The Case for In-House Management

Addressing myths surrounding outsourcing and adopting sound business practices can strengthen managers’ positions

By Kevin O Donnell  

The term outsourcing stirs up strong emotions among many in-house grounds managers, in some cases sending fear through the best of managers. It also is a source of urban legends: “Did you hear what happened at …” or “I can’t believe it happened to them.”

Too often, though, managers dismiss outsourcing as simply a grounds management strategy proposed by some financial type who is selling the administration on promised cost-savings. In reality, professional grounds managers should take a hard look at the issue and explore the reasons — myths and misconceptions, often — an organization would adopt the often quick and sometimes expensive outsourcing model of grounds management.

Rather than dismissing the issue as a misguided attempt to save money for an organization, managers can learn from this phenomenon to strengthen the in-house model of grounds management.

Administrators often give similar reasons to justify outsourcing grounds maintenance operations. Managers can take several steps to address the following myths and misconceptions offered to support outsourcing.

Myth: No Personnel Problems

This justification simply is not true, especially in today’s security-conscious society. Do grounds departments really want to rely on an outside company to screen and monitor their employees? Do managers want to rely on a contractor to convey all of the special rules that pertain to a facility, such as no fraternizing with students or other workers, no inappropriate clothing, and no inappropriate behavior?

Many contractors are reputable, but they represent just another layer of potential miscommunication, though they are not less accountable to the organization’s part to students or workers. Grounds managers can take steps to develop a good team of workers, people who provide high-quality work, have good attendance and adhere to work rules.

The process starts by choosing the best applicants available, checking references, setting goals and training each individual team member. Managers can complete the process by providing ongoing leadership, open communication, clear instructions and positive reinforcement.

Myth: No Equipment Investment

The direct cost of buying and repairing equipment might not be evident in the price of contracted services. But all reputable contractors must factor this into their price, plus profit and overhead (P/O), to stay in business.

Managers need to be sure to secure the best, most dependable and most efficient equipment possible. They can do by: training employees on proper equipment use to minimize down time and increase productivity; comparing operating costs to possible rental costs; maximizing the productivity of each piece of equipment by adding attachments; and being able to justify equipment purchases by relating them directly to quality and productive service.

Myth: No Need to Carry Employees in the Off Season

While it might be true that seasonal contract employees are not on a department’s payroll, a contractor still must charge the department for every task, plus P/O. Again, this means the department pays each time it snows, or litter or leaves are collected.

Keeping quality people on the in-house staff year round ensure that qualified people are available to do their jobs efficiently, rather than bringing in new employees each year.

Managers can look at the department’s year-round work load and, where possible, distribute tasks to the non-mowing season. Can workers mulch before and after mowing season, or prune trees and shrubs. Provide training during the “off” season. Managers also need to be sure to have a list of tasks for workers to tackle during rainy weather, and they might consider adding services that are not dependent on weather, such as helping with office moving or other interior maintenance.

Despite the season, grounds work is never really done, but not everyone buys into this concept. I remember a conversation with a vice president of finance, who asked me, “Why do we need all of those grounds people when you’re not cutting grass?” The question stunned me because the answer seemed obvious to me.

After a few moments, I realized that this person was not attacking my professional efforts. Rather, he honestly had no knowledge of all the services we provided as a full-service grounds maintenance operation. I also realized that most people outside of the grounds profession, without any animosity towards our profession, do not know that managers and their departments do much more than cut grass and plant flowers.

Managers can benefit from communicating with administrators and making an effort to educate them about the full range of services grounds departments provide.

Myth: Better Service

Keeping a well-managed grounds care operation in house offers many benefits. First and foremost is the ability to provide superior service.

Having workers who are flexible and knowledgeable about facilities can result in quick response to the special needs of the organization. Managers can benefit from working with administrators to clearly identify standards for services.

Myth: Lower Costs

Staying competitive in the price of services might be the biggest challenge for grounds managers. Attracting and retaining qualified, skilled employees often will require paying competitive prices. But managers can take several steps to stay competitive.

First, managers can maintain a good mix of new and experienced employees, thus mixing higher and lower pay rates. George Van Haasteren, grounds manager with the Dwight Englewood (N.J.) School, suggests managers “look at highly specialized work or work that will carry high liability and consider contracting that (work) out.”

Many grounds operations already do this with arborist work or larger landscape installations. Acknowledging that contractors can better provide some tasks, managers can maximize the use of in-house staff to complete other maintenance tasks.

Again, however, grounds maintenance managers can help their cause by informing administrators of all department services. When taking into consideration overhead and profit margins, as well as accurately comparing services, well organized in-house grounds operations can compete on cost.

Beyond the Myths

Managers in some cases might find it challenging to make the case for in-house grounds care operations, but sound business and management tactics can help make the task easier. Among the possible tactics:

  • Be proactive in defending against outsourcing by taking a more business-like approach to each management decision concerning in-house operation. Does the department really need every new piece of equipment? Can workers do more with less?
  • Quantify the value of in-house grounds maintenance operations by keeping accurate time records on all of activities.
  • Maintain precise records of all costs associated with each service the department offers, and compare these costs to private contractors. If the department is not competitive, learn how to become more competitive.
  • Provide value-added service to the organization, such as grounds tours for non-grounds employees.
  • Share department expertise with all members of the organization by being available for consultation on their private landscape questions.
  • Stay up to date on the latest techniques, and continue the education process by taking classes and attending seminars regularly.
  • Network with other professionals by joining professional organizations, such as the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS). For more information on PGMS, see sidebar.
  • Always look for additional ways to add value to the appearance of the facility. Add highly visible seasonal color. Be sure that the curb appeal is always positive. Even during the busy season, there is no justification for letting the highly visible areas of the landscape appear disheveled.
  • Support special activities with special displays or landscape grooming. Communicate to in-house customers through newsletters, e-mail, or phone messages that let them know what is happening on the grounds every season.

While outsourcing grounds maintenance might appear to some people to be a viable alternative to in-house operations, a manager’s responsibility is to be sure the department provides the best and most competitive grounds maintenance operation for the organization. A well-run operation with dedicated employees will always be competitive with private contractors.

Glenn Smith, director of facilities services at Bryn Mawr (Penn.) College, describes the effort this way: “Instill pride in ownership, stay competitive with wages, and provide quality services. Then there should be no reason for administration to look outside for grounds maintenance services.”

No such thing as a guaranteed job exists, but providing professional grounds leadership can tip the odds in favor of protecting in-house operations.

Spotlight: PGMS Certification

Since 1911, the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS) has been committed to advancing the grounds management profession. The goals of PGMS is to help individual managers develop techniques and management skills to assure an outstanding grounds management program for the organization, clients or employers and upgrade the level of the profession.

The Certified Grounds Manager (CGM) program, developed and offered by PGMS, is the premiere program of its type in the Green Industry. The training and education requirements needed to obtain status as a CGM attests that a grounds professional with top organizational, financial, and management skills oversees an organization’s grounds maintenance operation. Ultimately, certification is intended to assure better use of public and private personnel, equipment, supplies, and resources.

Click here for further information on the CGM program.

Kevin O’Donnell is superintendent of grounds with Villanova University in Villanova, Pa.

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  posted on 7/1/2005   Article Use Policy

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