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Transactions between Customer, Designer and Contractor

No matter how many different ways that various financial arrangements appear to be between the Customer and their commissioned experts, designers and contractors, there are always unanswered questions and unforeseen circumstances that crop up that have apparently not been covered in some article or another.

Looking through The Landscape Library, where there are many articles in regard to payments, finances, charging for your services, getting paid in a timely manner, how much to charge for different skills, but there is always one angle that seems to have been missed!  Not because of lack of diligence on the part of the authors, but because fresh situations constantly throw up new problems.  This article has been produced as the result of a recent webinar held by The Association of Professional Landscapers, where a couple of apparently obscure sets of circumstances arose on projects, and advice was sought regarding potential problems.

At first sight, the agreements between a customer, designer and contactor are simple and straightforward, yet on occasion, an unusual style of contract is formed.  Please note that this article does NOT include any references to Contract (Design Management) Regulations 2015) to avoid complicating and confusing what are separate issues.

For the sake of regularity and to put the matter to one side, the term Project Management is often used – or rather, misused, when it comes to Design and Build projects in particular. The definition of Project Management is very simple;

‘Project Management is the practice of initiating, planning, executing, controlling and closing the work of a team to achieve  specific goals and meet specific success criteria at the specified time.  This information is usually described in a project document, created at the beginning of the development process’.

Hence Project Management begins and ends with a specific brief provided by a specified person or group, given to a specified person or group providing authority to undertake the full implementation of a scheme from concept to completion.

A Garden Designer is highly unlikely to be involved in carrying out such a wide and diverse amount of varied skills and compliances.

A Garden Design and Build Company may well act as Project Developers, but only in exceptional circumstances, say a large multi-disciplined practice with separate divisions operating under one corporate umbrella, and even in those circumstances, the Project Development Team would be working under a separate contract within the Main Contract, due to the responsibilities that are inherent in undertaking this specialised discipline.

The Project Manager would be entrusted with creating a system of finances, holding the full amount of money payable by the customer for the total scheme, and having authority to release certain funds under a specified regime comprising work schedules, agreed rates and payment tranches against works completed, materials on site or after completion of various elements within the main contract. In other words, acting as the customers Agent in their stead.  I am talking about large firms such as Gillespies, Arup, BDP, LDA etc.

In normal circumstances therefore, and almost certainly in the domestic sector, the term Project Manager should not be employed.

At all times, the Customer normally remains the constant source of finance and payment making. Designers or Contractors apply to the customer for money, either as a Deposit or Booking Fee, Mobilisation Payment in advance of a project start date or making regular payments against set circumstances i.e. stage payments etc.

Everybody employed on a scheme as a direct contractor or designer, should invoice the customer. Every Contractor should pay their direct labour and any sub-contractors that are working for their company.

Under no circumstances should the customer pay, or be expected or asked to pay for any invoices that should be due under the contract provided by either the designer or main contractor. Any invoices that become due to any Party engaged on a site under the direction of the designer or main contractor must be paid by that Party.  The customer should not pay directly for anything salient to the contract e.g. paving, bricks etc, as potential problems with ownership, warranties and defects become very difficult to resolve. Even colour variations, meeting delivery dates and damages in transit can create delays on the project, resulting in claims for additional costs by the Contractor as they did not supply the materials.

On some jobs, a Third Party may be involved e.g. Structural Engineer or Site Surveyor. It is best that they are paid directly by the customer as their responsibility will probably be to the site owner. Perhaps a Ground Water Survey is required, and it is good practice for the designer or contractor not to take ownership for it, merely receiving a copy for their records and qualified use.

These Third Party arrangements may be used when drawing up specification and decision making, and it is sensible that the liability for any recommendations lays with the author, who will be covered by their Professional Indemnity Insurance. These responsibilities may not be transferred between Parties for the sake of good governance.

Ownership of these paralegal documents properly remains with the customer, and not the designer or landscaper. All reference made to their information and recommendations should be noted in writing and accredited on all drawings and documents, whilst clearly stating their provenance.

Any specification and dimensions that relate to strength and suitability should be produced by the designer based on all known factors; either those that have been identified by Third Parties or their own due diligence and test findings, and noted in all tender documents, especially in respect of plans and drawings from which other information may be extrapolated e.g. directions given to the Build Contractor in the form of costings sheets or Estimates.

The responsibility for all specification must lay with the Designer (or Design & Build Contractor), unless it is clearly and expressly stated in writing, including on the drawings and plans, that the specification is subject to written agreement between the Designer and Contractor, that matter will be in the hands of the Contractor to make their decisions.  Simply stating that no one should take measurements from these  plans is not sufficient to offer any waiver to the Designer.

Responsible Designers

If a Designer has taken measurements from drawings produced by others, including previous plans provided by the customer, the designer should take care to state that they are not responsible for their production or accuracy, and that all dimensions must be checked on site.  This is not a request for a waiver, merely a statement of fact.

This is not by way of abdicating responsibility, but to explain the fact that they have not personally been responsible for their production and therefore cannot guarantee their accuracy. Unless this matter is placed in writing and clearly identified, liability may still be retained even partially. (This is to ensure that no professional designer can simply absolve themselves from  liability for errors that should have been obvious to an experienced  eye.)

Similarly, materials and products should be specified by the Designer, including their uses and suitability. If a designer is not sure of their recommendations, but merely the effect they are wishing to achieve for a design idea, collusion between the customer, designer and contractor make take place, and such products and materials agreed between all Parties. It is recommended that a Products Library is produced and held on site. This Library should contain all products deemed important to the visual design (the customer should not be involved in the selection of products relating to technical matters; that will be deemed to be outside of their reasonable expertise) and shown to the customer in all states i.e. wet and dry due to potential colour variations. All products should be identified by name, code or material and signed in indelible ink marker by the customer, designer and contractor as being those accepted and selected for use on the job.

It is also strongly recommended that all documents that arrive with the materials are retained by the Contractor by way of evidence that the instructions contained therein were adhered to at the time of construction. This insurance policy may well become invaluable in future years should a problem arise and product or construction issues are raised in a dispute.

Once the contract documents have been drawn up, and specifications and dimensions produced, the designer should create suitable tender documents for use by the Contractor.

This exercise should also be carried out in house if necessary, as the designer – even a Design and Build employee – should retain responsibility for their choices and decisions. This is because it is the only method of producing a finite set of documents against which to price for a scheme, and to ensure that the Landscape Team in the field understand their instructions.

If, for any reason, any alterations, additions, reductions, changes, product subsequently deemed unsuitable in the event for whatever reason; colour changes or any other material factor be required by the customer, designer or contractor, these should be dealt with by written Variation Orders, and any ramifications regarding costs (increases or decreases) agreed between the customer and Contractor.  The Variation Order Book should be a series of sequentially numbers dockets, relating to that project alone and filed as such.

All financial arrangements should be between the customer (Master) and Contractor (Servant) with no Third Party involvement (Designer), unless the Designer has been retained by the customer to act formally on their behalf. In such cases, a written Letter of Instruction, should be drawn up by a Solicitor before the original contract is signed, giving the Designer  the power to act as their Agent in matters of finance. (This is not uncommon where the customer is living abroad and cannot be available for periods of time. In the case of Design & Build Companies, a Third Party e.g. Solicitor or Agent may be employed by the customer for that role).

Indeed, the customer may give Full Authority over the whole design element of the project to the Designer whilst acting on their behalf (agens autem aliquis de vobis for all  Latin Legal fans, otherwise known as an Advocate) but again, this must be agreed in writing and accepted by the Contractor before the contract is signed.  This is NOT the same as Project Management.

There is a very simple reason why nobody has ever managed to produce the definitive manual of running a Garden Design practice, a Design & Build Landscape business or any other type of Landscape/Horticultural operation. The nearest I got was writing The Landscapers Survival Manual!

It is simply too complicated!  We are Builders, Designers, Horticulturists, Gardeners, Landscapers, Drainage Experts, Tree Surgeons, Plantsmen and women, Stone masons, and a million other trades all rolled in to one.

And yet we have to live in a world dominated by the Law, seemingly expanding Regulations and Orders, Controls and Restrictions, and there could never be a definitive publication, as it would be out of date before it went to print.

So, keep asking questions, and The Landscape Library will try to keep up with endeavouring  to answer them!

Alan Sargent

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Controlling Customers Looking For Price Reductions

As Contractors, we have become used to customers trying reduce the cost of a project at the design stage, where negotiations and discussions are all part and parcel of arriving at a figure that both Parties are happy with. If the designer has done their job and managed to stay within the budget figure provided by the client, everyone should have a reasonable idea of the total cost of a scheme.

Products and materials have been selected and approved. Plant schedules and planting plans are in place, and all materials – plants, composts, stakes, ties, tree anchors etc all sourced, planning permits and parking bay suspensions ready to be organised, toilet and welfare facilities sourced, CDM Plans and method statements completed. Crucially, Contracts are ready to be signed and payment Terms agreed with everything waiting on a signature and the Booking Fee or Mobilisation Payment invoice poised to be sent…….Then comes the question!

“The project is working out a bit too steep for us. Looking at the figures, we need to make savings. What can you do to lower your prices?  We need you to sharpen your pencil”

Sometimes, this question is raised in person, on site, prior to signing the contract. The very, very last minute. The question is usually followed by suggestions from the client. “Can we pay 50% in cash and lose half the VAT?  Can we change the paving for a cheaper product? Do the plants have to be so large, why can’t we have smaller ones?  Can you invoice half to my Company? What can you come up with lower your costs?” – and a dozen or more different questions in the same vein.

Sometimes the question will come in an email, only this time, omitting those queries regarding paying in cash or trying to fiddle the Tax Man. Nevertheless, just as vexing. Having spent days on putting the project together, you are suddenly asked to lower your price by reducing your costs or cheapening the products and downsizing materials. All of your documents have been written, with Contract,  Terms and Conditions awaiting a signature.

How do you respond?

I am a great believer in psychology. What you say, and how you say it, can make a huge difference during a conversation. The very first reaction to a situation will make or break your chances of getting the resolution you want. Obviously, if the conversation is face to face, it is  best to expect or anticipate the question, then you will always be on the from foot and not taken aback by the challenge.

“What can you do to lower your prices?” is a direct question. It is also a question loaded with negativity, as the implication is that you are able to offer lower rates if you wanted to, and is a direct challenge to your business ethics. Either that, or an  implied  confrontational question designed to make you apologise for being too expensive!

The answer should be that you cannot lower your rates. No discussion. I cannot lower my rates. I cannot reduce the rates I pay for my labour, as I do not employ anyone who is not skilled at their job. I cannot reduce my overheads because they are fixed. I cannot lower the prices on supplying materials and products, because they are already the keenest I can get from my suppliers.

Immediately, and without argument, you have established that you know your business. You are fully aware of the costs and implications of trying to cheapen the project. You cannot cut corners of preparatory works, nor reduce the amount or strength of concrete in the foundations, or reduce the amount of time the project will take.

Therefore, the only way you can lower the price is by reducing the quantity or quality of the products and materials you have contracted to supply.

Bear in mind that at this stage, you have not got a signed contract. What you do have is a detailed written explanation of a contract, and it is at this stage you can decide how to move forward.

If the client is adamant, and they really cannot afford to spend as much as they originally accepted, you should not hesitate in asking them for the finance they do have available. Assuming that it is still a reasonable figure, discuss the possibilities of either reducing the areas of expensive landscaping e.g. paving, or perhaps omitting a raised pool feature or outdoor kitchen – anything that may be removed or reduced at this stage i.e. before commencement of works. These missing items may be added at a later stage, when funds are available,  and all preparatory works i.e. conduits and cables laid in position to enable the item to be installed without disrupting the rest of the work.

Areas of paving may be added to at a later date, and reinforcing bars extruded beyond the concrete foundations ready to accept new concrete at a later date, that will be tied in with the first area. Anything that can or may be taken out and added back in at a later stage.

You will probably discover that is was the feature e.g. outdoor kitchen that was the primary reason for wanting the landscaping project in the first instance, hence the design and current proposal. Suddenly, the shortfall in funding will miraculously reappear when they discover their pet part of the project will not be there!

Whatever the outcome of the discussion – even if the original quotation and all documentation remains unchanged, a letter should be added, as an Appendix, signed and dated, to the original quote, confirming the conversation and outcome/agreement reached in light of the queries, i.e. reinforcing the fact that the contract remains in its’ original state.

This Appendix will serve you well should any questions arise in the future regarding payment and requests to reduce costs. You will have reaffirmed and ratified the agreement with no risk of future misunderstandings.  I believe in the old maxim- “If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen”.  Any future questions or suggestions that contradict the agreement cannot be brought up if you have the signed Appendix.

You will remain in control, and having proved yourself adept and capable of challenge, you should not be seen as an easy target for any additional attempts at cheapening the project.

A SECOND SCENARIO, similar to above only this time the Contract has been signed, the Booking Fee or Mobilisation Payment made, and the works are booked in.

The same questions “What can you do to reduce the price, we cannot afford the whole scheme now because my bonus was not as high as I expected” etc.

However, the situation has altered from example number one. The contract is signed and in place. Your reaction now should be one of concern, as there is now a danger of Breach of Contract or some other legal ramification for that question. You cannot ignore it, and say “Sorry, too late old Chum”. You are being warned that the whole of the funds may not be available, and therefore the contract can only proceed  if precautionary measures are put in place.

The same question from you must be “How much can you afford?  What is your budget now?” Bear in mind too, that your Booking Fee may have been based on a percentage of the original sum. All of your percentage figures will have to be re-evaluated together with any knock on effects regarding deliveries, amounts and quantities and a host of other factors may come into play.

Therefore, before any works commence at all, a new Contract will/may need to be drawn up, if necessary according to the sums involved. You cannot simply proceed with the new figures as though nothing had happened. You must have a fresh contract with a new mandate.

You should not consider ignoring the fact that if you do not have a new contract, you will be operating on quicksand. You have not yet started the project, and therefore there may be no losses incurred, if only a Booking Fee has been paid. If a Mobilisation Payment has been made, against materials to be ordered, and assuming that money has already been spent in buying materials that cannot be returned, it may be difficult to extrapolate precise figures when recalculating the new contract and quote.

Whilst a lot will depend on the values involved, it may simply be that an item may be removed much as at example One above, unless and until you have the new contract in place, everything should be frozen, until a new agreement is in place.

THE FINAL EXAMPLE of Controlling Customers is after the project has started, say during the first week of the programme.

The original contract, Terms and Conditions have been adhered to at this stage, and works are progressing according to plan, when the customer comes into the garden and announces that they cannot afford to continue with the whole project due to lack of funds – and how can you make savings? Obviously, the first thing to establish is the amount of reduction to be made.

Speed is definitely of the essence here, as the whole project may be jeopardised by the effects of less money. Matters regarding Booking Fees etc are no longer relevant. All that matters now is to establish precisely what the implications of reduced funding will have on the scheme.

Bear in mind too, that there may be no room to negotiate a reduction in the quality of products, or to hire in a smaller machine once the large one is on site. Your scope to make any savings at all must not come at a cost to yourself as the contractor.

All of your profit margins must be maintained, even if they are for less work. If savings have to be made, they will not be finite i.e. if the whole site must be graded and cultivated, there has been a cost, even if the area is not laid to lawn or planted. Excavations for foundations may have been made, and muck away lorries have cleared the site, and you cannot simply replace things as they were before you started work. There will be costs even for those areas that may not be ‘landscaped’ and cannot be unpaid for. There may be cancellation or restocking fees or any number of  losses to the contractor in the event of a reduced project.

If at all possible or practical, all works should cease until a new Contract is in place, or your Terms and Conditions allow for such eventualities by the use of Variation Orders or VOs.

Variation Orders are extremely valuable and should be used at all times during the course of a project.

The main functions of the works will be guided by the CDM Plan and various drawing, plans, specifications and works programmes. Variation Orders fill in the missing gaps between other documents, by allowing for all kinds of variations in the works, including reductions of quantities  or increases/decreases in specification. Every single thing that is carried out on site that varies from the original quotation and specification should be subject to VOs.

Examples of this would be changing brass screws for Sheradised screws, even if the change is to a more expensive material, and you do not seek extra costs. Variation Orders are not necessarily restricted to values and costs, but anything different from the quotation must be written down and signed for as Accepted by the Client, Designer or Architect responsible for making the change. Ideally, VOs should be in a book form, with duplicates, numbered in sequence, one book for each project. Many contractors use tablets and computers to carry out this work, but whichever method you use, you must be methodical and thorough in maintaining records of any alterations or variations.  Otherwise, in the event of a dispute, you leave yourself wide open for a claim should anything go wrong or fail for any reason.

These scenarios are becoming more familiar year by year, as customers become aware of their Rights under the Consumer Rights Act of 2015. Everyone is a Lawyer nowadays, using the Internet and Google as their guide. As contractors, we need to ensure that we are totally compliant and act in good faith at all times, the better to rebut vexatious Claims.

The purpose of these examples is to protect and survive. Never allow a customer to make any changes unless they are in writing and if they affect finance, ensure your contract documents are as complete and fair as possible. The Court’s do not like vexatious claimants, neither do they appreciate poorly drafted or unfair documents from Contractors!

Alan Sargent

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Asking Customers To Pay For Materials

I have written a ‘Sister’ article to this, which is posted in The Landscape Library titled ‘Customers Supplying Materials’, which is ostensibly the same topic as Asking Customer To Pay For Materials, but is an altogether different subject although relating to the same thing i.e. reducing financial outlay on behalf of the Contractor and arranging for materials to be on site for use by the contractor.

I shall begin by taking the usual scenario of a Landscaper designing a project, and arriving at a price to undertake the works from start to finish. A standard straightforward quotation to build a garden or garden feature is provided to the customer. The total quoted cost is (say) £20,000.00 plus VAT on materials. The material content of the quotation is (say) £10,000.00 plus Value Added Tax on the materials.

The Landscaper is not registered for VAT and therefore cannot reclaim the tax payable on the materials, and therefore the quotation is now £22,000.00 representing £10,000.00  non-VAT labour and £10,000.00 plus 20% (current rate) VAT = £2,000.00 total £22,000.00.

For the purposes of HM Customs and Excise – The VAT man – the Landscaper is the end user of those materials and they will charge them the tax accordingly. If the Landscaper is not registered for VAT, they cannot reclaim any of the £2,000.00 VAT charged by the Supplier.

The VAT content on the sale is paid by the Landscaper to the Supplier/Merchant, and the Landscaper has no choice but to pay the tax and charge it to the customer. Thus the material price on the project is £12,000.00, the  VAT element value of which is NOT added to the turnover figure of the Landscaper.

(Legally, you must register for VAT when VAT Taxable turnover (the total of all sales that are not exempt from VAT) exceeds the threshold (currently £85,000.00) within a 12 month rolling period, or if you expect your VAT Taxable turnover to exceed the threshold in a single thirty day period. All of this information is available from HMRC and should be subject to constant review as the threshold may vary).

I fully appreciate the situation and reasoning behind requesting that the customer purchase expensive materials for and on behalf of the Contractor, even if only to delay the time when total sales exceed the threshold and the Contractor is obliged to register for, and charge VAT to their clients, although it is all part and parcel of running a growing and successful business!

Elsewhere in The Landscape Library you will find articles including one in particular titled ‘Deposits, Booking Fees and Mobilisation Payments’, which discuss the benefits and issues with those three separate topics. In essence, there is no sound reason or need for a Landscape contractor to request the customer to pay for the materials, providing that all other paperwork and compliances are in place.

IMPLICATIONS FOR TERMS AND CONDITIONS

Assuming that the Landscaper has followed due protocol regarding their Standard Terms and Conditions, mention will have been made regarding terms of payment, including a schedule of periods, dates and times during the lifetime of the project, written at the time of producing the quotation. Mention will not have been made in those Standard T & Cs to the customer paying in advance for the materials required for the landscape build, and that all other Terms will relate to matters such as warranties, site working times and conditions and those matters that comprise of the complete quotation foundation.

Any variation in those Terms and Conditions – written and produced by the Contractor as part of the quotation process, may become null and void if a fundamental element is changed, i.e. responsibility for payment of materials.

In the event of any dispute at any time during the course of a project – or even years later in some cases, where a scheme fails for whatever reason – and the garden becomes subject to a Claim or Counterclaim between the customer and the Landscaper, the question of materials becomes a difficult knot to unravel if the customer has purchased them on behalf of the Landscaper.

At the time of arranging the product schedule/materials list for the job, the Landscaper, by nominating the materials, their colours, sizes, product titles, amounts etc, is taking on the role of Consultant, which, under the Construction (Design Management) Regulations 2015 would likely be construed as being the Principal Designer of the project (even if there was another Designer involved) at that initial stage in the project development.

To examine this matter more closely; the customer, having purchased the materials, is now the end user, having paid the tax on them. Therefore the customer is now the owner of those products. Assuming that the Landscaper/Consultant has allowed for wastage in the normal way, those additional materials now belong to the customer, and they have the right to retain anything left at the end of the job. The Landscaper has now lost any additional profit that may have been available at the end of the work by selling on those unused materials.

The Landscaper has also lost any profit that would have been made on marking up the materials, if only to compensate for the time taken in arranging them in the first instance, plus any other time spent providing samples and specimens. The Landscaper is now on a labour only contract to all intents and purposes, having lost all opportunity to make a genuine business-like profit, which is the normal reason for becoming a Contractor in the first place.

Therefore, by nominating the products, the Landscaper is now responsible for their suitability for use on the project, without any financial benefit whatsoever.  They have spent unpaid time sourcing and arranging them to site, and have no right to any excess product at the end of the job.

In my work as a Disputes Expert Witness, I do not often become directly involved in matters of finance, as they are normally outside of my remit, which is primarily quality based, or deciding technical issues, but I see the complicated permutations and problems that arise whenever a Contractor decides to ask the customer to pay directly for materials. Product suitability, when a scheme fails, and becomes a case for litigation is fraught with difficulties for both Parties, but especially for the Contractor, who cannot escape liability and responsibility simply because the customer bought the materials.

And all because the Contractor was trying to reduce their turnover by circumventing the rules on Value Added Tax. Invariably too, such cases are referred onwards by the Court to HM Customs and Excise, and a visit by the VAT man follows in short order.

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Customers Supplying Materials

With the advent of the Internet, with so much information and inspiration available for all to see, the nature of customer understanding has altered greatly since I started landscaping over fifty years ago. In my early days, there was relatively little choice in ‘man-made’ products in the landscape world, with only a few manufacturers of concrete paving products, a few Builders Merchants selling local stone materials and the ubiquitous ‘York-stone’ in either new riven, with hand fettled edges or reclaimed in varying thicknesses between 2” and 6”.

Customer’s choice was therefore limited, and most projects were built using concrete slabs and local brickworks, although some manufacturers such as Marley were producing compressed sand walling blocks as an alternative to coloured concrete. Bradleys (now Bradstone) were making a pretty decent concrete walling block in a choice of one colour – buff – with a range of nine different sizes and a dozen different moulds, then being the nearest thing to natural York-stone walling.

Fast forward half a century, and the landscaping world is full of information, with literally hundreds of different products on the market, in just about every conceivable colour, size, thickness, shape and material. Customers today are far more sophisticated in their outlook on life, especially when it comes to matching information with price. Personal research in the choice of products often leads home owners to select and purchase their own materials, direct from the Suppliers or Builders Merchants.

Often though, their research does not extend to the use to which the product they have purchased is intended. They go for an ‘attractive’ material, without understanding how it can be used on site in the location intended. They pay for the material themselves, to save money and cut out the ‘middle man’,  bypassing the contractor and their profits and overheads.

They engage a Landscape Contractor, and advise them that they have already sourced the paving materials (or whatever – for the sake of this article, let’s assume we are talking about paving) and require a labour only price. This price to include all labour, tools and equipment.

The contactor duly supplies a price to carry out the proposed works, and a start date is arranged.

PROTECTING THE CONTRACTOR

At this stage, the Contractor becomes very vulnerable for problems, unless their Terms and Conditions make absolutely clear how they have costed the project. A Method Statement must be drawn up (which should form part of your Contract (Design Management) Regulations Plan (CDM) 2015) in which every element of how the works should be carried out written down, complete with provisos and caveats included to protect the Contractor.

Taking a worst case scenario, the paving has been organised and arranged by the Home owner, to be delivered by a Builders Merchants. The Contractor has never dealt with this firm before, and is not known to them. He has no contact details, nor any personal contacts within that firm.

On the day promised for delivery, nothing turns up. No Builders Merchant lorry. The Landscaper has staff on site, with everything ready and prepared to start construction work, but no materials to work with. The customer has left for work, and the Contractor has no way of contracting the supplier.

When  the materials finally arrive the following day, they come in the wrong order. Packs of paving first, with ballast, sand and cement promised for the next day. The paving will have to be unpacked and moved elsewhere to allow room for the aggregates. Already the contractor is double handling the paving, and is at risk of causing damage and breakages through poor organisation and logistics.

The packs of paving appear to be of different ages, and it turns out that the customer ordered the particular slabs because they were on offer. On closer examination, they turn out to be the same material, but some packs are calibrated, whilst others are not, meaning that a lot of additional and uncosted cutting will be required. The customer of course, had no idea that there was a difference. The Merchant had assured them that they were the same product.

Nearing completion of the project, it seems that there is a shortfall in the amount of paving needed. When the subject is mentioned to the customer, allegations of breakages that must have occurred arise. The client had no idea that there would be a shortfall due to wastage when cutting to size and shape and had only ordered the exact amount required for the job.

Feeling aggrieved, the customer orders additional paving, only to be told a) that was the last of that stock, or b) there is a three month delivery on the next batch. When that eventually arrives, the colours do not match due to the natural shades inherent in natural stone, hence the need to mix packs when laying. The whole job looks unbalanced due to the colour variations, and the customer is decidedly upset with the contractor for not advising them.

I appreciate this may be an exaggerated story, but all of these events have happened on more than one occasion one a single site, and I become involved as the independent Expert Witness appointed to provide the Court with a written report, as the customer has decided to sue the contractor, and the contractor is counter claiming against the owner.

FAR REACHING RAMIFICATIONS

In cases such as these, which are becoming increasingly common, even if not quite as dramatic as the story above, they are the cause of a great deal of worry and concern to the Landscaper who only agreed to take on a labour only project, thinking it would be an easy job, with no major outlay, and could be fitted in between other, more expensive schemes.

Not only did the contractor have no control over events, the project and aftermath of the problems caused by the lack of experience on the part of the customer, but they also became liable for a lot of extra expense in wasted time, job progress and efficiency, plus implications for their next diarised projects and future programme.

Double handling, material deliveries in the wrong order, lack of control over the suppliers, wrong product sizes, different product colours, and a host of other problems that were not of the direct fault of  the contractor, with little or no real scope for a decent profit on the labour only price to recover the losses.

Plus of course, the expense and worry of a Court case claim against the company for whatever costs the customer decides to try to reclaim.

This subject has arisen many times in recent years, and materials such as plants, walling, timber, statuary, water features/fountains, and many other ‘objects’ that the customer has purchased and engaged a Landscape Contractor to carry out works on – with similar stories of delays and mis-information regarding every kind of problem.

These Court Claims and costs may include other allegations concerning failures under the Consumer Protection Acts for defaults and defects in the project.

Protect yourself, with care and attention to the wording of your quotation, extrapolating and highlighting anything that involves matters over which you can have no control. Include a Day Rate for all unexpected works, including delays and sub-standard quality of product and service (e.g. deliveries in a timely manner) and any costs that may be incurred through no fault of your own.

Alan Sargent

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Allowing The Customer To Run The Project

Working as a Dispute Expert Witness allows me to see first-hand, many examples of trial and tribulation, as tempers flare and uncomplimentary comments abound regarding the professionalism of the contractor, combined with the interference of the customer!

Despite full Terms and Conditions, all documentation in order and everything set fair for a sensible methodology in starting and finishing a scheme, somewhere along the line, the chain is broken and disputes arise between the two Parties. Common sense collapses and the whole project becomes poisoned.

This particular consultancy niche is something I quite enjoy doing; in most cases, happy resolution is achieved, and both Parties shake hands and agree to resolve matters. There are some times though, that become problematic when the Contractor forgets that they are, indeed, Contractors.

Paperwork and essential documents such as a ‘Contract’ are marginalised, and both customer and contractor – garden designers, landscapers and garden maintenance firms – all are ‘contractors’ – are just as likely to fall into the trap of becoming over friendly with their clients. For over half a century building gardens, I have always resisted allowing any client from becoming My Best Friend! I relish the Master/Servant relationship, because we sometimes need ‘social barriers’ between us to act as a protective shield in a professional situation.

As Gardeners, we are happy to discuss sites with potential clients, and homeowners are pleased to find a kindred spirit who understands their wishes and needs, willing to help them to achieve their dream gardens.

A few sketches, some paving samples, a mood board of planting ideas, and a figure to carry out the work, whether it is designing and planning, or putting together a schedule of works, with some figures and estimates agreed over a cup of coffee, all leading to a properly documented Quotation, complete with all compliances.

Start dates are agreed, perhaps some money paid in advance as a Mobilisation Payment or Booking Fee to cover the costs of materials and to ensure the project is put in the diary, and all seems set fair for a happy job.

In too many cases however, the contractor has not ensured that a detailed set of documents are in place. These include a quotation, specification and method statement (basically, a written storyboard of how the works are to be carried out) which enables the contractor and customer to know exactly what was agreed, when, how, what, why and where. Critically, the contract should state whether it is an Estimate or Quotation.

 Construction projects involving Health & Safety, machinery or equipment will require a CDM (Contract (Design Management) Regulations 2015 Plan which must be formulated for the scheme from beginning to end.

An Estimate is precisely that; an estimate of how long the works will take, and an idea of the likely costs. A Quotation is a fixed price contract, stating that a certain amount of work will be carried out for an agreed amount of money.

An estimate may also allow for the customer to have an active input into the project once it is under way, with any alterations noted and at the end of the job, payment made to the satisfaction of both Parties.

