2016 Leadership Award Recipient: A Garden of Growth

David Lammers, president of Garden Grove Landscaping, has grown his company and his life through the tenants of faith, integrity and dedication.

The ethical, employee- and customer-driven multi-million-dollar snow and landscape company to become the first ISO-certified snow contractor in Canada, began as the brainchild of a 15-year old boy.

David Lammers, 42, president of Garden Grove Landscaping, founded the business out of his parents’ Burlington, Ontario, home in 1990. For several years, he maintained lawns under the name Lammers Landscape, but he changed it to reflect his vision for the business.

“I thought, ‘I can’t let this be about me. If this business is going to be about me, then it’s going to fail. So I’m going to make it about everyone else within the organization and I’m going to have people surround it with a culture,’” he says. “I knew that back then already. I don’t know how. It’s just intuition.”

Now the company serves as a leader in the landscaping and snow and ice markets in the Greater Toronto Area and in the commercial landscape construction market throughout Ontario. The culture its leader intended is represented by its growing staff and customer base, business barbecues and Toronto Blue Jays baseball outings. The company’s values, including the first two, to “honour God” and “operate ethically and with integrity,” spell it out clearly.

Through family and faith, Lammers grew up learning the value of love and nurturing. In both his work and personal life, he takes care of the people he comes into contact with. He values fairness, respect and differences in opinion while leading by his own example. “I’ve just learned so much in my life about how to work with people and how to be sensitive to listening to them and just understanding their positions, but not being afraid to lead,” he says.

Lammers was born in Canada to Hank and Rita Lammers, Dutch immigrants. He was the third of five children – three boys and two girls. He had mentors from church and church circles who taught him about the importance of leaving a legacy, and his parents set the example of hard work and dedication. Hank worked as an agricultural businessman. He was hired as a truck driver for Turkstra Eggs at the age of 17, and moved up in the ranks to plant foreman to partner. He eventually bought out the company, moved it to Toronto and merged it with Burnbrae Farms, a leading egg producer and processor in Canada.

Hank, who at 79 still works at the same company, instilled in his children the importance of commitment.

“You live, you operate in solidarity,” Lammers says. “You don’t let yourself be constantly cluttered with all kinds of distractions and things that aren’t within your core wheelhouse. We learned very quickly from an early age, and Dad set this tone for us, to stay within what you know and you stick to it.”

Hank didn’t work in Lammers’ business, but he did impart some useful advice to his son. Lammers recalls when he was in his early 20s, his father was sitting in his chair reading the newspaper and set it down.

“He said, ‘Listen, if you want to make a go at this, I’ll tell you right now, you’re going to have one big, big, big problem,’” Lammers says. “I said, ‘What’s that?’ He said, ‘You’re going to have problems with your workforce. You are going to have endless problems with your workforce.’

“I said, ‘Well Dad, you know what – if that’s going to be my biggest problem – then I’m going to make that my biggest focus then,’” he says. “‘If my number one problem is going to be in my workforce, then I’m going to make that my greatest solution.’”

Managing employees has been difficult, but Lammers requires them to keep up with the company’s growth. He and his team hire for positive attitude and teach skill from there. If employees are struggling with an issue, Lammers is willing to do what he can – whether it’s finding them a mentor or someone to aid them in financial management or something else – to achieve the sense of family he strives for in his company.

“We’re nothing without our people,” he says. “We’re absolutely dead in the water. We can’t do a thing if we don’t have a solid team that’s committed to the vision of who we are. And I never want someone to work in our business and they say, ‘I just cut grass here,’ or, ‘I just mow.’ I am such a proponent for, ‘No, no, no, no. No, no, no, no. You don’t just do that. You’re a leader.’”

Garden Grove Landscaping leads its customers in a way that Lammers describes as “firm but fair.” In its 26 years, the company has never sued or been sued, which serves as a testament to Lammers’ principles. “His whole business philosophy is based on honesty,” says snow and ice contractor John Allin.

Professionals throughout the snow and landscape industries have taken note of Lammers’ leadership skills.

“He has an excellent team made up of real professionals,” says Jeff Sneller, president of Sneller Snow Systems. “He has been able to draw professionals from all sides of the industry to assemble a group of people that are really strong in their individual fields. In spending time with key members from his team, I see that they have a real appreciation for David and I see that they have respect for him.”

Wayne Michalak, president and owner of The Greener Side, also admires the company’s management. “They seem very calculated and meticulous with what they do from my impression,” he says.

Over the years, Lammers has displayed a work ethic many people cannot relate to. He used to go to sleep with grass on his legs because he was too tired to shower after attending university in the morning, maintaining lawns in the afternoon and evening, and cleaning equipment and studying at night. He and his younger brother Paul cleaned the equipment in the dark because the facility they had rented at the time had no lights. They had about 65 clients at the time.

Lammers attended Redeemer University College for business and science classes and graduated from Sheridan College with a bachelor’s degree in business and marketing. He later took horticulture classes at the University of Guelph. He also studied classical piano at the prestigious Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music, learning about music theory and composers while writing pieces of his own. He received his ARCT diploma from the conservatory, which required a two-hour memorized performance of compositions by the likes of Bach, Debussy, Liszt, Mozart and Rachmaninoff.

