Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mayberry on Lawns, M&A, and Mediocrity

(Courtesy of Systems Contractor News magazine)

The suburban lawn is very much part of Southern California culture. A front lawn out here in Los Angeles defines a great deal of one’s status, perhaps even more than the latest European sports car or Beverly Hills skin treatment.The majority of lawns out here are St. Augustine grass.

Now I’m sure someone from Kentucky would laugh at us calling this stuff grass, but it is green and it grows like a weed during summer. Woven together like an Indonesian doormat, you could launch the space shuttle on top of it and not kill it. Throw in a couple of palm trees in the parkway and you’ve got a true Southern California lawn that will last for a generation or two.

At the other end of the spectrum is the Dichondra lawn. This is a grass made of gentle clover like petals that tend to discolor or die within hours of a mild change in wind direction. Wikipedia states that, “a healthy lawn consisting entirely of Dichondra is fairly difficult to start, grow, and maintain.” Well understated, I think a more accurate version would be that it represents the ultimate challenge to the Southern California gardener.

Mind you, I’ve never really had a great front lawn, or, for that matter, really cared all that much about it. Yet I have spent many thousands of dollars over the years trying to attain one. The impetus comes from my father, who has a greener thumb than 99.9 percent of the general population, so at least I can appreciate what goes into making a great lawn.

But there was this one codger down in Alhambra clearly residing in the 0.1 percent category. There was nothing particularly noteworthy about his home except his Dichondra lawn. It was picture-perfect every day for 30 years. There was never a yellowed petal, nor a bare patch. Being on a corner, you knew kids were walking on it. Yet there was never any trace of footprints. Worse from my father’s perspective, we never saw him even water, let alone weed, the lawn.

My father’s driving patterns changed to avoid looking at the perfect lawn. The drive home was tough because we all knew it would end up with Dad staring at one small patch of scabby Dichondra in our backyard. This one little front lawn maddened an entire generation of local Southern California gardening enthusiasts. They literally could not compete. Many finally ended up going with the dreaded St. Augustine or even more hated new-technology Marathon grass. Both were an admission of losing the war.

I drove by the old codger’s home a few weeks ago, guessing he was giving gardening lessons to the almighty by now. The lawn had reverted to St. Augustine, and today’s gardeners would have no idea that something very special once lurked on the premises.But there was that brief moment in time! DaVinci with his brush; Michelangelo with chisel; Mozart and his piano; and that damned codger and his Dichondra.

It got me thinking about the business-mergers-and-acquisitions phase our economy has gone through over the last generation. While the business world has generally looked upon M&A as a good thing, I suspect it has actually spawned a great deal of mediocrity in many industries, including our own. You can’t just buy a logo and expect to maintain a reputation. It was people that created such reputations, and when they’re gone you’ve lost a great deal which can rarely be recovered.

Sure, many of the names generally are still around, but the people and philosophies that drove them to greatness are long gone. Just like the old codger.The initial lure of 85 percent of the quality at 63 percent of the price is long forgotten once the market begins to consolidate. A year later we end up getting substandard quality at the same price we used to pay—if we’re lucky!

Frankly, mediocrity is not all it’s cracked up to be.I once argued with a young project manager defending his choices that drove his project to mediocrity. Rather than make the effort to make his project into something truly special, his inclination was to do the least amount of work possible by providing the contractual minimums. He ended up not only lowering the quality of his part of the project, but lowered the quality of all associated trades as well.

When challenged, his retort sounded like something from the Nuremberg Trials: “I was only doing my duty.” Disagreeing, I said something like, “The client is paying us to perform the best job we can, not do the least amount of work we can get away with.” It fell on deaf ears.I was reminded of that old codger and his Dichondra.

If only he had been there to argue it properly.