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Jim Schwantz of the Acres Group
By Jacqueline A. Soule
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Jim Schwantz the founder and CEO of Acres Enterprises, Inc., one of the largest privately owned landscape contractors in Illinois, started in 1983 with just himself working out of his garage and home. Now, 35 years later, there are three business offices, and over 700 employees. In 2011, Jim was awarded the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association "Man of the Year" Award.


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Grand Haven in Romeoville, Illinois is an active adult community of 677 homes. The Acres Group installed and maintains the planting beds. The community received an Illinois Landscape Contractors Association Gold Award for Landscaping Excellence in 2015.


Acres Group does care for acres of landscapes, but that doesn't mean they are all over the map. In fact, Jim Schwantz, founder and CEO, says that the key to his success was to find the right niche market and stay there. He considers that the company does a boutique business within the landscape industry. They specialize in townhome Homeowner Associations (HOA's), as well as commercial properties including office buildings, industrial parks and shopping centers.

Beginnings
Schwantz mowed lawns as a kid, and never thought about doing anything other than working in the green industry. Taking care of landscapes is his passion. The business officially began 35 years ago, in 1983. Schwantz started working out of his house and garage in Arlington Heights, Illinois with a focus on residential maintenance and lawn restoration. Back in the 1980s, much commercial maintenance was based on using chemicals. Schwantz did not favor that approach, and his concern for the long-term health of the landscapes and the health of the customers using those landscapes brought him ample clients, and an increasing need for more employees. The business has been growing ever since.

Focal Point
Schwantz says he owes the success of his business to the fact that their customers are the focus of what they do. It is not all about making money, it is about fostering positive relationships, he explains. "We are here for the long haul. Most of our customers have been with us for 15 years." After a reflective pause he added with a chuckle "Or more!" Schwantz explains that it takes more than focusing on the clients. The Acres Group success is based on four key concepts. "Our customers are the focus of what we do. We strive for continuous improvement. We seek employee involvement. We maintain integrity." These four concepts are the underpinning to creating positive business relationships with the Acres Group clients - relationships based on trust and respect. "We deliver what we say we will, when we say we will, and with a willingness to go the extra mile for our customers."

It's been his focus for the past 35 years and will be for the next 35 years.



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The Acres Group has a fleet of 300 trucks, which are serviced in-house by a staff of 15 mechanics. The mechanics also service most other equipment including snow movers, snow blowers, mowers, and tree care tools such as chain saws and stump grinders.


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There are monthly meetings at all three office locations with all of the production managers, including tree care, irrigation, plant and turf health care, and purchasing. The agenda includes but is not limited to: staffing and recruitment, training, safety, budgets and scheduling, work order processing, and lean initiatives, which can be described as minimizing wasteful practices.


Business Culture
The attitude of respect and trust permeates the business. Not just customers but also the employees - from newest hire to the ones that have been there for years - all are treated with respect and trust. Acres Group has notably low employee turnover, around five percent per year. When they determine an employee is not performing up to par, the business has a number of steps to help the employee change behavior. Schwantz says, "We work to fix not fire where possible."

A corporate culture of trust and respect is not universal in business today Schwantz mentions with some dismay in his voice. Private equity dollars currently own many companies, and they are generally in business to make money, not to serve the customers with a positively motivated work force.

Schwantz reports that, like companies, markets can differ. "Every market has a different feel and different expectations." He mentioned that the Acres Group worked in the Michigan market for five years and discovered that it simply wasn't the right niche for them. Now they stay regional in northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, and northern Indiana. In Indiana they specialize in cemetery parks where they are able to store equipment on site, saving transportation costs.

Schwantz comments that, once again, it comes back to focus. He advises, "Rather than trying to do 80 different things, find the three or four you do well and focus on doing them extremely well."



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Snow and ice management accounts for 25 to 30 percent of The Acres Group annual work volume. A number of employee crewmembers remain full time in winter, however, the vast majority of work is only during and after winter weather events. Safety is paramount, and crews wear safety vests even when they are the only workers out in the storms.


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Seven active irrigation crews provide comprehensive irrigation services including initial installation, annual start up, repairs, winterization, and fountain services for homeowner associations and commercial properties.


Working for the Future
Maintaining the same concern for the future that marked Schwantz's beginnings in the industry 35 years ago, Acres Group works with area colleges to bring in students for internships. Acres Group offers positions to an average of six student interns each year. Acres Group doesn't simply drop these young men and women into their workforce, rather the students are assigned a mentor and offered the chance to learn and develop new skills. The interns are encouraged to expand their horizons and learn as much as they can about the business of creating and caring for landscapes.

New hires get mentors too, just like interns. "We don't want someone getting lost in the system," says Schwantz. He explains that they want employees to find what niche of the landscape industry they are happiest in. Acres Group employees could work in general landscape maintenance or move into one of the seven irrigation crews. There are also five tree crews, the design and build branch of the business, equipment maintenance, plus 600 acres of nursery area where they grow shade, evergreen, and ornamental trees, along with a great variety of shrubs and perennials. The nursery offers an abundant variety of job responsibilities.

As one of the largest independent landscape contractor in the state of Illinois, Acres Group employs around 815 people. Approximately 700 work in the field, 15 maintain the equipment, and 110 are salaried staff, including production managers, account managers, human resource professionals, accountants and office staff. Unlike many other northern landscape companies, this number of employees does not lessen significantly in winter. When the snow flies, Acres Group shifts focus to snow removal for their clients. Acres currently ranks in the top 10 snow removal companies in the United States.

The company has three facilities in Wauconda, plus operations in Plainfield, and Roselle. Schwantz also owns and operates two nurseries, located in McHenry County and Lake County, Illinois, consisting of over 600 acres currently planted with trees and shrubs.



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The Acres Group maintains the 982-acre Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery, part of the Department of Veterans Affairs National Cemetery Administration. Work includes mowing, maintaining the Memorial Walkway, tree care, and snow removal in winter.


Family Business
Jim and his wife Barb have four children. Barb is not an official employee, but Jim says she is "invaluable" for the maintenance of company mobile devices. Two sons have joined their dad in the business, although they do not report directly to him. Michael (age 29) is an Account Manager, and Jonathan (age 25) is a Production Manager, and runs crews in the field. Jim is pleased that the boys are stepping into the family business, hoping to positively impact the green industry for generations to come. As for more about his family, Jim proudly shares that he's a grandfather.

When asked if he would change anything about the past 35 years of business, he replied, "Business things, maybe yes. But at age 58 I still love what I do. I wouldn't want to change that."



As seen in LC/DBM magazine, June 2018.






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July 22, 2018, 9:26 am PDT

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