A few weeks ago, one of our Launch reps came up to me and said, "Hey, we just signed up an all-female landscaping company."
My reaction was - No way. There's no way that company exists.
So I asked her, "You're sure they're all women?"
Her: "Yep, just talked to the owner. She said they're an entire female crew."
Me: "And they do LANDSCAPING? There's no way. Where are they getting employees?"
Her: "I've got her contact information if you want to ask her yourself."
So that's what I did - I emailed Eva Montane, owner of the Durango, Colorado-based Columbine Landscapes and asked her if she was willing to take some time out of her busy schedule for an interview.
I thought this interview would be an interesting insight into the world of Women in Landscaping - and not much more.
Instead, I learned a powerful business lesson - one that might help other business owners LEAP over the obstacles holding them back . . .
Eva Montane describes her Landscaping Company as "Fine Perennial Maintenance." In other words, she says, it's Landscape Gardening - which includes designing and maintaining flowerbeds, handling mulch, and a kind of sustainable gardening called 'xeriscaping.' They do delicate, detail-oriented, and demanding work.
One of my first questions was the one everyone at the office wanted to know:
So do you intentionally hire only women? Is that part of your business model or ... how the heck does that happen?
Eva Montane: "Columbine Landscapes was started in 1997 by a woman and she just sold it to me last year*. She [the previous owner] only liked to hire women because she tried, many times, to hire men, and it usually didn't work out because - according to her - they step on flowers. She also said they tend to want to be paid more, and the business just isn't structured in a way to make that work out.
(*Eva is not a first-time business owner. She's been in the landscaping business for more than a decade, but this is her first foray into owning a business of this size.)
"Anyway, I bought the business last year  and I decided, 'I'm not cool with that!' I believe men can be great gardeners. My Mentor [Panayoti Kelaidis] is a man, and he's the Senior Curator at Denver Botanic Gardens.
"I decided to try hiring men last year, and, ultimately, they all left for one reason or another. Only one stayed until the end of the season, and I didn't hire him until August.
"At the moment I have all women again and I'm feeling good about it!"
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As it turned out, some of the men simply weren't cut out for the job. Others were already thinking of leaving Durango, or had other commitments crop up, and for one reason or another - Eva found herself in charge of an landscaping company with only women on the payroll.
I want to know - are there other companies like yours - or are you an outlier?
Eva: "There are other companies in Durango who predominantly, if not exclusively, employed women in the past - and they likely still do. I don't know. Maybe it's a local culture kind of thing.
Eva went on to explain how men seem to be more attracted to the idea of harder physical work. They seem to want to see their work definitively, and, according to Eva, "deadheading flowers might not be as satisfying to them."
Her company suffers the same problem other maintenance companies have (Cleaning and Lawn Care specialists might have heard this before): "A lot of our clients honestly can't tell what we've done, because we keep it looking great. We've actually had clients cancel because they can't tell what we do, and then they watch the weeds grow and the flowers turn brown, and all kinds of stuff like that."
Do they usually call you back up and beg for you to come back?
Eva (Laughing): Yeah, pretty much.
Hiring: the Eternal Struggle for ALL Landscape Owners.
Eva especially has to deal with this problem, because most of her employees are just out of college, which means they're more likely to pick up and leave town. So I asked her where she finds all of these women who are so excited to work outdoors? What is hiring like for Columbine Landscapes?
Eva: "Well, I advertise on Craigslist. I think, being a seasonal job, I think it's a good entry-level job for young people who don't really know what they want to be doing, but they love to be outside, they love nature. In Durango, we have a great climate. A lot of people think [this job] is fun, and it's great for people who don't really know what they're doing yet.
"The consequence of that is I have to hire a lot from year to year.
"Now, I'm doing a lot of cool stuff; I'm offering incentives to keep people coming back."
Eva: "I'm offering a simple IRA - a matching kind of thing. They're only eligible when they've made $5000 their first and second years. Then they can start paying into it. I also do pretty aggressive raises to keep the good people coming back. I'm reading this really amazing book, the Three Laws of Performance, and I'm also taking some courses on how to make your team work better together, and to create a really solid work environment, where people can care, and be authentic, and do things that are meaningful to them.
"I want them to gain something from [working at Columbine Landscapes] - more than just a paycheck."
Eva has more hiring tricks up her sleeve. One in particular has seen great success this year. She learned this from a consultant firm called Landscape Leadership:
Eva: "I looked at [Landscape Leadership] randomly this winter, and I was reading about Inbound Marketing. You should have an employment form on your website, where they can just apply online. I did that, and it has simplified my life so much.
"I get an email showing their answers to the questions, and I have an auto-responder that tells them, if we're interested, we'll ask them for their resume within a week.
"Now, I just put a link to that form in my craigslist ads, and it's been really helpful."
I was hesitant to ask this next question. It's a sensitive subject for some individuals, but Eva was very open and made this whole conversation very easy on me. I asked her if there were any problems working with only women - or if there were problems with mixing men and women together on her crews.
Eva: "No, no problem. Men and women make decisions differently.
"The very first job I had doing anything related to plants at all was during my junior summer of college and I worked on an all-women's organic farm in Ohio. We worked in a certain way together. We worked collaboratively; we talked about the most efficient way to do something.
The next time I worked on an organic farm, there were men there, too. It was really interesting to see how men and women do things differently.
"The men just do it. The women talk about the best way to do it. There are pros and cons to both!"
"For this particular line of work, women work really well - but I wouldn't try to say that women are better workers for a lawn care company or anything like that."
Of course, it's all talk, until you get to the numbers. I had to ask Eva the age old question, "How's business?"
Eva: "[Before I bought it,] the whole business was tailored to who [the previous owner] was as a person. She would work until nine every night, and it was tough on her personal life.
"I demand more balance from my life. I can work about 13 hours [a day] before I just go blank. A lot of what I've been working toward - and Service Autopilot is amazing for this to be able to happen! - is to have more things on autopilot, so I don't have to be married to the business, and work myself to the bone.
"It's a lot of re-tailoring: people left, people moved, and I'm winding up with no returning employees this year.
"It was terrifying at first, and now I'm seeing it as an amazing opportunity to create what I want with this business.
"To answer your question: I WAY exceeded my projections for last year, financially. So, all in all, it's working out, despite the challenges."
From our interview, it became clear to me that I had been dead wrong about women in landscaping. Not only can they do it, they're pretty great at it - and some of these outstanding women, like Eva, love the work they do.
But there was One Important Lesson buried in my Interview with Eva:
This was a critical lesson on hiring, and for business as a whole. Allow your beliefs to be challenged, especially if you are struggling with a bottleneck in your business. If hiring is your biggest pain point, you're only hurting yourself by ignoring half of the population.
Look at who you are hiring. Then, think about who you are NOT hiring - and why.
"Don't be afraid to change the way you think."