Going His Own Way

Features - Cover Story

Brilar CEO Larry Yaffa worked his way up through the ranks in the family business until one day he was its leader.

August 27, 2021

larry yaffa
© snow magazine

Larry Yaffa was destined for the landscape and snow industries. You see, his father, Brian, started his business in 1977, the same year Larry was born. That company was B&L Landscaping, and the initials stood for Brian and Larry.

“You could say he had a succession plan all lined up for me,” Yaffa says

Beginning at a young age Larry worked his way up through the ranks in the business. At 14 he as running his own maintenance crew. At 17 he was pushing snow from behind the wheel of a plow truck. The positions he occupied grew in responsibility until Larry had earned his way overseeing freeway maintenance ops in the summer and snow and ice management in the winter.

In 2014 Larry had been managing daily operations for a few years and his dad proposed it was time for a buyout. They talked terms over drinks one evening, shook hands, had the paperwork drawn up and Larry’s journey reached its final destination – being Brilar’s CEO.

We’re going to start with a pretty tough question. What did you want to be when you grew up?

First off, I don’t like to talk about myself. So, I’ll let that be known from the start.

I guess as a kid I wanted to be a firefighter. I thought it was a cool skill, and I’ve even toyed around at this point [in my life] with being in the [fire] reserve. It was really a cross between being a firefighter and being a landscaper. Just growing up in the business it was what I enjoyed doing and was the most logical career path.

What was your childhood like?

School and work. [laughs]

Really, from 10 years old every opportunity I got when I wasn’t in school I went to work with my dad. Whether it was riding around with him going to get estimates or other stuff. Eventually, when I was in middle school, they cut the subdivision commons area where we lived on Thursdays and Fridays. Well, dad had someone drop off a mower to our house on Wednesday afternoons. So, when I got home from school I would just start cutting some of the park areas to try and knock out some of it before the crews got there on Thursdays.

I really had a drive to work from an early age. Funny story, my dad refused to wake me up to go to work. He always said, if you want to go to work with me, then you need to be dressed and [waiting] by the door by the time I want to go. However, he never really told me what time he was going to leave. So, I would get up and get dressed and go sit on the landing with my boots on and somewhat fall back to sleep until I heard him coming down the stairs. It’s probably one of my fondest memories growing up.

My dad felt that if I wanted to work then I needed to be responsible. And I really feel like this thinking paved the way for me to have the work ethic I have today.

How much of that philosophy do you believe you’ve built into your corporate culture?

A lot, actually. I know I’ve preached that story to a lot of people. I’ve always told people that I can’t remember a day when I overslept or didn’t show up for work. And that really goes with our team philosophy of: “If you don’t show up then you’re letting down your whole crew.” If it’s a three-man crew then obviously the other two guys are going to have to work harder and later to get the work down. It’s a big concept I try to incorporate into our culture.

How did your role in the company evolve?

Well, I started out riding around with my dad getting estimates and learning some of the business from that. Once in a while he’d drop me off and I’d work with a landscape group doing raking and shoveling. Then the natural progression was when I was 14 or 15 I was running a maintenance crew – but I couldn’t drive. So, I was basically the foreman with a guy or two – someone with a license – and we’d go from site to site. Once I got my license at 17 I got a plow truck. So, on snow days I would plow, then eventually I’d jump into a salt truck. In the summertime, I’d eventually transferred to running the hydroseeder. Then we got into a lot of freeway work mowing, so I was basically a crew foreman. Then I moved into a service truck position, then progressed from there to overseeing all our freeway operations and snow operations in the wintertime. Then I eventually began overseeing all the day-to-day operations along with another general manager.

At the time, I was in the field a lot. And I knew if I wanted to make this a career, then I couldn’t spend every day in the field. I knew the only way out of it was to grow the business. So, in my spare time I put my sales hat on and started going around to businesses trying to drum up more grounds maintenance and snow work. I was able to progressively grow the business from that and I continued from there.

