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Summer 2005

Landscaper Roger Cook: Things I Have Learned Along the Way

Training Our Replacements

The outlook is bright, but we still have a lot to do.

Roger Cook

Roger Cook regularly appears on “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House” television programs. He owns K&R Tree and Landscape Co., Burlington, Mass.

We always seem to worry about the next generation. Are our kids going to work as hard as we do? Will they want to do the same jobs we did? If not, who’s going to take over when we’re retired and gone?

Well, I’m here to tell you that when it comes to landscape construction, I’m encouraged for a lot of reasons. I recently went to the University of Maryland for a student event—Student Career Days—sponsored by the Professional Lawn Care Network (PLANET). This group is the result of a merger between the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) and the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA). Bobcat Company hosted a “technical presentation,” and asked me to speak to university and trade school students about what I studied in college, how I got started in the business, and some of my general philosophies about owning a company in the landscape trade—many of the same topics I cover in these columns.

About 130 people crammed into the room, and I was told another 40 outside couldn’t fit. I was shocked to see so many students interested in what I had to say—which isn’t rocket science. It’s just what I do every day. I’ve made some mistakes and I’ve learned from them. If my stories can help some of these kids enter the working world successfully, then I’m pleased.

Things have changed a lot since I was in school. Landscaping used to be like “shop.” The kids that couldn’t do anything else gravitated toward something where they could get their hands dirty. Now schools all over the country are offering programs that take things to the next level—the programs are serious, the professors are high-caliber, and students are eager to learn everything they can. This event itself is in its 29th year!

Just look at the computer skills these newcomers have. They’re sending quotes and photos over the Internet—things us old timers didn’t see. They have the ability to change the perception of our business (the perception is that everyone drives around in a beat-up pickup truck). They have so much more knowledge than we ever had getting started. These individuals are educated. They learn about sales, estimating and equipment safety. They’re coming in with eyes wide open.

They’re also learning that owning your own business is not as simple as it seems. And that landscaping is a real business. It’s all about being involved with people and important decisions. It’s the same premise as any major corporation, just on a smaller scale.

Roger Cook

Roger Cook met with students at the University of Maryland.

I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised to see that we can all help, even though school programs are so much better than they were. Sometimes we don’t know it, but we have hoards of valuable information we can share with people beyond the books. Real-life, hands-on experience cannot always be “taught.” It’s good for old timers to connect with the group coming up. So get involved whenever and however you can. I’m sure your knowledge and experience is valuable. You’ll also be pleased to see how things have progressed since you started in the business, even if it was just a few years ago.

We covered a lot of topics at the student event. And the kids and professors had some great questions:

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: That my “office” changes every two or three weeks. We finish a job and go to the next one, and I have a whole new view.

Q: What characteristics should a person wanting to own their own business have?

A: I look at a business as having generals, sergeants, and soldiers. First, everyone needs to learn to be a good soldier. If you don’t first learn how to do things right, you won’t be able to teach others later. Then, you have to have passion. Life is too short to do something day in and day out that you don’t enjoy doing.

Q: What legacy would you like to leave?

A: That I’m as real as I am on TV. We all are. The other guys have businesses just like I do. What you see is what you get. That’s my crew. That’s my equipment. I like to jump in and get my hands dirty on any job I’m on.

These students are intelligent. Best of all, they’re passionate. I could feel it in the room. The president of PLANET, Dan Foley, is a good friend of mine. He should be proud of this event and he should be encouraged by the next generation of landscapers coming up. I am. We all should be.