December 1, 2020
Sandy Roberton
Sandy Roberton

The training train

SANDY ROBERTON, retired from operating Earthcraft Landscape in Bedford, N.S., has spent his career pushing for educational and certification opportunities in the profession he loves, landscape horticulture.

Do students coming into horticulture grasp how much opportunity there is?

No, I feel those pursuing a future in the horticultural industry, specifically landscaping, in the schools do not actually know who we are. Career counselors are not familiar with our industry. It is incumbent on the associations to go into the schools and tell our story through counselors, or by making presentations.

Earthcraft helped with a local government initiative, funded by Dragons Den, for a student market vegetable garden.

How can business owners help expand training opportunities?

Start within your own company by accessing programs from educational institutions for training staff. Set appropriate standards for both theory and practical skills.

Why do contractors fail?

Contractors set themselves up for failure when they lack knowledge. Some may have business knowledge, but they don’t understand soils, plants or drainage. Insufficient cash is also a big problem; it takes time to build a base. They sometimes lack the ability to create landscapes that suit a customer’s wishes and are also well crafted and consider the environment. Professional advice has to fit. Customers are becoming more careful with their spending, so the sales environment is changing. The greater the passion, the better the results. One should never compromise a project because of a contractor’s error in bidding. The unforeseens can affect the cost of the job; this should be discussed before the client signs.  

What makes you worry about your profession?

The contracting environment is changing, not necessarily for the better. I see customers getting excited about hardscapes which are now more dominant, but we have lost the balance between soft and hard. Now we see 50- by 30-ft. yards that are all patio with a pool. Where is the greenscape? The softscape makes the hardscapes look complete.

I am also worried our industry has yet to solve the seasonality problem. We should shoulder responsibility for charging the right prices that will allow us to retain employees year-round, offering a career path. We need to push to legalize banking hours; we should encourage government to take another look by showing the benefits. E.I. is a serious problem. I am excited about a government program, an alternative to E.I., where both contractors and government invest in employees. This idea could pay back tenfold.

Who have you looked to for leadership?

Grant Mosher of Terra Nova Landscaping encouraged me to join LNS. Jeff Morton of Truro Ag College was a great source of industry knowledge, he even helped me train employees. I never hesitated to ask my peers for advice. If I ever had a technical problem with walls or patios, I could always go to Joe Price. He was of tremendous benefits to many jobs I did. Christene LeVatte and David Stenhouse of Cape Breton are always ready to help. She followed me onto the CNLA board — what a legacy she has built. Two other incredible, proactive people are Chris Andrews and Victor Santacruz of CNLA. I also benefitted a great deal from my relationships with Bob Osborne and Jack Wetmore.

What did you enjoy most about operating a landscape business?

I always enjoy walking a property with a customer after a project is completed, that gave them what they hoped for, while enhancing the environmental benefits at the same time. It’s all about delivering on expectations. We were onto the environment before it was cool; 15 years ago, we convinced customers to send rain runoff into a tank to feed water features and irrigation. Permeable paving and taking advantage of greywater are the next big things.

How do you handle difficult customers?

I found you can turn bad situations around by actually listening. One customer was a bit of a dictator and started telling our staff where to relocate plants. Our head gardener was a real plants lady, she lived for plants, and she knew what she was doing. The conflict led to the customer sending us a three-page lawyer letter. I explained to him that he has place his trust with me and my staff. We do know what we are doing, and that is why you hired us. If you have issues, you must address them with me. As contractors, we have to listen, answer the objections, and then explain that we are the professionals.  
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