Natural Born Leader

Features - Cover Story

Outdoor Pride’s Mark Aquilino elevates those around him to improve his company, his community, his industry, and himself.

September 21, 2022

Being a New England kid in the late 80s and 1990s, there was no shortage of sports heroes. From the Patriots – a certain Tom Brady comes to mind – the Sox, the Celtics or even the Bruins a boy had his pick of athletes to look up to. Being surrounded by champions breeds loyalty. And it gave an impressionable Mark Aquilino a different perspective ... that all things are possible and if you work hard and work together you can achieve anything.

A natural leader driven to success, Aquilino took over the family business, Manchester, NH-based Outdoor Pride, at a relatively young age. Armed with only ambition and a strong sense of teamwork, he has been able to take the landscape and snow management business to new heights.

“I often say to the Outdoor Pride team, we’re the New England Patriots of landscaping and snow management because it’s just not one person with all of this talent,” he says. “Instead, we’re a team that draws out the special attributes from one another.”

Who were your heroes growing up?

Definitely my father (Mike) and mother (Gail). I grew up in an entrepreneurial household. Our business is 34 years old, and I just happen to be 34 years old. The business started when I was a baby, so I say I’ve been involved with Outdoor Pride since I’ve been in the womb [laughs].

Looking back, you just don’t understand how influential your parents are in your life. And now that I have two kids, I realize children reflect what you put into them. I just always thought my mom and dad were cool because my dad worked outside and he had his own business (Outdoor Pride), working really hard to become successful. And my mom had this awesome corporate job in sales where she would travel all over the country. Both never really had a lot of time for one another because they were in grind mode. My younger brother (David) and I never felt it was an odd situation. You get out into the real world and you begin to realize that was pretty special.

The best thing my parents every did for me was to teach me a work ethic. I didn’t go to college – I could have, I had the opportunity to – but I didn’t feel like it was a good direction for me at the time. I have since gone back to college … which is funny how the world works. They taught me how to manage life’s challenges and still go for your goals. But if you were to ask me that question growing up, the answer would have been Tom Brady. What kid growing up doesn’t want to be Tom Brady? What is it about sports that influences people to become leaders? One of the things I believe is my best trait is being open to listening to people and finding out where they can be successful. And I got this from sports. I played soccer and basketball, I did track and field, I played baseball … What’s funny is, looking back on my sports career, I was usually always one of the captains. Or I was one of the loud guys on the field. And even though I might not have been the best player … I knew if I wasn’t going to be the one with the most skills, then I had to be the one who was the most vocal and supportive to allow others to really be successful.

I always gravitated toward team sports because I liked to be surrounded by others who I could rely on to either win or to get to the next level.

I was really into soccer, and I had the opportunity to play that in college, but I decided to go into the family business instead. And that was definitely the best decision for me. College, for me, could have gone one of two ways [laughs].

Why pass on college?

I didn’t think it was a good investment in myself. I really loved sports, but I also loved working. Because I was able to shadow my father, I was really chomping at the bit to get involved. I could see we were in an industry (landscape and snow management) where hard work could take you far. I knew if I outworked everyone, then I could advance in the business. And part of it was I really respected what my dad was doing, and I ultimately wanted this as my path. It’s funny, because the conversations my father and I had when I was 15-16 were about how our man hours worked into a P&L and what were the areas of the business that we could get better at. I was beginning to get these glimpses and flashes of the business world at a young age. I’m not surprise I took the route that I did.

You didn’t realize until later in life what influence you’re parents had on you professionally. At what point in your career did you begin to appreciate those lessons?

When I started to take over the business in 2017. Since then, we’ve grown revenue three-fold. When you’re growing up, there are things your parents don’t want you to hear. For example, they’re having financial problems or career issues. Good parents shelter their kids until they’re old enough to understand these things. And I remember always feeling this positive vibe from my parents growing up that was very focused on my brother and me. So, when I wanted to take over the business, I went to my father and said the writing was on the wall and we could really do something special and scale the business to be way bigger than it is. I just don’t have all of the tools in the toolbox, personally, to make that happen. So, I made some moves to get the right people in the right positions for us to be successful. It was no different than being on a sports team.