Growing up in the business, was it tough to be the owner’s son and being in a leadership position at such a young age?

So hard. It’s probably only been the last 7 to 10 years that it’s finally changed and I’m starting to be the older one in the mix. The majority of my life I’ve always been the younger one trying to get people to accept my authority.

I’ve always tried to not let anyone know my father was the owner of the company because I didn’t want to be treated differently or looked at differently. Sometimes, I’d have a new laborer working with me and they’d be with me for weeks before it somehow came up I was the boss’s son. I really did try to keep it on the down low if possible. If I was talking to other people, then I would always refer to my dad as “Brian” to just keep that distance.

Do you find you sympathize more with younger workers trying to make a career at your company because you were once in their shoes?

I definitely believe I sympathize with young people who have ambition and drive. In fact, there was a guy I interviewed recently who wasn’t from our industry but was coming out of a machine shop. He was straight forward with me and said he had zero experience, but he lived locally, loved the outdoors and he was just looking for an opportunity. I hired him on the spot because I saw the drive in him. Stuff like that reminds me of how I’ve gotten to where I am today.

Granted, my dad owned the company and I had an opportunity, but I paved my own way and made my own path.

© snow magazine

In 2010 you switched the name from B&L to Brilar … a combination of your dad’s and your names. What was the thought process behind this rebranding? Was it a symbolic reflection of you taking over the leadership position in the company?

At that point, it was a little bit of everything. We were coming out of some tough economic conditions and we were growing at that time. I was focused on growing into new markets and not being reliant on just landscaping.

So many times, people don’t know the extent of our services. So, our clients will call on another professional and they had no idea we provided that same service because they thought we were just landscaping because of the name.

I felt if we were going to rebrand the company, then I only wanted to do it one time. B&L had a mom-and-pop connotation to it. I wanted something that had a more corporate feel but didn’t pigeonhole us into one particular service.

Even today people will ask me why it’s not Brilar Landscaping or Brilar Services. Again, from a marketing standpoint I wanted it to be open-ended. If you put too much out there then you don’t give people a reason to go and look you up. I’m looking to catch their attention.

When did you become CEO?

2014 … It was when my dad fully left the company. I’d been handling daily operations for a number of years. We finalized our buy-out and I changed my title from president to CEO.

My dad actually proposed the buyout. It began in my mid 20s when I was really growing the company. Three years before [taking over as CEO] he left a lot of the day-to-day stuff and floated it out there about buying him out.

The hardest conversation was coming up with a price for the buyout. At the time, I felt I’d put in a lot of sweat equity and hopefully wasn’t expected to pay full retail [price] for the company. We talked about it for two to three years pretty casually … he eventually brought it up again over drinks one night. We went through the same song and dance. So, I threw out a number I thought was very reasonable and a win-win situation for both of us. He said he was good with it. He checked with my mom … we all shook hands and drew up the paperwork.

What has it been like since the sale and your dad left the business?

Within a couple of days of signing the agreement he cleaned out his office. For about a year after that I kept his office for him, which was kind of nostalgic … I felt bad because every once in a while, he’d pop in and putz around a little bit. But really at the end of the day that’s what drove us to eventually make the agreement because over the three years prior he began to phase himself out of the day-to-day operations. But if he did see something he didn’t like he’d make it known and stir the pot sometimes. … He could really rile me and the staff up sometimes.

Well, your dad obviously was a big influence on you. Who else influenced your business and leadership philosophy?

Well, definitely my dad with regard to work ethic and how to grow the business and grow as a person.

A lot of it was learning more about other businesses and understanding what I thought they were doing right or wrong. Especially from a staffing standpoint, I wanted to know what other companies were doing about obtaining and retaining talent. This obviously had a lot to do with shaping my approach.

My mom was very nurturing and my patience comes from her. So, it was a combination of the two of them as well as learning about how other businesses operate – both the good and the bad sides. I feel you can learn positive lessons from other people’s mistakes.

