussey: So, we push our account managers to talk to every customer at least once a month. We call it a customer touch point tracker. And so every single month, every customer needs a touch point, whether that’s a phone call, a text, an email, a site visit, anything to say hey, we see you, we hear you, we remember you, we’re thinking about you, if you need anything, please call. So that’s sort of base. And it often is enough for folks to say, “Oh, yeah, I need more seashells poured in my driveway,” or, “Oh, yeah, my planters I want revamped for July 4, can you do a new install of geraniums out back?” The sort of ideal approach is a full property walk or property inspection, where, and it may be happening once, maybe twice a season, where an account manager is walking around ideally with a customer and pointing out every single thing that we see opportunity for improvement. But the best way that starts is to sort of step back, ask the customer, pretend money’s no budget, money’s not a factor here. What would your vision for your outdoor space look like? And get them dreaming and imagining about the possibilities and help them sort of with that vision – have you thought about, have you considered? And then you can provide a full write up saying, hey, well, the walkway over here is 100% shade, it always has moss, can we put a mulch bed there? I noticed you’re missing two irrigation zones in this part of your garden. If we add drip irrigation in there, you’re going to see a better result from your plant material to hey, your patio is not level, why don’t we completely rip it up and put in an outdoor kitchen, so when your kids come down in the summer, you all can sit around the outdoor firepit and make pizza in the brick oven outside or whatever it may be. But providing those opportunities and thinking. Even if they’re never going to buy, it plants a seed of what it could look like. And then ideally, customers can’t unsee sort of the vision that they’ve come up with, and over time, you can work at providing sort of value in a space to them that they’re going to be happy with for as long as they’re in the home.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, it sounds like a lot of it is storytelling and painting a picture for them for what things could look like.
Philip Hussey: That’s certainly the goal. It doesn’t always happen as smooth. Often it is inbound. But when we’re doing it well, we are painting a full story, painting the full scope, and then they’re sort of selecting from a menu of options of what they want to do with their property.
Alex Bridgeman: What kind of companies do you admire? What companies do you study for high end customer service and the way they train or treat employees, their internal customers, and whatnot?
Philip Hussey: So a couple years ago when I first started at Chenmark as a GVP, I know you recently did an episode on the GVP program, Chenmark put a training on by the Ritz Carlton on customer service. And I was very new to Chenmark, but I thought it was a brilliant exercise. Because the way the Ritz treats its employees transcends down to how Ritz employees, I believe it’s ladies and gentlemen is what the Ritz Carlton refers to their employees as. They call them ladies and gentlemen. And the way they treat them transcends down to the customer level. And one particular anecdote from that experience that I remember is the Ritz has a program called Legendary Wows. And their goal is to provide legendary wows to their customers. And it means remembering the little things in their customer profile so that when that person walks in, they let them know that the New York Times is already- they like the New York Times, not the Boston Globe, so it’s the New York Times, and that’s already on their bed upstairs with a cup of ginger tea because they know they just got off a flight from Hong Kong. So that sort of level of detail is the Legendary Wows they’re talking about. But in addition to that, they provide all the employees I believe it’s $500 that they can spend at any time, at their discretion to improve a customer’s experience. And that’s up to the ladies and gentlemen of the Ritz Carlton, meaning somebody serving lunch, picking up the towels, checking somebody in, to just enhance that experience. So, I thought that was just an incredibly thoughtful way to think not only about the external customer approach, but the internal customer approach as well, saying, hey, what do we need to do to provide legendary wows for our own internal customers going the extra mile, so people say, “Holy cow, I can’t believe my manager did that for me.” Or the customer says, “Holy cow, I can’t believe that the day before the Fourth of July, you brought steaks by because you knew my son was coming down, and you wanted to make sure they had steaks.” So that’s the type of culture, the type of environment that we aspire to be. So long answer but the Ritz is top notch from a customer service perspective.
Alex Bridgeman: I love that $500 a month spending to improve someone’s experience. That’s brilliant.