However, when this lack of financial discipline is found under Quotation rules, any such variations must be recorded and charged as extras. Even if some things are changed to cheaper quality, the saving (if any) must be recorded and agreed in writing.

An example of this would be if the customer decided to opt for a cheaper grade of paving, thereby saving a hundred pounds on the price of the job.

The overall strength and integrity of a project may be compromised by the simple act of saving the customer a hundred pounds if the paving proves to be more porous (for example) or there is more wastage due to the delivery method and crating, so that the job requires additional product, adding time to the original work schedule plus any warranty issues.

It is essential to keep the customer as far away from becoming involved in the running of a project as possible. Certainly, the client should be allowed to request changes and alterations, and all such variations agreed as such, together with the cost differential if any.

Often, if a client is well versed (for example, an Architect or Surveyor by trade) in the ways of construction, it is all too easy for the contractor to abdicate their responsibilities for the scheme allowing the customer to take over the day to day management of a project, simply because it is the easiest things to do.

This scenario is surprisingly common. For the sake of peace, and to avoid daily changes to a scheme, the landscaper is happy to allow the client to take charge of the job. After all, if the client really knows what they want, and are happy to instruct the team on site, what can go wrong? They will be getting what they want, and should be happy with the end results as they are providing the detailing on a daily basis.

Instead of asking the Contractor to incorporate a statue they bought at auction, or decide to increase the flow rate of a fountain, they simply ask the staff on site to organise anything that is required.

However, at the end of the project, when the final account is to be settled, is when the issues really start to come to light. The client refuses to pay for any extras, because they were only required due to the fact that you were never on site to instruct your staff, or make any decisions, so they were obliged to do your job!

The project overran because of your lack of supervision; materials were never delivered on time and to schedule; your staff did not know what they were supposed to be doing because you were not on site.

Why did you design that border, when I told you that my wife had not made her mind up if she wanted it created. I don’t care what you thought, you should have checked with me first, after all, I am the person who is paying you.

Once you allow a customer to become involved in the practical work of building a garden, or let them instruct your staff personally, you risk serious misunderstandings and problems.

Think and act like Contractors at all times, working with the written word. Work with the old adage ‘If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen’.

Good will and selling yourself to potential customers is an essential part of our trade.

Keeping tight control on your business is equally essential for the good of all concerned.

Never forget – you are the Contractor. You must control the Contract at all times.

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Pros And Cons Of Static Advertising

Most Landscape businesses do not have a visible public presence, but are tucked away in farmyards, small business parks, rented yards in industrial estates and so on. All too often, they are not the tidiest of places, with a permanent rubbish skip, couple of portacabins and a few pallets of leftover bricks! They are not meant to attract the general public – they are our working and storage spaces after all.

There are times though, when we wish we could have a high profile public face, as an alternative to paying out for expensive advertising in magazines or local newspapers. There is a temptation to find a different, more appropriate style of getting the attention of locals who may be tempted to invite you to quote for their landscaping or maintenance works.

Finding a suitable site, with a high enough profile and above all, visibility, is the difficult problem. Look around your locality, and see what options may be open to you.

Possibilities suggested including renting an area of land to be landscaped as a display, sponsoring a roundabout or creating a display garden in a public space in your local town, with advice sought regarding the pro’s and con’s of such a venture.

Some of these ideas have been raised outside the confines of Facebook pages or Cluster Group meeting, with some promoted during Breakfast Business Groups, and were actively encouraged by other Trades within the organisation, as it appears to be an attractive option that will benefit all Members by beautifying the town, at the same time as advertising the BBG Members’ Landscape or Gardening business.

Whilst I applaud the idea in principle, it would be sensible to consider the cost of such an undertaking, both in terms of cash and time.

Those readers who were around fifty years ago may remember Pulborough Railway Station, where the local Nursery/Landscape firm of Cheals were based. The embankment leading up to the station was planted with a variety of shrubs and ground cover, complete with a sign stating ‘This garden is maintained by Cheals of Pulborough’ (long since taken over by one of the major multiples).

It was a weed infested, scruffy area covered in crisp packets and drink cans, and was most definitely not a good advert for the local firm! A large percentage of passengers were, and still are, wealthy stockbrokers and bankers – precisely the target audience that Cheals Directors were originally trying to attract with their investment.

At the same time, Cheals also owned a second, smaller garden centre at Crawley. Opposite the centre was a roundabout, with two timber edged raised beds filled with coloured bedding bearing the legend ‘Cheals’. Both of these features were very attractive, and enhanced not only the road journey, but were an eye-catching dynamic example of positive advertising. Even today, many years since the business changed name and ownership, Cheals Roundabout remains the common name for that particular roundabout.

How many roundabouts have you seen, bearing the legend Sponsored, Planted and Maintained by XXX Nursery Ltd, or XXXX Landscapes Ltd?

With a few beds of prostrate conifers or ground cover roses, all flailed to within a few inches of the ground because the local authorities had taken over the management due to a lack of performance by the Sponsoring firm, the visual impact and abiding memory of the scene is purely negative.

Such advertising requires a lot of thought and decision making on behalf of the company. It is not a short term investment, and matters of practicality and finance need to be extrapolated over a ten year period before committing to taking on a static site.

Choosing a site is of paramount importance. Roundabouts are only one such option. Others include a garden or identifiable bed outside a particular establishment, such as a local Bank, Golf Club, Sports Club or somewhere you will be seen by a regular group of people who may be able to afford your services or products. (For that reason, Hotels for example, are not as attractive as advertising venues due to the transient nature of the passing trade.)

Garden Centres, especially smaller independent sites may welcome your input, but any advertising message or visual impact may well be overwhelmed by other displays set up by the Centre staff who will be on site at all times and changing their plant offers with the seasons, leaving your efforts looking tired in comparison.

There are of course, many examples of highly successful static advertising displays, where all factors have been taken into consideration.

Not only the original financial outlay of creating the display, including any signage, which should be easily cleaned, visible and tasteful (as well as passing any Local Authority permits) but also factor in the labour costs of regular maintenance and any fresh plants that may be required according to the type of garden/display.

One such display became the pride and joy of the owners of a local nursery, and they could be found standing outside the venue (Horsham Railway Station in Sussex) handing out red roses complete with foil and pin to  local, regular, wealthy travellers off to The City, wedding style button holes on St Georges Day. They were as famous for their free patriotic and timely gifts as their garden centre became popular, by using the static advertising site as a creative and powerful medium.

Look around your own location and population. Where best to target your audience, not only for the immediate visual impact, but also produce a long term business plan for the venture. Making decisions on this subject need to be weighed, benefits against cost, not only allowing for a feature that can be easily updated and affordable, but that will not quickly become a sad and negative statement on your business.

If you can manage to create something exciting and worthy of comment and attractive to your chosen audience, well maintained and relevant, your investment will earn its cost many times over.

Static advertising using living materials is not the same as a billboard, or neon flashing lights.

It needs to contain a certain amount of drama and flair, be bold and eye-catching and easily updated to keep a seasonal appeal aimed at your marketplace.  Try not to be too stylised, with an ultra-modern ‘trendy’ planting scheme, otherwise you will reduce the attraction to potential customers. Rather, try and create something suited to the location. In a sleepy Sussex village, roses and lavender perhaps.

It is a science all of its’ own, and if you get it right, you will reap the rewards for many years to come. Check out the potential in your area. Static advertising has huge potential for your company – handled in a sensible, costed and positive manner.

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Keeping Contracts Neat and Tidy

There is a worrying trend creeping in to Landscaping and other projects, which is causing many issues and disputes between Contractors and customers, regarding responsibilities for the works. It is of special concern to Landscapers, and it is manifesting itself in a variety of different ways.

With clients becoming ever more aware regarding costs and prices, and designers looking to increase their share of a profit on a project, contracts are being divided and shared amongst more than one person when it comes to the supply of materials.

Designers have for years supplemented their income by removing the supplying and installing of plant material from a design, and provided that all parties agree – Client, Contractor and Designer – to divide the contract into two parts, one for the ‘hard’ construction, the other for ‘soft’ planting, then problems of responsibility and warranty should not arise. It is only when the designer does not enter into a separate contract, including matters such as plant selection, transport, delivery costs, planting labour, removal of old plants pots etc that the need to provide a written warranty to the client, (leaving the contractor to pick up any subsequent issues with aftercare) do problems occur.

Put simply, if the designer (or client) wishes to supply and plant the garden then the landscaper must have a cut-off point written into their contract. This is called reaching a stage of Practical Substantial Completion, and is the trigger date for project completion and production of the final invoice. Any warranty period that the landscaper has written into their contract must start at that date, and not the date the project is complete i.e. fully planted.

The landscape contractor should have complete control, and therefore responsibility over the project from start to finish. All of this should be clearly spelled out under the Main Contractors CDM 2015 Plan, and no variations from the plan should be permitted without written confirmation and agreement reached in writing between the contract Parties.

This is where the current trend for others to become involved starts to cause problems for all parties (although primarily for the contractor).

As a Consultant, I am called in to sort out a wide range of problems, some more complicated than others. No two cases are ever the same, but in order to illustrate the potential extent of difficulties, I will condense a couple of cases into one imaginary story.

The Contractor carries out a full survey, producing an itemised schedule of works and materials, including paving, walling,  and plants. They provide a breakdown of the materials into the various parts of the project to enable the client to see where the money is being spent, and to allow for reductions in cost to be made if necessary without compromising the project or contractors profits and efficiency.

This openness is welcomed by the client, who now understands how the price has been arrived at. They can see that certain fees are payable for preliminaries, toilet hire, rubbish removal, etc that are not generally recognised by a paying customer.

They can also see the costs of materials, and this is where the problems start to manifest themselves. The customer looks at the cost of paving @ £30.00 m2 plus VAT. On-line research shows that the same product may be obtained from a local Builder Merchants at only £25.00 per m2 including VAT, without appreciating that the product may be described the same as the contractor, but failing to understand that the quality and regular sizing of the material may not be the same. They are not comparing like for like except in a superficial manner.

I am only taking one product as an example, although on some projects, the customers have insisted on paying for all of the materials which only increased problems.

By removing that item from the bill of quantities, they reduced the amount included by the contractor (i.e. not the amount they paid, thereby saving themselves the difference between the two prices).

Having removed to need to supply the product from the contractor however, they are not willing to take responsibility for the actual supply and delivery. The contractor is obliged to wait for delivery, and still make arrangements to offload, stack and store the product, without payment as that item has been removed from the bill.

Any damaged paving, scratches, shortfall due to such defects and the attendant costs in resourcing replacement products will suddenly fall to the contractor. Natural stone products vary in shade, and colour matching may not be possible.

The client has saved money, only to potentially load more costs onto the contractor, who will probably be blamed for selecting the product in the first place!

There is another aspect to this subject, and that relates to ownership of the product. In some cases, the contractors ask the client to pay for the chosen product to help with their cash flow. The customer duly arranges payment by credit card, and the materials arrive on site. The contractor reduces the price by the amount paid for the materials so that the sum payable by the client remains the same.

If any defects show up in the product, the contractors can then unfairly claim that they were not liable as they did not supply the materials. By doing a favour to the contractor, the customer suddenly finds that they have taken on a responsibility that should never have been theirs in the first place!

You can see just how messy this subject can become. Try to avoid creating problems by being firm with your customers. You are the Contractor. You are in charge of the project. You are responsible in Law under the Contract (Design Management) Regulations 2015.

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Non-Refundable Deposits

Following on from the Deposits, Booking Fees and Mobilisation Payments article in The Library, to avoid confusion, I have written this essay as a separate issue, as the other terms are variations on the same subject – asking for money in advance of a project.

Non-Refundable Deposits must be considered differently, as they involve Contract terminology i.e. they appear to be separate in contractual  terms. By requesting payment from a customer for an amount of money that is not intended at the time of asking to be repaid by the Contractor is not the same as asking for payment against some future benefit.

A Deposit is part of the total cost of a project sum total, to be paid as confirmation of the booking of the works scheduled in a quotation. This sum – often a percentage of the total – is payable against an invoice, is subject to the Consumer Credit Act 1974 as amended in 2000, which provides an opportunity for the customer to cancel within certain time limits.

Some businesses insist that the Deposit is non-refundable, and even write this term into their contract, regardless of the Consumer Credit Act – in fact, ignoring it completely! Every contract should have a ‘cooling off’ period notice in the Terms & Conditions as a matter of course, and the Contractor should be drawing attention to this matter at the time of tendering.

Non-Refundable Deposits may be considered as being unfair terms  under the Consumer Credit Act and as such are not valid.

Some of the deposit money may be refundable after the cooling off period, but only if the Contractor can prove actual loss of profit (i.e. that they were unable to fill the work slot due to short notice), or actual cost;  any refund being the difference between that proven cost or loss of profit and the amount paid as a deposit. This sum should be considered to be invoiceable, with any VAT as applicable, together with a Credit Note, including any VAT against the original Deposit invoice for the balance between the two figures.

Claims of loss of profit or actual costs must be provided in writing and proven with factual evidence of such losses.

During the cooling off period, all of the money paid as a deposit must be repaid on request, regardless of cost or loss of profit.

After the cooling off period, all of the money paid as a deposit must be refunded if no provable losses have been incurred.

The Contractor has no entitlement to retain any of the deposit money if the contract is cancelled unless actual loss can be proven. This is in line with those contracts used in other businesses, including holiday lets and hot air balloon bookings for example, where cancellation fees are charged in the event of cancellation, and may vary according to the length of time between the start date and time of cancelling. If the holiday let owner cannot fill the cancelled time slot, a higher amount may be retained, and if sufficient time is available to find another customer, the amount is lesser.  In other words, these fees are set on a sliding scale.

Therefore, a Contractor would need to prove that they had no other work available because of the cancellation, not simply that they had no other work that could be done instead.

Although this article is written separately from the Deposits, Booking Fees and Mobilisation Payments feature in The Landscape Library, is may be useful to compare the options for securing payment in advance and plan accordingly.

Alan Sargent

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Deposit, Booking Fee Or Mobilisation Payment?

A question that has been raised by a Landscape Library reader concerns the subject of prepayments on contracts. On a recent webinar organised by the Association of Professional Landscapers, there was some confusion regarding the terminology, although everyone knew what the subject matter referred to;    Money up front!

There are in fact, certain legal issues with the strength of the requests – and may well be influenced by the Terms and Conditions laid out in your Companies working methods. For the sake of simplicity, I will give you my interpretation of the three titles, as demonstrated during a number of Dispute issue cases I have been involved in over the years. Please note, these notes are based on my experience, and are offered as examples only.

Deposits

A sum of money, either a nominated amount or a percentage of the total of a given project. The deposit is actioned by means of an invoice, dated and recorded for Tax purposes, with an invoice number and Tax Point including VAT. This amount becomes payable once a contract is signed and agreed, and is a sum to be paid in full in order to confirm acceptance of the project price, Terms and Conditions and any time scale given by the Contractor.

This Deposit is made in a somewhat similar manner to someone purchasing a motor vehicle. The Deposit confirms the agreed ‘deal’ and is a sum that will reduce the overall Contract amount which will be however much the final invoice is for the project, including any additional work or ‘Extras’ that may have accrued during the life of the Contract.

As such, a Deposit may bring you into the realms of The Consumer Credit Act 1974,(amended in 2006) especially if the deposit is taken at the time of placing the order, as the client retains the right to cancel and withdraw from a Credit Agreement – which is effectively what you are setting up when you ask for and take a deposit. By signing the agreement off trade premises, there is a ‘cooling off’ period of five clear days plus fourteen days for the customer to change their minds and cancel the credit agreement.

The contractor must then repay the amount given (the word is ‘provided’) by the customer, together with any interest that may have accrued up to the point they have cancelled. This is the theory in Law, but unless the amount taken as deposit was large, the matter of interest would probably not apply.

It is therefore extremely important that the Contractor does not see the deposit money as their own and use the funds as part of their general income, as the amount will become repayable immediately if the customer cancels. They do not have to give any reason at all for cancelling. They have the right to change their minds without explanation.

Therefore, to request and accept a Deposit is something to be approached with a degree of caution, unless you are able to place those funds out of general working finances to be able to immediately refund them on request by the customer.

Booking Fees

Some Contractor request a Booking Fee, which may an arbitrary sum depending on the project value, often between £250.00 and £2,000.00. This Booking Fee is made ostensibly to ensure that the scheme is placed in date order, i.e. to reserve a slot in the Contractors working diary.  This amount should be paid via a VAT invoice in the normal way and treated as a part of the Main Contract i.e. the sum reducing the final account invoice.

Although at first appearance, it may seem to somewhat similar to a Deposit, a Booking Fee is in fact a preliminary payment against a project, and will be used to start the whole contractual process including but not exclusively, opening a project file, with forward planning and placing of bookings for labour (including commissioning specialist or sub-contract labour), vehicles, equipment, labour (allowing for holiday planning etc), starting work on the CDM Plan, arranging matters such as may be required including temporary trackway access, toilets and welfare etc.

All of this work is chargeable to the customer, and should be considered to be part of the project price.

If however, for any reason the customer decides to cancel the project, and request the return of their Booking Fee, this should be repaid LESS any expenses genuinely expended by the preliminary works as described and any other out of pocket expenses including office time and telephone calls/other disbursements. All of these matters must be made clear in the Terms and Conditions of the Contract.

Mobilisation Payment

A Mobilisation Payment is a payment made against the total Contract sum, and may be as high as you wish, as it is not based on a percentage or any other relative amount.

On certain projects, you may be called upon to order and arrange delivery for a particular product or service that is going to prove inordinately expensive, (e.g. crane hire) difficult to handle/manoeuvre e.g. a sculpture or valuable feature, or so specialised that you will not be able to place it in stock should the customer change their minds – perhaps a particular colour of paving slab that you have never seen before, or would ever use elsewhere!

Very often, these items cost a great deal more than simply a percentage figure, and because they are not items that you can mitigate your costs against, and will have to pay for in advance because you do not have credit facilities with the suppliers. I personally have raised a Mobilisation Payment for as much as £60,000.00 on one project, a sum I could not cover from my business account.

As such, Mobilisation Payments should be invoiced in the normal way, and a tracking system set up to demonstrate – if required – to the customer that you are keeping check on the progress made by the suppliers and their transporters, bearing in mind that these will be firms you may not have dealt with before and owe you no allegiance.

Mobilisation Payments are therefore not normally refundable, and should be used only on those jobs that demand a greater immediate outlay of capital.

(An interesting case; a Contractor raised a Mobilisation Payment with the customer, who decided to change his mind and cancel the project. The contractor had already purchased a large number of trees and plants that were of no use to them. The customer was offered the balance of the money that was unspent returned, LESS the cost of the plants, LESS the amount of money that it would cost to have the plants maintained until THE CUSTOMER (who was the rightful owner) had disposed of them in any way he wished. In this case, the customer reinstated the project, as it would have cost him too much money to cancel.)

As always, everything depends on your Terms and Conditions. In many cases, it is advisable to include any special notes of those matters that fall outside of the standard T & Cs within the wording of your quotation. Never be afraid of adding as many provisos as you wish in the body of the quotation, just because there is no Term or Condition in your Standard text.

ESCROW System

On larger projects, it may be advisable to consider using the ESCROW system of payments, where the customer deposits the whole sum for the scheme into an account which is held by a Third Party under the ESCROW scheme. This system allows money to be signed off and drawn down as required, usually on a Contract Fixed Period, or against a set of pre-agreed progresses on site for particular areas, amounts or partial projects.

This also allows for procedural handovers of sections when subject to a Substantial Practical Completion agreement, when areas are passed over to the customer who then assumes responsibility for maintenance, watering etc.

This article was written by Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Terms And Conditions For Garden Maintenance Contractors

Starting out in 1968 as a part time maintenance gardener/part time horticultural laboratory technician, I have worked in many private gardens, designed and built around two hundred gardens across the UK in the domestic sector, and learned the skills required to design, build and maintain projects.

In many ways, designing and building are the easiest part, as one can gain great enjoyment out of ‘inventing’ and constructing a unique set of horticultural and gardenesque features all combined into one place, using spatial awareness and building skills to create something especially for a customer.

However, I believe that the greatest satisfaction is gained from maintaining, nurturing and establishing a garden from season to season, watching and helping nature to complete the whole scheme to its’ best advantage, teasing each element into its’ bounds as the designer envisaged.

I have maintained many gardens in the private sector, and completed many large scale ‘commercial’ style sites, mainly in the South of England. These include several Stately Home houses, with many acres and a substantial number of staff. Between 2001 and 2007 I was Head Gardener to Goodwood House, with a brief to oversee the construction of the new Rolls Royce factory, checking the very substantial landscaping works on behalf of the Estate, as well as restoring the Historic Gardens, at least, as far as was possible given the centuries of horticultural neglect that had taken place since they were in their prime.

There are two distinct types of Garden Maintenance Contract; the first involving firms and individuals who maintain gardens using all of their own tools and equipment, supplying labour, transport, products and materials as required (e.g. fertilisers) and remove all waste from site. The second involves those firms and individuals who use only the owners tools and equipment, leaving all rubbish on site.

There are some firms who carry out elements of both types of contract, and therefore it is important to segregate and remove those Terms that do not relate to your business BUT remain aware that they may need to be added back in for some clients. As long as your Terms are progressive i.e. that you do not miss any one of the items out without sound reason (or include them at a later date) to interrupt the overall flow of the Terms & Conditions, they will remain a solid base on which to conduct your business

In essence, these Terms and Conditions are a combined chain. Coming across a Term that you have seen elsewhere and like the sound of it, by adding it to the progressive chain you may negate some part, or all of the rest of document by repetition or contradiction without being aware of that matter.

T & Cs are a statement of how you sell your services, skills and time. How much money per hour/day/visit/project/mile etc and when and how payments should be made and to whom. They are the structure under which you are prepared to offer those things.  Keep everything as simple as possible so that the client can clearly understand  your offer.

Standard Terms and Conditions for Garden Maintenance Contractors

Date

Client

Address of Site

Client Site Number

  1. The term ‘The Client’ shall mean…………………………………………………………….who will be responsible for all payments to the Contractor unless otherwise notified in writing prior to commencement of the works. Unless otherwise stated in writing, the Client shall be deemed to be the rightful owner of the property as per the address shown above. All payments as set out in the Works Schedule are payable in a timely manner as defined by that Schedule, otherwise subject to a Late Payment surcharge of 2.5% per month accumulative on all outstanding sums until payment is made in full.

  2. The Term ‘The Contractor’ shall mean……………………………………………………..…who will be responsible to the Client for the works described in the Contract attached.

  3. Nothing in these Terms shall affect the Client’s statutory rights as a Consumer

  4. The Client shall provide proper access to the site at all times during normal working hours – 08.00 – 17.00 Monday to Friday. Proper access shall be defined as reasonable passage into the site, both front and rear gardens as may be required by the works schedule, to allow for tools and equipment to pass without undue difficulty.

  5. The Contractor shall maintain in force all necessary insurances, licences, certificates and other legally required documents and disclose them to the Client when reasonably called upon to do so.

  6. The Contractor shall supply and provide all tools and equipment necessary to carry out those tasks as set out in the Maintenance Schedule, including all fuels, oils and other lubricants as may be required. All machinery shall be in good order of repair and be in safe condition, and not hazardous to the operative or any other person on site. (The Contractor shall not, at any time, use any tools and equipment belonging to the Client without express permission given at the time of use. The Contractor shall be liable for any damage caused to that article and not returned unless in good order)

  7. The Contractor shall provide all personnel with adequate suitable personal protective    equipment, and carry adequate first aid and other items to ensure the safety of those working on site.

  8. All operatives working on site must be properly trained in the tasks they are set, and show due diligence in their working practices. These diligences include the wearing of protective equipment as required by their tasks.

  9. Any and all additional products, materials, etc including fertilisers, weedkillers, seeds, composts, and other perishable or non-perishable goods requested by the Client or included in the schedule of works shall be properly charged for and shown on the invoice as extras over and above the rates.

  10. The Client to ensure that the site is clear of all obstructions including but not restricted to toys, furniture (unless the site precludes such operations), dog and cat faecal matter, prior to the Contractor commencing the works programme.

  11. The Works Schedule, as set out in the Letter of Quotation, includes all operations, tasks and practices to carry out those items. Other works may be carried out on an ad hoc basis provided that due notice is given to the Contractor (e.g. clearance of unexpected storm damage) which may take priority over the scheduled works and prevent the scheduled works from taking place. These tasks need not affect the rates unless additional expense is incurred for matters such as Waste Disposal.

  12. Waste Disposal may take place by removing vegetative matter off site and carting to a Licensed Waste Disposal Depot and charged at the rate shown in the Letter of Quotation or left on site in an area designated and agreed by the Client.

  13. The Contractor to maintain and leave on site, a Day Book, in which will be recorded those tasks and operations carried out during a visit. This Day Book to be left in an agreed position, which should also act as a messaging service for the Client to leave instructions and requests for the Contractor in the event of absence by the Client.

  14. The Contractor cannot be held liable for any damage to, or costs involved in, any underground hazards, hidden cables, obstructions or services not made known in writing prior to works commencing.

  15. The Contractor shall leave the site in a clean and tidy condition after completion of the works for the session.

  16. If, for any reason, the Contractor deems the site unfit for working in a safe manner e.g. heavy frost, waterlogging, snow and/or ice, or the ground is not clear of excess animal waste, the Client shall be notified, and an entry made in the Day Book to record the problem. In a likewise manner, the Client may cancel or postpone a visit by giving at least 24 hours notice, and a new date re-scheduled.

  17. If the site is closed, and works access forbidden by National Law or edict, the Client and the Contractor agree to abide by that notice and neither Party shall be held liable for any costs involved in that hiatus, including and especially Breach of Contract.

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NOTES REFERENCE TERMS AND CONDITIONS

  1. It is vital to identify the person or person you are working for. If more than one person is involved i.e. husband and wife, both must be included and named. In the case of a Company, the Director responsible must be identified and named.
  1. Your practice and name must be shown in full including status e.g. Limited Company
  1. Legal Statement included to prove that you understand the need for legal documentation
  1. Access to site is paramount to efficiency. If you have to clear a pathway down a side alleyway to get into the site, this may take ten minutes or more. Your working day is important, and you cannot allow clients to cause you any delays by locking you out from site.
  1. This item is important, as it proves your bone fide credentials and shows you are a qualified and properly dedicated business.
  1. This may be subject to your business model. This term may need to be adapted to reflect your style of approach. You may find it helpful to produce your own version of this Term. Some customers may have all of their own tools, others have none.
  1. An important professional statement. Your staff are equipped with all appropriate personal protective equipment including First Aid.
  1. Another important statement of your professionalism. It may be useful to introduce everyone working on the site and provide the Client with their personal accreditations prior to beginning a contract programme.
  1. All materials that are not included in a Maintenance Contract, usually perishables or seasonal goods must be paid for as you go along.
  1. Self evident. You do  not want to have to clear dogs mess and a pile of toys before you start mowing and strimming. You may also include animals and children in that statement if you are not content that they are safe.
  1. The Works Schedule should be as shown in your Letter of Quotation. What works are to be carried out, how much, how many, what type, where the rubbish is to go, seasonal jobs e.g. pruning, planting, watering etc – as long a list of jobs as may be required on a site by site basis. For this reason, it is not possible to include these Work Schedules as part of the Terms and Conditions.
  1. Waste disposal must be included in your Working Schedule. Allowance should be made for extra quantities of rubbish in neglected sites, before your attendances reduce the volume once you have the garden under control. Neglected and overgrown gardens may require additional time of visits in the early days to bring them into a manageable condition and should be charged for accordingly.
  1. A Site Day Book or diary is an important part of a Maintenance Contract, as the existence of such a two way communication method between you and the Client reduces any risks of misunderstanding and complaint. Requests for additional works may be recorded and that document will stay with the garden and may be referred to at a later day.
  1. Self explanatory.
  1. Self explanatory. If possible, a photograph or two of the site as seen when you left is invaluable if you have the technology!
  1. This Term is included to prevent Clients from demanding works when the site will be at risk of damage if you do so. Obviously, each site is different, and this Term may not be required for all sites. However, it gives the Contractor some control regarding horticultural sound practices.
  1. This may be described as Force majoure or Act of God. It seems a sensible precaution given the coronavirus to consider inserting a Term that allows you to withdraw your services without penalty in case of National Emergency.

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(Note;  TERMS AND CONDITIONS for Landscape Contractors and Garden Designers may be found elsewhere in The Landscape Library.

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk

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Terms And Conditions To Avoid!

The majority of my work nowadays involves Disputes and Dispute Issues, requiring independent reports commissioned by owners, contractors and solicitors, usually at the instruction of a Court, where an Expert Witness is called in to act of behalf of the Court in providing them with a detailed unbiased description of a site or project.

One of the first things I require is a copy of all documentation, especially the quotation and specification, terms and conditions etc to enable me to start with the facts of the contract. What work is included, how much product, how large an area, quantities, quality, express or implied and any other written details of the project. Without these facts, I can only describe the site as I see it, without clearly understanding how and why it arrived at that condition!

I do not get involved in personal arguments, emails, ‘he said, she said, I said’ etc. That is not my role. I do not act as an advocate for either side, being totally independent, and looking only at the facts as I see them, in my opinion.

As a part of that process, I am obliged to check through the Terms & Conditions of a quote, if only to see if they have been met by the Contractor. T & Cs form the baseline for my reports, as much as the actual quotation, as they are evidence of the methodology to be applied by the Contractor. They will normally include reference to Method Statements, CDM 2015 and Risk Assessments.

The following are genuine excerpts from quotations, under Terms & Conditions. I have highlighted the words that are particularly inappropriate and then made comment on why they should not be included.

Case One 

All materials on this job will remain the property of………..until full and final payment is received.  ………………reserve the right to reclaim any materials and reverse any works completed in the event of non-payment.

