All In The Family

Features - Cover Story

At Diaz Group, you’re not just an employee. You’re part of the family.

August 27, 2021

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Maneuvering through Chicago’s competitive and aggressive business environment is a challenge, and to be successful you must stand your ground and take your knocks. Diaz Group’s Rafael Diaz likens it to boxers in the ring engaged in a knock-down, drag-out fight. And the person who stays on their feet the longest wins.

As a business owner and leader there are a lot of failures along the way that end up being valuable learning experiences.

“You need to be strong to withstand those,” Diaz says, “and that’s what made our success.”

And like a boxer, you must know when it’s time to dance around the ring and when it’s time to take a stand and put up a fight.

“That’s how you turn negatives into positives, and it becomes a part of your culture,” he says.

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When you were a little boy what did you want to be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a trucker, to be honest with you.

I dreamed about big trucks, and I was obsessed with them. It was the time of Smokey and the Bandit, and it just look really exciting.

My dad also had a big truck as a landscaper, so as a little kid I enjoyed riding around with him. Then as I grew up and started to work for my dad, I wanted to be a business guy like him and a landscaper.

Does landscaping run deep in your family, or is it something that started with your dad?

It started with my dad. I’ve been working for him since I was 7 years old. They had me doing everything, from emptying wheelbarrows, to mowing lawns, to making sure the trailer was secure. We’re from Chicago. You can imagine how tempting it would be to steal all of those tools. So, my job was to do guard duty. Luckily, I’ve always been a big dude.

That was my beginnings. I’m 38 now so I tell people I’ve been in the business for over 30 years and they don’t believe me. But it’s true.

Tell me a little bit about your family. From what I understand about Diaz Group, family is a core principle.

We use the family culture, but we use it in a different way. It’s not about family drama. It’s about family unity where we’re helping each other out and make sure everyone is taken care of. I call it my high-performance family.

We do anything we can to help each other out and to be successful. We have to follow our guidelines and our values, but it’s just the fact that whoever wants to work here at the Diaz Group has to be okay with the family atmosphere.

That means we have lunch together… everyone is eating at the same table. Everyone knows each other pretty well. But within that family culture, whenever someone is down there’s someone there to help them up. This creates a lot of positive momentum and good vibes within the company.

Who instilled that sense of family within you and made it an important component of your business model?

I’m business partners with two of my brothers and my dad. But originally it was myself, my dad and my younger brother. We started in 2007 and had some beginner’s success, but then we hit a rough patch. We had a lot of turnover in employees. So, we started to look inwards to see what we were doing wrong. What we discovered is that we weren’t treating our company like we were treating our family. Instead, we were treating them like any other company – we’d get mad at employees, taking out frustrations on the people who help you. This is totally wrong.

So, we had a moment of inward reflection. Mexican culture is very tight, and I’m a part of six brothers and sisters. We’re a big family and we’re very united. Why not just do what we do at home, but at work? What if we treat those in our business like we treat our family?

And it worked. After a while the atmosphere at work was like being at home. And for the people who worked here, they started to see this place as their home. And it is their home!

Today, it’s the foundation of our culture and it’s what holds everything together.

How do new employees adapt to this family-based culture?

It’s a give and take. It’s 50-50. Some people love it, but others don’t. They want to come to work, do their job and then leave. That attitude isn’t going to work at this company. At this company you give what you got and more.

I have a saying: If you work for this company and are giving 100 percent, then you shouldn’t be here. You have to give 150 percent. Each one of us has to go beyond and put in a lot more effort for this to work.

Some people are turned off by that, but most people love it, especially those who aren’t typically welcome at other places.

Do you find yourself attracting a lot of lost dogs?

I do [laughs], I definitely do.

With 30 years in the business, I have a real good way of working with people. I have a way of understanding people and getting the best from them. I can see their potential and work from that … I can polish those stones and make them diamonds.

The first things we look for in people are their determination and their passion. They need to have a fire inside of them, a purpose. Once we see this, we can tie it together with our purpose. Once we have this connection, we can work with them with whatever they need help on and help them grow professionally.

I figured if we help people grow professionally then they can help us grow our company, too.

But everyone doesn’t turn out to be a success story. In the end, if they don’t see the potential in themselves then no matter what we do can’t help them and it ends up not working out. It happens.

What is Diaz Group’s turnover rate like?

For administrative, probably 1 percent. For foremen, it’s probably around the same percent. I’d say the rate for laborers is probably around 15 percent.

You’re a lifelong Chicago guy. How did that influence you and your management philosophy?

That influenced me 100 percent. Every part of me is a Chicago native. And especially with my Hispanic and Mexican roots, we have a lot of tenacity. We maintain a positive outlook on life. And we’re also very humble to people no matter how tough people think they are we’re still a humble people.

You have to remember that Chicago is the land of the sharks. Business is cutthroat. It’s as rough as it gets. You really have to be on your toes here. It’s a different market, and I believe if you can make it here in Chicago you can make it anywhere.

I took the other road. I could have been a tough guy. Instead, I chose the other road and I went with the flow and chose to be helpful and always moving forward.

What’s been your biggest business challenge and how have you overcome it?

