Mike Lalonde knows a thing or two about landscaping. The 42-year-old business owner has been in the industry since he was a teenager, and he has run his own commercial landscaping company, Blue Pine Enterprises, since he was 25.
The man who started out with a shovel has moved from manual labor up to the corner office. His company now counts 50 crews, 26 Bobcat machines and more than 150 employees. In his rise from one-man show to head honcho, Lalonde learned important business lessons – many of them the hard way.
These lessons laid the foundation for his “golden rules for success” that he passes along to would-be business owners at every opportunity.
1. Treat everyone like gold.
“One of my golden rules is to be honest with everybody and treat them well,” says Lalonde. “That’s clients, suppliers, employees, whoever. If you treat people like gold, you’ll get that in return.”
That fundamental belief created a culture for happy employees and satisfied clients. It led many of Lalonde’s clients to follow him from his previous employer when he started Blue Pine Enterprises. It also creates a work environment where employees feel valued and choose to stick with the company long term.
2. Make mistakes and learn from them.
“Learn as you go. The bigger mistake, the faster you learn,” Lalonde says. “Meeting people and doing the work – that’s all simple. The scary part is how to find work, where to source it and, obviously, waiting for a paycheck so you can have a life.”
Lalonde earned a two-year diploma from a local college, but he found a better business education from real-world experience. There was a lesson to be learned from every challenge and decision point. And failure was his best teacher.
“Schools are okay in teaching you theory. But it doesn’t teach you how to deal with situations, people or business in general. 99.9 percent of what I know I learned through the real world,” he adds.
3. Hire good people and help them grow.
One of the biggest growing pains for Blue Pine Enterprises was finding good workers. Lalonde didn’t know how to hire, or who to hire. But he must’ve done something right. The first three employees he hired are still with the company 17 years later. His second hire was an 18-year-old kid who became the most productive guy in the field. Today that kid is vice president of the company.
Lalonde’s vision to turn landscaping into a lifelong career for everyone at the company is also good for retention. Blue Pine Enterprises gives employees a chance to grow and learn – even if they make mistakes like Lalonde did. He provides an opportunity for upward movement for every employee at the company.
“Most people think of landscaping as a kid’s summer job with no future,” Lalonde says. “But we’ve created careers for a lot of people by providing a ladder and giving everybody an opportunity to climb it.”
4. Do it for the right reasons.
Lalonde has mentored a handful of young landscapers over the years, imparting the wisdom he’s picked up as an entrepreneur. Before they take the leap into small business, he always asks, “Why do you want to do it?”
“If you want to do it because you want to be your own boss and you want to take over the world, that’s the right answer,” Lalonde says. “There’s a misconception of being in business for yourself that you have more freedom. That’s not the case. If you want to do it to make more money and have more time off, you’re going to fail.”
It took Lalonde five years to get to the point where he didn’t have to worry about paying bills – and even longer to earn the freedom he has today as president of Blue Pine Enterprises. He makes time for six trips a year to get away from the business. But he still puts in long hours on the weekends throughout the busy season to afford that luxury.
5. Start yesterday.
If there’s one regret Lalonde has, it’s that he didn’t start his own business sooner. “The best time to do it was yesterday,” he says. “The start is tough. It’s hard. It’s challenging. It’s stressful. But you know what? It’s more fun. It’s a better way of life.”