The late ’90s saw Lammers Landscape’s transition into Garden Grove Landscaping. The company launched its own phone line and hired its first employees. It was incorporated in 1999. That same year, Lammers married his wife, Sabina, and they moved into a North Burlington home, where Lammers built company offices in the basement.

Lammers bought his first plow truck and branched into commercial plowing and large design-build for construction in 2000, the same year Paul, who is now vice president of operations, bought into the company. Commercial snow work began as an agreement with existing commercial clients to clear their parking lots when it snowed. The business was growing too much for its rental facility to accommodate all the crews coming and going, so the landlord asked them to leave. In 2001, Lammers bought a farm property in Waterdown, Ontario, where the company still operates today.

For the next 10 years, Lammers led the design-build side of the business, Paul led the maintenance side and they took on the snow together. “It was like going on a fishing trip every time it snowed,” Lammers says. “We would always have so much fun.”

As Lammers points out, a love for what he does, business contacts see it too. “He’s pretty business-based when he’s got his business face on, but outside of that he likes to joke around and have some fun,” says Mark Zeehuisen, sales representative at Green Tractors Halton.

The wheel in Lammers’ wheelhouse really started to spin as he continued to perfect Garden Grove’s operations, bringing in design, accounting and management help.

“It’s something he’s built and he’s created,” says Brian Cowell, the company’s financial controller, who was hired in 2014. “So it was small, and now it’s big. They were doing the small residential grass-cutting thing, like neighbors and friends, and now we’re cutting large commercial. We’re doing massive snow moving in multi-residential condo markets and commercial places.”

Cowell cites an ISO SN 9001 certification among Lammers’ accomplishments. “His involvement with the ASCA and getting on the standards board, that’s part of his vision,” Cowell says. “He wants to create this community in the snow industry, specifically, where we’re not looked over.”

In 2014, Lammers won the Burlington Chamber of Commerce’s Young Entrepreneur Award. With the award, the chamber recognizes leaders of successful companies whose successes its task force measures through factors such as market share, strategic planning, financial success, innovation, customer relations, people focus, environment and community contributions, says Keith Hoey, president of the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s a made in Burlington story,” Hoey says. “We’re the Burlington Chamber of Commerce, so we love Burlington. And he was a true made in Burlington story – grew up in Burlington, started the company in Burlington, and still works in Burlington.”

For three years, Lammers served as chairman of the Trinity Christian School board in Burlington, where his children attend. The school was facing some issues at the time, so he hosted town hall meetings and one-on-one meetings with parents. Not everybody was in agreement about the best way to move ahead, though, so he continued to talk out issues with parents and board members. Two board members dissented from his plan, which involved raising tuition. The last person to disagree with the board on a final decision was a man who said no one should be left behind for lack of money. The man suggested setting up a bursary program, which Lammers and the board agreed would help grant the school success, so they started it. Together, they revamped the focus of the school from one of dwindling finances to one of faith and excellence.

At home, Lammers and Sabina have a tight bond with their children, Christiana, 12; Jonathan, 8; and Michelle, 5; who they teach the values of faith and family their parents taught them.

“We like to say, ‘A family that prays together stays together,’” Lammers says. “It’s kind of cool – so we hold hands at dinner when we pray. We just love being together as a family. We love for our children to feel that bond of love and encouragement. It just gives them so much confidence, too. I had that growing up, my wife had that growing up. We just love that.”

The family attends church at Harvest Bible Chapel in Oakville, Ontario, where Jamie Cameron, Lammers’ friend and a fellow member there, remembers meeting him more than a decade ago. Lammers was one of the chapel’s main worship leaders and led the music aspect of worship.

“I recall being there one evening for a small group social event and Dave was on the phone with one of the husbands of the group, challenging him to man up, as he was walking away from his marital responsibilities,” Cameron says.

Like Lammers, About Time Snow President and CEO Stephen Summer centers his business around a faith in God, and he has had meaningful conversations with the Garden Grove president on the topic. “He’s somebody I look up to in the business of snow removal and his vision for growth,” Summer says.

“He’s still got that fire in him to continue to make a business grow where sometimes we as different business owners become a little more wary in running it. And with his brother and him working in that business and moving it forward, it’s something that I always enjoy hearing from him and all the different arenas that he’s venturing out into.”

Lammers has altered his management approach over the last few years since his company has grown to a size where he is unable to micromanage everything like he did before, Allin says.
“There was a point in time not too awful long ago when David had his fingers into anything,” he says. “He had a hard time giving up control, and he has over the last two years learned to assign job responsibilities, hold people accountable and then ensure that these people are successful that are working for him.”

At the young age he juggled the responsibilities of lawn maintenance with classical piano performance and business studies, Lammers knew no one was going to do the work for him. Twenty years later, he has placed trust in colleagues to allow himself to continue looking at the bigger picture.
“That’s the beauty of people being aligned collectively and as one, and when you’ve got unity and vision, you have an unstoppable force,” he says. “You’re just solid, you’re one, you’re unified. And that’s how I want to lead my life.”

Patrick Williams is a Snow Magazine editorial contributor.