July 15, 2010
Tony DiGiovanni CHT
LO Executive Director

One of the central problems of our industry is the lack of public image and awareness. Even though we work in a wonderful and growing sector that enhances lives and generates economic, environmental, social, therapeutic, recreational, emotional, spiritual and legacy benefits, we are in many ways still invisible. Perhaps we are too humble in telling our remarkable
success story.   

One manifestation of this was revealed recently in Ottawa. Algonquin College is considering shutting down its horticulture program. The committee responsible for the program review did not have a clue about the value of our sector to the community. The committee members were surprised to learn we are an industry of 20,000 small businesses, employing over 132,000 individuals (as a comparison Chrysler Canada, employing 5,000) and generating over $14-billion in economic benefits.     

This lack of industry knowledge manifests itself in many negative ways. It is one of the reasons why people will pay $10 for a glass of good wine, yet think twice about buying a $200 tree that will last many generations and will return huge economic and environmental benefits. This is also the reason that people will pay $80 per hour for a plumber, yet balk at paying over $20 for a landscape professional.

Raising public awareness (telling our story) is central to the continual advancement of the horticultural industry. This is the main reason Landscape Ontario started the Green for Life campaign. This is also why we invested in a new public website, dedicated resources to support full-time public relations, participate in Canada Blooms and many other community events
and projects.   

All of us contribute to raise awareness for the benefits of our industry every time we communicate with our clients, produce quality work and generate goodwill through our service-oriented ethic. We still have a long way to go.   

A perennial comment I hear from members is that fly-by-nighters and “trunk-slammers” ruin our image by performing shoddy work and mistreating clients. “Anyone with a truck, shovel and wheelbarrow can call themselves a landscaper,” they say.

Humble beginnings

The lack of barriers-to-entry into our industry is blamed for this situation. However, this low barrier has also been positive for many of our most successful, competent and professional members. Gerald Boot started his company going door-to-door. Tim van Stralen started Sunshine Grounds with a beat up, oil-dripping lawnmower. The Pepetones started Terra and Holland Park selling a few plants from a store-front grocery store. Many of you started from the same humble circumstances. It is not the barrier-to-entry that is necessarily causing the image problem (although it contributes), it is substandard work, uncaring attitudes and unprofessional behaviour.  

One of the reasons Landscape Ontario exists is to set apart those who believe in building a professional, ethical, recognized and valued industry. In order to join, candidates must be full-time in business for at least three years. They must receive the recommendation of two sponsors, agree to uphold a professional code of practice and comply with WSIB and insurance requirements. The Awards of Excellence program, Canada Blooms, Contractor Rating System and public/media relations program are aimed at differentiating members. Is this enough?  

Support certification

We also support certification and accreditation to provide additional tools for differentiation. Is certification or membership a guarantee that the public will receive good work? Should our certification process be more comprehensive? I am reminded of the Mike Holmes comment, “Good contractors know what they are doing and care.” Perhaps our future accreditation should include a peer and customer review process. Perhaps we should develop a 360 degree evaluation for horticultural businesses.  

In England, the garden centre association employs a consultant (Eve Tigwell) to audit garden centres, based on a variety of criteria. She then issues a rating and provides a report that is used by the company to improve its operations. It is like a comprehensive employee evaluation for the business. Ms. Tigwell is currently offering her services to Canadian garden centres. At his request, she is auditing LO president Tom Intven’s company this month.      

Last year first vice president Tim Kearney introduced the concept of company accreditation. The board asked Tim to chair a committee to explore this concept. The contractors and grounds maintenance groups feel it is a good idea, as long as the process is accessible and relevant to any size operation. It must not be elitist. Accredited companies must be willing to mentor others that are early in the development journey.  

Is it time for a new company accreditation process that identifies and reflects a model for proficiency, professionalism and public trust? If so, what does this accreditation process look like? How can we avoid elitism, while at the same time differentiating companies that have achieved high levels? How do we design a process that assists companies at various stages in their journey to aspire to greater accomplishments?   

Tim Kearney and I would love to hear your views, even if they are contrary. Please email Tim at timkearney@gcottawa.com, or me at tony@landscapeontario.com.   

Improving our image is something that you do on a daily basis. Accreditation may help. 
Tony DiGiovanni may be reached at tonydigiovanni@landscapeontario.com.