I also have had a great team along the way. Some people have come and gone, but I always try and learn from those situations and take the good along with the bad.

And I’ve been divorced. And even coming out of that I sought what I could take out of the experience that would allow me to grow and be a better person. The same with making mistakes with staff before, whether not promoting people fast enough or that they weren’t a good hire to begin with. All of these experiences allow us to grow and be a better person.

Let’s talk about culture. Your roots are in Metro Detroit -- home of Joe Louis, the Pistons’ Bad Boys, ... Gordie Howe! How much of this tough exterior influences your culture?

That’s an interesting question, especially with the good and the bad that comes [with those roots].

Definitely the mentality of the Detroit market has helped us through difficult times. It allowed us to hold it together and fight through different situations.

But there’s also the bad side. We struggle with changing the culture in the Detroit market from a corporate standpoint. The Detroit market is our largest branch and it involves a lot of people.

But I definitely see that strong-willed demeanor in our market that I don’t necessarily see elsewhere. A lot of the other markets are much more open minded than the Detroit market. Even from a sales aspect, the Detroit market can be very stubborn and reserve … For example, it’s often not easy to break in with new clients.

Same with the staff, it can become difficult to break in new ideas and new philosophies. But while they’re strong willed, they’re also resilient when it comes to pushing through more difficult times.

You lead more than 200 people from around multiple states in the Midwest. With that in mind, how do you define leadership? And how do serve as a leader across multiple – even diverse – markets?

It’s very difficult [laughs].

Whether it’s myself or the executive team – it comes down to leading by example. And this goes back to the thing that has really driven this business.

You watch and observe the struggles other businesses have, and they’re often devoid of the leader leading by example. They’re rolling up to a jobsite and rolling down the window of their air-conditioned truck and yelling orders to their crew and driving away.

From a leadership standpoint we really try to push the concept of Team Brilar. I’ve said it again and again, but I will never ask someone to do a job I wouldn’t do myself. That’s the biggest message I preach to any new manager or employee. If you see someone struggling, then work with them and show them the right way. I don’t believe in yelling and screaming.

It goes back to the notion that we’re all part of one entity and that we can’t survive without one another. If a guy in the field fails or accounting fails than the company as a whole will fail. People need to understand that all of the pieces of the pie need to work together. It’s one thing I believe we’ve been successful at preaching as a company.

Does this lead-by-example philosophy also extend to being present and involved in the community?

Yes, I absolutely believe so. It’s good to see our people out and taking part in various aspect of assisting and improving the community. And it’s important to be out, talking and interacting with other people involved in the community and learning what they’re experiencing and seeing. With everything that’s been going on, it’s interesting to see how those challenges are changing the ways people do business.

One of our core values is win-win, that one plus one equals three. And that’s from the employee side and the client side, but also from a community side, as well. We are engaged 100 percent in our partnerships. If our clients fail, or our vendors fail, or our community fails, than we will fail.

Last question, what is it with snow contractors and learning to fly? There are a number of business owners in our industry who are also pilots, including yourself. What’s with that?

Well, I can’t speak for anyone else, but for me … I don’t have any hobbies. And I think, as an entrepreneur, I never had time for hobbies. So, its not unusual to find yourself reflecting back on life. Years ago I wanted to get my helicopter license, but I never found the time to figure out how to even do that. I had a friend with a private pilot’s license and went up with him a couple of times and really loved it. It clicked in my mind that this could be a good hobby. Now I say it’s one of the more expensive hobbies I could have picked [laughs].

People have asked me about this before, and I believe [a plane] is just another tool that you know how to use. From a young age I could operate a dozer or a backhoe, and I’ve always said I could pretty much operate anything with four wheels or tracks…. Now I can fly a plane and I love it.

What I enjoy most out of it is the peacefulness and the realization of just how small we really are at 3,000 feet.