Philip Hussey: I found it super cool and empowering to any employee. And I’d love to get something like that in place here. Not there yet, but that’s the goal because it provides everybody the opportunity to be involved in the customer experience versus somebody selling, somebody delivering, and you feel like you’re sort of not- you’re not involved in the end product from soup to nuts.
Alex Bridgeman: It’s interesting as a framing too because it says you- by giving employees that $500 every month, you’re telling them that they do have a big impact and can have a big impact on a customer’s experience and that, like you mentioned, the empowerment of that $500 can be powerful.
Philip Hussey: And I think a good example, I just remembered another one, a good example from this session, and forgive me if my details are slightly off, but a child forgot their favorite stuffy, stuffed animal at a Ritz Carlton. And when they got home, their parents called and said, “Hey,” I forget what it was, “my child forgot Pooh Bear. We think it was by the pool. Do you mind finding him and sending Pooh Bear to us?” The hotel manager could have found Pooh Bear, stuck it in a box, shipped him home. Instead of doing that, the hotel manager took Pooh Bear to all different places around the hotel, took photos of Pooh Bear in the kitchen, by the pool, at the bar, in the gym, in the office, behind the desk, printed out the photos, sent them in the box with Pooh Bear back to the child and with a note saying, “Sorry for being late, while you were traveling home I was learning more about Ritz Carlton or having fun with the team I met,” something to that effect. That’s a wow. You’ll go back to the Ritz Carlton, you’ll thank them. You don’t care about the price, you care about the experience. And to me that’s stuck with me.
Alex Bridgeman: That’s a phenomenal anecdote. I love that. And also creative. I was trying to think as you’re telling, like, oh, maybe they bought more stuffed animals or something. But that’s some next level of creativity.
Philip Hussey: Yeah, I was just incredibly blown away by the level of care that went into the experience. And that’s the type of business we want to be.
Alex Bridgeman: What other kind of fun ideas have you come across in other businesses, like kind of under the radar or oddball, not oddball, but just like random ideas here and there for things you can do to have a better customer experience?
Philip Hussey: So I mean, to me, it all comes back to the employee experience. Because again, if you can take care of the employees, they’ll take care, they’ll go out of their way to take care of the customer. So providing, in our case, the account managers the autonomy to do the little things right, like hey, if you want send somebody a Christmas wreath, just do it. And we did that last year, we said, hey, there’s 100- I ordered 100 wreaths to the garage, show up at any customer that you think is a home or account manager that you think is home, bring them a Christmas wreath, or not account manager, any property manager, bring them a Christmas wreath. So, trying to provide opportunities to do the little touch points right is critical. But you have to be thoughtful in making sure you carve out the space to have those little opportunities. So, like just ordering the Christmas wreaths and having faith that it’s going to pay off in the long run. It’s hard to sort of do a margin analysis on should we spend five grand on Christmas wreaths, and what’s the payback? I have no idea. I think it’s a nice touch. We’ll see if it compounds with sort of other little nice touches over time.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, it seems like a really hard thing to measure. Like if your referral volume increased, or you tracked all the wreaths you sent out, and then if referrals from those customers increased or not. It does seem like a very fuzzy, challenging thing to measure the effect of. You probably know it’s good, but just it’s hard to put data behind it.
Philip Hussey: Exactly. And I think that’s one of the hardest parts and one of the reasons why those touch points are often forgotten, especially by folks that come in with sort of deep finance backgrounds. It’s hard to focus on something that you can’t see the output on what’s the multiple on a Christmas wreath? I don’t know. I don’t know. So, it’s hard to manage that. Same thing on the employee side. Like if you give everyone a turkey at Thanksgiving, what does that get you? I don’t know. Should you do it? Should you not do it? So those are little touch points that I think add up over time.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I think Richard Reese talked about at Iron Mountain giving turkeys to every employee at Christmas and how that was a huge cultural component to them. And I think he pondered getting rid of it, and there’s understandably an uproar with that.