This contractor is creating a nightmare situation for the firm. Can you imagine if the customer said OK, take everything away and reinstate my garden as it was before you came? The owner is perfectly entitled to say such a thing, and the contractor is obliged to comply, because it is in their Terms and Conditions. How is it even possible! And yet the contractor has used this term to enforce payment.

Case Two

Sometimes it may be necessary for sub-contractors to be paid directly by the customer. If this is necessary you will be properly notified.

Can you imagine the logistical nightmare?  How would the contractor deal with the paperwork on the scheme? Would they reduce the quoted sum by the value of the sub-contractors invoice? How would this effect their CDM Plan?  Who is employing the sub-contractor? By this token it is the customer. What if the sub-contractor messes up on the project – who is responsible for their work?

Case Three

Landscaper shall have total control of the work and shall be solely responsible for the construction means, methods, techniques, sequences and procedures.

In other words, the contractor is acting as designer and builder, taking on every aspect of the scheme without recourse to any third party, including the owners.  In this particular case, the design/build contractor chose to totally ignore the submitted and agreed plans, despite the protestations of the owners, changing the paving pattern as he had changed his mind, and the new way was the one he wanted.

Case Four

PAYMENT – Non-refundable Twenty percent (20%) of the total cost of the contract cost shall be payable in advance.

That’s it. 20% mobilsation payment with no explanation.

Case Five

This fee will be split into two separate tranches; £………for the design and specification and £….. for project management.

The designer did not project manage the job, and denied all such liability. For your information, the term Project Management is widely held to be;

A temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.

Project Management is the practice of initiating, executing, controlling and closing of the work of a team to achieve specific goals at the specified time. The primary challenge of project management is to achieve all of the project goals within the given constraints.

Case Six

(A Garden Designer, wishing to have complete control of a scheme without any contract)

……….  Is the sole Garden Designer working on this project and all other professionals involved with this garden project must be in consultation and agreement with me.

In other words, acting as the Project Manager without any contract or qualifications as such. The designer was to choose which contractors could do certain elements and others to carry out the remainder. The designer was to be in charge of the site, and elsewhere in the T & Cs, that they should be paid an hourly rate for their time as Project Managers.

I have many other examples of poorly considered Terms & Conditions that come across my desk all the time. Failure to ensure that your terms are robust and meaningful – not able to be dismissed as unenforceable by a Court is extremely important!

(Designers Terms & Conditions and Contractors Terms & Conditions may be found elsewhere in The Landscape Library)

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The UK Landscaping Industry 2020 – A SWOT Analysis

I have been involved in the Landscaping and garden building business for over fifty years, and seen several recessions and examples of Political uncertainty, both Nationally and Internationally, but the coronavirus pandemic has taken a tighter grip of the wellbeing of the Landscaping industry than anything I have seen before.

This is a purely personal analysis conducted under the SWOT principles – Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. It concerns the Landscape Industry alone, and does not include Suppliers, Manufacturers, Growers or those businesses that service landscapers in the UK. It does include Garden Designers, as they are often the first link in the chain of a landscape project, and Gardeners, as they are the custodians of our completed projects.

Although the essay is written in general terms, each item in the different columns will resonate at different levels with individual companies and practices, and some readers will recognise some comments as being  more germane than others.

STRENGTHS

The British Gardening pedigree is the most famous and well respected in the World. From The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to the Chelsea Flower Show, Wisley Gardens to The Royal Horticultural Society, the British gardens scene is by far the most influential in every single discipline. This fact provides the Landscaping sector with a hugely important foundation, as the skills and knowledge required by its’ artisans are recognised by all.

One positive result, at the time of writing, is that a huge number of ‘General Public’ professional people have been obliged to work from home, creating offices and virtual conference facilities into their own houses (or garden buildings). They have discovered the joys of not travelling into the City every day, or sitting for hours on the motorway. Previously leaving home at first light and returning after dark, and are now spending less time ‘at work’ (or benefiting from bonuses earned by increased work output) and will not wish to return to their Head office, except for the occasional day, and elect to  remain home-workers.

The amount of money they will save will be considerable. They will want to improve their new oasis and create new gardens and garden features such as patios, screen walls, outdoor kitchens and a host of other landscape projects, probably in the £5 – 15,000 bracket. Prime territory for the smaller landscaper, one or two week projects, design, build, completed as a Fitted Gardens package.

Landscapers, including designers and maintenance gardeners, have a huge range of skills. Landscaping is the most diverse, highly skilled ‘outdoor’ industry imaginable. Dealing with spatial awareness, design, construction specification, legal matters, construction techniques, living and inert materials, myriad products and materials, all to be skillfully blended into a whole entity is a considerable feat!

British Garden Designers are recognised as being among the finest in the World. Hundreds of designers hold an impressive portfolio including accreditations from world-class design schools, awards and medals from world-class Shows and Competitions. Many are skilled in construction techniques and produce details working drawings, as technically talented as Landscape Architects. Many are able to offer their skills and services as project overseers and provide their clients with a concept to completion service, including maintenance and aftercare manuals.

WEAKNESSES

Whilst many people will find themselves financially better off by not spending on eating out, foreign travel, working from home etc, many working in the Landscaping industry will have lost or foregone a substantial amount of money in the first half of 2020, initially with the torrential rain and floods, followed almost immediately by the coronavirus, even those who have managed throughout by minimal wages, furlough payments, Family Allowance, grants etc will not be in a position to immediately take advantage of the potential surge of work that will be available as a result of the lifting of the restrictions. Much will depend on not only the duration of the restrictions, but the speed at which they are lifted. (A sudden relaxation, whilst unlikely, cannot be ignored)

Banks will be wary of lending to businesses that will have suffered financially due to the weather and virus factors, or if they do lend, it will be a high rates. The Government may shame banks into not profiteering from the virus, but will not be so ready to condemn them for normal trading practices.

Builders Merchants and Suppliers may offer extended credit or payment terms, but nothing is certain. Materials may be in short supply in the immediate and short term, especially those that arrive from distant shores. Even if Britain is declared open for business, other countries may remain in lockdown.

Finding decent labour at any time is very difficult. Firms that have managed to retain their best staff during the lockdown may be rewarded by keeping them once the hiatus is over, but again, nothing is certain. Loyalty is limited when it comes to betterment, and workers will have been searching for alternatives during the downturn, and may well have offers in the pipeline.

Designers with customers who were previously enthusiastic and settled may well have changed their minds about the scope and range of projects signed off and agreed. If a client suddenly changes their mind, and requires alterations for reasons of budget or afterthought will not, in many cases, be willing to pay full rates for new drawings. Designers operating under Terms of Engagement may not have the correct contract to cope with this unexpected issue.

OPPORTUNITIES

During the current lockdown, now is the time to look at fine tuning your business. Look ahead in a very positive manner. It is far better to believe that you are going to be very busy with orders, and able to cope, rather than suddenly finding yourself on the back foot.  Check your Terms and Conditions, learn to celebrate and use CDM 2015 to your advantage, learn and understand a raft of British Standards especially concerning your particular trades; paving, cement, turf, top soil, plants, timber etc, and really get to grips with them. They are incredibly valuable for your confidence, staff training and customer marketing.

Staff Training, even Distance training via emails or Skype can be highly productive. If your staff are self- isolating and prepared to undergo such a regime, there is a great deal of information available on the Internet pages that may be useful for such an exercise. Perhaps a programme devised to suit your type of work involving evidence of progress would suit your staff. Check out The Landscape Library at www.landscapelibrary.co.uk for a comprehensive collection of training and toolbox material!

Devise a new business strategy, based on a Licensed format. Create your business model as though you were indeed, licensed. Produce a document to be handed to the customer at the initial interview stage, proving your credentials and legal foundations, including Bankers details, Insurance Policies including expiry dates, values, certificate numbers etc., plus Waste Transfer licences, vehicle insurances and tax expiry dates to show that they may be legally used on their premises.

Display your Trade Association badges and accreditations with pride! (Customers are not impressed with your social media or general signs. They prefer official qualifications that prove professionalism)

Designers and Design and Build Contractors – now may a good time to consider offering a specialist service and concentrate at least a part on promoting localised bespoke projects. Seaside Gardens, Wildflower Gardens, Wildlife Gardens, Gardens designed to keep out unwanted predators, City Gardens, Outdoor Living Gardens, High Tech Automated Gardens and a host of other ideas that will appeal to homeowners looking for a Life Space that is an extension of the house, so that in the event of another such an isolation/lockdown crisis, they will have their own private oasis.

Garden Maintenance businesses, especially the small one and two person teams will be highly prized, not only with the General Public, but also with Designers and Landscape Contractors, anxious to see their new schemes maintained professionally by expert gardeners. To set yourselves apart from the general pool of ‘Gardeners’, competing in an unfair marketplace where anyone can call themselves a gardener even after a few days of practical experience, consider joining the new Association of Professional Gardeners, which is the new initiative by the HTA and APL where candidates are obliged to undergo vetting to become members. It is the only organisation in the country (world?) for  gardeners that involves a full vetting  procedure before acceptance, and may fairly be seen as the ultimate home for professional gardeners.

Create a new image, that clearly shows that you are professional. Imagine that you are entering a new world where quality and professionalism is everything. You will be in competition with many others, and it is important that you have  evidential proof of your worth.

Why not devise and create a new Company Image with the words ‘Licensed and Certified Artisan Landscapers’ with a strap line – Landscaping (or Gardening) Is A Science Without Boundaries!

THREATS

I believe that one of the most important threats to our industry in 2020 is the loss of many skilled hard landscapers to the Construction Industry. Builders are desperate for good labour, and are able to pay substantially higher wages that we can as landscapers. Our staff may have had a hard time financially since last year after the trials of the country since Christmas and will find it hard to resist the overtures of their mates in the pub talking about large sums of money on the Sites.

Sub-Contractors, even those that have been loyal to you for many years, may become less reliable if they have offers elsewhere. Others will look at the upsurge in work and decide to set up in business by themselves, especially if that upturn coincides with the Summer and the long days mean greater opportunities to make money.

House prices are almost certainly going to go down, probably between 10 and 15% across the country, although more/less dependent on where you live. I forecast a flood of people leaving cities to buy homes in the country, spending money on interior works – kitchens, bathrooms etc in the immediate future, saving any landscaping projects for two or three years.

Global downturns will no doubt have an impact on how our Suppliers are able to bring products and materials into the country. These may be fiscal – the US is likely to suffer a major fall in the financial market, with the effects showing around the globe. It may be better to consider home grown produce including natural stone, trees and shrubs, timber products including fencing materials et al.

Over trading is perhaps the most serious threat. Taking on too much work, pricing the wrong type of project just to try and stay solvent is all too easy. If you have too many acceptances, too many deposits, too many start dates and not sufficient capacity in any one of several disciplines, from finance (deposits being used to pay off previous debts or loans) to labour, yard space to store and maintain materials and plant stock in particular so that you have to pay someone to act as Yardman – an unexpected additional expense – to keep everything safe and alive and secure from vandals/thieves/deer it can quickly become a nightmare.

These are personal reflections, and as previously stated, many will not be relevant to all readers, and are simply a list of potentially germane observations. I remain hugely confident that the Garden Building industry across the UK is very buoyant and strong.

Alan Sargent

March 30th 2020

THE LANDSCAPE LIBRARY Ltd

www.landscapelibrary.co.uk   www.alansargent.co.uk

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Looking To The Future – Diversifying

Having started 2020 in a very positive way, with the promise of stability (even if the results of some public referenda were not to your personal liking) the country looked, at last to be on a pathway to profit and prosperity.

I need not expand on the current crisis that is threatening the world. Enough words have been written already without adding to them.

But the time is right I believe to look beyond the crisis as far as possible. There is no question that the whole of the Horticultural Industry, from Growers to Nurseries, Garden Centres to Wholesalers, Garden Designers to Landscapers, Maintenance Contractors to Employed Staff at Stately Homes are going to be obliged to undergo a major rationalisation in virtually every aspect of their core businesses.

There have already been many staff redundancies, short time working, reduced hours and seasonal contracts have been lost to many gardeners and horticultural workers. There are bound to be many more if the coronavirus remains a worldwide threat. Many jobs have been saved through the intervention of the Government on a scale previously thought unimaginable even in war time, but major disruption is bound to occur for at least a year or so, with may retraining and seeking safer job options.

I suggest that the most important factor facing owners and managers of all of our combined practices is to undergo a full and frank analysis of your ability to rationalise your potential future assets, and create a framework of ideas and proposals that may be initiated from a particular point in your own companies current situation.

By this I mean produce a schedule of key personnel, financial assets, buildings and land, current use of your premises, transport and equipment, office facilities, yard and other ‘establishment’ features e.g. parking, water reservoirs, irrigation systems, machinery, specialised tools and skills. Identify all of these assets, together with a schedule of potential commitments, including staff redundancy pay, financial obligations, future debts in the pipeline, and any other hazards to your future wellbeing, then produce a balance sheet of your options to diversify.

Diversification

Diversification in such a way as may be the most practical and pragmatic for your company, looking to the future, not just the next few months, but on a long-term basis. Consider your existing business. Examine all of those elements that made you as successful as you are, and weigh up the possibilities of reducing your risk to shocks in the future. Diversification may be one of the routes you could consider to mitigate and spread future risks.

A natural starting point is to measure and assess the area under your control. Whether it is a Stately Home garden, a Garden Centre or Design Practice, it is your business centre.

How many inbuilt natural or man-made features do you have? What is it that has provided you with a foundation for your current position? This is an impossibly long question to pose here, but it is the starting point for your evaluation process.

Look at your key personnel. What is the smallest number of people you need to maintain the site, regardless of financial cost. Any property that does not have sufficient staff to maintain at least the fundamental elements of the site will rapidly discover a dilapidation that will cost more to repair if allowed to be neglected.

Are you able to undertake any of the leadership roles yourself?  You may not require senior staff if you are only maintaining the business or property until such time as things return to normal, simply treading water, waiting for greater stability in the marketplace.

If you have been carrying on business in a particular field, and you have the capacity to diversify, why not apply your thoughts to what the possibilities are for you, both as a company and to suit your peculiar assets. Reassess, reappraise and see what your options really are.

There is always a need for an additional income stream, and now may be the opportunity to discover what that might be!

Possible Options

If you are a grower of carnations, or chrysanthemums, whilst I fully appreciate that these both require specialist skills and organisational techniques, could at least some of your facilities not be given over to growing herbs, fruit or vegetables?

If you are a landscape contractor, currently constructing gardens, lakes and specialist paving projects, have you considered expanding into the cleaning and maintenance of these landscape works on a contract basis?

Garden Maintenance firms – could you not add greenhouses, conservatories, playgrounds and cemeteries to your portfolio? Perhaps tennis court and swimming pool maintenance?

Stately Home Managers. Consider offering Training courses to your standard working schedules, inviting other Estates to send their employees for training, perhaps using other Head Gardeners with their own special skills to increase the offer.  Open up those areas of the garden that are not generally seen by the public including the compost area and behind the scenes at the Garden Department.

Garden Designers.  Consider offering to maintain your creations – not general maintenance such as mowing etc, but the more delicate and important things such as pruning, training and ensuring the correct treatment of the plants. A twelve month contract with monthly/quarterly  visits should prove profitable (and avoid having your scheme abused by someone less skilled than yourself!)

Nurseries and Garden Centres. Consider producing your own Home Grown plants, nurtured by your staff and grown in an open plan state where the public can watch them grow and become saleable. Perhaps invite Garden Groups to become associated/affiliated with you and offer discounts to members. Hold Open Evening events with Guest Speakers, sharing the cost with the Clubs and offering teas and cakes if you have a restaurant.

Many of these ideas will be alien to you today, but we do need to consider the impact on the Horticultural Industry as a whole, to retain and retrain staff whilst seeking new and different ways to stay in business without being so reliant on one particular specialism.

There is no doubt that this year is going to cause the industry many problems, some of which will be permanent. But I really believe that with sound business logic, looking outside of our own ‘boxes’, we will discover plenty of other opportunities to put our skills to work, supplying the Gardening world with our talents.

Work with all of your assets, skills and facilities. There is no doubt that Horticulture has been in great need of training and upskilling of staff in general long before the current crisis. Such training also applies to proprietors and owners as well as staff. Everyone should keep up to date with Laws and Regulations as well as new technology and methods of working practice.

 Diversification may be the key to maintaining interest and offering new opportunities to owners. Don’t forget to keep your insurance companies and bankers closely involved in your plans.

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Ever Changing Specification and Advice

(Keeping up with new products and information)

My work as a Disputes Expert Witness takes me all over the country, not always trying to help people with disputes and complaints, but with a wide range of commissions and briefs. This is what makes the work so interesting, as you never know what the next telephone call is going to bring.

Although I am not a trained solicitor or paralegal, my work over the past twenty-five years and more have given me a good insight and working knowledge of the important elements of carrying out surveys and reports in a variety of different formats, processes and protocols.

There are other articles within The Library if you are interested in learning more about the work of an Expert Witness. Like all landscaping related projects, nothing is ever the same, even working with the same products and design issues that appear all over the land!

The purpose of this article is to ensure that you conduct your business in such a way that you protect yourself at all times when it comes to working with specification provided by suppliers and manufacturers of a wide range of materials. For the purpose of this feature, I will concentrate on two main areas that create the greatest number of problems; Paving and Artificial Grass.

Artificial Grass

Increasingly popular as an alternative to natural grass for all kinds of reasons, not least the need to store a mower and dispose of the grass cuttings, artificial grass is available in a range of different grades, thicknesses, colours, sizes and quality. All of them arrive with instruction manuals, leaflets and sometimes, videos or podcasts explaining in detail how to lay the product, including preparations and depths of base materials and fixings.

Although these products are relatively new in the Landscape marketplace, they have been around for many years, sometimes used by funeral directors to cover piles of soil during burials, and greengrocers for their displays. Then it was known as Astroturf.  Only in the past ten years artificial grass been commonly found in gardens, with the majority of installations taking place in the past five years.

During that time, there have been many failures of installation, with the material rucking up and becoming uneven, weed roots growing through the fabric/s, subsidence, breaking free from the edging fixings etc. All of these defects may be caused by poor installations or client maintenance. The contractors did not appreciate the amount of work needed to maintain the ‘labour saving’ feature, and the customers believed they were buying an expensive form of greenery on which to relax and play games without the need for any future effort on their part!

When these schemes fall apart, the clients often reach for the legal option of trying to sue the contractor for remedial works under The Consumers Acts, for Breach of Contract or a combination of both.

The Consumers Act  remain in force and see the contractor liable for up to seven years, if poor workmanship can be proven, no matter how neglectful the customer has been. If it can be shown that the client was not issued with written instructions to be followed BEFORE the contract was signed (to ensure that they knew their future liabilities and responsibilities they owed to the contractor), the contractor may be found liable for any problems.

HOWEVER, if the contractor can show that they not only issued the customer with aftercare instructions BEFORE signing the contract, and prove that they followed the guidelines, leaflets and videos at all stages during installation, then they are likely to be found not liable in cases of failure. Retain all of this information and documentation for at least seven years in case of a complaint.

When I conduct my surveys, I always seek to discover the name of the manufacturer and type of grass, including the product name and code numbers. The product is occasionally issued with a step-by-step laying guide video.  I have to say, that these are very dated, and often not correct with their information and laying instructions! I will not mention any particular names here for obvious reasons, but the most important message is to keep and retain the information as supplied at the time of installation – even if they have been found to fail during the course of time. THE CONTRACTOR FOLLOWED INSTRUCTIONS PROVIDED.  Therefore there is no case to answer, as what else could they do?  They had met their Duty of Care to the client under the Acts.

Paving

Turning now to paving, as you know, there has been a huge explosion in the number of different materials, products, sealants, both pre and post installation, factory dried products, different grades, thicknesses, colours, countries supplying similar but varying quality materials (especially porcelain) used for a dizzying array of schemes.

Paving, cladding, steps, interior and exterior projects – sometimes partially under cover e.g. outdoor kitchens, and external/internal for use in invisible/infinity doorways and patios, the requirements for such projects should be very carefully designed. There is an article elsewhere in The Library concerning the differences between tiling and paving, and the need to consider two British Standards when working with some products which are borderline in many ways including thickness, size and density.

The same message is repeated here as relates to artificial grass.  Ensure that you retain, for at least seven years, all names, stock numbers, codes, suppliers, sizes, laying instructions etc for every job. British Standards change, even slightly, and if you can show that you followed the guide leaflets supplied by the manufacturer, you will be found not liable in case of future changes in specification.

No matter what, if you laid the product, using the methods as recommended, using the materials as specified especially regarding sealants and jointing compounds where the suppliers recommend a combination of paving/laying material and methods/jointing compound or mortar mix, the contractor will be found not liable.

Essentially, as products are developed, although it is incumbent on the contractor to follow the methods provided by the manufacturer/supplier at all times, as the years go by, and techniques are refined to work with the latest materials, it is equally right that contractors who followed the rules at the time of laying should not be found to be at fault in future years.

As always, look after yourself, and protect your company at all times.

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Selecting Suitable Turf

The extremes of weather we have experienced over the past few years have thrown up a number of problems for Landscapers. Ground heave and shrinkage of the ground under paving has been the most common complaint, although contractors are now more aware of the issues and are taking steps to alleviate potential difficulties.

There has also been an upsurge of complaints from customers regarding the condition of natural grass turfed lawns, although not so much about the preparation of sites, as the resultant quality of the grass conditions soon after the laying of turf.

Turf quality, and the expectations of some customers who desire the ultimate sward in their garden, and who believe that by ordering turf, they will immediately own a Wimbledon Court in their garden, is frequently the cause of Legal Disputes.

When buying a carpet for the house, owners will go to great lengths to choose the right type, colour and quality of their product. Obviously, with turf, the choice of colour is not going to be wide, but quality is something that is often overlooked by both contractor and customer.

Making the correct selection of the turf is therefore neglected by all concerned, until the lawn is laid, and client expectations not met. By introducing a vigorous interview regime with the customer, who should be quizzed on the use and maintenance proposals for the lawn, and following a soil sample analysis by the contractor to enable a recommended choice of seed varieties, a fully specified  selection may be offered.

Many customers do not understand the need to have a suitable seed mix for turf,  able to survive and thrive on their site, with some believing that Rye Grass is something to be avoided at all costs. Frequently of course, dwarf rye grasses are essential for the long term well-being of the lawn, and this fact should be explained to the customer.

Having decided on the nature of the soil, and any potential issues with water-logging or ground that is too free draining, an informed choice of the type of seed mix for the turf may be arrived at. All turf supplied should be to BS3969 1998 plus AI 2013, or TGA Specification approved (Turfgrass Ground Association) Each seed variety should be chosen from those listed by the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), with tolerances tested to match the type of lawn the client requires.

Close mowing regimes, winter colour choice, disease resistance and leaf fineness (especially if required for ball games e.g. bowls, croquet etc, where leaf resistance is important) will all play a part in making the selection.

The contractor should quiz the client regarding the type of mower they intend to use, and the frequency of cut, to ensure that recommendations may be made regarding future maintenance. Do they intend to play tennis or other games where damage by shoes turning quickly on a small area is expected?

Will they be installing an automatic watering system, and if so, how will it be regulated? Do they have pets or visiting wildlife that may cause chemical issues with the grass? Will there be children playing and riding bicycles on the lawn?

Is the ground likely to become waterlogged at any time, and if so, has the site been fitted with land-drains? Are they working efficiently? Is the site in full or partial shade, or full sun?

If so, these facts need to be noted for use when making the selection of grass seed varieties.

To avoid any future problems though, it is essential that the contractor supplies the customer with as much information and choice as possible, with the conversation recorded in writing, together with any recommendations.

A contractor, issuing a detailed set of aftercare instructions, based on firm evidence gleaned by taking soil samples, proving the pH of the site, nominated use of the lawn, type of mower to be used, and frequency of cuts, will have no difficulty in defending a claim from a disgruntled customer, complaining that the lawn is not fit for purpose.

Without this level of technical and formalised written specification, a contractor is left open to financial claims based on Consumer Protection Acts for supplying a product not fit for purpose. If a customer is not supplied with a written report making recommendations, and providing the contractor with their intended maintenance plans, it becomes difficult for a contractor to prove they have not been negligent or lacking in Duty of Care.

After care leaflets should be considered, or at least, a detailed written aftercare letter, dated and supplied at the time of practical substantial completion, as a hand-over document, passing responsibility on to the owner at the earliest date.

After care information may extend to highlighting any potential problems – botrytis, fusarium or mildew for example – or those manifestations that occur naturally, and are not a cause for alarm such as field fungi that are not harmful.

Seeded turf should be treated as a special element in any Landscape project documentation. It involves living plants, that have been subjected to great stress during the harvesting, lifting, transporting and laying operations, and require greater attention than most other plants in the new garden. It is the duty of the contractor to make the customer formally aware of that fact, and ensure that they fully engage in the aftercare of the installation of the lawn.

Be aware of the customer who demands ‘the perfect lawn’. There is no such thing, and can never be!

By highlighting the nature of seeded grass turf, and the stresses that the plants undergo, the contractor is offering an opportunity to provide the client with a priced menu of turf varieties, costs and the likely maintenance commitments they will have to make to become owners of the lawn they desire.

Of course, some clients may simply request ‘a lawn’. As the contractor you are still obliged to make recommendations and include your choice -and the reasons – in your quotation in order to avoid future claims and complaints.

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The Complete Quote

(An Example Of A Project Carried Out By Alan Sargent)

The project involved clearing and rebuilding of a collapsed retaining wall, comprising natural sand stone and flint, capped with bricks laid soldier course on edge. The original wall was over 100 years old, and had been leaning for many years. The wall runs along side a narrow lane in the centre of the village.

The wall collapsed during Bonfire Night, and the owners thought it was a firework exploding, only realising that their wall had collapsed across part of the lane when neighbours knocked on their door to tell them. I went past the site at 05.30 en route to another site, and anticipated a call from the owners, whom I knew well (and they knew of my walling skills).  They duly called me at 07.30 and I dispatched two men to clear the road as a matter of urgency. I knew they would not refuse to settle my account in this emergency.

However, when I returned later that day, I went to site and issued them with my Terms and Conditions, and provided them with all necessary documents, including a written quotation for the clearance works, before I gave a formal quote for the rebuilding of the wall.

I give this background to the project, as although I knew the owners well, living in the same village, I still treated them as though they were formal clients, and not in a friendly manner. In all such cases, formal quotations and protocol should still be followed. I do not have friends in business, only clients. Hence my introduction to the quote is formal – Mr and Mrs Hill, not John and Sue.

Mr and Mrs John Hill,

BY HAND

10th November 20xx

Dear Mr and Mrs Hill,

Reference xxxxxx  House – Front Retaining Wall

Further to my letter of report dated 7th November and our subsequent conversation, I have pleasure in confirming my negotiated price of Ten Thousand Pounds (including VAT on materials etc, with no VAT payable on the labour costs) for the restoration of the ten metre section (approximately) of walling that collapsed on Thursday/Friday 5th/6th November.

(I have submitted an invoice for the road clearance works, separate from, and additional to, this quotation)

For carefully excavating and clearing the remainder of the rubble and soil etc, removing the material from site by means of skips placed in your car park. All reclaimable walling materials including flint and sand stone to be retained and stored on site, also in the car park area, and placed on tarpaulin sheets and covered to keep them as dry as possible for re-use.

This work is planned for Monday 16th November, when Anthony and Jonathan will arrive on site (at 08.00) and clear as much as possible by the end of Tuesday 17th November. I have arranged with Goss Skips to deliver at least one four yard skip on the Monday, with a second unit in reserve if time permits. (I am away from mid-day 16th until early Wednesday 18th).

Once the clearance work has been completed, the second task is to excavate the new foundations, 600mm x 800mm wide to support the new/replacement walling. This operation will take place as early as possible after the initial clearance, in any event, by the end of November (weather permitting).  Again, we will fill skips placed in the driveway, as we will not be able to obtain a licence to place skips on the highway without undue delays.

The concrete foundations, in 1 part OP cement to 6 parts sandy ballast, will be shuttered with timber to ensure a series of stepped level sections, all interconnected  and cast as one unit, and reinforced with triple 18mm metal re-bars set into the concrete. Additional bars will be set into the wet concrete at approximate spacings to allow construction of walling blocks on to and to form part of, the base foundations.

Construct, in hollow 225mm wide concrete blocks, set on to the upright re-bars, and filled with rammed 1.6 concrete to form a retaining wall. These blocks to have stainless steel ties set into the block joints @ 45cm spacings to retain the facework.

The concrete block wall to be set 150mm back from the boundary, to allow a 150mm face of flints and natural sand stone to be built to clad the blockwork. The new facing work to match the existing as far as possible, with new imported flint and stone to be selected to match. Samples of imported materials to be agreed prior to ordering.  Pointing mix six parts Rock Common sand, one part 3.5 lime and one part OP cement. Pointing to be agreed, but to match the existing as near as possible (there is more than one style in the remaining wall sections)

The retaining wall to be 1000mm high, with a further 120mm of reclaimed brick coping units (we will salvage all possible, but no guarantee that there will be sufficient bricks).

Where the new wall meets the existing right hand wall, the face work will need to ‘bend’ to tie in with the bulging/sloping existing wall. Similarly, the wall to the left hand side will need to be married into the new work, by sweeping a clean arc between the new wall and the taller section.

(We will treat the left hand side of walling as being dangerous, as until some form of additional key (e.g. the new works) is constructed to help support the tall wall, it remains potentially liable to fall. We can in no way offer any guarantees or warranty on this wall, nor be liable for any further collapse/damage)

Leave the site in a clean and tidy condition. Client to provide water and electricity at no charge to the contractor. All works to comply with CDM Regulations 2015 (H & S regs)

All persons working on the site are self employed, and we carry Public Liability Insurance. All personnel to wear hi-viz jackets and personal protective equipment (steel toe-capped boots etc at all times. Road safety/men at work signs to be placed as appropriate on the verge and working areas.

