By Cheryl Higley No more sleepless winter nights for Bob Wilton, who is enjoying retirement after more than 40 years.
As the door closed on 2014, an industry giant went quietly into the night as Clintar Landscape Management founder Bob Wilton retired and sold the business he spent more than 40 years building. He spoke to Snow Business about his time in the industry, the lessons he learned, and his dreams for the future.
Beginning to end
Everyone has a story of how they got into the industry. What’s yours?
I worked for a fellow at a small lawn spraying business - I needed a summer job to pay for beer in college! He hired me full-time and I worked for him for five years, until 1973, when I started out on my own with another fellow who worked there.
When you retired, Clintar Landscape Management had grown to 24 franchises across North America. Was franchising always part of your vision?
I had done a thesis on franchise marketing in college and it stuck in my head. The snow management part of the business meant that I couldn’t travel very far because of the emergency-type service. You need money to open branch offices and I didn’t have that, so the concept percolated from there. I studied some of the traditional franchise organizations at the time, mostly in the food industry, and everyone said I couldn’t do it in this industry. I didn’t listen. Instead, I put a model together and started franchising in 1974. When I sold the business, we had 700 people, 24 franchises and $65 million in total revenue.
What made you decide it was time to sell and retire?
The new owner approached me a few years ago. Last year, it just seemed to be the right time and the plan started to come together last summer. After 42 years of dealing with the day to day, my wife, Maggie, and I just decided it was time. My son, Todd, is still with the company but I have no involvement at all.
Did you ever think Clintar would become what it is today?
Never! My plans were a lot smaller than that. My plan was to make sure my family had food and shelter.
How involved were you toward the end?
I was pretty involved but I had a strong team. Even though I’m gone, the orchestra can still play. I don’t know that the snow industry is a hands-off business. You really have to be hands-on.
How early did you start your succession plan?
I always had a financial plan. I knew what I needed to retire with and knew what the business was worth. As for retiring, it really was just an idea that my wife and I discussed for a long time. I knew I didn’t want to work forever, but I had a fun, fun run.
When you were building the company, what types of franchisees did you look for?
If you have the right people, your business will grow. We were taking people we felt had good business skills or sales expertise that we could then train on the technical side. The franchise relationship is quite interesting. I don’t think it’s a supplier-customer relationship as much as a partnership relationship. If everyone treats everyone fairly, then it works.
Success doesn’t always come easy in this industry. What is the most important thing for people to be successful?
Financial management. I am amazed at how little people understand finance. That’s why they go out of business. It’s not because they can’t plow snow; they can’t manage their money.
As you built Clintar, what came easy and what was more difficult?
Sales and marketing was the easiest but I had to really work at the financial understanding. Because I learned how to manage the money, that was a huge reason for our success. The three keys are budgeting, cash flow management, and lack of debt. In the beginning, we had a lot of debt and it always bothered me. I hired a good accountant and an honest controller who would keep me in check. I had many conversations of wanting to do something and they would say “No. You don’t have the money to do that.” Hire them and listen to them. There are plenty of tools and people to teach you and help you look after your money. You can talk about salt and who runs what equipment, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if you don’t manage your money because you’ll be out of business.
Personal & company growth
What would you say are the keys to personal growth as a CEO?
Learn all you can because you never have all the answers. Get involved in SIMA and local trade associations. There is a ton of information to be gained through seminars and networking. SIMA has done a great job of bringing together people with similar problems. For the price of admission at the Snow & Ice Symposium or Landscape Ontario, you’re foolish not to take advantage and learn from others. There are some great people in this industry - from extremely different backgrounds - if you want to listen to them you can learn. The other thing is to understand finance, both personally and professionally.
What about keys for company growth?
Companies grow because they add customers, and they keep customers. The constant day-to-day challenge is finding ways to improve your existing relationships and how you do your job. Do what you said you were going to do, when you said you’d do it, and at the price you agreed upon. It sounds simple but if you do it, your customers will stay; and it’s a lot cheaper to keep existing customers than to look for new ones. References, referrals and reputation will allow you to get new customers. Price pressure is always there but we targeted customers who needed professional service opposed to the lowest price.
What advice do you have for young CEOs to ensure longevity in the industry?
Hire good people and look after them. We were successful because we paid our employees well and treated them properly. Respect your team. They may not have the same knowledge as you, but they contribute to your success. As CEO you have to create a culture where employees want to come to work. I don’t know how to teach that - you either have it or you don’t. And second, and I sound like a broken record, but look after your money and conserve your cash. If expenses are always exceeding your revenue … that doesn’t work at home and it doesn’t work in business.
Evolution of an industry
Since you started in the industry how has it changed?
The growth of facilities management and its impact on the industry is big. In the early years, corporations would manage their own facilities, but now there are so many third-party management companies. It provides opportunity because you can build relationships with people who manage more than one facility, which could give you the chance to manage multiple sites, but it also has really put pressure on the pricing.
The other big change is in equipment. When we were getting started, snowplows were pretty crude. The snow pusher is great and trucks have really improved with reliability. The turf equipment improved a lot, too.
How have you changed since you got into the business in 1973?
I’m probably more conservative. When you start out, risk isn’t something you think about too much. But as you become bigger, you become more risk-averse. I also learned who to not do business with. Not everyone is a potential customer. If you focus more on quality and assess the risk of each job, you are going to get paid.
A chapter closes
What will you miss most about the industry?
The people. I miss the interaction. Some of our people have been there 30 years. We had a lot of daily challenges, but we had a lot of fun. I do miss that but I don’t miss the snow. Now I can sleep easy when the snow is falling.
What are your plans for retirement?
We’ll continue to travel to Florida in the winter. Right now I’m spending a lot of time with my grandchildren. Nothing fancy. I’m involved in other business activities that keep me occupied. I have a non-compete clause so I’m looking at investments in other businesses, doing charity work. The biggest challenge for me will be to stay out of Maggie’s hair. We’ve been married a long time and she was an absolute angel taking care of everything at home and letting me build this business. Now we’re both getting used to being around each other all the time. She made it very clear: “Don’t expect me to make lunch every day.”
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.