By Cheryl Higley
Team Akehurst Director of Field Operations Greg Stacho, President John Akehurst, Treasurer Jay Tarleton, and Vice President Bill Akehurst About Akehurst landscape services
Location: Joppa, MD
Employees: 200+ in winter
Clients: Commercial, Office, Industrial, Retail, Hotel
Akehurst Landscape Service looks good for its age. Led by the family’s fifth generation, the Joppa, MD-based company celebrated its 140th anniversary this fall. Founded in 1876 by Charles Akehurst, the company got its start in horticulture, eventually adding nursery, landscape services and finally snow and ice management in the 1990s.
At the helm today are brothers President John Akehurst and Vice President Bill Akehurst and their cousin, Treasurer Jay Tarleton. They are supported by members of the fourth and sixth generations, including Jay’s mother and two of Bill’s children.
“Every generation has had an impact on the company’s success,” John says, noting that they are already looking at which family members may be the future leaders of the company.
Bill says as the company has evolved, the younger generations haven’t had the opportunity to receive the same hands-on training he, his brothers and his cousins had growing up. In their formative years, the company was a nursery operation and everyone was expected to work in the field, learning along the way. Since the nursery operation was disbanded and the company’s focus has shifted, the sixth generation won’t have that same experience but will still be required to get their hands dirty.
“I would like my kids to get an education in business so they know how to manage and run a company. But if they plan to be involved at Akehurst they need to spend time in the field,” he says.
From flowers to snow
Akehurst got its start in the horticulture business, growing flowers and vegetables. As the generations changed, some services faded away and others moved to the forefront. The company’s current structure began in the 1980s when Bill and brother Brian joined their father in the business. The focus turned to landscape services, and snow services were added in the early 1990s.
Bill says the company had been performing snow removal as a community service but formally added snow operations as more of their grounds maintenance contracts began to request services.
“We saw the potential to drive revenue in the winter and keep our team employed and jumped into it. We started slowly and expanded as we got the hang of it,” he says.
Brian, who passed away in 2014, led the Akehurst Landscape Service’s growth in snow operations. The company now services about 350 properties, primarily large office complexes, industrial, medical, retail, and hotels. Operations are dispatched from the Joppa headquarters as well as satellite offices in nearby Baltimore and Anne Arundel counties.
“We don’t have to solicit snow work; we have to turn people away,” John says. “We’re trying to expand our green, and with that we’ll expand the white. In our market, I don’t see us moving to snow only. We have a lot of mouths to feed around here!”
The company began phasing out its residential services in 2015 to focus solely on growing its commercial business.
“We found that the pain level of servicing multiple sites was more than we needed to deal with,” Bill says. “We could either bill 10 hours for a large, complex site or drive around town all day and bill six hours - not to mention the liability increases from having trucks on the road traveling between job sites.” Focus on the team
The leaders of Akehurst Landscape Service are dedicated to the well-being of their team, the satisfaction of their clients, and building a successful business that honors the teachings of their Christian faith.
The basic tenets of their mission statement?
John, Bill and Jay take those promises seriously as they work to create a working atmosphere in which their team members feel comfortable.
“Our team is our most valuable asset,” John says. “We are a larger firm in the area but try to keep that personal family touch. Our doors are always open. We want them to feel the support from management and that they know we have their backs. I consider them family, even if they don’t carry the Akehurst name.”
Today’s Team: The Akehurst family of employees is focused on growing snow operations to new heights.
The next 140 years
The management team is constantly looking for ways to improve the company and move it forward.
Even with 140 years under its belt, Akehurst Landscape Service is still very much a work in progress.
“When Brian passed away, it was a wakeup call. We had gotten complacent, a little stagnant. We weren’t dying but we weren’t growing,” John says.
Shaken, they decided to focus on growing market share. They became more aggressive in sales and brought in people who shared their vision. As a result, the company grew 51% in 2015.
“That a huge jump, but it’s not a sustainable jump,” Jay says. “There is some room for growth at the main office but we have to be careful. It’s more likely that we’ll grow internally - maybe adding another dispatch site - and perhaps adding branches depending on the economy.”
Holding the company back in some respects is the same challenge that most snow and ice management companies face - labor. Given a lack of willing and able workers, Akehurst is retooling its management process to better nurture its existing team members and to grow from within.
