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Family Matters: Ground Control Case Study

A Landscaping Business Flourishes in the U.K.

Picture of commercial landscaping

An award-winning landscaping company embraces stewardship governance by creating a unique culture of employee ownership and responsibility, inspiring staff to work toward common goals of outstanding customer service, teamwork and growth.

As a young girl, Kim Brown Morrish watched her grandfather and father demonstrate a commitment to both customers and their community through her grandparents’ company, L.L. Brown Insurance, founded in 1927. With values rooted in customer service, choice, independence and community, the family business made a lasting impression on Kim as she pursued her personal passion to become an entrepreneur.

Today, Kim and her husband Simon are proud majority owners of Ground Control, the U.K.’s largest landscaping business with over $182 million in annual revenue, 1,100 employees and 5,000 tied subcontractors/field teams, supporting over 45,000 commercial sites and offering 15 unique services. Fourteen years ago, the Morrishes forged a path that would radically transform their new family-owned business to make Ground Control what it is today.

Collective accountability and a shared vision fostered a new climate.

Founded in 1973, Ground Control was initially a single-owner company with the goal of personal independence and wealth. While known for outstanding customer service and delivery, the company was lacking investment in new business systems and offered limited training and employee development. Ground Control was ripe for transformation. Acquired by the Morrishes (majority) and the existing directors in 2004, the company had only three clients and 40 subcontractors, and a primary focus on grounds maintenance – cutting grass. Kim recalls that their acquisition was an opportunity “to transform Ground Control into a strong family-owned business built on exemplary customer service, internal employee investment and strategic innovation.”

SHARED VISION AND SUCCESS

In 2004, after the buy-in management buy-out, the Morrishes continued to work with the founder and original four directors. While retaining their sector-specific expertise, the company embraced new leadership, vision, strategy, execution, and most importantly, a new company culture. The most immediate change was to instill the notion of individual ownership and collective responsibility. This structure and philosophy are based on meritocracy, empowerment, heavy investment in people and employee equity participation.

Kim revealed that the founder and directors received shares based on their investment, the Morrishes buying management buy-out resulted in 25 percent of the equity remaining with the founder, 20 percent purchased by the leadership team and 55 percent purchased by the Morrishes. The current executive team owns 30 percent of the business, while the Morrishes control 70 percent of the shares. Similarly, every employee receives share options and can invest in buying additional shares. In their own words, the Morrishes consider themselves a “modern family business.”

“In addition to financial participation, we made large investments in our people,” said Kim. “We want to attract and develop phenomenal leaders.” With a newfound focus on the internal stewardship of their employees, Ground Control invested heavily in leadership training for all high potential leaders by supporting Executive MBA programs at Harvard, Warwick, Henley and Cranfield Universities, encouraging a wide array of accredited courses for all employees through “University of Ground Control,” customized one-on-one professional coaching and, most recently, a new in-house “Leadership Academy” for next generation executives. 

Ground Control solidified its commitment to not only its customer base, but its greatest asset — its employees.

They also built — and continue to build — strong personal relationships. “Our employees are on a journey together with us. We trust that they will make sound decisions along the way and they trust that we will do the same,” she says. New people come in and quickly acquire that sense of trust and the shared culture that defines the company.

Kim is always looking for talent, with the attitude that they can’t run the business without it; whatever the size or structure of the business, when you talk about culture, it’s about the people. Even with tremendous systems, you need the right people.

EXPANDING THE BRAND AND SERVICE PLATFORM THROUGH INNOVATION

The new management team decided to diversify into different sectors and services such as landscape design and build, winter maintenance and snow clearance, fencing, vegetation management for rail and electric power utilities, arboriculture, ecology and roofing. By expanding beyond cutting grass, Ground Control has widened its client base and focuses on predictable and steady income streams. Diversified services to a wide array of blue-chip clients has created exciting employment opportunities and strong partnerships and investments in their entrepreneurial subcontractor workforce.

Upon acquisition, Simon spearheaded the development of state-of-the-art technology to separate the business from the competition. They unveiled a new software suite to help customers manage their services, operations, and outdoor assets and access a dashboard to retrieve key service information and view mobile workforce schedules. The TotalView mapping system is based on GIS technologies and includes a comprehensive, readily accessible and site-specific graphical database, helping both customers and Ground Control reduce operational costs and increase efficiency. It optimizes route planning and execution, reducing “dead” travel time and inefficient routes between sites.

Next, Ground Control began to pursue long-term strategic partnerships with blue-chip national clients with diverse property portfolios throughout the U.K. The company currently maintains tens of thousands of sites in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Since 2005, one year after the buy-out, Ground Control acquired Manor Fencing and Moray Landscapes in Scotland to provide in-house expertise for fencing and winter maintenance. Five years later in 2010, Kim and Simon saw an opportunity to enter the public sector domain and acquired Vale Contract Services, already serving public housing, education and emergency services. In all acquisitions, the Morrishes retained the former owners and management teams, and continue to work side by side.