Philip Hussey: I grew up in a family manufacturing business in Southern Maine with 250, 300 employees, and they always gave up turkeys every single Christmas, and even retirees could come back and pick up their turkey once a year. And it provides an incredible sense of community and care that people bring back to their families, which ties the employee experience together when you can sort of sync up both of them. I think two more anecdotes around those little touch points. I got this from one of the other Chenmark CEOs. But when team members have a baby, providing a company branded onesie to that individual is a really cool opportunity to bring the family into the fold. So, when one of our top gardeners just had a baby or his wife had a baby, we presented a onesie that said “Future Gardener” to him, or our production manager had one last year and we provided a onesie to him at the holiday party. I thought it’s a brilliant way to let people know you’re thinking about them and their family beyond sort of the dollars and cents component. I thought, yeah, it’s little things that matter. And I think, I forget who told me this one. But this company that provides, I think it was Chipotle. Every Friday, every employee got essentially a gift card for dinner for a family of four to Chipotle. So employees could go home at night and buy their family dinner from Chipotle. Again, awesome way to bring the family into the picture that’s worth well more than the $50 Chipotle dinner per employee. It becomes a family tradition. So, we don’t do that. I’d love to be able to do something like that as well. I want to include more people’s entire lives around the experience that we want to be Outerland.
Alex Bridgeman: What experiences or do you personally have any notable memories or experiences where some company you were working with or a hotel you went to or an airline you took went out of their way for you and your wife and family?
Philip Hussey: Good question. So Chenmark is pretty thoughtful of when my wife and I got engaged. Next thing you know, James and Trish are showing up at the door with a bottle of champagne, which is very nice and it’s unexpected. And I think it goes to show people you care, which is nice. It’s the little things matter more than people think and knowing that people care about the people they work with goes so far because everyone wants to be cared for at our core.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I agree. What have I not asked you about delighting employees or delighting customers that we should talk about?
Philip Hussey: Oh, that’s tough. Yeah, what I push on our management team is, forgive my French, but to give a damn. Just go the extra mile so that when somebody’s not having a good day, ask why, spend the time to understand somebody’s situation. So yeah, someone may be showing up late every single day, but we may not know that they’re taking care of their mother who’s going through chemotherapy. Or we may not know that somebody’s spouse just left them last minute. So, spend the time to understand why people are acting or behaving in certain ways so that we can be part of the solution to make at least the component of their life when they’re here at work a little less stressful and being able to provide creative solutions to those problems. It’s pretty easy to get focused and dialed in on our individual goals. Hours is our key metric here. So hey, if Joe is late every single day, I’m not going to hit my hours goal. I’m not going to have the hours for the week if I’m the manager. But if you just continue to chastise Joe for being late, you’ll probably lose him as a team member, instead of saying, “Hey, Joe, what can we work on as a plan to help get you here on time?” and understanding any human elements that exist in nearly everyone’s life.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, the empathy piece is a huge skill to develop and really, really important and I feel like it’s something I’ve gotten better at too, realizing that if somebody is upset around me or with me or just something’s off, it’s rarely ever something that I did. It’s usually something that is going on in their life or their day, and taking an extra few minutes to figure out what that is I found goes a long way.
Philip Hussey: Yeah, just like little check ins – hey, how you doing? You need anything? That’s sometimes all it takes. And I guess the last piece that we tried to do here to some extent on the legendary wow component with the employees, last year, division managers had I think it was 1000 bucks, it was a small budget, but hey, at one point, do something for your team, I don’t care what; it’s at your discretion. But do it when you think you can just blow somebody’s mind that you did something for them. And one was, I know someone got a $250 grocery gift card. They sort of were in a tough spot and their manager showed up with $250 to a local grocery store. Our construction manager took 10 guys to a concert, a local concert unplanned. So those little things create great unity and some staying power.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, no kidding. Moving to closing questions. What strongly held belief have you changed your mind on?