All cement mixing works are carried out on tarpaulins to minimise any mess, and mixer washed clean and emptied into wheelbarrows to avoid any cement staining of the driveway.

Total inclusive labour and materials as specified, Ten Thousand Pounds, payable in three tranches;  £5,000.00 with order; £3,000.00 payable following the construction of the blockwork and all attendant works and £2,00.00 on practical completion.

I will raise a Pro Forma Invoice in the sum of £5,000.00 in the next few days, and look forward to starting work on Monday 16th November.

I anticipate the clearance works being finished by the end of November, with the foundations and blockwork completed by Christmas week. I would like to work some of the Christmas Holiday period (to be agreed with your selves) if possible.  All works to be completed by the end of January – again, weather permitting. (Wind and rain are no problem, but severe frosts may delay the project)

Finally, you would prefer us to use your gardener’ s toilet and washing facilities than hire a PortaLoo. We will of course, respect and maintain the cleanliness of the room.

Thank you for your kind instructions.

Yours sincerely,


Alan Sargent

You will notice that I have combined the quotation with a method statement, advising the customer of what will take place, when and how. It also ties them into the story, as they have to allow certain facilities to the Contractor, including access to site, use of their water and electricity. We have agreed welfare facilities, using their toilet and wash room rather than hiring in an unsightly unit.

The clients were delighted with the full storyboard, as they felt part of the project, knowing what to expect, when to expect it and how the works would progress, giving us complete control of our working area, and affording them the safe knowledge that they could plan around the works.

Mr and Mrs John Hill,

BY HAND

24th November 20xx (16.00)

Dear Mr and Mrs Hill,

XXXXXXXX HOUSE – UPDATE AND PROGRESS REPORT

As required by CDM Regulations, herewith an update and progress report on the works to your front retaining wall.  I confirm that we have now received the Structural Engineers plans, specification and drawings, showing two potential solutions, subject to site conditions discovered at the time of construction.

Payment received by cheque for the mobilisation sum of £5,000.00.  Thank you.

The size and quality of some of the stone is thicker/better than anticipated. Most of the retained stone has been partially cleaned, and I will be on site tomorrow to continue the work, ready for building works to commence.

The foundations are less deep than originally specified, as we were breaking out solid chalk (with a mechanical breaker), and the need for the anticipated depth was unnecessary as envisaged by the Structural Engineer.

However, the thickness of the reclaimed walling material, and therefore need for increased width in the overall structure has meant that solid concrete blocks will be used instead of hollow blocks . This change has no effect on the strength of the project, and is only noted for the records. The re-bars will instead be set within the poured concrete and the facing works as described below.

The steel work will not be fixed into the concrete blocks, but will be set in between the solid blocks and the (wider) concrete/stone/mortar walling. These vertical rods, fixed into the base foundation concrete, will be secured by stainless steel brick ties to form a strong bond between the two structures internally, and strength will be further increased with  triple lateral bars fixed approximately 30cm, 60 and 90cm above ground level, woven in between the vertical re-bars, forming a steel mesh set within the poured concrete.

The wall will be at least 45cm wide, increasing to maximum 65cm, as the wall build progresses and different/thicker stone is introduced, i.e. the wall will be constructed in full as works progress, and no longer as two separate entities tied with only stainless steel brick walling ties, effectively increasing the overall thickness and strength of the project.

The shelter is in place, and rain water no longer a problem, both for working in a dry environment, and to prevent erosion of the bank. (For information, I allow £100.00 per project of this nature for ‘tentage’, and replace/renew various items (planks etc) on each, and ownership remains with me for these items)

I have ordered (and paid for) two tons of 8 – 10” Field flints, due in w/c 30th November. Works on constructing the wall as above with commence on Monday 30th November.

End of report and update.

Yours sincerely,

Alan Sargent

24th November 20XX

At the end of the first week, a report and update is provided to the client. Note my reference to CDM Regs. Whilst it is not mandatory to issue the client with these updates under CDM, I like to draw attention to the fact that we are following legal guidelines, therefore by introducing and referring to CDM, it reinforces the fact that we are acting as professionals.

I am drawing attention to the changes in specification and the reasons for making the alterations, as this information is essential for the records of the Contract. Without inserting the changes, there could be a claim for Breach of Contract if the variations were not properly dealt with. Variations should always be agreed and recorded as accepted, and signed for by both Parties to ensure there is no breach.

Mr and Mrs John Hill,

BY HAND

8th December 20XX

Dear Mr and Mrs Hill,

Reference XXXXXXX House – Retaining Wall

Further to my progress report dated 24th November, the wall construction has proven easier than anticipated mainly due the good quality (and quantity) of the reclaimed stone from the original wall.

I confirm that I will be rebuilding the wall to the original heights, i.e. not limiting the works to the 1.2m as described in my quotation. I have reservations regarding the number of coping bricks being sufficient to complete the project, and have located a high quality walling brick that I can cut down to match ( as near as possible), the end colour of the existing bricks. Obviously, the new/sawn edge will appear brighter until weathered, but I will endeavour to ‘age’ the cuts on completion of the works.

To that end, I have ordered fifty hand made bricks for delivery, along with one more big bag of Rock Common sand for delivery next Monday. This should complete all deliveries to site.

The large flints have been successfully integrated into the walling as works progress, and any residue materials will be removed off site before Christmas.

I further confirm that the total paid so far is £5,000.00.

I enclose an interim invoice in the sum of £3,000.00, leaving the sum of £2,000.00 to be paid on practical completion.

I further confirm that the area outside the site will be turfed following site works clearance, leaving the front area in a clean and tidy condition.

There are no other matters to report. The works are progressing ahead of schedule – thanks to decent materials and dry weather working!

Kind regards,

Alan Sargent

This is the third and final update, including the notification that the wall will be built back to the original height (we thought there would be insufficient reclaimable material to rebuild the wall to its’ original height of 1.5m).

Obviously, the clients were delighted, especially as we went beyond the original specification by tying in the side walls (i.e. the undamaged sections to either side of the collapsed section) by clearing the soil away by around 90cm to the rear of the walls and backfilling with strong liquid concrete, effectively gripping both sides and creating a much stronger wall as a result.

I commend this style of Quotation and combination of quotation, specification and method statement as it easily and clearly understood by the client.  They feel involved and included in every part of the scheme.  This greatly reduces and even eradicates any problems or mis-understandings in the future.

To repeat – even though I know these particular people well, I treat everyone as customers, and not as neighbours, friends or colleagues, as this avoids any question of nepotism or unprofessionalism on either side………..all thanks to CDM Regs 2015.

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What’s In a Name?

Choosing a name for your business is often one of the most difficult decisions a new firm can imagine. What can I call myself?  If I work under my name, how will anyone know what I am offering? If I call myself my name plus a word to describe my work, what if I want to diversify or add more services to the name?

What does everyone else call themselves?  Should I use a pleasant sounding name that makes me look friendly and approachable, or will the name make me sound silly, flippant or amateurish?  Shall I take professional advice? How much will that cost me?

Can I copyright and protect my name?  What if someone else claims that they had the name first?  Can they prevent me from using my chosen name at a later date?

What font or colour scheme should I opt for?  Should I invent a logo, or use one of the many different ‘free to use’ logos available on the Internet, and add my name to it? Should I choose something that looks gardenesque?  A spade handle with green shoots growing out of it?  Or a rose motif with a quill pen for the stem, showing that I am a green fingered garden designer?

Choice of Name

Obviously, your personal choice will be something that you are happy to be associated with. Something that you are confident and comfortable with. A name you feel really encapsulates and describes you and your services in a pleasant way.  A name you can easily recite over the telephone when answering incoming calls.  Tongue Twisters are not useful when trying to appear bright and alert when answering a call!

You need to feel comfortable with your choice for many reasons. It is very difficult when you start out to feel that your name belongs to YOU. It is your firm, your name, your public image, and anything remotely embarrassing should be avoided.

Try to imagine how your company or practice name sounds to a potential customer. Does if really sound like a name they will be happy to repeat to their friends and neighbours when they explain who it is they have chosen to carry out work in their garden.

If you decide to use your name, do you call yourself Alan Sargent, or A. Sargent. Alan Sargent Gardens, or Alan Sargent Garden Designer.  Should it be ‘Designers’, to make the firm sound larger?  Or ‘Designer’ to make the firm sound small and friendly.  All of these factors come into play when trying to decide.

Alan Sargent Landscapes, or Sargent Landscapes?  Landscapes By Alan Sargent?  Sounds a little pretentious perhaps?   Alan Sargent – Landscapes of Distinction. Does that sound positive?  Or pompous?

Try out several variations on the theme, and ask family and friends to help you with your choice. Try not to pigeon-hole yourself, unless it is for a positive reason. I know of companies that call themselves by their service offer.  ‘Lawns & Hedges’.  ‘Mow and Go’.  ‘Rock and Water’.  ‘Block and Slab’ .   You would not contact any of these firms for services other than their nominated skills offer. This is great, if all they want to do is to remain within their chosen field.  But if you want the business to expand and grow into new pastures, by adding fresh offerings to your client base, it is perhaps not a good idea to publicly limit your offer.

The use of initials can be acceptable, if the rest of the name is obvious.  There are of course, exceptions to this rule. You have only to look at B & Q, M & S, P & O and others to see that initials can be used successfully, but these are well known brand names, with a massive publicity machine behind them. A.S Gardens, A.S Landscapes, A.S Garden Maintenance does not have quite the same ring as the more famous names. Indeed, I would aver it sounds as though I have been too lazy or lacking in imagination to come up with a better name!

Often, the same ‘set’ of letters are used by more than one company, but if they are different types of business, it does not matter.   SCATS = Southern Counties Agricultural Trading Society, and also Southern Counties Air Taxi Service.   PGCA = Professional Garden Consultants Association and Professional Golf Club Association.  No problem with sharing initials in these cases!

Thinking Ahead

Many years ago, I used to run as Alan Sargent Landscapes, with a strap line underneath stating ‘Town and Country Gardens of Distinction’ from around the mid 70s until the mid 80s, when I became fed up with people wanting free advice, free site visits, free this and free that. It is all very well providing potential clients with helpful advice, but there comes a time to say No!

I chose to operate thereafter as Alan Sargent, and split Town And Country Gardens away from the company as a trading title. Everything else remained the same. Same bank account, same insurances etc, but now with two persona.  Alan Sargent is now charging for his time and advice.  Town and Country Gardens now build gardens. By separating the two, I earned far more money for my time, without losing any revenue from the Landscape side.

By doing so, something unexpected happened……..Town and Country Gardens took on a life of its’ own as a Trading title.  I built many gardens as Chelsea and other RHS Shows under the banner of Town and Country Gardens, whilst developing Alan Sargent into a consultancy business.  In 1995, I was approached by a Company who wanted to upgrade their public image by changing their landscape business and buying the name of Town and Country Gardens.

I sold the name and logo to the new owners, and continued operating my consultancy business without any loss or detriment to myself or connections. So it does pay to look to the future.  If your business name is desirable, one day you may find yourself on the receiving end of a business sale transaction!  (I could never have sold the company as Alan Sargent Landscapes, as I was not for sale!  In any event, without the main person being part of the sale, it would have no value)

Public Image

If you are running a garden design practice, it may seem a good idea to use a flower or plant name to call your company. There is no reason for not doing so, but how many other practices are using the same flower?  What image does that flower conjure up?  Rose for Cottage gardens?  Yucca for Modern Town gardens?   Petunia for Soft and Fluffy gardens?  Or Poppy to Wildflower Meadow gardens? 

By careful choice of plant names, you can indeed, conjure up the style of design that you specialise in, so in some cases, it may be very useful.

There are many other company names that appear across the country. Indeed, there are several Town and Country Gardens, along with Allseasons, All Seasons, Four Seasons, Muddy Wellies, Graduate Gardens (or Landscapes), Evergreen Gardens and a host of other similar names, to be found even in the same county as each other.

Your choice will, to a certain extent, depend on your local marketplace. Having shortlisted a few names, it may pay to check out your region, via telephone books/Google etc and research who else has a name the same or nearly the same. Perhaps you will discover they have a very poor reputation, and you do not want to be associated with that name!

Beware too, that some names are ‘owned’ by businesses that will take great offence if you try and copy their name!  One firm in particular, who shall remain nameless (!) started a business in the UK in the 90s. Their Trademark name was an easy one to copy, as it was made up of two words rolled into one. The first part of the name was half of another common word, and when combined, created a single word. A word that could be altered in around a dozen different ways with different spellings, some invented, others in common parlance.

The firm spent years and a fortune in lawyers, demanding that each new name closed down or changed their name to protect their Trade Mark!  Although this occurred at the beginning of the Internet days, if they wanted to protect their Trade Mark name from all comers, they would have to own over fifty different domain names.

Common parlance is the key.  Nobody nowadays can own or copyright letters or words that are in common use. Hence Town and Country Paving, Gardens, Landscapes, Garden-wear, Designs etc are not able to become copyrighted.  Logos of course, and a combination of colour schemes, letter styles and fonts may fuse into one brand, and therefore the whole may be copyrighted.

I know of some growers and small nurseries who operate under a long term name involving only letters or a simple name. Perhaps a family name, or even the name of a village or location. They may have traded quietly for years under their chosen name, and are horrified to discover that another grower or gardener has started their own business, using the same name/letters/location name, in their area.  Unfortunately for the long term user, there is nothing that the Law can do to prevent the new firm from using the same name if the words and letters are in everyday use.

Therefore, the best recourse for the original owner is to rebrand themselves by adding the words ‘The Original’ to the brand name. Something to establish that they are the original user of the name and therefore establish their credentials and gain fresh publicity from that scenario. As a grower, when displaying your wares at the local market, highlight the fact that you are the original, trading since 1980, rather than trying to compete with the newcomer.

Logos are of course, a different matter, especially if you have spent time and money on having your own design created.  It is possible to protect a logo by taking our a patent on the image, but even then it is very difficult to prevent someone from using your logo if they choose to ignore you, especially if they live in another country, where Laws may differ from ours.

An example is the ‘trug’ logo which my son, Luke, designed for me for the Landscape Library and also my Consultancy business.  It is a truly unique design, and one which caught the eye of a Garden Designer in America, who promptly utilised it as her own!  No amount of emails and cajoling would make her desist in using the logo.  She liked, it, and there was nothing I could do to stop her! (Nothing remotely affordable in any event).

So, if you see a Garden Designer, working in the United States of America, with a brilliant logo based on a trug containing books, you will know that there is a little of piece of English imagination advertising her practice!

Alan Sargent

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Television Garden Makeover Programmes – Positive Or Negative?

In 1991, I was involved in building garden makeovers for a BBC Television series called Old Garden – New Gardener. Produced by Mark Kershaw of Catalyst Television programmes, it starred Geoff Hamilton and Gaye Search, with a spin-off book on the series of the same name printed in 1992.

Designs for the series were produced by Robin Williams, and I carried out the construction works as shown on the programme. The concept was to locate three main gardens which would be subjected to a complete makeover, and the chosen are was the Rugby region for various reasons.

Each garden was currently either very bland and boring, or a total wreck, with builder rubble strewn across the site. The objective of the series was to demonstrate how to go about landscaping an old garden, from the viewpoint of a new owner. Broadcast over a few weeks, the series set out to show, step by step, how these gardens could evolve and become attractive new sites.

The whole emphasis was on entertaining education, with serious matters being discussed in a very informative manner. Geoff was the consummate professional presenter, and Gaye was highly respected as a professional gardener. Every step was shown in detail, with no tomfoolery or treating the viewers as children.

I believe the series was successful, although another series was not commissioned, and I do not have the viewing figures. I do know the book was very successful!  I have discovered several copies in good bookshops since then. (Although I have a name check in the book, I cannot say that I ever gained any landscaping projects from the series. However, it gave me a TV Pedigree, that opened further doors, courtesy of the Produce, Mark Kershaw.

This connection presented another opportunity a couple of years later, when I was invited to be the landscaper for another series, this time in Birmingham, called The Terrace. It was also BCC, and was presented by Mike Reid, of Frank Butcher/East Enders fame. It was similarly serious, and included making over both indoors and the (small) rear gardens. I designed these, although ‘design’ is too grand a word to the imagination involved in laying simple paths, patios and turfing the plots.

Although Mike was famous also as a comedian, the programme was scripted to be serious and professional, as the spin-off from the series – which was shown on day-time television – was to be a series of printed features showing all elements in a step by step/Barry Bucknall way. (Barry was a famous 1950s DIY presenter on BBC)

Both of these series were presented and scripted to be serious and educational whilst being entertaining. To repeat, there was no tomfoolery (although Mike could not resist some funny asides from time to time)

Moving on a few years later, a new concept of television garden makeover programmes appeared in 1997 that set the public viewing figures soaring!  A new aspect, showing a team effort, complete with comedy, sexy presenters, an unsuspecting deserving individual who would be presented with a brand new dream garden whilst they were away from the house. Time really was of the essence, with the team desperately trying to complete the makeover before the owner/wife/husband/child/partner came home.  The programme was, of course, Ground Force!

Suddenly, television gardening became massively popular!  Viewing figures were through the roof! Spin-offs abounded, and the BBC were ecstatic with their success. The presenters, Alan Titchmarsh, Charlie Dimmock and Tommy Walsh became household names. The premise of the makeovers was speed, no cost, rush, rush, rush, forget horticulture or professionalism in techniques, just beat the clock! At the end of each programme, a list of expenses was shown, including X slabs @ XX prices, XX plants @ XX cost with absolutely no recognition of labour, tools @equipment, skip hire and a host of other real life expenses. The bottom line was the whole garden cost £100.00. This was 1995, not 1895!

Needless to say, professional landscapers throughout the land were incensed at the message being given to the public!  If Alan Titchmarsh can build a whole garden for £100.00 – why can’t you? Suddenly, every contractor was being challenged by their clients regarding their high costs.

The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) took issue with the BBC, who passed them on to Catalyst Television (again) who pooh pooed the whole complaints, saying how popular the programmes were with the viewers. They did not care tuppence about a bunch of disgruntled landscapers!

Eventually, I wrote to Alan (I knew him through other meetings) and explained the problems that professional landscapers were experiencing, knowing him to be a consummate professional himself. After that, at the end of future programmes, he would point out that the costs were subsidised, that skips had been donated, and that labour was not included, so a lot of feathers were smoothed over.

Professional Landscapers also realized and appreciated the great impact on the public’s conscience of having their gardens made over (I think this must be a television phrase) and indeed, after a while, the public began to realise that is was purely television, and not real life.

Many of the practices carried out during these programmes were ignored by the public, as they realized that everything was being rushed for a purpose, and corners were being cut. The shift of emphasis moved away from the low cost of the gardens, and on to the clock. Can they possibly finish in time?

And so the format became stale, and viewing figures dropped, the world moved on……..

In 2016, another new series started on the BBC, produced by Spun Gold Television, starring Charlie Dimmock, this time in the lead role as presenter, with two very personable landscapers, The Rich Brothers as her buddies.

This time, the premise of the shows is garden makeovers, only by this time, producers have decided to concentrate on the friendly banter of the Team, paying scant attention to technical information or complying with professional techniques, presenting purely Fun Time Television.

Once again, the BBC were inundated with complaints from the professional landscape community, and once again, viewing figures were paramount and all complaints were once again ignored.

Meanwhile, other excellent programmes such as Gardeners World and Alan Titchmarsh’s Love Your Garden continue to educate and enthuse the general public, and I know that many thousands of professional gardeners watch the programmes, together with owners and managers of garden centres, in the certain knowledge that if a plant or product is mentioned on either of the ‘serious’ garden programmes, they need to stand by for the rush of enquiries the following day from gardeners, keen to get hold of the latest rose/daffodil/radish.

Both programmes explain to the viewers, what they are doing, and why they are doing it, discussing horticultural practices and offering timely advice across a range of garden related matters.

Such is the power of television!  Love the programmes or hate them, they are here to stay.

If you cannot beat them, why not make use of them?  As Garden Centres look at shows to generate sales, if Landscape Designers and Landscape Contractors celebrate the recognition of the industry to potential customers, at the same time demonstrating the Real Life Legal Requirements that professional companies have to comply with, such as Contract (Design Management) Regs 2015, Waste Carriage Licences, Operating Licences and Certificates and so forth, thereby educating the public about the serious realities of life, as opposed to fun television, it is a golden opportunity to show the difference between the two.

Treat television for what it is. Entertainment. Such chasms as exist between reality and fantasy may be highlighted and treated in a positive light.

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Customers Cheating The Taxman

It is a fact that some people simply do not want to pay their way through life, and try and find any way they can to reduce their costs and outgoings to a minimum, even if it means failing to pay their dues by avoidance.  By this I mean taxes. By fair means or foul.

Value Added Tax, Income Tax or any other kind of taxation becomes a personal challenge to these people, when trying to avoid paying their taxes.  I suppose I should say, Tax Evasion, as Tax Avoidance is quite legal, and encouraged by Accountants. Mitigating or reducing your tax burden is one thing. Deliberately trying to cheat the Taxman is quite another, especially when they try to involve a Third Party into breaking the Law.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. For many years – certainly the past fifty as far as I am concerned – certain clients seem to think it is quite acceptable to coerce small companies into evading tax, either by false documentation or cash payments.

I find this attitude most annoying, because they would never have the nerve to make such suggestions to large firms – only to those they deem to be malleable, small, and unwilling to lose the business.

There are many examples of this attitude, including the customer who asks you to invoice their Company for works completed at their business premises, for work they had carried out at home. Invoice for ‘Office Cleaning’ if they do not have any outside grounds, or ‘Grounds Maintenance’ if they have a tiny car park or courtyard.

Some even expect it to be a regular occurrence.  Weekly home visits are to have the invoice either split between their home and business, or totally misrepresented by never mentioning their home, only the business premises.

Another example is a dentist, who asked the landscaper to provide him with a separate invoice in the sum of £8,000.00 plus VAT for works carried out at his practice premises. The Contractor had carried out a larger project at the dentist’s house, but he wanted and expected the contractor to reduce his personal debt by £9,600.00 (inc VAT) with a fabricated invoice, although the Contractor had never set foot in the place.

You will all have similar stories, ranging from a few pounds to many thousands, of offers of cash payments to avoid VAT, making out the bill to a Third Party or a host of other ‘Indecent Proposals’

Other claims may be made that there is no VAT payable on new builds. This is a common device, but you should be aware that the Contractor cannot make that decision. It is up to the owner to reclaim any overpaid VAT, nothing whatsoever to do with the Contractor.

Disabilities are often raised as being reasons why VAT should not be charged on projects. This announcement may only be made at the end of the job, when the invoice is raised, when they express surprise and even aggression that the contractor is trying to claim VAT for zero rated works, and taking advantage of their disability.  Once again, this is not a matter for the contractor. If the client is genuinely allowed to reclaim the tax, it is precisely that – reclaiming tax paid on a zero rated project. The invoice must be paid, in full, as per the terms of the Contract.

(New builds or specialist builders will already have this documentation and procedure in hand, and so stories of zero rating may apply to those firms, but not to landscapers and garden designers.)

Be in no doubt. If this happens to you, you are being asked to become complicit in an illegal process, one that could land one or both of you in Court. As the Contractor, HM Customs and Excise has much greater leverage and pressure over you, which would be placed on you as the ‘professional’ Party involved, fairly or unfairly.

At the slightest hint of impropriety, the Taxman can arrive on your doorstep without warning and take away all of your books, computers, records and all documents, effectively shutting your business down in seconds. You could be forced into administration by having everything seized as evidence, making it impossible to continue in business whilst a case is investigated/compiled against you.

You can reduce the risk of any misunderstanding between yourself and your clients by operating a system that is transparent from the outset, and adhering firmly to it.

Even if you are a sole operator, with no employees, you should act as though you are totally professional firm from the outset. By having compliances in place, with all documentation that would be expected in a large company, you will seriously reduce the risk of being asked and expected to become complicit in any illegal schemes.

These compliances will be essential once your business starts to grow, and the earlier you have them in place, the more professional your company image will become, sooner rather than later.

Begin with a simple document, produced on your headed notepaper. This may be headed with your company name repeated at the head of the wording, then include your company profile information. This should include Insurance details, Bankers details including sort code, Waste Management certificate details and any other ‘Establishment’ information that you may have.  This becomes your foundation statement, and shows that you are a professional firm, and thus less likely to be willing to be compromised with offers of illicit ‘deals’.

I have known too, occasions where the customer has suddenly announced that the works must be completed on a cash basis, as they have run out of money. Either take the cash or absorb the VAT. Either you are prepared to accept the large drop in profit on the project, or walk away. I am not going to advise you on that matter.

Bear in mind however, that should you decide to accept the situation, and accept cash no VAT, everything that has gone before becomes meaningless. The contract would have been breached by both Parties. All Terms & Conditions would be void, any warranties no longer valid as you have jointly decided to scrap the contract documents, and neither Party can refer to them or rely upon them once breached.

In summary, when a client asks you to break the Law, consider if it is really worth taking the risk of losing your business, potentially your house and marriage – possibly even gaining a criminal record, and with the taxman looking over your shoulder for the rest of your life just to save someone else from paying their dues.

Ensure your paperwork is professional, terms and conditions watertight, documents including quotations and specification are sound, and you will, hopefully, avoid these characters in the first place!

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Coping With Cashflow Problems Caused By Interrupted Work Schedules

(Latin; Meaning – made discontinuous (Botanical) Not followed by the expected chord (Musical) or Stop the continuous progress (Activity)

In the case of Landscapers, probably all three are relevant, plus more besides, given the dreadful weather we have been suffering for several weeks now. Last year, most contractors were pleased to see that the promised downturn in work as a result of Brexit was confounded by the resilience of our customers and the positivity that had grown out of too many years of austerity, both real and imagined.

Wallets were opened, and a lot of seriously exciting projects were accepted and commenced, only to be interrupted by the aforementioned weather. No matter how well the work was covered, once ground conditions became too problematic, no amount of tentage could cope with flooded land and Somme-like conditions of access.

Plants cannot be installed into waterfilled pits, turf cannot be laid on slurry soil and joints will not cure in paving projects. Hence projects gradually grind to a halt.

Unfortunately, so do does the cashflow and interim payments become less than enough to cover outgoings. It does not matter how many projects you have on the go at once, the amount of labour and materials will be related to that number and scale of your business.

Businesses of all sizes are not immune to cash flow problems, although some have deeper reserves, and are able to cope with short term problems, the majority of Landscapers have suffered some serious and detrimental traumas caused by the weather during the autumn and early winter.

Consolidating the position

If I was able to wave a magic wand and offer solutions to all problems, I would be a magician or a charlatan politician. Every firm is different. Each has their own outgoings, debts or reserves, materials in store, vehicle costs including insurances, taxes, servicing etc that cannot be postponed but have to be met.  Even with no income, outgoings do not cease, and the cost burden grows twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

I would suggest that you take a step back from the coal face and examine carefully your situation and try to rationalise your position.

Make a careful inventory of all known costs that must be met. These may include all of your ‘Establishment’ costs e.g. insurances, rent, wages, staff pensions, VAT outstanding, heating, lighting, fuel, bank charges and interest.  Extrapolate that figure over three months (until the weather improves!) and arrive at a total figure. These are your costs that must be met irrespective of any income.

You should include all of your own living costs, as these too will have to be met.

Then examine all of the work you have contracted to carry out. Undertake a similar exercise only this time, listing all of the outstanding amounts of money and the relative position in the works programme they may fall. By this I mean assess how much money is left on each stage of the project, after payments already received are removed.

For example, paving works are 100 metres @ £150.00 per metre. Original contract price was £15,000.00.  You have been paid £10,000.00 already, leaving £5,000.00 on the job (ignore VAT for the sake of this exercise). The project is complete except for pointing, which will cost £2,000.00 leaving a ‘credit’ on completion of the project of £3,000.00.

Continue scheduling all elements of the scheme, listing each item as a separate project. In this way you can highlight how much money there is left on the job, at the time of writing.

Show the outstanding projects as individuals, with a total amount of work COMPLETED against the amount of work already completed and paid for, thereby highlighting an amount of money that will become payable against that item once it has been completed, and not as part of the overall scheme. (Not as a percentage of a scheme, but a factual figure)

Carry out the same exercise across all of your projects, and arrive at a mini work programme showing the amount of work to be completed and once it has been finished, the amount of income that completion will furnish.

In legal terms, this is known as Quantum muriet (as much as it is worth) which is an exercise that is carried out once a project has fallen into the net of a dispute issue, where an Expert Witness is called in to evaluate the works at the time of valuation, usually after a job has been terminated prematurely. Only in this case, it is essential to understand how much value to your business the non-completed works is to provide you with cashflow.

Assessing your assets.

Once you have arrived at your status quo – how much work there is to do to complete a particular element of a project – and discovered how much money may be payable with agreement with your client – you should find that you have a decent reservoir of money that will become available once those individual items have been completed.

The next step is crucial. You will have to be honest and open with your customers, advising them clearly that you are in need of funds, and gain their agreement to settle these amounts once that particular job has been finished, irrespective of your main Contract Terms. You need this money to survive the current weather disasters, and ask for their help. They will not wish to see you in difficulty I am sure!

By adopting this technique, you can concentrate on completing PARTS of projects, and collecting income from each one as a mini-contract. You can move from site to site, choosing whichever job suits the weather at the time (ice, frost, snow and rain) and employing your team/s to projects and specific sites for the duration of that part project. Once the weather improves, you can move back to site and complete in the normal manner.

Your clients will see progress, and you will see income!

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Contractors Terms & Conditions

The following Terms and Conditions are intended for Landscape Contractors only. They are designed for use when tendering for construction contracts. Other Terms & Conditions for Designers and Maintenance Contractors are under separate sections, indicating the needs for different levels and types of protection.

Use the Landscaping and Associated Works Terms & Conditions on your own headed notepaper, making reference to their existence in the wording of your Contract documents.

Draw attention to the various clauses in your quotations, and not treat them as ‘small print’, rather as reinforcing the professional nature of your business.