That’s easy … myself. I’m not going to lie. After some inward reflection I realized my biggest challenge has been myself.

First you go through your egotistical years where you’re always right. Then you go through a time when you’re never right. Finally, I settled into the realization I needed to be a lifetime learner. For me, it was turning the page and realizing I didn’t know anything … and from there everything’s been beautiful.

Where’s the balance between book learning and real-world street smarts?

You need both because they go hand in hand

If you have too much street smarts, then it’s going to be tough because you’ll be lacking the practical knowledge. At the end of the day, you need solid vocabulary to deal successfully with your customers, your vendors, or even your local politicians.

In the same way, if you have a lot of knowledge and theory but not practice, then you’re going to suffer, too. You really need equal amounts of both.

When did you start offering snow and ice services?

When I was 20 years old and it was by accident. In the summers I worked for my dad, but in the winter he didn’t do much snow, so that wasn’t really a revenue stream. So, I didn’t have any work in the winter.

One of my uncles saw I was struggling and asked if I wanted to take on a couple snow accounts. I said yes and my dad ended up giving me a pick-up with a plow, and my uncle got me my first two accounts. Those two accounts turned into four and so on. When I turned 25 and we started Diaz Group we already had a healthy snow portfolio. So, snow has been 50/50 revenue for us right from the start. For us, snow is a necessity and we do pretty well.

And you know what, it’s a tough but beautiful market. At the beginning we were just young Hispanic guys, and I was pretty intimidated by the competition. At the time there weren’t a lot of Hispanic guys doing snow.

But then we started to get to know a lot of the other people in the market and we learned that we had a lot in common with the other snow contractors. We ended up making a good network of friends and to this day we have really long-lasting relationships that help us.

So, it’s a beautiful market because the snow removal companies who are really serious about their work are also very eager to help each other out.

Your dad has been a big influence on your life. What are some of the business lessons he’s taught you?

Lead by example and show the way. And I’ve seen him do this and I’ve seen the way he acted around people.

The biggest thing he taught me ever since I was a little kid – and I tell my kids this today – with everything in life if you want a big reward then you have to give good service. So, since I was a little kid I knew if I wanted my customers to pay me, then I’d first need to provide them with good service. There has to be a transaction. And I still see life that way. If I want something in life then I need to work hard, provide excellent service and earn that thing I want.

Seeing those business transactions that I saw my dad do every day shaped my life.

He also taught us that there was more in life than just being smart, that we also needed strong morals and values. That’s why we are who we are because we learned that from him, too.

Who were some other role models that influenced you as a businessperson?

I’ve been blessed with having the opportunity to get to meet and to know a lot of people. One of those was Frank Mariani [Mariani Landscape]. He’s been a true inspiration and he’s given me his time to answer questions and teach me more about this business. I’ve been very blessed to have him as a role model and to have a relationship with him.

Another has been Chuy Medrano [CoCal Landscape]. He’s become a good friend of mine.

So those relationships have really allowed me to understand how big businesses [in the landscape and snow and ice industries] really run. And those people are great leaders and great people to look up to.

What do you believe is the role of a leader?

For me, I practice servant leadership. It’s helping my people achieve their goals so that I can achieve my goals. At the same time, I have to put together the vision, to have a plan for what we’re doing next.

So for me, a leader needs to be setting goals and making sure everyone has what they need to achieve those goals. You also need to be there when they need you.

A leader provides the support system and helps people move forward and be successful.

What’s your role in your community?

That’s a great question. My role is to be responsible enough to help in any way that I can. That means getting involved in any activity that the community needs. For example, if the schools need books or [some other materials] it’s my responsibility to reach out and say, how can I help? Or how can we be of assistance.

Do so creates a lot of opportunities because a lot of our employees call that community home, and their kids go to those schools. We’ve even rewarded teachers who have done good in the community.

A leader has to be looking out on how they can help the community and not wait around for the community to be helping him.

We’re also very active in the local food bank and we contribute any way we can.

When we help out in the community it’s because we want to, and it feels right.

How do you view your role in the industry that you do business in?

We’re not the largest company doing snow – yet. Slowly but surely, we’re growing. But what we need to be doing is serving as good role models to the new, smaller companies who are making their way up in the industry. We need to be there for them to assist them and teach them good practices.

We subcontract out a lot of our portfolio. We bring those companies into our office and teach them about financials and best practices about production. The more that we can train them the better chance they’ll be educated competitors of our in the future. Then they’ll know of to lead.

No matter where you go and do business, you practice these principles, and you teach them to those who’ll listen and it has a positive affect on those around you. The right approach is always welcome anywhere you go.

What’s your life like outside of work?

Outside of work I’m the same guy. I’m pretty normal. I like to help, so anyone who needs help I go and help. It always comes full circle back to family.

I’m a father of five. [laughs] I’ve got a lot going on.

My oldest is 21 and my youngest is a two and a half. Two boys and three girls. To be honest with you, my life outside of work is more hectic than my life at work.

My two older [children] are interested in getting into the landscape business. And the way they’re going to come into the industry is from the ground up. As I like to say: You learn and you move forward.