Philip Hussey: So this one actually relates to Chenmark and sort of my trajectory in my career. I don’t have a finance background. I say I went to business school to learn how to use Excel and to find it on the computer. I’m glad I can find it on the computer now. It’s the green icon at the bottom of the screen. But I am by no means a financial guru or an Excel wonk. And I, for the longest time including in business school, was convinced that to sort of sit in a CEO seat, I would need an exponential increase in financial acumen and modeling to succeed, to ever get here. And I’ve found that by just essentially asking for a lot of help and being transparent about what I don’t know, it’s possible to still sort of navigate the business world without being this financial whiz. Which a couple years ago, I’d say there’s no way that I’m sitting where I am today. I would have said, yeah, right, forget about it.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I agree. Being a financial whiz is not required for being an effective CEO from my experience either or chatting with others.
Philip Hussey: I think the effective piece is still- who knows. That’s in the balance still. But being able to sort of be involved with the team is a fun process.
Alex Bridgeman: Yeah, I agree. What’s the best business you’ve ever seen?
Philip Hussey: So, I’m going to stay local on this one. I’m a sucker for local businesses. This is a Maine business. It’s a Maine family business, Hancock Lumber. It’s sort of a seventh generation, 175 year old lumber business that has both lumber mills and retail stores. And a lot of- I was lucky enough to have been able to meet the current CEO and I guess he’s a sixth generation CEO, Kevin Hancock, a number of times and gotten to know him. And he’s really informed much of my thinking on what it means to lead an employee centric culture. And they’re consistently ranked one of the best places to work in the state of Maine. They have like 98% of retention, almost nobody leaves. They were able to stay open during the entire pandemic, operating safely. And what I’ve learned from Kevin is that as an employer or as a leader at any business, your job is to make work a meaningful place to spend your time because you spend like the majority of your waking hours there. And he’s been able to do that with a company that has 550 employees, $150 or $200 million in revenue at scale, and have this pretty dynamic brand across the state. And so, for me, that’s the Legendary Wow, the ultimate Legendary Wow, to bring it back to that. So, nothing hip, nothing high tech, but a lumber company in the state of Maine that turns what inventory every like 60 years or something like that when they’re cutting down trees.
Alex Bridgeman: Any special anecdotes from them that you think about a lot or are trying to emulate one day with Outerland?
Philip Hussey: So, there’s this quote that, it’s right on their website. But it goes back to that meaningful place. And they say, “Our mission is to create a work environment that first and foremost recognizes employees as human beings and ultimately improves the lives of anyone who works at the organization.” And to me, that’s what we want to be able to do is improve the lives of the people who work here. Because if we take care of the employees, the employees will take care of the business and that’s why we’ll continue to spin forever. So that idea of taking care of each other is something that I admire the Hancock family a lot for being able to deliver on overtime.
Alex Bridgeman: It seems like with being 175 years old, that kind of culture and flywheel has had staying power through multiple CEOs. Do you think that’s- how long does that culture decay if the wrong CEO is at the helm? Like what do you think the half life is for that culture if something goes wrong and you have to course correct?
Philip Hussey: Yeah, fair question. I don’t know. I guess nowhere close to 175 year mark. My assumption or thought, as it relates here to Outerland, is to make sure there are systems and processes and opportunities in place so that culture isn’t driven by one individual, but rather by the collective. And so little pieces, and again, I don’t know if this will work, but little pieces like making sure that there are those $1,000 Legendary Wow opportunities for managers to just do and that’s in the budget. Or there’s a shift, and again, don’t know if it will work, but instead of employees or team members, internal customers, if you’re always calling them that, hopefully, at least in some sense of the word, there’s a focus on, hey, these are customers. But jury’s out on Outerland 175 years from now.
Alex Bridgeman: I’m sure it’ll get there. Thank you so much, Philip, for sharing a little bit of your time. I really enjoyed getting to chat today. Love the concept of internal customers and diving into that more.
Philip Hussey: Yeah, thanks a lot, Alex. It was great. So great to chat with you.