Each Term has been provided with Notes and Explanations under separate cover as part of this article, and these should be read in association with the Terms and Conditions form.

I suggest that you do not add, alter or delete any Term, or substitute anything with another Term that you have discovered elsewhere. All such additions or alterations may render the document meaningless or valueless in case of conflicting statements.

Alan Sargent

Standard Terms and Conditions For Landscaping and Associated Works

Date

Client

Address of Site

Project Number

  1. The Term ‘The Client’ shall mean…………………………………… who will be responsible for all payments to the Contractor unless otherwise notified in writing prior to commencement. Unless otherwise stated in writing, the Client shall be deemed to be the rightful owner of the property as per the address shown above.
  2. The Term ‘The Contractor’ shall mean……………………………………who will be responsible to the Client for works as described in the Contract attached.
  3. Nothing in these Terms and Conditions shall affect the Client’s statutory Rights as a Consumer.
  4. All requirements and obligations concerning The Construction (Design Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM) shall be properly identified and dealt with under the Contract documents, and responsibilities designated within that CDM Plan. The CDM Plan shall form part of the quotation and must be read in conjunction with that document.
  5. All requirements and obligations under any Plant Biosecurity or Plant Passport Regulations shall be properly identified and dealt with under the Contract documents and any planting schedule/plan. Any such plan shall form part of the quotation and must be read in conjunction with that document.
  6. The Client shall provide water and electricity at no charge to the Contractor.
  7. The Client shall provide access to site and storage space for materials at all times during working progress. Welfare facilities and their siting/location are subject to written agreement between the Client and Contractor. The Contractor to provide the Client with a written Method Statement setting out agreed working practices including parking prior to quoting for the works.
  8. Any additions or alterations to the Works Schedule shall be properly treated as variations and subject to written instructions. Persons authorised by both Parties to issue such instructions shall be agreed in writing prior to commencement of works. Any variations may not be subject to pro rata cost equations, and must be detailed within the Variation Order, scheduling any financial and/or time implications which may affect the programme of works.
  9. The Contractor is not able to accept responsibility for any damage to, or costs involved, with any underground hazards, obstructions or services not made known in writing or apparent visual inspection prior to commencement of works. The Client remains responsible at all times for any matters regarding licences, permits, planning permission and similar legal requirements, unless such responsibility is specifically assigned in writing to the Contractor.
  10. A mobilisation payment of £………………………..plus VAT is payable with order. Stage payments against works completed/materials on site shall be made at ……………………intervals, payable within three days of the date of invoice. As the contract is expected to last………………weeks, this will amount to ……………. such claim/s. A final payment to be made following practical substantial completion and payable within …………..days of invoice, otherwise subject to 3% interest per month thereafter until paid. The mobilisation payment may be used to purchase material necessary for the construction of the works, and is therefore not subject to a percentage value of the project total. The works shall be deemed to be substantially complete when all items in the works schedule have been constructed or installed. In the case of certain items e.g. bulb planting, which may not be possible due to seasonal delays in obtaining materials, these works will be shown in the Contract as being outside of the time schedule and therefore subject to a separate Contract.

    Substantial completion shall not include adjustments, repairs, replacement or cleaning of any item so constructed after practical substantial completion, and any warranty periods shall commence from the date of substantial practical completion, and not following any such remedial works. Requests for any such adjustments, repairs, replacements or cleaning of any item constructed or installed following practical substantial completion shall not be the cause of any delay of final payment, but shall properly be considered as warranty items.
  11. Price to remain fixed until the end of ……………………………………..Acceptance before that date will ensure no increase in the cost of the works specified. Any special conditions are noted in the Quotation.
  12. The Contractor is not able to accept responsibility for any plant material, including turf, following practical substantial completion. If necessary, we reserve the right to substitute any plant with another of equal value and growth/habit/colour unless specifically instructed otherwise, when the quotation may be adjusted under a Variation Order.
  13. The Contractor is not able to accept responsibility following practical substantial completion for any damage caused by frost, snow, wind, drought or animals or other physical action beyond their control.
  14. All materials surplus to the requirements of the contract shall remain the property of the Contractor, and removed from site on completion.
  15. This contract contains the entire understanding and agreement between the Parties with respect to the work and supersedes all prior or contemporaneous written and oral agreements and understandings with respect to the subject matter thereof. No oral promises or agreements are part of this contract.
  16. The Contractor shall be entitled to suspend performance of, or terminate the contract if the Client fails to pay any sum due in accordance with the payment terms, or is in breach of these terms, or becomes bankrupt. In such cases, the Contractor shall be entitled to payment for all works carried out and all goods supplied at the date of termination or suspension of the contract, and retain any deposit or interim payments made toward this. Any materials on site that are not fixed remain the property of the Contractor and may be removed from site by the Contractor or their Agents.
  17. If the contract is suspended or delayed for any reason beyond the control of the Contractor, the Contractor reserves the right to transfer labour and equipment to other sites. Upon recommencement, any costs involved in leaving site and returning to site including off hiring/rehiring machinery and equipment shall be assessed and agreed prior to recommencement of works.
  18. Any defects in the works which result from faulty workmanship or materials must be notified in writing within six months of practical substantial completion, and may be remedied by the Contractor without charge to the Client. Any plants that fail within the first twelve months following practical substantial completion shall be replaced by the Contractor without charge to the Client (substitute plants may be required, to the same value as the failed plants)
  19. Warranty works shall not extend  to, and defects arising from, the Client’s actions or lack of care, including any Agents that may have been employed by the Client. Such actions include watering, staking and tying of plant material or other Horticultural procedures including mowing and lawn care.
  20. The value of any claim made against this Contract shall be limited to the value of the agreed works and values contained and described within the Quotation.
  21. It is important that the Client reads and understands the Terms & Conditions that apply to the Contract prior to signing. A separate Notice of The Right to Cancel this contract is attached under separate cover, and must be signed by the Client and appended hereto as part of the Agreement. 
  22. This Contract and Terms and Conditions are governed by the Law of England.       

Notes:

  1. It is vital to identify the person or persons you are working for. If more than one person is involved, e.g. husband and wife, both must be included and named. In case of a company, the Director responsible for the work must be identified and named.
  2. Your Company name must be shown in full, including status e.g. Arun Landscapes Limited.
  3. Legal Statement included to prove that you understand the needs for Legal documentation.
  4. CDM Plans must be produced. Responsibility under CDM falls upon the Designer (Principal Designer) or Contractor (Principal Contractor) transferring the Legal obligations under that Act away from the
    Client.
  5. The Contractor must take responsibility under the Law for any Plant Passports, which should be retained by the Contractor under the Regulations.
  6. Never assume that you will be allowed to use the customer’s services and facilities.
  7. You may wish to nominate your times of working as part of the ‘access to site’. This avoids being refused entry as being ‘too early’ or ‘too late’. You may wish to add the word ‘dry’ as in dry storage.
  8. This is a protection against the client changing their minds regarding areas, products, etc. It is also a safeguard against the client from requesting additional works pro rata, recognising that the cost of one metre of paving (for example) will cost more than a percentage of the main contract figures. A Method Statement should form part of the main quotation, and will identify those staff members who are authorised to make decisions on behalf of the Company.
  9. Legal safeguard for the Contractor, unless something untoward happens that should have been obvious to any professional designer/contractor. Take plenty of photographs during the project.
  10. Your payment terms are yours to agree within your Company. It is best to adhere firmly to your chosen terms without deviation, so you are always clear and aware of your financial situation.
  11. Self explanatory. It can act as a spur to getting a firm decision from the client.
  12. Self explanatory. You may wish to take time dated photographs of the finished project to avoid any questions regarding the condition of the site one the day you left.
  13. As above, but including the condition of the whole site, especially cleanliness and any existing visual damage to your work, or the area in general.
  14. Some clients think they own everything that has been delivered to site.
  15. Very important. This statement clearly states the foundation of the contract documents.
  16. Very important. In the event of non-payment for whatever reason, the Contractor need to protect their interests, especially in regard to bankruptcy.
  17. Self explanatory, but essential to prevent the client from delaying the project through their own indecision, ensuring they realise the cost implications of the Contractor leaving and returning to site.
  18. Self explanatory. This statement ensures that the Client is aware of the need to proclaim Practical Substantial Completion i.e. the end of the contracted works. Unless and until this statement is made, any warranty period cannot be fixed as a date for starting the warranty obligations.
  19. Very important. This statement ensures that anyone taking over the maintenance of the completed site must be responsible for their actions and assiduity in properly maintaining the site.
  20. Very important. This statement prevents (or reduces) the opportunity for a client to make a claim against a Contractor for a sum greater than the original contact price.
  21. This statement draws attention to the essential requirements of the Terms and Conditions and understand their obligations to you as the Contractor. It also draws attention to their Legal Rights.
  22. Very important. This statement confirms the Region and Laws under which the contract was written and agreed.

It is very important that you understand your Terms and Conditions, and have them in mind at all times during a project.

It is equally important that you do not undermine those Terms by allowing any slippage or deviation from them, otherwise they will be devalued in the eyes of the Client.

NOTICE OF THE RIGHT TO CANCEL
(Consumers Home or Place of Work Regulations 2008)

This notice must be read in conjunction with Project No…………………………

The Client may cancel the Contract at any time within fourteen days of receiving it, by delivering by hand or recorded post, or sending via electronic device, giving a Notice of Cancellation.

This Notice of Cancellation shall be deemed to have been given at the time of sending it.

If the Client wishes the Contractor to commence work or purchase materials before the end of the fourteen day period, and issues a Notice of Cancellation during that period, the Contractor shall have the right to be paid for materials and services provided up to the date of cancellation.

Notice of Cancellation should be in writing, and include the name and address of The Client, and name and address of The Contractor, quoting the Project Number.

The Contractor is not obliged to carry out any work during that fourteen day period unless requested in writing by the Client and agreed with the Contractor.

(These notes refer to Contracts signed at Home or a Place of Work)

*****
If the Client wishes to terminate or cancel a Contract at any time during works progress, this must be done in writing and delivered personally or by electronic mail including the date and time of Termination.
*****

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Finance Matters Really Matter! (Surviving As A Self Employed Gardener)

At the risk of becoming seen as fixated on the word ‘Survival’ – having written both The Head Gardeners Survival Manual and The Landscapers Survival Manual, I still find that I cannot find a more suitable word to convey the very essence of Self Employment! The thrill of starting out working for yourself, making decisions that concern the very vitals of your life and that of your dependents is quite intoxicating (as well as terrifying!).

I know the constant battles that rage every day during the first few years of self -employment. Balancing the essential requirement to earn a living with your hands whilst at the same time trying to secure more clients, more enquiries, more contacts, more suppliers – ever more and more, becomes very daunting. Too often we are tempted to take on work that we do not want, just to keep the money coming in.

Marketing and Networking are very large subjects, which I will not have room to cover in this feature, that form the super-structure  of your business and will become easier as time goes on. To raise the super-structure you must have solid foundations, as without a sound base you will not survive beyond the first few months. The strength of those foundations will depend on your ability to understand the essential principles of finance.

The basic exercise is to establish, understand and agree the realistic income figure you need to provide for you and your family, especially if there is only one breadwinner. I know that it is a very emotive and difficult task, but the first requirement is a complete, open and honest financial survey of your outgoings. Leave aside any other income stream e.g. Family Allowance, which should not be included in your figures as they are really additional monies and not ‘earned income’. Include everything you can think of, including rent or mortgage, electricity, heating oil, school fees, food, pet food and vets bills, transport costs, hire purchase repayments, insurance, television licence, tools and equipment, accountants fees, water rates, council tax, postage, holidays etc; the list may run on and on. It must be comprehensive, and if you find that you have missed something of significance, you should add it on and revise your figures accordingly.

You will end up with a Grand Total of your family and business expenditure, which should be divided into fifty two equal amounts, as your outgoings will not stop because of inclement weather or sickness. For the sake of regularity, let’s assume an annual expenditure of £30,000.00. (It is a fact of life that an employed person earning, say, £20,000 p.a. may be fairly comfortable living on that amount. However, once self- employed, costs rise dramatically primarily due to the additional costs of transport and insurances (as well as tools and equipment) and the two figures should never be compared.

The nominal expenditure figure of (say) £30,000.00, when divided by 52 (weeks) equals £578.00 approx. per week. However, you will probably only work for 45 weeks per annum due to holidays, Bank Holidays, sickness and inclement weather, averaging 40 hours per week. 45 x 40 equals 1,800 hours, and therefore your weekly base expenditure figure rises to  £666.00 approx. , or £16.65  per hour. This is the lowest amount that you can charge to continue in business. (Obviously, your figures may differ from this example)

Bear in mind that this formula does not include any improvements to your equipment, transport or ability to weather a slow period or unexpected costs to your family or business.

It does not include the most important element of running your own business – the profit factor! If you do not aim to make a decent profit, self- employment loses its’ main attraction! I appreciate that many people enjoy working for themselves, making decisions without the requirement to gain permission first – but this pleasure needs to be tempered with realism. If you cannot make enough profit to withstand bad debts or a miscalculated quotation, things will become very difficult.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked as a Consultant, is how and when to increase my rates. Should it be annually, and if so, by how much? There are so many factors to consider, and once again, every firm will be different. I suggest that you adopt a piece meal solution to avoid risking losing an important customer.

We are currently enjoying a very stable economy, with neutral inflation and steady general prices, therefore it should be unnecessary to raise your rates at the time of writing, based purely on an idea that all rates should rise automatically each year. This is not to say that you should not increase your income in other ways. It should never be forgotten that we are all learning more and more skills as we progress, and by definition, become more extensively serviceable to our existing and future customers.

Even the most cursory inventory of your abilities, tools and equipment will show that you have become more valuable to your clients, perhaps gaining more skills certificates, or becoming a Member of The Chartered Institute of Horticulture – anything that proves the natural progression you have made in the world of horticulture. As the years go by, you are not the same person who started out self-employed! These skills should be recognised by yourself and treated as additional value when costing your rates.

Always remember – all you have to sell is yourself!

Never concern yourself with your competitor’s rates. It seriously does not matter if another firm is charging a lower rate than you. Do you really want to be the cheapest gardener out there? Of course not! You should not try to beat anyone on price, no matter what type of gardening business you are in. I assure you that I receive many comments from the public all desperate to find a contractor that will ‘slow down, stop rushing, and just do a good, clean job’.

You can have no idea if your competitors are making a profit or living on a credit card. Maybe they have secondary income, or no mortgage. They may have independent means, and only work as a gardener for a hobby. Never try to beat any price! I have been working as a professional gardener for nearly fifty years, and have never attempted to be competitive on price.

If you treat each customer as a separate entity, consider each one carefully. How much potential is there in their garden for additional works? Could you offer to increase the variety of skills you currently offer. Produce a library of all of your clients, marking them in order of importance to you and your business. Try to be dispassionate and remain subjective. Record when you started working for them, and the rate you charged then, and now. How much difference is there? When did you last raise their charges? Analyse and compare, and produce a chart covering your whole business.

Make a decision to increase your charges by around ten percent for any new enquiries. If you already have a busy order book, you have nothing to lose if they reject your price. (You may be amazed to find all newcomers accept your new higher rate). Selecting those existing sites that you feel are not enjoyable or you would not mind losing, write to announce that your rates will increase (do not give a reason or percentage, just the new amount. You do not need to justify yourself. You are making an offer which they can accept or refuse) on a certain date. It is better to give a couple of months’ notice, and don’t worry about the time of year – you are not obliged to work from season to season.

Nearing the end of my working life – physically at least! – and having worked for over forty years as a self-employed gardener, both as a general horticulturist and landscaper, (and six years as Head Gardener to Goodwood Estate) I have seen many decent people lose their businesses and homes because they did not recognise – or chose to ignore – the absolute necessity to earn a living and make a profit.

I spend most of my time now either carrying out certain specialised tasks which I thoroughly enjoy (flint work,  fine detailed restoration paving, topiary etc) and as a Gardens Consultant, writing books and articles including  a regular column for The Horticulture Week. I know I am extraordinary privileged, and welcome this opportunity to hopefully pass on a few words of hard earned wisdom!

Alan Sargent FCIHort MPGCA

(Originally published in The Professional Gardener Magazine in July 2015)

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Landscaping In A Timely Manner

When  builders construct a bathroom wall, render and plaster the surface, they must wait for at least 28 days for the wall to dry before painting or papering. Similarly, a builder cannot remove the shuttering from a precast concrete retaining wall for at least four weeks after pouring.

Nobody challenges the builder demanding that timescale be accelerated as it is clearly understood that the contractor is in total control of the site. There is a very logical reason for the curing times involved in the construction process.

Yet too often, Gardeners and Landscapers in particular receive unreasonable demands from clients to allow access and use of various elements of a scheme before they are ready.

I have been involved (as an Expert Witness) in four cases during the past few weeks, where a customer has been very vocal and challenging towards their contractor, demanding to be able to utilise projects before they have been completed, or vital curing times met.

One example – an area of brick paving, with complex drainage issues, with water dispersing features installed but not yet connected, was designed for use as a multi-vehicle car park with a section intended for through traffic i.e. from one part of the large garden to another running through the centre of the area. The brickwork had not been subjected to any sand jointing, and many of the bricks were therefore not secure and stable.

Although other works were being undertaken on site, the owners decided to start using the paving to park their heavy utility style vehicles without consulting the landscape contractor. Over the weekend, they moved several such cars into the car park without notice. Their reason was the rain was so heavy at the time they did not want to have to walk too far to the house.

The result was predictable, with areas of unsealed paving sinking – only a few millimetres, but sufficient to cause micro-puddles and low spots to appear. The whole paved area had not been vibrating plate compacted. It simply looked too inviting and making their guests walk in the rain was reason enough to ignore common sense.

Taking and keeping control of the project

Another case arose from a similar situation shortly before last Christmas, this time involving porcelain paving used in a series of different areas including pathways and patios.

The contractor had laid all foundations in MOT Type One and wet pour concrete as required for the intended use of each part of the design. All preparatory works were complete, and the site perfectly navigable by pedestrians.

The client was suddenly very demanding, insisting that the paving works were completed in time for his Guests at Christmas. Despite the wet and/or frosty weather he became aggressive and rude, adamant that the job must be finished before his deadline (despite the fact that in neither case was Time of The Essence i.e. dates/deadlines formed part of the contract agreement).

The contractor protested and tried to explain that conditions did not allow for paving to be laid/too cold for adhesives to cure/too wet/cold for jointing materials to work. The client continued to insist that the work was ‘finished’ in time for the celebrations.

That same client would never challenge his builder or insist on painting a new wall before the plaster was sufficiently dry, as he/she knows that it is simply not possible to speed up works even when there is every opportunity to use heaters to raise temperatures and accelerate curing under cover and indoors.

Both Trades use similar materials, with the difference that Landscapers usually work outdoors and are therefore prone to suffer the vagaries of the British weather. So why are we treated differently from Builders?

It is not only landscapers who have this problem. Many maintenance gardeners have similar issues when it comes to things such as grass seeding or turfing, where customers ignore all instructions to stay off the new lawn until the grass is sufficiently grown/rooted to take pedestrian traffic, with ball games and cycles prohibited until the grass is strong enough to cope.

The only way we, as an industry are ever going to make our clients understand that we are Contractors, and work under the Terms and Conditions of our contracts every bit as much as their Builders do.

There should be no question of bullying or attempting to force us to work against our professional advice. It is a well-established fact that nobody is able to force an expert to carry out works knowing they are wrong to do so. There is plenty of Case Law proving that fact.

I suggest that you examine your Terms and Conditions, and if you have not already inserted a clause clearly stating that you will not undertake any work or task that you believe to be detrimental to the project, either express or implied. You could be more specific and state an example (Adverse weather conditions, temperatures that are higher/lower than those shown on a product advisory label)

You reserve the Sole right to act as the decision maker.

You should also consider building in a system of Handovers, certainly on larger schemes whereby as each part of a project is complete, the works are signed off by the client and responsibility is handed over to the owner should they so desire. In this instance, the client using his car park before it was completed would be the author of his own problems.

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Buying An Established Gardening Business?

I have been approached twice since the beginning of this year to offer advice regarding the viability of buying an established Garden Business. One enquiry came from someone who is new to horticulture, wanting to purchase an existing successful firm and simply take it over, thereby avoiding the usual Start Up problems of establishing the business.

The second was from an established Landscape firm who wanted to diversify into gardens maintenance. Again, they sought to fast track their investment by taking over an existing business for sale.

Over the past fifty years, I have seen some successful mergers and start-ups, essentially following the above scenarios. But they are the exception rather than the rule.

My advice to both of these enquiries was largely the same.

Whatever you do, carry out a very thorough and extensive survey, not just of the business for sale, but of the whole surrounding district. Is there a local need for this business? Why is it up for sale?  What is the competition? What is included in the sale asking price? What reputation does the firm have within the industry? It does not matter how much or little the cost of purchasing the business appears to be. What exactly are you being asked to pay for?

The common attribute of ‘Goodwill’ is frequently mentioned. What does ‘Goodwill’ mean? Goodwill from whom, to whom? Any previous affection the current client base may have for the old firm will disappear as soon as the sale goes through – perhaps even before then if the current customers decide to look elsewhere knowing that the old regime is coming to an end.

It is a fact that you cannot buy customers. Their loyalty will be with whoever can do the best job for the cheapest rate. If they even suspect that a business may be about to change hands, they will make other arrangements sooner rather than later.

Also, it is a fact that you cannot ‘sell’ your staff as part of any deal. The new owner may get along very well with the existing employees, but they cannot be included in the purchase package.

Establishing a fair price or valuation

The asking prices of some of the businesses for sale are difficult to comprehend.

A quick on-line check shows just how many firms there are for sale. Although mainly single market style firms specialising in Lawn Care, others boast of a wide range of landscape and maintenance opportunities.

£125,000 asking price for a firm turning over £250,000. Another asking £100,000 for a turn- over of £200,000 showing a profit of £50,000. Yet another, £30,000 for a turnover of £50,000 with no mention of profits.

Whilst these figures may include a lot of tools and equipment, when I researched these particular firms, the price was for ‘The Business Name, Current Client Base and Goodwill only’.

Taking the £100,000 firm as an example, if you purchased this business you would be expecting to make no income at all for two years (£50k ‘profit’ p.a. each year for two years). Within this figure there must be a lot of expense for transport, tools, insurance etc, before any money was taken out for wages and salaries.

My advice was to think very carefully, and examine the alternative ways to open a business.

The Industry Newcomer had £100,000 to invest in a new venture. That money could buy a couple of new vans, wages for competent staff, a lot of tools and advertising/marketing. They could create their own marketplace, image, training programme and become attractive in their own right within the first year of trading.

The second person runs a successful hard landscape business in the South of England, and thought he could see an additional business opportunity to increase his companies offer by employing a crew to maintain the gardens they had constructed.

This scenario is more likely to succeed, as the customer base is already in place, and a degree of genuine goodwill exists as the client has prior knowledge of the competency of the parent company.

However, the same degree of logic should be applied. He was only being asked to pay £15,000 for a small maintenance business, with a very modest turnover and profit margin. The price was for the ‘Goodwill’, a company website (which would be useless to his business) and a current customer base.

I asked him to think about the likely expenditure he would incur if he simply updated his website to include maintenance, added some maintenance equipment to his stable and took on an additional employee to start carrying out maintenance, building up from one member of staff and growing organically. If the venture proved successful, expansion would be natural.

Moreover, if the maintenance team were to have some input from the construction staff as required, the new squad could handling any snagging jobs left over from the hard landscape projects, thereby creating a seamless system, geared to the needs of the firm and existing insurances, compliances and yard space.

There is certainly room within the industry for ‘Take Overs’, and the most successful of these have involved firms that have a strong identity, strict compliance systems in place, and are large enough to employ staff who are not embedded into garden situations where the employee is the sole point of contact with the client. The customer becomes upset when ‘their’ gardener is removed from their garden, and they lose their regular person.

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Are We Becoming A Licensed Industry?

For some time now, I have been predicting that it will not be long before we, as Gardeners and Landscapers, will have to become members of a Licensed Industry.

I have been constructing and working in gardens professionally for fifty years, and the workplace of today is radically different from the one I started out in.

Much of the change is for the better. When you consider that in the late sixties we worked with many lethal products and chemicals, some derived from First World War nerve gas and other agents, without the benefit of protective clothing or information (no doubt they existed, but we never used to even think about the danger in handling these materials)

In more recent years, there has been a whole raft of much needed Legislation designed to protect the industry workers, and also the environment at large. Not only in chemical use, but all manner of disciplines, from chain saws to ladders, stone saws to manual handling. The list is ever growing, as products and machinery become ever-more sophisticated, with computers and satellites carrying out much of the mental and physical work on our behalf.

The gossamer of legislation has been tightening in recent years, with many products that were main stay favourites amongst gardeners, lingering at the back of the shed until we thought they were needed, now banned under all kinds of Directives.

Along with this legislation there has grown a body of Professional Gardeners and Landscapers, all working on ‘the land’ in one way or another, on both domestic and commercial sites as well as Estates, Schools, Industrial Parks and just about everywhere that the need for garden construction and maintenance is called for.

These individuals and firms have joined Professional Trade Associations, that demand a very high standard of practical skills, but also a strong awareness of the requirements of the various Statutes and Laws. Not only is the entrance ‘examination’ very robust, annual re-vetting ensures that those standards are maintained, along with all legal documentation and evidence of a full training programme for all staff is in place.

New legislation that will affect Landscapers and Designers

There is one piece of Legislation that has drawn pretty much all of this gossamer of legal requirements into one Act. Something all encompassing, that will prove of great value to us all.

Starting in 2007, The Construction Design Management (CDM) Regulations came into force, aimed predominantly at the Building Industry, which was going through a particularly bad patch with many accidents and near misses being recorded. CDM 2007 addressed many of the problems found on site, particularly in relation to Health and Safety.

CDM somehow combined Health and Safety with Risk Assessments and Method Statements,

(I realise this is a simplistic statement) which led individuals into appreciating not only the need to improve safety standards, but the was the Regulation was formed allowed for a site ‘story board’ to be produced, that made sense of all the different strands and place them in one document.

The result has been a dramatic fall in the statistics showing accidents and near misses at work within the Building Industry, and the most recent set of CDM Regulations, issued in April 2015 should prove just as effective within the Landscape Industry.

In practical terms, the Act calls for a logical methodology that must be applied by everyone, from the smallest firm operated by one person, to the largest companies, to follow a paper trail designed specifically for a particular project. Anything that has an end product, that is to say virtually all ‘hard’ landscaping, and including some elements of ‘soft’ planting works etc if they involve certain sizes of plant or methods of planting that require lifting equipment of machinery are included within the CDM Regulations.

In practical terms, as a part of your quotation, there is a requirement to set out your Method Statement i.e. how you intend going about carrying out the work. What equipment, including proving that you or your operatives hold the appropriate certificates to use the items, how you intend to complete the works schedule, step by step including recognising all aspects of Health & Safety throughout the process.

This is the beginning of a document or ‘pack’ that will evolve, bespoke to a particular scheme, and will ultimately, on practical completion, be formally handed to the client as a record of all important elements of the construction. These may include plans, drawings, lighting and irrigation layouts. This should be an accurate record of the work you carried out, and will serve as an invaluable document that is intended to remain with the property and form part of any sale agreement in the future.

It is also an opportunity to include other information such as the type of paving or brick used on the project, sand types, mortar mixes, suppliers details as much more. You may also include any instruction manuals, leaflets and warranty on goods or products.

Personally, I welcome this new recognition of the professionalism that goes into creating a garden, and if the industry does ever become a licensed trade (similar to gas installers and chimney sweeps) and only those craftspeople who have received proper training, and hold professional certificates and insurances will be able to work in gardens – even domestic properties – if the house owner wishes to remain covered under their House Insurance policies should anything go wrong as a result of any unlicensed activity.

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Extras – Welcome Or Problematic?

Achieving your preferred profit margins on a project is often difficult, and requests for

additional work, or ‘Extras’ on a scheme may seem a welcome opportunity to make up for another part of the job that may have lost money. It may also prove to be an additional loss making decision.

When do ‘Extras’ change from being a Blessing to a Curse?

Every Contractor sets out to make a profit. Whether general gardening or constructing gardens, prices are formulated and assessed to reflect many factors, including overheads, labour, materials, machinery and equipment and profit margin. These figures are calculated on a time/labour/material etc basis, and are all part of a package specific to that site. Some contractors may use a rate system, either by the square/linear metre or time based, but whichever method, quotations are tendered according to a company policy and formula.

Many projects run smoothly, and profit margins are maintained, but on other schemes, a number of different factors may cause the job to over-run on time, or perhaps materials and related costs are greater than anticipated. Profit margins may be eaten into, or disappear altogether. When the customer requests additional works, it may seem an ideal opportunity to recoup some of those losses.

I suggest before you accept these extras, you consider the real cost of any additional work.

Consider why the original scheme is behind schedule. What caused the slippage in time, or cost over and above your initial quotation figures. If you lost money on Phase One, how can you make money on Phase Two without exacerbating the problem? Before you agree to do more work, analyse the shortfall.

Remember that you will have to treat the extra works as a new job, and therefore your rates need to be higher. You cannot add a section of paving or walling, or continue with a hedge planting project on a pro rata basis. It simply cannot be a straightforward permutation.

Foundations may be needed, and a fresh skip required for a part load. Perhaps you may need to hire another excavator, or extend the hire period on your existing machine. These matters all take time to arrange and organise.

Will you be held up on starting your next project, and will this have a knock on effect with your work schedule?

Even if you manage to persuade your client to accept additional costs or higher rates to compensate for these variables, they will not want to pay extra over to make up any original losses, so the best you can hope for is to not lose any further money.

As a consultant, I specialise in problem solving, which often takes the form of mediation and arbitration, and see at first hand the difficulties that arise from extensions to an original contract, whether they are ‘extras’ or staged schemes.