Was that stressful?

At the time I had like 40 families depending on me for their income. Now I have more than 100 families depending on my leadership to generate an income. That weight, when I was 28 years old and taking over the family business, was massive. Look at all of the responsibility, all of the ups and downs … it wasn’t going to be a cake walk owning your own business.

There’s an old cliché about how it’s lonely at the top. I don’t feel alone at the top. I feel like I have an unbelievable leadership team and an amazing group of mentors, coaches, and peers who I can go to no matter what. I know my parents had each other, but they didn’t have this vast network of people.

The reason I could have this network was because I was growing, scaling and putting people into place. My parents started something where they had to put their house and their savings on the line to build a business as owner-operators. Whereas I was able to come in, still at that owner-operator size level business, and scale it, grow it and put a lot of trust into people. I realized I needed to have the right people around me to help elevate me and empower me outside of my parents. And that’s when it really started to click for me.

Also, at a young age I loved the grind. I embraced a 50-60 hour work week, especially in the winter time. I lived off of the chaos. And there’s no way I would or could be doing this unless I’d been taught those life lessons when I was growing up. I learned that it was hard to make a dollar and even harder to keep that dollar.

There are two things in life that you can’t rush – experience and relationships. I’ve become very in-tune to how that works and I’m able to step back and reflect. When you can do that, you can appreciate life’s key moments and connect them, which is an important part of growing as a person.

Why did you eventually go back to school?

I had a business mentor come into my life when I wanted to upscale the business who suggested I should go back to school. So, I attended Southern New Hampshire University online while running the business. It could not have been a better time for me to go to college because I hammered down on all of these business courses. I applied so many things I was learning at night and during off hours to grow the business. I wanted more, more, more because I was applying it right into my life. It gave me purpose to finish my degree.

Was it always your parents’ intention to have you take over the business, and at such a young age?

No. I told my parents I wanted to work in the family business, and they were super supportive because they saw how much I liked it. And for them, they saw the successes I have having and how I was growing the business and it became this fun journey for them. Remember, they had all of this business experience. I just had an up-and-coming way that was singularly focused on specific market verticals while at the same time learning how the world works and gaining my own experience. It couldn’t have been a better time for all of those pieces to fall into place. I had a conversation with them about the direction I wanted to take the company and that I’d like to eventually take it over. So, I put a transition plan together and set goals I needed to meet to fulfill my obligations to them. We eventually worked out a deal that was good for everyone.

Describe your management style.

There’s a term that’s tossed around – servant-style leadership. I’m definitely a team-first guy.

If you didn’t know me and I were to meet you at a cookout and you asked me about my job, I’d say I ran a landscape and snow management company that employed over 100 people and operated in a few states, and it’s enough to keep me out of trouble. If you asked me that same question at work, I’d say my job, 100 percent, is to help clear the path for others to be successful. That’s all I focus on. As we’ve grown, I’ve been a big believer in taking people and elevating them. I’m huge into personal development and letting people take the ball and run with it and have a sense of ownership with the business. This has really worked out well for me.

I will put others’ needs before mine as long as it helps them, elevates them, and compliments the brand.

Have you always operated like this?

Absolutely not. It’s evolved over time, but I realized I don’t do well if I’m not on the same page as my team. I’ll literally call a time-out and say we need to talk and get each other right. If everyone is in harmony and there’s respect for the decisions being made, then it will lead to success. You need to put trust in your people, and there’s no other way to grow your business. And if you can marry up processes and systems with the right people who want to do well, then the sky is the limit. And that’s why we’ve been so successful.

What leadership traits do you seek out in others?

The No. 1 trait I look for is whether they’re coachable because I am very much aware of my own vulnerabilities. I know the things I’m not good at and I have no problem discussing that with my team. If I’m not in tune with that, then how is anyone else going to help? That’s why I always say hire will over skill.

