Rob Atema remembers the gut check in 2010. He tipped over a 5-gallon bucket and sat on it in the old shop, which was filled with equipment that was happily paid off but not running on jobsites. Rivertop Contracting had been working the tract home frenzy in North Carolina beyond its Asheville headquarters. Installation crews would go into new subdivisions and grade athe properties, then landscape them.
That business was big before 2009 when Atema says, “We really got steeped into the construction end of the business.” After a decade in business, the company had grown from Atema and partner/longtime friend, Brian Wierman, to about 40 people. And aside from tract homes, Rivertop was installing $40,000-plus landscapes on $1 million properties in gated communities.
“At this point, we were all in the field and we weren’t looking at the numbers or paying too much attention to the incoming call log,” Atema says. “We were working. We were planting trees.”
Then the grading contractors on new home construction sites stopped working. That was a clue – their work was done and the well was dry. But because Rivertop’s landscaping piece came toward the end of projects, the economic blow didn’t hit Atema until later. “We just kept on, then all of a sudden we were done with our work and there was no place to move our skid-steers. There was just nothing,” Atema says.
Atema had to lay off most of the staff. The team shrunk down to six employees, and that included Atema and Wierman. “The silver lining was that the company stayed intact because our debt load at the time was minimal,” Atema says.
But still, there was no work coming in.
Sitting on the bucket, Atema thought, “What am I going to do?” He and Wierman loved construction. They didn’t want to give up the installation business. But in 2010, after that moment of clarity that maintenance would stoke some new business, Rivertop made a strategic decision to focus on obtaining large commercial maintenance contracts.
“We started talking to our builder contacts and used relationships with HOAs and management companies to open some doors in maintenance,” Atema says.
Then Rivertop landed the Asheville parks and recreation contract. By 2012, the company was running five fulltime maintenance crews and taking on construction jobs, too. “We were signing high-dollar construction jobs left and right, and we got distracted (from the maintenance focus),” Atema says.
Another moment of clarity: The company needed a renewed maintenance focus.
So in 2013, the company hit $3.5 million and the director of business development, Kenny Jackson, came on board. “I was still the chief salesman,” Atema says, relating that Wierman ran the construction division (and still does). “I had to have, like, a 90-percent close rate to keep up with feeding the machine, so to speak.” He was booking any kind of job – construction, maintenance.
Fast-forward to 2014. Atema, Wierman and Jackson sit at a table together – a completely different scene than the 5-gallon bucket solo. It was time to plan how to play big. And maintenance, again, was the answer. Except this time, Rivertop would focus on securing national tenants and commercial office space clients.
In between all of this is a story about recalibrating a business, realizing a vision and cementing a valuable partnership. There’s a story about learning how to narrow down while expanding geographically. There’s a story about a tireless, over-achieving little guy that now plays in the big ring.
That’s the Rivertop story, and today the firm is $4.3 million in revenue with 75 employees, a fleet of 37 trucks and contracts in three states. If you add the reach of its strategic partner, that makes 225 employees and 130 trucks on the road.
“It’s a big deal to be able to sit at the bidding table across from a national company,” Atema says of a critical strategic partnership that has been key to propelling growth. “It is allowing us to be a regional player and, to use a boxing analogy, fight a weight class up. We are in the light weights but we are playing with the heavy weights.”
Here is the progression that took Rivertop from a mostly residential installation firm to a commercial maintenance contractor that still holds some construction work while competing for maintenance accounts like Wal-Mart.
Pitching big prospects
You can’t secure a multi-state contract by sitting in your home office. Rob Atema, owner of Rivertop Contracting in Asheville, N.C., knows that the Arby’s and Wal-Marts aren’t going to knock on his door. He has learned to take his presentation on the road and tell the story of why his company is an ideal fit for these clients.
“If you are going to lead your organization, then you better be able to articulate what your organization is,” Atema says of explaining the mission to prospects, and ingraining it in his own team.
Nail down your story. What are your vision, mission and core values? How does your organization live these in the field?
Show your true colors. “If you were here in my office, or talking to the crews out in the shop, you’d hear carrying on – in a good way,” Atema says. “We’re asking each other how our weekends were, what’s going on with the wife and kids.” A fun, friendly environment is contagious.
Express your passion. “I’m excited about what our strategic partnership means for the future,” Atema says, relating that he shares this with prospects, too. Atema says he’s a people person with an outgoing personality, so delivering an elevator speech (or a long presentation) to a client comes naturally. But, he adds, “I’m in no way a public speaker.” Learning to communicate the company’s vision, capabilities and energy as a green industry service provider took practice – but he does this by delivering the same message to his team on a daily basis. “As a business owner, you are ultimately charged with the responsibility of leading people.”
Cutting off residential work.
Atema and the team wanted to go after strip malls and large single-tenant multiple-location contracts. That meant saying goodbye to residential maintenance completely in spring 2014. “We just didn’t renew their contracts, and we also let go some of our HOA clients,” Atema says. “We got really focused on that multiple-location model.”
Still, the company continued its construction division. But the maintenance goal was to service accounts like Target, Home Depot, O’Reilly’s Auto Parts, etc.
Drilling down and reaching out.