Avoiding misunderstandings

An example would be a Landscape firm, who were tasked with supplying and planting one hundred Taxus baccatta to a specific height and container size. They planted good quality specimens, up to specification and standard. The client requested an additional run of fifty plants, and when they arrived, the new plants were greener, lusher and fuller than the original batch. The customer then demanded that they were all changed to the new, greener plants, thus causing problems and heavy expense to the contractors, through no fault of their own.

Adding areas of turf will cause similar problems, as each part of a growing field may vary slightly in colour due to shading or soil variations. This does not show up in one delivery, but may do so if there is a time delay between loads.

Natural stone paving will vary by nature of the product, even if the colour shade variations are minor. It is standard practice when laying to draw from two or more pallets of product to ensure an even colour match. When extra paving is called for, it is not always possible to have the opportunity to colour match the original, and the client becomes very unhappy with the variations in tone.

Every request for ‘extras’ should be treated as an individual project, and price accordingly. The price variations should be clearly set out for the client to understand the way prices are arrived at, and not simply expect the same rates as the original contract.

Finally, and most importantly, if the contractor is liable for guaranteeing works, the warranty period should not be extended beyond Practical Substantial Completion of the original scheme, as it will add even more costs to the project.

If the contractor has to weed, mow, edge, generally look after completed works that should have been handed over to the care of the customer following completion of the original project because of the extra works, this will add even more money on the wages bill.

Additional works may be welcomed, and make up for any losses, or increase your profits across the board, but consider carefully the impact of taking on such works. It is essential to differentiate between the two sets of pricing figures. The company’s primary large scheme rates would not apply to small works, and each request for ‘extras’ should be qualified in writing recognising financial, warranty implications and the possibility of variations in product.

These factors must be recognised and agreed between the customer and contractor in writing to prevent any problems and disputes in the future.

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Practical Completion And Getting Paid

Not getting paid for your labours is one of the most common enquiries I receive.  Probably eight out of ten enquiries involves complaints about money, and how to get customers to pay in full and on time.

I have written in previous articles regarding Professional Non-Payers and problems with extracting payment from those who do not wish to settle their account. There seems to be an ever increasing number of instances where even straightforward projects are subject to payment issues.

It may be significant that most of the complaints involve small firms. I can only imagine that customers are more wary of larger companies, who are more likely to have robust procedures in place, and be less prone to intimidation.

I feel the problems are wide and varied. The solutions are simple if correctly implemented.

First of all, it is extremely important that you ensure that your Standard Terms and Conditions are in place, and that they are fully comprehensive. They should cover every aspect of the contract, including identifying the name of the person responsible for payment. Not simply Mr and Mrs (or whatever), but actual names and a statement to that effect.

The Terms should be standard, at the same time they should be bespoke to that particular site. Do not pick and choose elements of your terms, leaving some out as they do not appear to apply on this particular job.  Properly drawn up T & C’s should be progressive as well as comprehensive, and if you omit a single phrase, you may negate the whole document.

When producing your quotation, ensure that everything is written down, including clients instructions and stated wishes. For instance, if it is important to the client that the paving is non-slip, ensure that the product used is indeed, non-slip. Be careful not to over promise; for example, a rabbit proof fence that proves less than 100% rabbit proof due to the ability of the animal to dig under or climb over the fence should be described as ‘rabbit deterrent fencing’ and a note of explanation to that effect included in the quote.

Try to imagine that you are a client, intent on finding any defect or difference between your quotation and the actual works carried out. Have you really made sure that you have done exactly what you promised?

Looking from the customers viewpoint

Don’t forget too, that any variation – any difference between the quote and job may be picked up on. Any changes in materials, even if they are ‘upgrades’ to more expensive products than those described in the tender, must be recorded and agreed in writing as the job progresses.

Any ‘extras’ that have been requested, and variations in quantity including increases or reductions must be agreed in writing, including amounts and costs. I fully appreciate that it is not easy to micro-manage projects when you are on a tight time schedule, but it is so important to keep control if you want to avoid problems at the end of the job.

Two main suggestions – the subject of contract and finance is huge, and involves many scenarios, but if you include two important contractual phrases, these will help to secure your company from post project late payments.

The first is the security of the contract. Having made sure that your wording, especially regarding quantities, qualities and method statement of how the job will be carried out, to confirm your stage payments (even if there are only one or two) and the timing of such payments, instead of writing requesting the first or mobilisation payment, issue instead a Pro Forma Invoice.

This is the same as a normal invoice, except that it is headed Pro Forma Invoice, is does not include  an invoice number, a date and Tax Point, nor does it include VAT. It is simply a request for payment, and once paid in full (money in your bank, not an un-cleared cheque), a standard VAT invoice is issued in the normal way. If you include Value Added Tax to a Prof Forma invoice, you will have to pay it, even if the client subsequently withdraws from the project.

This Pro Forma is the start of the contract, and sets the seal for future financial dealings. Its’ production proves that you are a professional company, meaning you are more likely to be treated as such during the project.

The second is extremely important. Your contract Terms & Conditions should include a phrase, clearly stating the stage at which the contract ends.

As no garden landscape or maintenance project can ever be 100% ‘complete’, as there will always be one bulb that has not shown, turf that has not knitted fully, or a newly seeded lawn that has not germinated for example.

This phrase is ‘The final account must be paid in full within X days of Substantial Practical Completion’. Note the order of the words. Substantial Practical Completion means exactly that. That is the cut off point of the contract irrespective of any warranties or remedial works.

Warranties and remedial/snagging works only begin on the day of completion, a fact that prompts some clients to try to extend that date, whilst withholding payment to ensure that extension. It all becomes a delaying game, with the contractor losing out at every turn!

By ensuring that your ‘paperwork’ is substantial and comprehensive, and with a firm line on payment terms and dates, you allow little ‘wriggle room’ for the customer to delay monies.

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How To Get Young People Interested In Gardening

The age old problem of attracting new people into the Horticultural industry seems to grow ever more critical. What can we do to show the benefits and future careers that are available in Gardening, especially  for youngsters?

The way that horticulture has been viewed by the educational authorities has not changed for generations. When I was at school in the 50s, all those deemed unsuitable to take A Level exams were instead given what was known as ‘Rural Studies’ activities, which meant pottering around in the school’s allotment (where nothing was ever grown or harvested, and was therefore considered to be valueless).

Today, as then, School’s Careers advice shows that Gardening and Horticulture requires no skills or qualifications. Anybody can become a gardener, even those least academically able. The ability to read and understand instruction leaflets, apply mathematical equations and solutions does not seem to be understood by those in charge of Careers advice. Anyone can be a Gardener.

For at least the past forty years – certainly since I have been actively involved in the horticultural industry through organisations such as BALI, the HTA/APL and PGG – industry leaders have constantly challenged those responsible to at least try to understand the fantastic careers opportunities that are to be found as professional landscapers and gardeners, and move away from the principle that horticulture is for the least bright students.

I hear so many landscapers and gardens maintenance company owners complaining about the lack of suitable labour. The list of complaints is long, and includes tardiness, poor personal skills and hygiene, inability to grasp the simplest of instructions, refusal to wear appropriate PPE, swearing and lack of awareness of working in other people’s property – essentially, failure to understand the work ethic required to become employable.

Advertising for labour is often a complete waste of time. Job Centres, on-line sites, Facebook and Twitter, postcards in village shops – ever more inventive methods of trying to attract suitable candidates attract only those who apply  to allow them to continue claiming benefits. More often than not they do not even bother to attend interviews, and when questioned, claim all sorts of reasons for being absent.

Financial rewards for becoming a gardener.

One of the major problems faced by landscapers is the financial attraction of ‘The Building Site’, where labourers can make £100 – £120 per day simply for turning up on time and carrying out simple tasks such as moving materials around the sites, without the need to use any mental strain at all. Why should we bother to have to think, when we get paid for doing as we are told?

With no thought of the future, fit young people can drift through life making enough money to suit their needs without the pressures of learning a trade.

May I suggest another route to locating, attracting  and employing suitable workers of all ages.

There are many others who would make excellent landscapers, nurserymen and maintenance gardeners; those who are working in other trades that may have nothing in common with gardening. I will give a couple of examples.

A chef, in his late twenties, became fed up with working under pressure in a busy restaurant kitchen, and was desperate to find a new career. He was highly qualified as a chef, but had no other ostensible merits.

He applied for a job with a reputable landscape company, more in hope than expectation. The owner recognised that the chap had skills and qualifications that could be put to good use in his landscape works.

He was used to working under pressure, especially time related projects. He was able to make assessments both of quality and quantity, of materials and measurements. Quality control was second nature to his work as a chef. He was punctual, hard working, clean and tidy. After only a few months of training, he was promoted to charge-hand, and now runs award winning projects. As a chef, he was far removed from the muddy world of landscaping, but he had so many other attributes that could be utilised in the discipline.

Another case, this time involving an Estate owner, who required someone to act as sole gardener, with many other responsibilities besides. The garden was not large enough to warrant a Head Gardener, yet complicated enough to need someone who had both experience of basic horticulture as well as estate management on a small scale.

Despite months of advertising, interviewing and trial working periods, the owners were in despair, until they met a twenty-something person who had trained as a Game Keeper. He had been working for a local shoot for ten years, and was about to be made redundant due to a merger. All he had ever done was ‘keepering’. His only qualifications were animal husbandry and a firearms certificate.

But he possessed a deep love of nature, and an understanding of the natural world including many plant species as well as trees,  herbs and wild flowers. He had worked on various soil types and had an understanding of the processes involved in growing plants.

Above all, he had a long and proven track record of reliability. Anyone working with livestock must, of necessity, be trustworthy and competent, cautious and thorough – checking stock fencing, gate closures against predators, stock control including foodstuff and medicines.

So many attributes that we urgently need in horticultural labour may be found with a little imagination, instead of trying to educate the Schools’ Careers Officer!

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Effective Staff Training Regimes

One of the most important lessons that should be taught from generation to generation is the benefit of training and learning every single day of your career. This message is one that I have devoted much of my time to, especially over the past twenty years or more.

There are so many ways to train yourself and any staff that you have any influence over or responsibility for. Simply passing on practical skills is such a basic part of our industry, it almost needs no mention. It is simply something we do every day, explaining and demonstrating various techniques to junior team members, and encouraging them to follow by example is just a part of our job.

Unless you are very fortunate, and work for a company that has sufficient talent available in-house to allow everyone to increase their knowledge and skills by copying the example displayed by more experienced staff members, your options for creating a training environment may seem limited.

I was greatly encouraged the other day to see an item on Facebook which showed a friend of mine who owns a Landscape Company with around a dozen employees, using a very wet day to provide Staff Training (Manual Handling and a couple of other ‘safe-use’ subjects) in a very formal manner, with everyone in the office looking at a screen and working together in a classroom style lecture.

This company had the foresight to have available at short notice, a series of in-house training talks to occupy and teach their staff some of the many and wide ranging variety of skills and personal development steps that are essential for the well-being of the Company at large, but also the individual as a career person.

Using formal training sessions in this way, the whole company benefit. No more wet or snowy days spent tidying the workshop or cleaning the tools (again). No more boredom and frustration waiting for five o’clock.

By operating a progressive and informed programme of whatever skills you need as a team, no time is spent in meaningless time- killing exercises. Programmes may be designed for you as a particular company requiring specialist skills, or devoted to other practical elements such as marking out of sites, creating ellipses and circles, finding and proving right angles, assessing volumes and displacements, finding and checking site levels; the list really is endless.

If you are fortunate enough to have covered space, why not practice some brickwork, building up corners and infilling using a variety of different bonds and styles. The bricks may be cleaned at the end of the day and used many times.

Similarly, paving works, especially working with some of the more modern types of product including porcelain require a lot of practice, trial and error. Better to try out your skills away from the client’s garden if you can! With so many different aspects and skills required, the greater the need to understand the different adhesives, laying mixes and pointing materials.

With all of these Training suggestions, the key is to have the products, materials and ‘class rooms’ available and ready at short notice, so that work can begin without undue delay. If the weather promises to be dreadful the next day, plan for tomorrow and announce the fact that we will be undergoing training on whatever your chosen subject.

Recording the training programme

Maintain a record of these training sessions and include the names of all attendees. Some people may ask for more specific training, or to study techniques that you do not have available at that time. If they are deemed suitable, ensure that they may be added to your In-House Training programme.

You may decide to invite an external trainer for a day or more, but these may not always be wet weather/short notice events. They will however, bring new skills to your workforce and should be considered as an important part of your programme.

Another way of gaining experience, again during inclement weather when the alternative is non-productive yard work, is to broaden your knowledge of plants and plant identification. When I took my City & Guilds over forty years ago, I used to visit my local Nursery Centre (in the days before Garden Centres) on a Saturday morning and walk around and around, checking the names of plants, noting various growth habits and colours especially foliage and bark variations.

I would then spend the rest of the week looking around the gardens I was working in (only maintenance in those days) and try to identify and name each plant. I carried out this exercise for a year or more before I felt that I had conquered everything Cheals of Pulborough could offer!

This type of training is valuable for an individual or a small team, walking around and making various notes and asking questions. With modern mobile telephones and their various ‘apps’ it is possible to identify plants much faster than my old fashioned method. BUT, you cannot beat touching and smelling plants to really get to know them!

Why not expand this logic to visiting your local  natural stone supplier, or building centre, checking out and understanding loading and handling techniques, how to store on site, how to ensure a good mix of colours when working with facing bricks, what types of sand are used, and why. So many things may be taught and learnt by devising your own company specific training programmes.

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Writing Method Statements To Avoid Problems

I have been involved in Court work as an Expert Witness for over twenty-five years, but rarely more than in the past couple of years. It is nowadays so easy for a disgruntled customer to apply to a Small Claims Court to settle real or imaginary disputes.

With the advent of recent Customers Protection Laws and an awareness by the Public of the power of Consumers Rights, the result has been a surge in the number of people simply applying on-line to a Courts Services for compensation or dispute resolution, without proper thought or explanation of what is really involved.

Without discussing matters with a solicitor and taking appropriate advice, the public can fill in various forms on-line and pay a standard fee, and simply push the ‘send’ button and sit back and wait for resolution by capitulation on the part of the Defendant.

Little or no thought is given to the cost and possible implications of their action. They are not happy with something and want compensation including payment of their Court costs, hoping that the Defendant will simply settle on demand.

Often of course, they get the result they want without any further problems, as the Contractor will pay or settle as they do not know how to respond to such officialdom. It is simply too much trouble to fight against a Court document, and they cannot afford to employ  a solicitor to represent them.

As with all problems, it is better to prevent them from occurring in the first place. Many new outfits are so busy working on site, or spending time visiting potential customers, chasing payments, maintaining equipment and all the other tasks that their job demands, they neglect the paperwork side of their businesses. Even supplying the most basic of written quotations is too much trouble, relying instead on verbal agreements or very a sketchy letter to secure the work.

Avoiding Court Problems

I cannot overemphasise the importance of contract documents. Unless you have time to produce detailed and specified contracts, you leave yourself wide open to future disputes. There are basic on-line forms available for use as ‘tender’ documents, but they are essentially too generic to be of real value to you as a business. Their ‘tick box’ layout is useful but not necessarily relevant to the site, and any discrepancies may render the document useless.

As well as the disgruntled, there is no doubt that some customers may be considered ‘Professional Non-Payers’ and these seem to be attracted to smaller firms, knowing that they are unable to afford legal representation. They often wait until the end of  a job to declare that they are unhappy and will not be paying the final bill.

Without question, the best way to avoid these difficulties is to ensure that your paperwork is in order. This discipline is essential, with time spent at the outset, producing detailed specified quotations on headed paper, including as much information as you can. Include the date and time of the visit, as well as the date of the quotation. If the job concerns or includes something that may materially change over a few weeks, e.g. a hedge cutting or mowing contract, your quote should be time limited to prevent a customer from accepting a quotation that bears no relation to the site at the time of agreement and access to site.

Therefore you will need to note existing conditions prevalent at the time of writing. If the job is weather or temperature dependent, this should also be noted and a time limit placed on acceptance. If time is ‘of the essence’ i.e the customer requires work to be completed by a certain date, this fact must be included in writing.

Think of each quotation as being a ‘story’ to be relayed to the customer, with a step by step guide as to how the job will proceed. Even simple projects such as grass cutting should be explained, by including your method of entering the site, the size of machine to be used, the condition the site should be in when you start (often regarding debris, toys, dog mess etc). You should also explain the condition you will leave the site in. This may include removing rubbish from  site or leaving it placed in a compost area.

By fully detailing and explaining your quotation, you leave no room for dispute. If you do as you say, there can be no further problems, and the fact that you have followed your ‘storyline’ means you will have no need to worry about disputes.

The customer should sign an acceptance form – usually a blank space in the  quotation agreement – which includes instructions of payment times, dates and method of payment. Another signature is required at the end of the job, when any minor defects can be agreed and resolved.

This discipline may seem tiresome at first, but after a while it will become second nature. As your business expands, and projects become more complex, perhaps taking on construction or landscaping jobs (which demand high standards of detail under different legislation), you will be used to working in an efficient manner.

In my experience, if a contractor has all documentation in place and the project has been completed accordingly, the chances of a dispute situation become almost non-existent.

Court cases can become very expensive. With due diligence and sound documentation you will avoid unnecessary unpleasant and time consuming worries.

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Gaining The Respect Of The Customer

I am thoroughly fed up with people thinking that being a gardener means that I empty bins, collect children from school and clean out gutters! I am a Gardener! Is there any name or phrase that you can think of to convey that to my clients!

Your heartfelt plea is echoing around the country! It is a strange phenomenon that customers seem to think that by employing a gardener, they are also hiring a general dog’s body.

Polish the car, clean out the rabbits, backwash the swimming pool, chop the kindling wood, deliver parcels to the Post Office – all come under the gardeners duties. Never mind that he/she has a garden to maintain. After all, gardening is fun. Why on earth gardeners want paying to do what is surely a pleasant hobby is often beyond the comprehension of some clients. The gardener should be happy just to potter in the vegetable garden!

This is a very old problem, and there are so many influences that shape the way some people think. Yes, they enjoy ‘working’ in the garden, riding around on the lawn tractor is better than the funfair. Pulling up a few weeds and leaving them for the gardener is OK because they need to find something to do, and after all, they let them grow in the first place!

Television shows – especially makeovers – show only the fun part of the project, often glossing over the fact that the real hard work is both time consuming and involves a lot of forethought in logistics and site management. How often, when giving a price for a project do the Producers leave the labour costs out altogether.

Educating the Public

If you are a self – employed gardener, working in several places during each week, you are expected to maintain the grounds in good order, come rain or shine. When you are obliged to carry out ‘other duties’, this is time taken away from your core business of gardening.

If you start and maintain job sheets or time related diaries at each site, showing start times and durations of various duties on a regular basis, after a couple of months you will have enough data to show a work pattern. Identify and schedule those tasks that are not garden related and record the time taken. It is then a simple matter to actually prove, in black and white, the effect on your working life such diversions create.

You could also produce a working pattern programme that would be ideal for the garden. How many hours per month should be spent on borders. How many on mowing, strimming, hedge cutting etc. By working out percentages and proving the figures, you should then educate your client regarding the effects on your workload of non-gardening projects.

What is in a name?

The term ‘Gardener’ is often treated almost as a description of someone who is partially skilled at best. OK so they can mow the lawn, and edge the borders, but proper gardeners do not work in small domestic plots. Real gardeners are only found in proper gardens such as Stately Homes. Real gardeners are Head Gardeners, with lots of staff running around carrying out their instructions. Real gardeners do not arrive in vans and blow leaves or strim the rough grass. These are just ‘jobbing gardeners’, not proper ones, even if they call themselves qualified gardeners.

There have been many attempts over the years to try to raise the profile and awareness of the value of skilled gardeners, but so many times, stories abound of mediocre or sub-standard workmanship, setting our cause back to square one. Facebook and the media are full of film clips showing idiotic behaviour and dangerous practices.

I suggest that you follow the principles described above, and maintain a weekly diary and prove the hours involved. Trying to find a word to get away from this public perception is more difficult and will take many gardeners working together to destroy this image of dog’s body!

Various titles have been suggested in the past. One such was Craft Gardeners. Another was Qualified Gardener. Or Professional Gardener. All are too subjective or alien to the minds of our customers. What is a Craft Gardener? I don’t need one of those. Qualified or Professional? Too expensive or fussy.

I suggest that if enough gardeners started to call themselves Career Gardeners – someone who has learned a great deal, who goes on every course available, who is constantly striving to improve their knowledge of what is the most wide ranging and complex of sciences and always gaining more and more experience by achieving  accreditation and meritorious certificates, with no end in sight towards their goal of becoming Master Gardeners -customers might then begin to appreciate – only if you educate them – that Gardening is a huge subject. It involves so many different sciences, techniques and skills, that one could never stop learning.

A Career Gardener is someone who understands the complexity of the science of Nature, and is a highly skilled artisan. Gardening is a Science Without Boundaries. Add that epitaph to the bottom of your headed notepaper, and be proud to be a part of a wonderful industry.

At least you will have the satisfaction of knowing that if you follow that mantra throughout your life, you may end your career as a well-paid Professional Gardens Consultant – perhaps employing your own gardener!

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Rebranding Your Company?

I have been self – employed for over twelve years now, and am thinking about rebranding my business to freshen up my appeal. It all looks very stale and I want to revitalise my public image.

Rebranding is a term that may be construed in several ways. The important thing to bear in mind is that of confusing your existing and potential current clients (and suppliers). You may have several people who have decided to contact you when they want some work done, and if you rebrand to such an extent that you alter your public ‘face’, they will think you have simply ceased trading!

Looking at the various elements of your current public image, analyse the reasons for your dissatisfaction. Is it because of your colour scheme? Work uniform appearance and style of lettering? Letterheads, business cards, sign writing or website information?  If so, these are more easily addressed without causing any confusion. It may prove to be expensive – the cost could be high if you elect to commission a professional website designer or graphic artist. Or you could design and produce your own new logo or colour scheme without a major outlay.

Changing the name of your company is a difficult decision to make. It is not uncommon for someone to start out in business with a brand name or title that seemed relevant or fun at the time, but as your skills develop, the value of your contracts increase and the social group of your clientele becomes more select, your chosen title may appear inappropriate.

Starting out on a career as a garden designer or contractor, with a name that somehow represents your business ideas from the outset – very often a Latin/botanical or ‘floral’ name can seem a great idea.  However, once you begin working, the reality is often not so flowery, but muddy and extremely difficult working on your hands and knees in wet borders, and quite unlike the image your chosen name would indicate!

Reaching a decision

If it is the case that you feel the status of your customer base demands a more mature or upmarket company name, perhaps you should consider why you have been successful – perhaps in spite of the name. If so, you should be very wary of changing it too radically. By all means add a word – or change an emphasis. If you currently claim to carry out mowing and hedgecutting (or garden maintenance for example) and you wish to advertise the fact that you also undertake landscape or garden construction works, then perhaps simply add the word ‘Landscaping’ to your current title.

Many firms are known by the initials of the owner/s, and the public image is therefore not necessarily imaginative or indicative of your skills set, and simply by changing the name from (say) A S Gardens to Alan Sargent Gardens should present no loss of continuity with your clients.

I have on occasion seen advertisements (in newspapers or parish magazines) in the name of a firm with the words ‘formally known as’ in brackets underneath. My personal reaction is that the original firm has either a) become insolvent, b) the original partnership has broken up or c) there is some other problem with the business, and I would not wish to deal with them. Unfair perhaps, but this is my personal reaction.

A major chocolate manufacturer can change the brand name of a very famous candy bar and not only render the newly rebranded product as well known as the original, the name change is now a popular pub quiz question. However, we are not all multi- billion companies with the budget to make this successful transition!

Having analysed the reasons for your dissatisfaction, including all elements – unhappy with the title, style, colour, message, image, wording, ambience etc; think carefully about how you want to be seen in future. Rebranding is not something you should consider too often, for the reason stated.

It is difficult to summarise any advice regarding the subject of ‘rebranding’ for all of the reasons previously stated. Unless you are seriously considering a complete change of name and services offered, in which case you need to make a full and proper case for such a radical decision, then rebranding may simply be a case of freshening up your image.

Begin with choosing your colour/s, for all written and company image products, including letterheads, business cards, etc. Colour is very important, as all lettering needs to be clear and easily understood. Purples and dark reds, blues and greens are often used in our industry, eschewing pastel shades or colours that are difficult to read, either from a distance or against a background colour.

Your choice of words is absolutely vital. If you are not comfortable with creating a word picture of your companies attributes, consider asking someone to check over your proposals. Too many words can dilute your message. Better by far to be succinct in your message. This is especially important when writing advertisements and web content.

Once you have made all of your choices, and are ready to launch your new ‘branding’, ensure that you contact all of your previous clients (say, over the past three years) and notify them of your new business style. This will prove to be a very effective marketing strategy, reminding them of your existence and perhaps even gaining a new set of clients from amongst their friends and neighbours!

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Making The Connection Between Design, Build And Maintenance

Joining the gap between Garden Designers, Landscape Contractors and professionally competent gardeners

For decades, there has been a disconnect between the creators and custodians of domestic gardens. Garden designers, Landscape Architects (including design and build firms) and Landscapers create wonderful gardens for their clients, ensuring that every aspect of the project is clearly specified and implemented to the best of their ability.

From initial drainage systems through to foundations, superstructure and fine detailing, they plan, formulate then construct the garden, finally handing over their creation to the tender mercies of the owner.

Despite preparing aftercare instructions, leaving a handover package including all warranties, instruction manuals and manufacturers guarantees – anything to ensure that the garden will be able to develop as planned, unless the project is overseen by a professional gardener, the opportunities for failure are countless, and very often, inevitable.

Meanwhile, working ostensibly in the same industry, there are many hundreds of competent, capable and able professional gardeners who are continually striving to find opportunities to show their skills to owners of gardens. Often competing against less skilled people advertising themselves as ‘qualified gardeners’, (was there ever such an overused and misleading term? What is a ‘Qualification?) they find that money is the prime selection choice of those seeking help in their gardens.

Individuals can leave College with an NVQ, and describe themselves as ‘qualified’ gardeners, even if they have no experience at all of actually working physically  in a garden – a multi-skilled professional that takes many years of understanding seasons, soils and the vagaries of the climate plus the correct use and techniques of working with machinery, equipment and chemicals.

Many thousands of ‘Gardeners’ advertise their wares in newspaper adverts, on-line forums, parish magazines, shop windows, leaflet drops – a host of different ways, all with the same basic message. LOW PRICES!  CHEAP GARDENING!  HALF PRICE FOR PENSIONERS!

Often sending out confusing messages to the public, offering gardening alongside gutter cleaning, pressure washing drives, logs for sale and a host of other ‘services’ thus equating the skills of a gardener to that of a general labourer. Such messages only help to dumb down and belittle the wide ranging skills required of a genuine professional gardener.

To the massive frustration of truly capable professional gardeners, they are obliged to swim in the same sea as thousands of less talented people. There is never a thought given regarding insurance, compliance with regulations or anything legal that might cost a bit more money.

Who is the cheapest?  Let’s give them a try. If they prove useless, there are plenty more to choose from!

Connecting the disconnect

For at least twenty years, industry groups such as The Society of Garden Designers (SGD) and The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) have sought to work together, designers with contractors, each ‘sector’ ensuring that the ‘other side’ understands the other’s needs and wishes. Many dozens of forums, workshops and joint seminars have served to ensure  an awareness of the problems both parts of the industry face, and to accentuate the need to work together.

In most cases,  projects that both parties are working on involve joint co-operation with the client. Contracts will be drawn up clearly showing how the respective elements are to be approached and handled.

Construction (Design Management) Regulations 2015 ensure that both Designer and Contractor are aware of their responsibilities to their client and themselves.

The one MISSING ELEMENT in the overall scheme of things has been the need to match the needs of the Garden Builders (Designers and Landscapers) with the skills of the Garden Custodians. Those who will be responsible for the future well-being and aftercare of the new garden.

If this could be achieved in a natural, unforced and organic way, the whole Landscape industry could be transformed!

Designers and landscapers, working together with skilled, vetted, independent, professional gardeners, each mutually respecting the other’s role and expertise in their specialisms, would be able to fill the gap that is currently causing a roadblock to the success of many projects, often leading to failures.

How to build a bridge between the three corners of the triangle? Designers in one corner, garden builders in the second, and gardeners in the third.

The natural starting point is the Designer. Many garden designers belong to The Society of Garden Designers at one grade or another. Many are also members of smaller, local groups of designers. They meet on a regular basis, and often converse through social media, sharing information in a localised manner, and are thus able to make recommendations to the rest of the group.

The Association of Professional Landscapers is primarily formed of Domestic Landscapers, all of whom are regularly vetted to ensure that high standards are maintained.

Joint SGD and APL events are a common feature in the diaries of each group, where anything and everything of mutual interest is discussed to the benefit of all.

There have long been calls for another ‘Trade Group’ of vetted, insured, competent and trustworthy professional gardeners, all self-employed and offering their skills to provide aftercare to newly built gardens, requiring a good deal of common sense and a recognition that the needs of a newly laid out site are sometimes different from standard maintenance works, making checks and adjustments as and when needed to plants and equipment.

It is likely that some designers know of one or two such skilled gardeners, as will most landscape companies, even if they have not used their services. Everyone will be aware of talented individuals in their area, but they may not be aware of their wishes and special skills.

They will probably not be aware of how they operate their businesses, because they have never made professional contact with them.

If it were possible to make professional contact with individual gardeners, either through recommendations or Cluster Groups, Designers and Contactors could develop and build a mutually beneficial relationship, thus involving Skilled Gardeners and encouraging them to join in and become the third arm of the triangle.

Working locally, a Design Group, by inviting selected gardeners to tender for high quality maintenance work on a short-term basis (i.e. the duration of a warranty period, six months or a year) on one or more schemes, at a professional rate of pay and working under the guidance of an Aftercare Manual would prove a very attractive option for all concerned.