The people I’m looking for need to be open to receiving advice and learning how they can be better, who may not have the most experience but are looking to elevate their careers and will give it everything they’ve got. Once you find that, it almost becomes contagious within your organization.

It almost sounds like you’re looking for a little bit of yourself in those around you?

I think so, and I say that proudly. I’m not a know-it-all. I’m definitely not the smartest guy on my leadership team, by far. I’m just looking for levels of trust, levels of coaching, and people who will put the team before themselves. There’s so many different types of businesses, but there’s no single playbook for any one of them. Instead, what you have are people unified and committed to the team aspect of business. And that is what makes all of the difference.

That’s quite a culture at Outdoor Pride.

One of the cool things we implemented was open-door management – transparency to all the members of our company. That’s been a game changer because, culturally, people want to know how they can contribute. We don’t want our employees to feel like they’re just a cost. We want them to know they’re contributing to our success. I believe this is why our employee retention is so high, which is just as high as our client retention.

How has your sense of leadership grown over the years?

I’ve found that one of the biggest powers we hold as leaders is just showing up. There’s power with just being around. And I believe you can be a better leader by showing your support, your ability to care, and your genuine interest in the people within your company.

I used to think a leader had to show up and be the one who took over. However, I’ve realized some of the most impactful moments have come from just being there and listening and reaffirming, and that you don’t need to be the loudest guy in the room or take charge in every moment. This is the biggest change in who I am now.

Talk about your community involvement and the leadership you’ve show there.

I’ve always liked being a part of something and this extends to my support of other businesses in the community, including getting to know those people and those owners on a personal basis. A few years ago, as Outdoor Pride began taking off, we created a family foundation focused on things important in our community and as a means to provide a positive influence.

When it comes to giving, you can either give time or treasure. Fortunately for us, we have a little bit of both. For example, we’re very committed to our military veterans and our group Swim With A Mission is one of the largest veteran charities in the US. We’ve raised more than $27 million over the last four years. We recently partnered with other companies in a paintball tournament and raised over a $1 million in one day. We also support the Elliot Hospital, which is where my wife, Alyssa, once worked, our children (Anthony, 3, and Giada, 6 months) were born, and where my mother was treated when she battled cancer. We’re also very active in the Boys and Girls Club in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

The fact that we’re able to do these things is something we’re very proud of, and if you can actively give time or treasure or both back to your communities, you’re going to build the morale and support of that community and help it thrive.

What’s it mean to be an industry leader?

I’m super passionate about being a company that does landscaping and snow. Frankly, I don’t think, as an industry, we’re taken as seriously as we should be. People don’t appreciate the extent of a career they can have in snow and ice management and landscaping. So, I’ve always had a chip on my shoulder about the seriousness of our industry. In the winter, we provide an essential service to essential businesses so the world can continue to function. Whether it’s a medical facility or a corporate campus, the world needs to continue to function. I’ve worked hard to build a team that resonates the professionalism that goes into the work we do and the services we provide to our clients and to the greater community.

I’m also committed to empowering careers. Yes, it’s hard work, but this career is incredibly rewarding. We want others to be able to elevate their brands and what they do. If we, as an industry, can collaboratively and collectively work together and share best practices and what works, then we can really grow and strengthen and take us to the next level.

Lastly, we need to be stewards of the Earth and we need to make sure we’re doing things the right way. We need to build best practices, systems and techniques that not only validate what we do, but also protect the planet. We can operate more safely and use the right equipment and techniques in a practical sense that reduces the impact we’re having on the environment and be successful at the same time.

What do you want your legacy to be?

I don’t know yet. I’m too young to really answer that honestly. [laughs] At the end of the day, I’d love to see the impact we’ve had on our community. More so, I’d want people to say Mark Aquilino was an unbelievable father who raised great kids who went on to do awesome things. Professionally, I want to do my part and make those around me better. And that’s what drives me every day.