Ground Control continued to expand services into landscape design and build, winter maintenance and snow clearance, arboriculture, ecology, vegetation management, roofing and pot hole repair with strategic acquisitions in 2012, 2016 and 2018. It has become the full, one-stop solution to its customers’ external property needs. The continued dedication to superior customer service and transparent service delivery has produced a consistent client retention rate of 99.2 percent, with a compound annual growth rate of over 25 percent. 

CULTURE IS KEY

The Morrishes attribute the company’s success to its culture. Ground Control defines its culture by equity participation, teamwork, relentless customer focus, integrity, and doing things smarter, cheaper, faster and better. They put their people at the center of everything they do.

Ground Control has committed to a culture of developing people and strongly encourages continued enrichment and education. From sending employees to global executive MBA courses, to participating in year-long management training programs, professional development allows their leaders to acquire the skills, communication techniques and acumen for thriving in their jobs at Ground Control.

“You have to invest in people,” Kim observes.

An empowered and appreciated employee will honor the customer and will reduce not only staff turnover, but customer turnover.

It’s as simple as this: If you always do the right thing by your people, and focus on outstanding customer service, you’re going to be successful.

Culture is such an integral part of Ground Control that the employees’ bonus structure was built around individual contribution to culture much more than financial contribution or individual performance. Aside from an employee’s salary, a semi-annual bonus is distributed based on a holistic assessment of teamwork, driving innovation, and outstanding customer service as it relates to and promotes the company culture. The Morrishes want their employees to ask, “How can I best serve our customer and support my colleagues? How can I drive innovation and savings, while always acting ethically and in the best interest of our internal and external stakeholders?” It is important to develop thoughtful leaders and employees committed to the business, but also deeply invested in their peers, clients and each other. Mentorship within the company is also celebrated as the older generations give back to younger generations.

This was also true for their internal awards system. The business receives complimentary feedback from customers and shares it as an emotional and financial uplift for employees and field team members, who are often the face of the company. Any time a customer submits a feedback form, a director picks up the phone and immediately calls the mentioned field team or employee. The director then reads the feedback and thanks the employee for demonstrating the values of the business. They then put it in writing and send it to the employee — along with a check — as added appreciation.

Extending beyond the workplace, Kim shares that over the years her family has hosted annual company barbecues for employees and families, sports events and garden parties, provided valuable work experience for children whose parents work for the company, and has hired an unusually high number of husband/wife and parent/child teams. Ground Control is an extended family and that mindset serves as the foundation for, what will hopefully be, future generations.

GIVING BACK TO THE COMMUNITY

Ground Control is committed to supporting the communities it serves. From providing education and engagement with the National Maritime Museum to community planting days with various clients, the company is present and active in local communities. Customers often approach Ground Control with projects for schools, hospitals and other service organizations, and Ground Control donates both the materials and the manpower.

Ground Control matches fundraising up to approximately $650, for all of the charities their employees support. The also invest in local interests and help run events through the company, such as charity football matches and walks.

THINKING AHEAD

In the short and medium terms, Ground Control has a relentless focus on talent recruitment. With Simon continuing his role as CEO, Kim’s focus has shifted from operational leadership to transformational leadership. Her priority is to again develop the executive team and next generation of high-potential leaders. The original team, promoted in 2004, retired and was replaced gradually between 2008 and 2016. The Morrishes are currently identifying the next tier of emerging leaders from the ground up. The company views these leadership transitions as a “new” generation and, by that definition, they are currently in their second generation, preparing for the third leadership transition. Kim and Simon are also increasingly involved in social impact ventures and wish to provide career opportunities for Ground Control staff in these innovative enterprises.

As for the next familial generation, “We would love for any or all of our four kids to be involved in the business if it’s the right thing for them, but with children between 10 and 18 years old, it is too soon to tell,” Kim said. The Morrish children have literally grown up with the business, working during the summer and supporting their parents hosting employee and client events. “They may not be interested in cutting grass, per se, but passionate about the business and innovative culture. It is not about what you do on the ground — literally, we cut grass, which is not necessarily innovative. But it is about best-in-class culture, innovation and IT.” She is not wrong: In 2016, Ground Control was honored by Her Majesty the Queen with the Queen’s Award for innovation based on its leading-edge technological systems used to maintain external spaces that are safe and enjoyable for all.

CONTINUED GROWTH AND SUCCESS

Ground Control has twice been tapped by the London Stock Exchange as one of the top inspiring businesses in the U.K. and Europe. In April 2018, Ground Control was named in Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 5000 Europe 2018 as one of the fastest-growing private companies in Europe. Ernst & Young shortlisted the Morrishes in 2016 and 2018 for Entrepreneur of the Year for their transformational leadership. Their modern family business continues to thrive. What was once a single-service, high-risk company, is now a stable, diversified $182 million business with a remarkable culture and endless career opportunities. As the next generation of high potential employees, along with the family members of their existing staff grow up and explore their interests and passions, opportunities at Ground Control will abound. There is no need to share bloodlines to be part of Ground Control’s culture and family.

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