Similarly, Landscapers who do not have the capacity or wherewithal in their team to provide aftercare and warranty maintenance works, could supplement their workforce with a self-employed artisan on a contract price basis, charging and paying decent rates to look after their interests and ensure the newly landscaped garden develops in a timely manner, making adjustments as required without fuss or concern to the owners.

Professional Gardeners could build a business model around this regular high quality work, where their skills and experience may be recognized and appreciated by all, thus moving away from the low paid/competitive cheapest price market sector. They would be able to look forward and plan work accordingly, investing in training for others within their firm and build their reputation based on mutual respect.

As a mark of that respect, and to create a healthy working relationship it ought to be ensured that those individuals have been endorsed by a designer or landscaper, and well and worthily recommended by all concerned.

The third arm of the Triangle

The proposed and long-term solution to the dream outlined above seems likely to have been solved with the creation of a new Trade Body, organised and championed by The Association of Professional Landscapers and administered by The Horticultural Trades Association, launching in 2020, to celebrate the Silver Anniversary of the founding of the APL in 1995.

A new body has been announced – THE ASSOCIATION OF PROFESSIONAL GARDENERS 

Formed especially for skilled and accredited professional gardeners, recognising the needs of the industry and our customers and to provide a natural platform for artisans.

I am convinced that the creation of such a body will be industry changing. For designers to be able to recommend someone to maintain and develop a new garden, and for Landscapers to hand over the warranty element of completed projects, relieving them of the worries of leaving their scheme to the mercies of an unknown, possibly unskilled and almost certainly, partisan,  custodian will be very welcome!

I am also convinced that one day very soon, everybody working professionally in private gardens will need to be licensed and approved by Local Government, and those who are not working legally i.e. without insurance or certificates to operate machinery and equipment, will not be permitted to work without potential penalty for both Contractor and homeowner.

Professional Gardeners will gain the recognition they deserve, at rates that celebrate their years of knowledge. They will be able to control the growth of their businesses, knowing that their chosen model may be enlarged or reduced to suit them as a firm or as individuals.

Members of the new APG will also be encouraged to enter their work into the Association of Professional Landscapers Awards scheme, further celebrating the beauty of landscape projects, designed, built and maintained by Professionals!

Far reaching, all-encompassing and logical!

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Never Assume – Always Ascertain

One of the most disconcerting elements of working as a Gardens Consultant, drawing on almost fifty years of practical experience, is that of repeat problems. Since the early 90s I have written and spoken many thousands of words of encouragement and as a warning to generations of Contractors who have suffered through their genuine belief in the goodwill of their customers.

I have always thought that we are the luckiest of people, working in an industry that produces plants, designs and creates beautiful gardens and open spaces for private and commercial grounds, bringing joy and pleasure to many. It is really is the most interesting and rewarding of careers. How many office workers would love to change places with us, working in the sunshine and open air, surrounded by beauty!

And yet, there is always a more serious side to our business, and it is one that is so often neglected or ignored in our daily working lives. That is the side that involves the Law, Contracts, Finance and Responsibilities. In our pleasurable buzz, we sometimes spend too little time on the ‘Business’ of running a company, hoping that ‘everything will be alright’.

Too many times though, I am commissioned to deal with legal situations, complaints and disputes that have arisen solely because of neglect of one type or another.

Negligence takes many forms. It involves all exponents; Garden Contractors, Garden Designers and Landscaper Contractors – and it begin with inadequate or incomplete tenders. I have copies of dozens of ‘Quotations’ or ‘Estimates’ that are little more than a general chatty letter, offering to carry out nebulous works, with no specification, Terms & Conditions of Contact or payment, and no agreement reference how the work will proceed.

Garden Designers who start work on projects with no clear instructions or crucially, a budget. Customers who refuse to pay when design proposals are shown as they do not accord with their wishes. Customers who state that they never commissioned work, but were just getting ideas in case they want to have their garden landscaped in the future.

Some of the warning signs which should ring alarm bells include the legend often seen on Architect drawings ‘Do Not Scale From This Drawing’, at the same time as stating ‘All Dimensions Must Be Taken From This Drawing’, hence the vital importance of including dimensions and quantities in your contract quotation. Note too, that a Quotation is usually held to be Fixed Price as opposed to an ‘Estimate’ which is deemed to be just that.

A Planting Schedule bearing the phrase ‘Plants may be substituted for others of the same colour, growth, height and value’, is a recipe for dispute and not the comfort it may appear at first glance. Sending such a schedule to a Grower/Supplier is offering carte blanche and renders the document irrelevant.

Somewhere in the documentation mention should be made of ‘Variations’ and how to cope with any alterations, additions or reductions/deletions of any kind. If a tender document states a particular type of paving slab, it should also include a full description of thickness, dimensions and colour. Include a catalogue/product reference number if at all possible to avoid complaints or misunderstandings/colour variations when seen wet or dry.

I recall a mentor once saying ‘Never assume – always ascertain’, and if you bear this phrase in mind at all times, and ensure that everything is put down in writing – with a copy to all parties, numbered and dated, you will greatly reduce the chance of getting into disputes.

Another of my favoured sayings is ‘If it isn’t written down, it didn’t happen’.

Even if the contract documentation is in order, it is wise to keep it up to date by means of a regular report. Usually this means a weekly project update, taking the form of a letter or email clearly setting out everything that took place since the last report, including works completed, partially completed with an estimate of progress, plans for the following week – a complete storyboard of the contract to date with a diary for the next phase.

This formula may also be used when Contract Gardening or undertaking Maintenance Works. Clearly set out the programme for the season to date, together with the proposed schedule for the next week/month. This discipline shows the client that you are acting in a professional manner, with their best interests in mind. It will also highlight any maintenance issues including the need for additional works, mulching, lawn treatments etc that may not be part of the main contract and may provide you with out of season additional works.

Finally, do not neglect the ‘Job Handover’ element of a contract.

On completion, ensure that you provide an Aftercare Package to the client, with each document named and numbered. These may include warranties and product leaflets and information provided by the supplier or manufacturer. The pack should also include product descriptions, with colours, types and names and addresses of suppliers, including nurseries, builder merchants etc, to enable them to order extra materials for repairs or additions in the future.

The Aftercare Package should be handed over with the final invoice as part of the hand-over process. Depending on the nature of the contract, it may be necessary to provide practical instructions and training reference (for example) pond pump cleaning and maintenance to enable the client to take ownership of their garden.

Never Assume – Always Ascertain.

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Trade Associations – As A Business Development

There has been a great deal of comment on social media recently regarding Trade Associations, and the need for them – or not! I have been a keen member of several ‘Associations’ for most of my career, and feel that many commentators miss one of the major points of belonging, both as an individual and as a company.

The point may be summarized as business development.

We all start out in business in a small way, and some people want to remain sole traders, happy to make a living working in gardens as a sole trader, without the hassle of employing others. They start out building a business which maintains a number of gardens – a ‘round’ – carrying out both general gardening works and the occasional landscape project as and when required.

Other companies grow organically, taking on one part-timer, then two, then one full-timer and so on. As these individual businesses grow and become ‘firms’, they may feel the need to expand both in size and knowledge, but also in the public (and Trade) perception of their businesses. They will take on bigger and more complex projects, yet often feeling isolated, wishing to discuss problems and techniques with others in the industry.

Social media is fine, in a superficial way. Comments, and answers to posted questions, no matter how well intentioned or germane, may not suit your style or soil type and site conditions, as they are too general in their nature.

This is where accredited Associations such as The Association of Professional Landscapers (APL) (mainly domestic contractors, with some commercial projects) and The British Association of Landscape Industries (BALI) (mainly commercial with some domestic) come into their own.

BUSINESS PLANS

Membership of these Trade Bodies becomes a major part of a firms Business Plans. For individuals, a new category of Membership designed to suit smaller businesses recently formed by The Horticultural Trades Association, The Association of Professional Gardeners,  offers an opportunity for individuals to belong to a meritorious organization, with all of the benefits of belonging to a major Trade Association at an early stage in their careers, including entry into the Annual APL  Awards.

As your career develops, and  skill levels rise, on a personal level, you may consider applying to join The Chartered Institute of Horticulture, (CIoH) earning letters designate after your name (ACIHort, or MCIHort) . The CIoH offers a career ‘ladder’ rising to Chartered Fellow.

As a Designer, The Society of Garden Designers  (SGD) would be the next natural goal, becoming a Pre-Registered Member, rising perhaps to become a Full Member, earning letters designate MSGD after your name. Both of these meritorious accreditations are personal, not company achievements. The SGD also offers a career ladder, rising to becoming a Fellow.

(The Association of Professional Landscapers and British Association of Landscape Industries also have Designer Member categories. These allow Designers to enter Annual Awards held to celebrate excellence within their Associations)

MOST IMPORTANTLY, and the point I would emphasise most strongly, is the impact that membership of these meritorious accredited Trade  bodies can have on your work force, especially if you join after they have started work for you.

By definition, they are now employed by a firm that has enough confidence in their own ability to welcome the vetting and assessment process by which membership is gained. Even more so, if you keep them up to speed with developments, and they appreciate the hoops you have to go through to gain acceptance. Acceptance into membership is not an easy process, as only fully professional firms are approved and accepted, subject to Annual re-vetting to maintain high standards.

If you choose to enter a  site or project into an Annual Awards scheme, (although you are entitled to come along in any event!) the kudos for your business, with the opportunity to take your staff and clients along to the prestigious event and present your work to the wider world is a fantastic boost to your confidence, and staff morale.

The tremendous confidence boost to staff morale should never be underestimated. They now work for an Award Winning Company, and they are The Winners!.

Similarly, awards are made annually to Young Achievers, (the term may vary) which offers an opportunity to present younger staff members to skills- based competition against their peers.

The World Skills events, and Go Landscaping initiatives are only two of many different trials and challenges that younger team members can enter. These are all fantastic opportunities for Landscape and General Garden Contractors to enhance their status within the industry, and I repeat, MOST IMPORTANTLY provide a breeding ground for future generations of skilled and talented individuals, who are proud to be MEMBERS OF A TRADE ASSOCIATION!

Trade Associations are by far the best method of networking, through Cluster Groups, talking with other Contractors, Designers, Suppliers and Manufacturers in a formal or informal manner, building up your contacts within the industry. They open so many doors, to a wealth of shared knowledge and information, it is impossible to overstate the importance of belonging to an accredited Trade Association,  but like everything else in this world, you only get out what you put in!

Ascertain the location (usually a pub with an events room) of the next nearest Cluster Group of any Association or Society, where all are welcome to join in and chat with fellow gardeners, designers and contractors, involved in small projects and large sites, some old hands and lots of new faces, all sharing the same passion for our industry – all experiencing the same problems and difficulties!

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Professional Non-Payers

‘I usually follow my instincts when dealing with potential customers. I have one enquiry from a property owner living at a very exclusive development concerning cutting an established beech hedge. The house is on an expensive gated estate, and I would like to get more work from the various owners. However, my concern is that the customer is insisting on a 100% clean and tidy job, with no cut leaves left behind.’

I am pleased to hear that you have alarms bells on this enquiry. Having taken the liberty of replying to your query personally and before you tendered for the work, I know that you were wise to have concerns.

In fairness to many owners, the term ‘100% tidy’ simply means that they want to have the rubbish cleared after the job, and not left in a messy condition. They do not actually mean 100%, just make sure you tidy up behind you on completion. However…

Professional Non-Payers

I can think of three true cases where the clients could be referred to as ‘Professional Non-Payers.’ They had absolutely no intention of paying for works contracted, and made sure that they dealt with small companies who were unlikely to be able to afford to become involved in legal battles, or well – known firms who would not relish bad publicity.

The first case involved a house owner ringing the manager of a turf company asking if they would arrange to have ‘the perfect lawn’ laid to their rear garden. The site was in a very exclusive development, with no inkling of payment as being an issue.

The lawn was prepared by a reputable contractor, the finest quality turf selected to suit the site conditions and supplied by the turf company. All payments were to be made to the landscape contractor, although the enquiry originated via the supplier. Despite the fact that the job would have been described by any reasonable person as an excellent scheme, the owner claimed that the lawn was ‘not perfect’, as the turf had not knitted, some of the grass blades were higher than others – and a number of other ridiculously petty objections – and refused to pay.

I regret to say that the turf supplier and landscape contractor did not pursue payment due to the status of the ‘client’.

The second tale is a very common problem encountered by contractors who do not stipulate and specify precise information when asked to ‘level’ a lawn area. To contractors, the term ‘level’ means smooth, fine tilth, proper preparation etc. To some clients, the term means precisely that. Level enough to play croquet or Lawn Billiards. Most contractors do not caught a second time when writing up their quotations, but unfortunately, too many still walk straight into problems and expense because they had not imagined that customers did not share their definition of ‘level’. The term should be ‘Grade to running levels and falls’ or similar wording meaning a pre-turfing finish allowing for various fixed points e.g. paving or tree trunks set at differing heights.

Although I have many other cautionary tales, the final story is still difficult to comprehend. Even years later, I remain bewildered by the logic of some people.

A large garden in a South Coast town had a butyl liner pool, arranged and planted in Japanese style. The scheme was several years old and the plants were well established. During building works at the neighbouring property, a scaffolder had dropped a pole which managed to slide, javelin style, into the pool thereby puncturing the liner. The company agreed to repair the damage without hesitation or quibble. They had not envisaged dealing with anyone quite so  pedantic as the pool owner!

As an Independent Consultant I was called in by the owners solicitors to arrange all specification and documentation to ensure that the pool liner was replaced and the whole garden area surrounding the pool were returned to its’ original condition  before the accident damage. Put simply, they wanted each plant to be photographed and catalogued, measured and orientated so that each may be removed from site, cared for in a suitable nursery and replaced in exactly the same position and dimension as though nothing had ever happened.

Quite apart from the incredible expectation that I could somehow arrange for the plants to stop growing/flowering during their offsite ‘holiday’, and the impossibility of managing the owner’s commands, I felt sure that no Court would ever demand that their Builders insurance company settle such an unreasonable claim.

My instructions from the solicitors were clear. I could charge whatever fee I wished, as it would be added to the claim, and paid only on satisfactory completion of my part in the operation. I have to say that the terms in which the whole commission was couched sounded very reasonable. Challenging and exciting, different and rewarding were the words used by the owner. A most unusual and exclusive project to add to my portfolio.

If you have any doubts at all regarding the intentions of a potential customer, step back a few paces and consider the implications for your business. Are they simply using layman’s terms or is there a hidden agenda.

One common denominator in these three stories is the challenge thrown down by the customer. With the unspoken inference that only a serious and competent person would be asked to quote for these very Special jobs. Can you handle the challenge?

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Improving Efficiency and Increasing Income

I run a two man maintenance business, mainly grass and hedge cutting. I feel I want to improve my efficiency by investing in new equipment, but find it difficult to reconcile the costs with increased productivity. I am sure we will be faster and more proficient – yet at the same time carrying out the same job for less money at the end of the day, thereby financing my customers!

Assuming that you are charging your clients an hourly rate, and therefore any improvements in productivity that arise from your investment in new equipment will not reap addition rewards for your outlay as matters currently stand.

It may be helpful to look initially at the way you operate your company. If you are charging a simple hourly rate, and have done so for some time, your customers may be reluctant to alter their arrangements. It is an unfortunate fact that maintenance clients become hidebound by ‘normal practice’ when it comes to contractors. They expect you to arrive on site at a given time, work a certain numbers of hours, carrying out routine projects and bill them at the end of each week/month for that work and perhaps extras as seasons require.

As far as they are concerned, nothing must alter. Some simply do not like change. Same time, same people, same jobs, same costs. (Even agreeing the occasional increase in rates is most unwelcome!)

I hesitate to say that your dilemma is evolutionary, but the more established you become as a business, the greater the need for efficiency within your company. There are many, many successful businesses that exclusively carry out maintenance works, without feeling the need to expand into more general landscaping to increase profits.

However, your productivity and profitability must evolve, and always in an upward trajectory, otherwise inflation and other price increases will eat into your finances. Nothing ever stands still! To survive you must increase productivity or prices on a regular basis.

In essence, there are two clear paths to consider. One is to change your service offer, to both established clients and new enquiries, to recognise your proposed investment. As every business is different inasmuch as we all have different financial needs and costs. Some firms have little or no overheads, others have high costs. Some people need a certain level of income to support their families and life style/school fees etc.

Therefore it is a very useful exercise to make a clear and honest assessment of your outgoings, both professional and personal.  Ensure that you include everything, especially wages and anticipated increases in the near future. Once you have a figure, add a percentage to cover anticipated inflation or possible increases in outgoings in the next couple of years. Perhaps a new vehicle, or larger premises are on the cards. Project your assessment for the end of next year, not the current one.

Divide that sum into 1800 p.a. working hours to arrive at an hourly rate, based on your existing costs and working methods, spread over a twelve month period.

The next step is to arrive at a figure for the total outlay you anticipate to purchase your new equipment. Again, divide that sum into 1800 (working hours) and aim to recover the full cost of that money in one year. I appreciate that there will be a residual value left after that period, but from a practical point of view, you should consider any life you can get from the tools after that time will be a bonus.

Now that you have all relevant information in front of you, and assuming that you did not have any unwelcome surprises once you worked out your current rates and compared them with your actual outgoings, you have an hourly rate that reflects your status quo.

You should then add another factor into your quotes, to include the enhanced costs of providing your clients with an increase per hour/day to cover the cost of your new purchases, increasing/more efficient working abilities.

This should enable you to show that you can carry out the job using existing methods @ £XX per hour, or £?? per hour if they choose to have less hours/more productivity. The choice then becomes theirs, and if you can prove a time/cost saving, they should have no issues with your increased rates. In effect, they will be choosing to ‘hire’ your new equipment.

Obviously, this formula is only required for existing customers, as all new clients should receive the higher rate figure only, or perhaps develop a price per individual project or part thereof if the contract can be broken down.

I have always maintained that we should be paid properly for our skills, but so many contractors do not appear to appreciate that the more we learn, the greater our knowledge, the more extensively serviceable we become as  craftspeople. We should reflect this ever growing talent in our charges. Gardeners are expected to maintain the same rates, year after year, as though we are still only capable of a certain craft level.

At least, by increasing your productivity by improving the types of equipment offered to your customers, they cannot quibble over paying more money for the same job, and any increase in productivity may be utilised to increase the number of customers using your time.

All we have to sell is ourselves and our time. Increased efficiency equals increased profits!

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Expanding Your Horizons

‘I feel I have reached saturation point in my local area, having landscaped many gardens over the past fifteen years. I am pretty well known locally, and now wish to look for new markets further afield. I work mainly in villages, and would like to try to attract more prestigious   work in larger towns. How should I go about this?’

I well understand your situation, and assure you it works both ways. Rural businesses hanker after more lucrative markets, and see cities as a means to write their own cheques, whilst city firms welcome the opportunity to work in more relaxed surroundings, with no traffic wardens and parking or congestion charges and accordingly seek less stressful sites.

First of all, you should take stock of your business. Obviously, you are successful. You need to analyse that success, and consider the financial facts. Your profitability is directly related to the costs of producing current projects. Your accepted quotations and related outgoings, including labour, materials, transport and yard rental are all part of one set of equations.

These figures are highly relevant, as they only relate to your existing business including and especially, your current work force. Although you may feel frustrated, are they willing to stay with you if you decide to increase the distances you are prepared to travel for work? Starting work on site at 8am may mean leaving at 5.30 or 6am, with a lot of overtime to take into account when quoting for ‘City’ projects. Increased transport costs and vehicle depreciation will certainly affect your profits.

Whilst it is certainly true that ‘City’ firms can and do charge more money, these increases are all inter-related. Higher charges do not necessarily lead to increased profits. I said earlier that it works both ways. I used to operate from mid-Sussex and for many years, carried out ‘prestige’ projects, mainly in the West End of London, working for ‘Society’ Designers. I can assure you that although these schemes were very interesting and profitable, the only way I could make money was down to the fact that my overheads were so much lower than my city rivals. What they spent on office/yard rentals and higher wages (London weighted) I was spending on fuel, tyres and overtime, so we were pretty much on a par.

Somewhere along the line though, the workforce grew older and less tolerant of early starts and long drives, often leaving site at 4pm and getting home four hours later, only to start again at 5.30 the next day. Tired staff equals a negative downward spiral as the years go by, and eventually I gradually changed my marketplace back to more local work.

A possible alternative would be to start a new depot, under your current name, and using some of your existing staff to open a new branch in your favoured town/city, begin the process of training new staff to your standards. This way, as your existing staff become older and less tolerant of travelling, your new team will have had the benefit of your talents, and continue operating to your high ideals.

You would have to be extremely cautious in your financial evaluations, working with a trusted accountant to guide you at all times. Whilst I appreciate that you are currently frustrated by your limitations, you need to keep a clear and unsentimental logic to all your undertakings, whilst at the same time running your existing company. Anything else, and you may find the parent firm loses profitability and thereby threatening both new and existing ventures.

I found there were distinct advantages to my time in London. We were obliged to become highly efficient in all sorts of ways – everything required military planning and logistics, as without this discipline, every job would have been lossmaking. We learnt all sorts of ‘tricks’ when working through houses for example, having to protect carpets and wall paper. Disposing of rubbish became a fine art, and the efficacy of the whole team was both humbling and inspiring!

Gaining access to site was a serious business, and I would reconnoitre the site beforehand and sort out everything from parking arrangements to the nearest Builders Merchant and office of the Traffic Wardens to beg for permits. So many additional disciplines must be learnt of necessity that have nothing whatsoever to do with landscaping, yet be mastered to survive the experience.

I suggest that you compile a dossier of your work and open discussions with an established garden designer – perhaps even a local group of SGD members – with a view to tendering for work in the city, and rely to some extent on their local knowledge to help you break into your chosen market. Whichever course you choose, you will need contacts in the area, and designers are the obvious professionals. They too, may be keen to work with someone who has skills and specialisms their existing landscapers do not have. Any Unique Selling Points you may have will now come to the fore!

Expanding your business is fraught at any time, as increasing in size does not necessarily mean a comparable increase in profits, and the strength of your existing business model, with its’ current infrastructure and management base will be sorely tested unless you write a comprehensive new business plan, with your senior staff, family and professional advisers.

Build on your present strengths, and incorporate what makes you currently so successful.

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Working With Main Contractors

‘I run a small to medium sized landscape company, and feel quite capable at coping with most situations. As my project size has grown, so too have the problems! Some appear to be beyond my control, and these are very frustrating. Particularly difficult are those schemes where we are employed by  a Construction Company (acting as Main Contractor) with ourselves as the nominated sub-contractor, paid through them as part of the overall project package.

It seems that we are constantly being obliged to fit in with the Main Contractor’s schedule of works, attempting to carry out our landscaping works long before the site is ready for us to begin in a sensible and logistical way due to delays by others.’

This is an age old problem, and is especially difficult for landscapers who have not worked with a particular building contractor before. Neither party knows how the other one operates, with the builders taking charge of the whole site, treating the landscapers as ‘just another subbie’ even though you are the nominated sub-contractor, and are only working under their auspices for legal, contractual and financial purposes.

They will be working to a time dated works programme, and if any part of that diary is delayed through weather or other causes beyond their control, so the overall project must be condensed towards the end – when the landscapers portion is due to begin, with planting, turfing and other features usually involving living materials. The Main Contractor or more usually, their Site Agent, is under great pressure to complete on time otherwise the company will face financial penalty clauses and payments.

There begins the landscapers nightmare pantomime, with their client (the Main Contractor) constantly chasing them for action. If the works graph shows turfing on the 23rd week of the job, why are the landscapers not on site? Frantic telephone calls, angry exchanges and general upsets all round. How can we lay turf to an area with no top soil and twenty vans and cars parked in the way?

Delivery lorries containing dozens of bare root trees are sent away as there is no room to unload. Come back next week and try again! Yet still the telephone calls – where are you? Why are you not on site? I guarantee it will be ready tomorrow – send your team – oh! I thought it would be ready, come back tomorrow.

I have been working as a landscape contractor since 1968, and for many of those years I worked on such projects. Perhaps because I was too small to handle some of the schemes in my early days, I was compelled to find a way around the problems, only a few of which are mentioned above.

One of my earliest contracts was for a well known Southern firm of builders, working as a direct labour company, and not as a nominated sub-contractor (where the Main Contractor is obliged to use your services at the instruction of the client or their Agents). The scheme involved basic seeding of grass areas, with only final grading and preparation, plus seeding and ‘first cut’ of the new lawns. I was working on a fixed price per metre rate, subject to re-measurement by the Architects.

The job was at a new school, and the weather conditions were atrocious, with day after day of heavy rain. The site had become a slurry mud pit, with large areas of standing water. Working the soil was totally out of the question, and any grass seed would have simply floated away. And yet – the Site Agent was adamant that the works should proceed. I refused, the company terminated my contract. I sued and won. The Judge was very clear – you do not employ a specialist contractor and not respect their professional advice.

This early lesson in common sense led me to take a very different attitude with subsequent Main Contractors. Whether or not you are a nominated or specialist sub-contractor, you are the professional. I always ensured that I dealt only with senior Directors when negotiating contracts. Whilst fully appreciating their deadlines and need to maintain programmes, working closely with senior staff as individuals – getting to know them personally and gaining mutual respect – and making every effort to manage their wishes, my ‘contract’ was with the person, and close contact ensured  harmonious and successful projects, delivered on time.

By maintaining a Site Day Book, clearly showing progress (including time dated photographs) and site conditions, the site managers knew that I was monitoring the site in a factual manner, and that any instructions regarding my performance would have to relate to actual conditions (or else be reported back to their Directors) and therefore common sense prevailed and mutual assistance applied  in making sure that certain areas could and would be available for my part of the package. This discipline ensured that I was never called to site until it was  ready for landscaping!

To reiterate – you are the Specialist, working with living materials, totally reliant on weather and site conditions to complete your works. (They could not paint fresh plaster! Nor tile a non-existent roof!)

Each trade should respect the other, and work together in a sensible and professional manner. Even when writing these words, it all sounds too unnecessary and obvious.

Educating builders to appreciate the essential aspects of working with living materials should be simple. Sometimes though, we have to be more inventive with our logic!

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Getting Paid In A Timely Manner

There are so many different types of gardening business, from ‘lawns and hedges only’ firms to landscape companies providing a full design and build package, with a large percentage of  firms offering a mixture of maintenance and construction dependent on the seasons or wishes of their clients. It is this diverse nature of our industry that causes many of the problems with clients and prompt payments, as a single form of payment documentation and logic is not maintained within the firm.

Consider for a moment the methods employed by other businesses. I think a decent analogy would be a local garage providing vehicle repairs. As a business dealing with so many differing, yet connected items and services, they must work with a system that is clear and unequivocal, carefully itemising works carried out and materials used, separating labour costs and materials, arriving at a final account figure that is understood by both parties. Even if the client feels that cost is too high, because everything is clearly identified, there is usually no reason for dispute.

This simplistic analogy may be described as Communication. The vehicle owner understands the need to expend money on labour and materials. It is accepted that the garage owner must have suitable premises that are covered by a range of legislation, and that a considerable amount of tools, equipment have to be purchased, and crucially, trained staff have to be employed by the business, and therefore everybody expects to pay a suitable hourly rate to recognise all of those costs.

For many garden company owners, a major problem lays in the nature of our businesses. There is a strong perception in the mind of the public that gardening is a hobby they personally enjoy, but need assistance to carry out those jobs they do not have time for. Why therefore, should they have to pay ‘Garage’ rates for labour carrying out tasks they themselves enjoy? Gardening is not a serious business, but a paying hobby, and those who work in their garden should think themselves blessed! Sunshine and money!

No matter how small a gardening firm, it is extremely important that it is run as a Business. When starting out, so much time is spent trying to find more work, complete those jobs you have started and keep everybody happy by balancing and juggling your diary.  The usual growth pattern of taking on mowing, hedging, weeding and maintaining small gardens, gradually taking on more complex and larger sites as your confidence and reputation expands, is often not allied to an essential increase and sophistication in your paperwork.

Without proper documentation, detailed quotations and vitally, Terms and Conditions of Payment clearly set out from the beginning, backed up with an efficient finance system and records that are faithfully maintained, all contracts are liable to become confused.

Too many gardeners do not see themselves as Contractors in the full and proper sense of the word. Even simple mowing projects should be treated as contracts, with full documentation written in such a way that there can be no misunderstanding or confusion. Terms and Conditions of Payment should be clearly spelled out, with method of payment – cash, cheque, BACS etc – and dates for payment for piece work, weekly or monthly accounts.

The works to be completed must also be written in such a way that there can be no mis-understanding. The area to be included, together with the type of machine to be used should be written into the quotation. Although you may wish to include other works in a maintenance programme, it is not unreasonable for the client to expect you to supply all tools and equipment to carry out ‘Standard gardening’ works, including (say) hedgecutting.

Most importantly, those works that fall outside the scope of the agreed quotation must be subject to a separate quotation. For example, if you are required to strip turf and prepare an area of ground, you may need additional equipment, and have to hire in machinery. In that event, the turf cutter and rotovator would be additional costs and should be shown separately on your invoice including time spent of travelling to collect/return the hire tools.

The client should not expect you to provide these extra costs in the same charge as regular maintenance, yet these will cause dissent if not clearly agreed in writing, creating bad feelings and late payments. This is only one small example of client/contractor potential communication breakdown that does not cover problems that arise during construction projects.

I will deal with Design and Build Payment issues in my next column. It is a very complex question, with no simple answers. All contracts require a professional payment structure to ensure timely payments.

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Changing Your Company Name

‘We are thinking of changing the name of our garden maintenance firm to reflect the fact that we are hoping to attract more landscape work. The present name indicates that we only carry out mowing and hedging contracts. Are there any names we should avoid?’