Going after multi-location clients required expanding the service area. “We drew a circle 100 miles out from Asheville, N.C., and said, ‘We are going to service that area,’” Atema says. All the while, Rivertop continued to do construction work for loyal clients.
“Our construction division is smaller than it once was, but we are still relevant,” Atema says, relating that the company runs seven installation crews and 11 maintenance crews.
After stretching the service area out beyond Asheville to capture more business during 2014, that fall the leadership regrouped and decided to go even wider. “We had to broaden our footprint and offer a bigger area to be attractive to, like, an Advanced Auto Parts,” Atema says.
“We can’t go to them and say, ‘We just do Asheville and Hickory,’ and expect them to be excited about that. So we developed a strategic partnership with another landscaping company based out of Charlotte, N.C.”
This expanded Rivertop’s ground into South Carolina and Virginia. “That allows us to compete in an arena with the Brickmans, US Lawns, Rupperts and others are playing,” Atema says.
Forming a strategic partnership.
The partnership began with Rivertop serving as a subcontractor for a larger firm based out of Charlotte a few years prior to 2014 when the relationship was officially formed. Then, Atema grew a stronger relationship with the owner. They’d call each other to compare notes on business issues – uniform policies, building a website and such.
Once Rivertop identified its ideal client in fall 2014 and decided to expand again, Atema visited the owner in Charlotte and pitched an idea. Rivertop had been serving as an extension of this company’s operation for an account with locations in its area. “What if we took that model and magnified it?” he suggested.
About six weeks later, after discussions including the directors of operations, sales and key managers, the companies entered in a mutual agreement. “We are working together for the common good for both companies on these particular relationships,” Atema says, specifically referring to the single-tenant, multiple-location maintenance contracts.
The agreement included identifying quality: “If I am selling Rivertop to a client with 100 branches, I need to have some assurance that what I’m selling them in Asheville, N.C., will look the same in Wilmington, S.C.,” Atema says, also speaking to consistency.
Other key factors included a uniform look, pricing and capacity. (See What makes a perfect partner? on pg. 54.)
Then there was the administration end. The owners agreed that the “contract prime” would manage communications with the client, and who serves as prime depends on who sold the account and where it is located.
The strategic partnership has more than doubled Rivertop’s capacity in terms of boots on the ground and fleet. Beyond that, the growth “reinforcements” are stoking employee morale. “When we pitched the concept to our field managers, there was huge excitement,” Atema says. “It helped our culture because everyone wants to do something bigger than just mowing grass or planting trees.”
What makes a parfect partner?
The strategic partnership that Rivertop formed with a larger company based out of Charlotte, N.C., has allowed the firm to expand exponentially across the board: bigger geography, more manpower, a larger fleet, increased visibility and greater negotiating power at the bidding table.
Rivertop went from 32 trucks to about 130 “in an instant,” says Rob Atema, owner. The team grew from 75 to a combined 225. That gives Rivertop and the partner firm the power to compete for single-tenant, multiple-location accounts. But getting into a strategic partnership with another company required careful vetting and ensuring that values aligned.
Here are some key qualities that makes this a perfect partnership.
Quality: Because the two firms had worked together before, Atema knew that the other owner held high standards for quality. Rivertop had served as a subcontractor on its accounts, so there was a comfort level before entering into the partnership.
Capacity: If Rivertop signs a contract adding 100 properties to the workload, will the partner have the ability to fulfill the agreement? “That’s a big deal, that the company is financially sound and if they had to go buy trucks to fulfill an obligation that starts in two weeks they can and will do that,” Atema says.
Vehicles: “If I had red trucks and he had black trucks, it might not have worked,” says Atema, admitting that vehicle color seems trivial but contributes to the consistency and uniformity that big national clients want to see. “It’s important that the look is the same for the end user because that client is essentially hiring the same company.”
Uniforms: The logo on uniforms might be different, but the overall look is the same, right down to the color. “Do they have vests on, are uniforms safe and professional?” Atema says.
Pricing: Both owners had to open their books and talk about how they price their projects to maintain continuity and ensure profits..
“We needed to have confidence that the pricing we sell in Asheville could also be sold in Wilmington, and the other company had to be OK with us selling work and we needed to know their pricing structure,” Atema says.
The partners sell these large maintenance accounts on behalf of each other, and the company that closes the sale is the “prime contractor” and manages communications and administration while keeping a modest premium.
Staying relevant at home.
While Rivertop is signing contracts with properties to maintain all over the Carolinas, the company still holds a strong foothold at home in Asheville, where it serves hospitals and retail properties, the city parks and recreation and other commercial accounts.
To accommodate growth, Rivertop completed a 6,000 square-foot facility on a 6-acre property up the road from its original location, which housed a 2,200 square-foot building and no offices, just a warehouse.
“I was scared to make this big move,” Atema admits of the facility. “Quite frankly, it scared me to make the commitment because I remember sitting on that bucket in an empty shop saying, ‘What am I going to do now?’”
But Atema, Wierman and the team have proved that stepping outside of one’s comfort zone is necessary to grow. “I’m excited about what’s to come with our strategic partnership and for our people, who entrust in us,” he says.