“We’ve seen a lot of growth in terms of existing staff that have worked their way up over the last few years. It’s been a catalyst for others and (has) created an excitement in the company,” John says. “This business is hard work, so we need to put in the effort to show our people the opportunities that lie before them. It’s been amazing over the past few years to watch the younger guys going to our veteran leaders for guidance, bridging that gap with mentoring and nurturing. It’s brought our company a lot of success.”
When looking at the end goal, John, Jay and Bill are building a company legacy that far exceeds the bottom line and will continue long after they are gone.
“It’s more than a business corporation. Christ is the center of who we are as a family and as a business. This has been at the center of who we are through every generation. It’s about more than a business. It’s about life, living through this time and ending up in the right place.”
Getting ready for winter: Akehurst Landscape Service believes in an all-hands-on-deck approach to snow and ice management services.
Brian Akehurst shaped company’s snow vision
When Brian Akehurst joined the family business in 1985, Akehurst Landscape Service’s move into snow and ice management wasn’t far behind. He, along with his brother Bill, led the charge in the early 1990s.
Brian, in particular, immersed himself in learning everything he could. He became the face of the company’s snow operations and joined SIMA. He took an active role, rising through the leadership ranks. Brian served six years on the Board of Directors, including serving as board chairman in 2009-10.
His unexpected death in July 2014 left a void from which the company is still recovering.
“Snow was his focus. What he learned I had to discover at his death,” says Bill, who is the company’s vice president. “We had discussed that I needed to learn more about this side of the business; instead of being able to learn from him I had to become a detective, dig into his files and try to get into his mind.”
Treasurer Jay Tarleton says those first months were rough: “It was overwhelming. We all had to learn the processes, the subcontractors, the sites, and really get familiar with every aspect of the snow operations. The first season was very scary.”
SIMA Leader: When Akehurst Landscape Service moved into snow, Brian joined SIMA and became an active member. He served as board chair in 2009-10. Valuable relationships
The relationships that Brian built in the SIMA and snow and ice communities proved invaluable in the transition.
Greg Stacho, who was promoted to director of field operations in 2015, stepped up to help ensure the company could fulfill its snow contracts.
Stacho and Bill agree that without the network of support, it would have been much more difficult to achieve.
“People called right away, wanting to help however they could. To this day, I still talk to them and text them,” Stacho says.
That support didn’t wane as the shock of Brian’s passing wore off. When Winter Storm Jonas pounded the East Coast in January 2016, SIMA colleagues were there, ready to help.
“Those people have supported Greg and myself and continued those relationships with us. The outpouring of support from SIMA members wanting to help was a big boost,” Bill says.
President John Akehurst says Brian’s presence is felt every day and believes his big brother would be proud of the company’s continued success.
“A few weeks after Brian’s passing, I was in his office and saw a sticky note on his computer that brought me to tears. It was fitting for what we were going through: ‘Adapt. Improvise. We Will Overcome.’ We did, but there is a hole here without him,” he says.
“I was talking to someone in the hall one day and looked over his shoulder and saw a picture of Brian, smiling back at me. Brian is here, and his dream continues,” John adds. “There isn’t a day that goes by that we don’t think of him. But life goes on. We picked up where he left off and we’re going to take it further.”
Training program is work in progress
Safety and training is serious business at Akehurst Landscape Service, and its comprehensive program is always evolving.
Focus on training: Akehurst Landscape Service is building a solid training process to ensure its team is well educated and prepared for outstanding service delivery. The program includes:
- Daily tailgate training
- Tuesday morning team training focusing on a specific safety topic
- Adherence to industry best practices
- Random job site safety inspections
- Fleet and equipment safety inspections
- Safety review committee
- Job hazard analysis to determine safe practices for every task
- Standard operating procedures, updated annually
- Encouragement to achieve industry-specific credentials, including SIMA’s ASM and CSP
- Safety awards program
Company President John Akehurst says while the program is organized, there is room for improvement. The company’s new human resources specialist and Vice President Bill Akehurst will oversee this task.
“Right now I’d say we are at a 7 or 8 out of 10,” Bill says. “It’s a vision of where we want it to be,” adding that his goal is to establish personalized training sessions to supplement its current training videos and materials.
He notes the importance of having a more formalized process in place as labor challenges have resulted in the company having to hire laborers that often have no snow and ice experience.
“This winter will be a test of how our training process works. We’re working to make it better and get our employees the most information for their improvement as possible.”
Cheryl Higley is editorial director of Snow Business magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.