Changing the name of any firm can prove expensive in terms of treasure and the loss of public recognition, at least in the short term. I understand that you have been operating for over four years, and have a number of regular clients whom you service throughout the year. There should be no problems encountered with those customers, as a simple letter explaining your decision and the reasoning behind it should not cause any concern to them.  Indeed, you may even attract additional projects from those same customers who did not appreciate the scope of your talents.

The naming of a new business – as this decision should be considered a new enterprise, although you will probably be using the same ‘establishment’ of bankers, accountants, offices, base/yard etc, but with new signage and public face. It is however extremely important that you choose a name that accurately reflects your services and offer to the marketplace in which you wish   to attract new business.

You are changing the name for a specific marketing campaign, albeit a permanent foundation for your new organisation. Landscaping is a very much wider field of operation than purely garden maintenance, and many successful firms become specialists in one or more types of work. For this reason it is vital to choose a name that you feel very comfortable with. You may like to carry out some ‘in-house’ research with your employees, family and friends and involve them in deciding the choice of name.

You may find the pronunciation of a certain name or phrase is difficult to announce on the telephone. If you are tongue-tied or incoherent when answering calls, you have probably made the wrong choice! Take your time over the exercise, and you will be well rewarded. Care should be taken to avoid giving the impression that you will limit the services you intend to offer, e.g. ‘Water Gardens’ or ‘Paving and Walling’. Equally important is avoiding an offer that oversells your ability and causes disappointment when you decline certain projects as being beyond your skills base.

It is often advisable not to appear too general or too large a business in your choice of name. Examples could be ‘The London Landscape Company’, or perhaps ‘Northern Counties Landscapes’ when in fact you only wish to attract customers from a much narrower base. (Apologies if there are any firms with those names!) I know of several fairly small firms with a County or region in their title, and as they are prepared to cover those areas, despite their size, they do not suffer any disillusioned customers.

Very often, a strap-line or sub-text may be used; for example a South Western region title with a strap-line announcing ‘Serving the Bristol Area’ would prove an attractive lure to invite potential clients in ‘the Bristol area’ in a way that indicates that the firm is large and competent enough to service a larger area than simply ‘Bristol’. The distinct impression will of a solid and reliable firm, able to cope with whatever landscape project they wish to have constructed.

If you already have a suitable name – one that does not necessarily tie you down to mowing or hedge cutting, why not add the word ‘Landscapes’ or ‘Landscaping’ to your title? Or ‘and Landscapes’ for example. I appreciate that in your particular case, this is not possible, and it illustrates the point I made earlier regarding your choice of name.

Imagine that at some time in the future, you may wish to sell your business. Try to think as a prospective purchaser. What name do you think you could sell? Irrespective of the success of the firm, what name would attract a buyer, who would want to continue using the name?

That is the benchmark by which you should decide your new title.

There are quite a few firms around the country who share the same name. I can think of several ‘Town & Country’ , ‘Evergreen’, ‘Four Seasons’, ‘All Season’ type names, and whilst they may be completely acceptable, they are not going to prove as attractive as a unique and appropriate company title.

Avoid attempts to compete with another firm whose owners have strong feelings about exclusivity. I can think of a few companies that have taken great umbrage, and spent a fortune on legal fees in an attempt to prevent new businesses from calling themselves anything that even vaguely sounds like their own brand name.

It is not only firms such as Goodwood, Harrods or Rolls Royce who have successfully fought off ‘near name’ type businesses, but others who have launched expensive law suits against start up/small firms who have tried to describe their work and expertise in suitable language and words in a genuine and sensible manner, only to find themselves involved in heavy costs and problems with established firms.

To this end, carefully check by all means possible and ensure that your chosen new business title does not clash with any other, even in sound (e.g. Archedeck Timber and Arkadeck Timber, or Hardwood and Hard Wood).

Thus, before you change your company name, make careful checks to avoid unnecessary problems.

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Raising Your Conversion Rate From Enquiry Into Contract

‘I am frequently asked how I manage to convert such a high ratio of enquiries into contracts (I am essentially a landscaper with an ever increasing portfolio of consultancy work, which is a sign of growing older, yet after nearly fifty years in the trade, still feel at least thirty years younger than I am!)’

I do not believe that I am any better than many quality landscape contractors operating in my area, but I have maintained my successful operating status by appearing more efficient than some of my competitors. I still maintain an enquiry into contract ratio of 87% – nine out of ten as I prefer to call it, and I firmly believe it is because of my approach to preparing and submitting quotations in a manner than can be clearly understood and appreciated by my potential clients.

I have a very strong personal ethic in my dealings with my ‘public’, including a  wide range of personal and interpersonal skills, from telephone etiquette through every stage of the process of securing work. As each ‘stage’ is interconnected, and would take many articles to describe in this column, I firmly believe that the final part of the presentation of the quotation documentation is the manner in which the quote is worded.

I call this element The Method Statement – essentially a story board clearly setting out the way I intend to approach their job, including a step by step series of what are effectively my Terms and Conditions. Also included in the words are full specification, measurements, dimensions, materials, delivery information, location and other site details such as access to water and electricity (plus toilet facilities as required) at no cost to myself, access to site for deliveries, skip lorries etc.

Although I only undertake private commissions, I have based my working documentation on commercial contracts, thereby ensuring that I have covered every aspect and detail to provide myself with as much protection from misunderstanding, and the client with a contract document they can be comfortable with, avoiding any chance of problems.

The secret is knowing how to provide all this information in such a way that appears to be a friendly ‘walk and talk’ through the various stages of the project – many of which the customer has never given the slightest thought to – couched in such a way that every detail is included e.g. type, colour and catalogue reference number of (say) paving slabs and walling bricks. Cement type, manufacturer and mix ratios are discussed.

An example of one of my  recent quotations for rebuilding a collapsed stone/flint wall:

‘The concrete block wall to be set 150mm back from the boundary line, to allow a 150mm face of flints and natural sand stone to be clad to the blockwork. The new facing work to match the existing as far as possible, with new imported flint and stone to be selected to match. Samples of imported materials to be agreed prior to ordering. Pointing mix one part Rock Common sand, one part 3.5 lime and one part O.P cement. Pointing style to be agreed, to match the existing as near as possible (there is more than one style in the remaining wall sections). The new retaining wall to be 900cm high including 120mm brick coping salvaged from the rubble, with no guarantee that there will be sufficient bricks to complete the job’.

The quotation goes on for several pages, all laid out in a way that is informative without being too formal. An alternative would be to simply provide a price together with a column of rates, materials and dimensions, set out as a quantity survey, with no attempt to engage the client into becoming an informed part of the ‘team’.

The reaction from my clients has always been very positive. They feel comfortable with the manner the work will proceed, looking forward to seeing the next phase, watching the materials arrive on time and in the correct order – I even nominate the Builders Merchant and all other trades expected to attend site.

The whole process becomes automatically efficient. Everyone involved is included in the Method Statement, from client, staff, suppliers and neighbours. It all appears to being running like clockwork, yet all you have done is to think through each part of the project and laid out your thoughts on paper.

This approach also tends to show up those elements that you may have overlooked. Any breach or missing link will be more easily spotted. Who, What, Where, When and How are the key watchwords. If you can put information next to those headings, you will have the basic layout of the Method Statement. The only missing word is Why?

If the ‘Why’ you are intending to do something as part of the storyboard becomes an issue, for example ‘Why are you using skips and not a grab lorry to speed the job and save money?, the answer should be included in the quote. Perhaps because of access difficulties or your wish (in the example provided) to sort through the debris and reclaim as much stone, flint and brick as possible.

If you have explained your reasoning, there should be no negative queries, only praise for providing the client with a fully thought out and fully costed quotation. Such trust may be instilled at a very early period in the contract works, and a relaxed client is a happy one!

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Discounting Goods or Services

‘I am a sole trader, running a garden nursery and maintenance business. I sometimes reduce the prices of my plants and advertise the discount to attract buyers. I am becoming increasingly reliant on my maintenance works, but have quiet periods, especially in the winter. Would it be sensible to offer a Winter Discount to try to attract more customers.’

Discounting or reducing prices on stock that will otherwise require time and energy to keep in good, saleable order (or outgrow their pots) is a very different proposition to discounting your labour rates. Think of your plant sales as being an incentive to spend money. Offering something for less than normal price may attract people to come and buy more product – but not necessarily spend any more money.

You profit by getting rid of stock that would otherwise deteriorate, both in quality and profit margin terms,  and the customer gains by getting more for the same money. You could think of that as a ‘Win-Win’ situation.

I could enter the realms of finance, showing the effects of price reductions at different percentage rates and the impact on your overall annual profits, against the extra time you have to spend working to maintain your required income levels, but these would prove ponderous and take up several pages of mathematical equations.

Your problem is trying to find a method of attracting either more customers to fill in blank diary dates, or to increase your margins to compensate for the shortfall in your normal working pattern.

I appreciate that you are sole trader, but you have to operate under the same formula as a larger firm. Consider a company owner with twenty productive workers, each earning a clear profit of ten pounds per day. This would give the owner a profit income of two hundred pounds per day. If that same owner only had one worker, in order to maintain his income, that person would have to earn two hundred pounds per day clear profit.

An obvious statement perhaps, but as a sole trader, you must maintain your profits, even though you are experiencing gaps in your programme. You should either increase your charges to existing customers, find new clients to fill the empty days at your current rates or find new ways to fill your working time. What you must not do, is to reduce your rates, otherwise you will exacerbate the situation.

All you have to sell is your time and experience. You are not selling baked beans or greenhouses, or any product that demands an attention seeking headline in magazines and newspapers to achieve sales targets. You cannot offer Loss Leaders to gain footfall and introduce new lines (or get rid of old stock) in the same way as a producer or manufacturer, who must continually strive to keep in the public eye.

I know that some gardening firms offer discounts for reasons I find quite strange. ‘Ten percent discount to OAPs’, ‘Winter Discounts for Snow Clearing’ (presumably, even bigger discounts in the summer!) or ‘Half Price Thursdays’ to try to attract customers. I live in Sussex, where there are a considerable number of OAPs, most of them fairly wealthy and in no need of any discounts.

Reducing rates for a particular day may work as an incentive, but result in fewer customers for the rest of the week and is therefore quite useless as a sales gimmick.

I suggest you examine each and every one of your existing clients and produce a chart showing marks out of ten for a number of different categories. In the same way as you should be operating using your Unique Selling Points (USPs), so your customers will have certain qualities that may be easily identified.

For instance, Client A pays £x per hour/day – higher/lower than average = x points.

They also pay late/on time, by cheque (five days to clear) or BACS = x points.

They are well connected, and seem to have a lot of wealthy friends/relatives.

They have a large garden, with plenty of scope for extra works- (if you find a way to broach the subject) = x points; until you come to a conclusion and final total mark. Try to be subjective, and mark purely in business terms. The most pleasant and friendly of customers are not necessarily of the greatest benefit to your profits.

You will probably find that by using the same criterion for each client, you will identify your ideal customer. One who pays the proper rate, on time, and fits your chosen Best Customer profile. Try to analyse those attributes and start the process of duplicating your ideal.

Always remember that as a sole trader, with only your skills to sell, and not a manufacturer reliant on quantity sales to maintain market share, avoid striving to gain extra income by reducing your rates and perceived value by offering discounts.

Perceived value is paramount in the gardening world. Understand the nature of your ideal clients, and why you consider them as such, (and incidentally, when you carry out this exercise you may understand why they value you so highly). By moving away from some of your lower marked customers and concentrating solely on your Top Ten, you will find that you become more attractive to new and affluent clients – something you will never do by offering discounts or Special Offers of either your time or talent.

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Misquoting For Work

‘ I have had a couple of instances where the client has accepted a quote, but several months after I submitted it. I now feel unhappy with my figures, but do not want to withdraw as I would like the work – but how do I go about submitting a new quote?’

This is another example of learning how to turn a problem into an asset. When you visit a site and go through the whole interview process (which is an accurate description of the intercourse between a contractor and potential customer. Each side interviews the other, and coming to the conclusion that you could work together – provided the quotation figures are acceptable).

There should be several parts to a final quotation, including the specification, working method statement, (possibly) breakdown of the figures – certainly a total or menu of figures for acceptance by the client. Other documents that may be tabled and included are insurance policy details, BACS and other financial information and a record of any plans and drawings, including reference numbers and dates.

These will be familiar to those readers who undertake landscape or garden build projects, but such documentation is equally important to general maintenance contractors. Whilst the facts and information will be somewhat different to (say) a new build garden, with lots of products and processes set out in detail, those who undertake maintenance or clearance works, including mowing and hedge cutting, also need to protect themselves against future problems and disputes as part of the tender process.

It is perhaps worth mentioning that the document process is not all one way. The client should table and supply any information germane to the project. These may include Planning Permissions and any titles, deeds or permits to enter neighbouring land, or restrictions on working hours/noise abatement clauses. They should also include any plans of the site, showing drainage runs, electricity and oil delivery pipes or other underground services. These documents should be tabled and shown in the quotation package.

A form of words must be included in your quotation, and highlighted as an important element of the offer, drawing attention to a Time Limitation Clause. In the case of construction projects, these may be as simple as ‘Prices are based on rates current at the time of quotation, and may be subject to review. This quotation is open for acceptance for three months from (date) and prices will be held for that period.’ In other words; a Fixed Price Quotation. It is easily understood by both parties, and the inclusion of a time limited clause will concentrate the clients mind in accepting the quote!

However, this formula is not so straightforward when you are a maintenance contractor. Information gathered at the interview may be limited to some simple facts. The job requires the cutting of a fifty foot long x eight foot high x eight foot wide hedge, plus cutting the grass in a meadow, and (say) cleaning out an overgrown ditch. Jobs that only need a simple description, with perhaps a price against each one, and a global figure for all three projects if carried out at the same time. The prices shown will be those as assessed on the day of the visit. Taking into consideration that you are unable to carry the works out for a month, you will have costed the works bearing that fact in your mind.

Unless you are very specific in your wording, stating that your quotation is open for acceptance within one month from date of issue, and that you require four weeks’ notice before you can carry out the work, the salient works may have grown significantly more than you imagined, and therefore the job is much larger than you anticipated and quoted for.

In your specific case, the projects were indeed, a hedge, meadow and ditch as described, but the client waited four months before accepting the quote. The hedge had grown to twice the height and thickness (three sides equals three times the volume of waste anticipated), the meadow required three cuts to bring it under control, and the ditch was weed infested and full of water. In simple terms – three times the amount of work quoted for, plus the additional difficulty of working in a water-filled site.

And yet, as far as the customer is concerned, you gave a quote, you know that grass and hedges grow, and that ditches hold water – why are you now complaining about underestimating the work? They may agree to pay a bit more money, as they were a little late in replying, finding all sorts of reasons for the delay, and would never have accepted your quote if they had of known it would be that expensive! Unfortunately, this scenario is all too familiar, and this project is a typical example of our industry.

I appreciate that potential clients may be reluctant to read too much paperwork, and if you over specify and seemingly complicate a simple, straightforward job they will think you are being too pedantic, but a form of words that clearly state that your quotation is based on a certain amount of work, carried out in a specific manner (e.g. all rubbish to left/removed on/off site) and within a certain timeframe simply due to the fact that the site will alter materially as the weeks go by will be accepted and understood by  any reasonable person.

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Employing a Manager?

‘I have been steadily building my garden maintenance business, branching out into some more ambitious landscaping projects and looking forward to a time when I can justify employing a Manager to help share the responsibility of running the firm.  Is there a stage I should reach before taking this step?’

Not every firm – indeed, numerically only a small percentage of gardening businesses ever grow to become so large that they genuinely need the skills and input of a Manager. As no business is exactly the same as another – personal circumstances include a very wide raft of variations and financial requirements that have a strong bearing on the success of the firm – and are often run by a ‘team effort’ of partners and family members if only to relieve the burden on the proprietor and aid the everyday well-being of the owner/s.

Recognising the pressures of running a business, with seemingly more and more work, responsibilities and decision making at a professional level begin to weigh more heavily the larger and more complex the firm becomes, is a key strength on the part of the owner.

Without a knowledgeable and sympathetic sounding board, serving as Designer, Manager, Company Representative, Surveyor and Estimator, plus Money Chaser, Health and Safety Officer and general Guardian of The Company on your own can be a very lonely affair.

Once you have reached the stage when you feel unable to continue carrying the load yourself, identify those tasks that cause you the most time and difficulty. Decide which jobs you would rather hand over to someone else and produce a schedule.

Such a list will include estimating, planning, day to day operations and site management. Dealing with customer relations and identifying and seeking more work will also feature strongly. Which jobs do you really enjoy doing? Perhaps it is the interaction between you and the customers, or maybe planning and developing the business to move onwards and capitalise on the growing success of the firm. Whatever title you give to each department of your company, taking a general overview of the whole range of tasks may show that simply employing a Manager is not quite the answer it seemed before undertaking your audit.

After all, he or she will not have the same vested interests or drive that you have displayed in creating a successful business, and will initially only act on your instructions. To offer carte blanche to a stranger – no matter how well qualified – is always going to be the most difficult decision of your career. They may well earn your trust, and if you give them more and more responsibilities as you build up your mutual relationship, then working with a Manager can be both successful and rewarding to you both. It goes without saying that the choice of individual will be critical to the success of such a major milestone in the growth of the firm.

Your question regards the life style/life stage of your business, and it may better suit your purposes to outsource some of the tasks identified in your audit. For example, if you currently offer garden design, why not approach one or more local designers and offer them the opportunity to work with your company. Perhaps you have space for a show area for a public display of their work? This decision will relieve you of a time consuming element and increase the possibilities of more work coming through the new partnership. Many designers are more than happy to undertake work in the name of another company if they are paid the appropriate rates for their skills and given credit for their work.

Outsourcing surveying and estimating are other services offered by highly skilled independent firms and individuals. Again, you will reduce the amount of work that you would have had to deal with in the past, plus made more potential sources of enquiry by working together with other professionals.

If you decide that you are certain that you want to go down the route of employing a Manager, you would be well advised to talk things over with your accountant. The wages bill for a senior employee will be substantial, certainly not less than £35,000 p.a with ERC and other liabilities added, plus a vehicle and other expenses, and you will be fortunate if the cost to your company is less than £1,000 per week. You should begin to recoup some of the expense after six months or so, primarily because you have been released to carry out paid works yourself to mitigate the costs.

Of course, larger and more established gardening businesses could not operate without a Management structure, and their financial ability to cover the costs will have been factored in to their plans. The owners of those companies will have been through the same stages of company growth and no doubt went through the same issues you are experiencing.

Without careful planning and ensuring that you are meeting a genuine requirement for a Manager – or indeed, any other senior/expensive employee that is not able to earn sufficient money to cover their wages, expenses and profit directly from maintenance/design/construction income will prove a drain on your financial resources.

Whatever you decide, take care to ensure that your candidate has a proven track record of working for similar sized companies, and is able to recognise and meet your needs.

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Turning Adversity to Advantage

I have been asked several times, and in several different ways, for a potential solution to the problem of finding suitable staff.

I fully appreciate their dilemma. In a normal year the financially rewarding season for maintenance works is during the Spring and Autumn, when gardens are sprouting weeds and grass everywhere, or plants are dying back and leaves are carpeting the ground. Summer months may be too hot, or weeds and grass growth have stabilised – or customers want peace and quiet during the day when they are sunbathing, and things quieten down slightly. Winter months may be busy with planting and planning, but are generally less frenetic, and you have to work with the weather, as well as the diary.

You sometimes have far too much work to do. You have to service a sufficient number of clients to maintain income that will cover the slower months, and do not want to lose or upset customers by providing a less than perfect job at each visit. This is extremely frustrating and worrying, when all you need is an extra pair of hands!

Although most of the businesses concerned are small – mainly sole operatives – and the regions vary and localised difficulties need to be addressed, my proposals are suited to all. There are several points to consider, and they are generally valid for all areas.

Take a considered and dispassionate look at your business.

The most important factor to recognise is that you are successful. The fact that you are so busy is the strongest possible indicator that you are good at your profession.

Now consider why you feel that you are successful. Is it because you are the cheapest? Or that you offer a service that is scarce in your area? Do you have a Unique Selling Point, offering something that your competitors do not? Analyse your success – as you see it. Is it because you are more reliable, knowledgeable and efficient?  Perhaps a combination of all of these?

It does not matter where you are based, or how much local competition you have. You may be the only Gardening Services Company within fifty miles of your competitor, or  fifty yards in the case of The Home Counties! Your business is successful for a reason.

Turn now to your finances. Taking into consideration all outgoings, both personal and company costs – are you profitable? After paying for all business expenses, including rent and rates, HP on the van, monies put aside for new tools and equipment, are you making a genuine profit at the end of each financial year? It is important to be strictly honest with yourself, as if you are not making a profit by yourself, you will not be able to afford additional labour.

It is all too easy to visualise another pair of hands as being the answer to all of your problems. Even just one or two days a week  to help out. With any luck you may manage to find the perfect person to help your business to grow, and eventually take on as a full time assistant.

May I emphasise that I am not discussing business expansion, which is a major decision only to be undertaken with a great deal of forethought and professional advice from your Accountant. I am concentrating on the question of finding extra help in the busy periods.

The challenge is to examine your business, assess and recognise the reason why you are rushed off your feet. If the primary reason is because you have too many customers, ask yourself why you need to try to service so many. If the answer is that you must work for them all to earn enough money to survive,  something must be wrong with your profitability calculations.

Apart from finding the elusive skilled labour, you will need to instigate a fee charging and payment structure including wages, expenses including transport and Employers Liability Insurance, plus other ‘Government’ fees dependent on the number of days worked (including the soon – to – be introduced Pension Plan) – or you operate with a bona fide Self – Employed person, who holds all the necessary insurances and other documentation. Having established the additional costs, you need to gain agreement from your clients, including rates and regularity of visits.

There is another way. Why not cash in on your popularity by fine tuning your skills base, and concentrate purely on what you do best, and makes you so special, different and successful?  Reduce the number of clients and therefore the travelling time and expense, and renew your ‘offer’ to your customers, by stating that you are so busy, and find it impossible to find any decent labour (which reinforces your talents!) to help you with their gardens, and have decided to rebrand.

Repackage and reschedule their garden works into appropriate sections – perhaps even omitting some ‘basic’ jobs e.g. mowing, that could be carried out by the customer – and offer yourself in a new light, with an appropriate increase in your rates.

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Client Contracts for Maintenance Works

‘I have been running a small gardens maintenance business for four years, and have never yet been asked for a written contract by my customers. They are all ‘domestic’, but I am attracting some larger and more complicated jobs, involving full days instead of a couple of hours. I am nervous of asking people to sign contracts, but also of not getting paid if there is any dispute.’

The question of producing written contracts is a very difficult subject to introduce to domestic customers, as they may be very wary of committing themselves to a legally binding document, when all they want is their garden maintained! Yet these same people will quite happily sign for works to be carried out on their car at the local garage, or giving permission for their chimney sweep to clean their flues. It is all a matter of tactics and philosophy.

The first and most important step is to produce a form of wording that is not too onerous or obviously biased towards yourself. These words should include a clear statement of who you are, (your name and/or the name of the company, usually presented as ‘John Smith Trading As JS Gardens’ for example) and the name of your client/s. It is also advisable to include the address of the work site, especially if it is different from that of the customer. This is important should you be asked to work in gardens owned by (or under the control of) your customer. I am thinking of Buy To Let properties, or those occupied by relatives of the client where the customer may not be present during operations.

Secondly, produce a schedule of works along the lines of ‘To maintain the gardens at (site) by means of weekly/fortnightly visits comprising X hours on site with one (or more) operatives’. Works to include mowing/edging/weeding/pruning – as many items as you can think of, and list these as a works schedule, including a code number against each. Itemise these numbers in strict order at the foot of the schedule to avoid any misunderstanding.

Take care not to use phrases that may be misconstrued. Avoid statements that may be tested against the schedule e.g. ‘keep weed free’ or ‘clear all leaves’, ‘cut back all overhanging branches’ – anything that could be challenged at any time. You may be asked to include such statements, but respond by light-heartedly saying that some things are impossible to guarantee, as the first leaf to fall onto the lawn will be a breach of contract!

You should include working practice notes, especially access to site at all time during normal working hours e.g. 08.00 – 17.00 hours, Monday to Friday, to avoid being sent away because of a client’s whim, and also note that access may include off road parking, and assurance that the gate/shed will be unlocked when you arrive! If your time slot is every Thursday from eight until five, in all weathers, then your contract wording must include these facts.

Obviously, you will need to build in your personal calendar i.e. holidays, and the clients’ instructions reference their time scale, perhaps more hours in the growing season, and fewer in the winter. Always show your break times in the time schedule to avoid any complaints regarding working times.

Any materials, especially consumables e.g. compost, fertiliser, spray etc to be included in your weekly/monthly invoice, plus any other costs that may have been agreed between yourselves. Always include your Terms of Payment, including method and time scale.  In such a basic document, it is perhaps advisable to avoid the words ‘Terms and Conditions’, unless you are willing and able to supply a fully detailed legal document drawn up by a solicitor.

If you charge by the hour, perhaps with varying rates for different skills/levels, then you need to be very clear in both your contract offer wording and recording of hours worked when compiling your invoice, to avoid any disputes.

These suggestions are a friendly Half Way House, between a comprehensive contract and having no protection at all. No potential customer should be wary of a simple statement of mutual respect and clarity of intention. A copy that may be numbered and dated may  be left with the potential customer together with your quotation. It may be printed on the rear of the quotation, although I recommend supplying it as a separate sheet, with attention drawn to its’ existence in the quote.

The schedule of intended works provides you with the opportunity to gain the client’s signature on the document, requesting those works. They may, at this time or in the future, wish to add to the list, perhaps including maintaining the tennis court or swimming pool, and you must ensure that the wording does not commit you to an absolute degree of perfection.

Always remember, to maintain is to continue with a set of existing circumstances. Maintain is not to improve, although of course, your works may well have that effect! Which brings me to the final words of advice regarding Half Way House contracts. If the property you are being asked to maintain is an overgrown mess when you start, ensure that you have a minimum period of time that may require a shorter term contract, recognising the fact that you will acting as a General Contractor before you become a Maintenance Contractor, and your costs may be higher as a result.

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What Is A Job Title?

‘I carry out maintenance works as well as small landscaping projects and I enjoy garden design. I feel perfectly able to offer a ‘professional’ service at all three disciplines, but find it difficult to explain my different skills to existing and potential customers. They appear confused as to why I do mowing if I can design and build!

I understand your dilemma perfectly, having walked the same path many years ago. From your perspective, as a self-employed individual you know that you have to take whatever gainful employment you can, steadily moving away from those tasks that you enjoy least to those you gain most pleasure (and treasure) from. Moving away from regular work to construction projects and garden design is a natural progression, although many others enjoy building successful businesses engaged solely in maintenance.

As it is probably not wise to suddenly drop all regular maintenance, consider reducing the number of clients, keeping only those that pay well and have interesting gardens, and work perhaps three days a week on those, hopefully all year round. Operate that part of your business as a separate ‘department’, perhaps under a Trading title (Captain’s Lawns and Hedges?) without opening any new bank accounts etc. Treat all income and expenditure as normal without differentiation.

If you want to attract landscaping projects, as individual fixed price contracts (or whatever system you prefer), you need to advertise your skills as a Landscaper, without mentioning maintenance in your wording. Once again, you may feel that you want to operate under a Trading title, as landscaping work is generally thought of as being carried out by a team, rather than by an individual. Dealing with landscaping enquiries and the attention to contractual detail will usually be much more complex than maintenance work, and you will need to be fully aware of the legal implications of construction projects.

You should notify your insurance company if you decide to attract more landscaping works, as they will certainly need to be aware of their risks, and will place restrictions on your activities regarding working at height, fire hazards, dangerous substances etc. Always keep your insurers fully involved, and record everything in writing. You cannot simply ‘bolt on’ landscaping works to your existing maintenance business without planning and forethought.

Turning now to your design aspirations – so many potential clients are thoroughly confused and confusing!

On one hand, the general public think of Garden Designers as being much more ‘professional’ and expensive than general gardeners, whilst at the same time expecting designers to arrive and give lots of ideas and inspiration for their gardens, without wanting to spend any money! How many times have I heard people say ‘I am getting ideas for my garden. Could you come and give me your ideas please?’ – then become quite irate when they are given the scale of rates. ‘But I only want your ideas. If I like them, I will happily pay for them’, and  ‘What if I don’t like your proposals?’ .

It is therefore very important that you adopt a different mind-set for your design business, perhaps operating under your own name. This will avoid any confusion when dealing with existing or future clients. Your design business is stand-alone, with a different set of rates and charges. You are selling your time (as opposed to pricing for a maintenance or construction project, where your hopeful reward will be securing the contract) and expertise from the minute you set foot on site. Your terms and conditions will need to reflect that situation. Some designers charge mileage, others do not. Some charge from the time they set out, and some from the time they begin the consultation. You will need to decide and clearly set out your terms before you start to advertise for work.

It may pay you to be flexible, even in the long term. If you are offered the opportunity to become involved in a particularly interesting and prestigious scheme, you may choose to waive your normal initial visit fee on that occasion. One thing I learned a long time ago – Garden Designers can and do receive enquiries completely out of the blue, inviting them to design projects far beyond anything they thought possible. You simply never know where and when the call will come, and if you are prepared – with your business plan in place – and a professional public face to present to your potential client, you will be successful.

To recapitulate – if you feel sufficiently confident and competent enough to move away from maintenance works and try to attract more landscaping projects, consider operating under two apparently separate banners, whilst keeping your basic office work/bank/tax affairs together to reduce paperwork. Don’t forget to notify your insurers, as they will need to assess your business base and their risks.

Garden Design is best promoted as an individual business, not related to your other interests. Whilst many designers are perfectly happy to undertake design and build, or design and plant (including sourcing and supplying plant material) project packages, it is advisable to try to separate the design and build elements as far as possible to avoid any conflict of interest in the event of a dispute regarding the various contractual aspects of the project.