Safety and business: one award winner’s strategic approach

Jan 12, 2015

Peter Van StralenPeter van Stralen, president and CEO of Sunshine Brands, is the latest recipient of an Ontario Premier's Award (business) for outstanding college graduates in Ontario. Graduating as a landscape technician in 1990, van Stralen has helped turn a family landscape business into a multi-million dollar brand with over 200 locations in Canada and the U.S. under two franchise concepts, The Grounds Guys and the Sprinkler Guys. Van Stralen is also a founding member of the CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network, a new group of forward thinking senior leaders who embrace their role as champions and influencers in the growth of sustainable businesses and communities in Ontario and beyond. He considers safety a critical success factor in sustaining the company's success. Here's what he told WSPS Network News in a recent conversation.

Q: As a business leader, how does safety fit into your vision for the company?

A: Safety is of number one importance in any business, making sure that your team goes home safe every night. In our culture it's incredibly important. We call it a culture of C.A.R.E. We put the needs of our Customers first by always having a positive and helpful Attitude, and by treating everyone and everything with Respect. By living our code of values we Enjoy Life in the process.

Because it's our team members who take care of our customers, we have to do everything in our power as leaders to take care of our people. We believe in a whole-person approach, and try to expand on safety in the physical sense as well as emotional, mental and spiritual. We're in business to make a profit, but not at the expense of the people we work with and the communities we work in.

Q: As one of the founders of Sunshine Brands, you must have a good sense of what it's like to be on the ground and in the corporate office.

A: Yeah, I had to learn both sides for sure. Started with a lawnmower in my hands. My brother started the business, I joined him shortly thereafter, and eventually all my brothers joined in. I have nine brothers.

When we began franchising, I had to learn a whole new industry, and I really enjoyed it. I became CEO of our franchising company, and here we are today. I've been able to see it from both ends, and so I totally understand when a small business struggles to get everything done.

Q: How do you create a caring culture in a franchise operation, where teams are working on their own without senior management nearby?

A: Because each of these businesses has two-, three-, four-person teams out in the field, it has to be a bottom-up and top-down approach where everybody is involved.

We set standards that everybody must comply with, check on compliance with the standards, and reward good behaviours. We also try to recruit the right people and then focus all of our energies on showing by example the behaviours we want to see in others and keeping people inspired.

Q: What kind of people do you look for?

A: We say we're not in the landscape business managing people, we're in the people business managing landscapes. We want to recruit people who understand this first and foremost.

We start with our culture of C.A.R.E questionnaire. The questionnaire is much more thorough for a prospective franchise owner than the questionnaire for a team member, but in both instances we're still trying to determine whether these people are predisposed to our values and understand our culture.

Once we find these people, we work with them on their competence. In a franchise system, we can help them with that by saying, "Here are some of the things you need to do." Our franchise coach will take the owner through the various safety requirements within their shop and then out in the field, and go through team member records to make sure they've got everything done. So we can really help with that side of things.

That's the compliance side, but we're trying to drive it to a deeper level based on a genuine care for our people. It's not "What do I need to do at a minimum to be compliant?" It's "What do we need to do to make sure that our people are in a secure, safe environment?"

I want our people to have the family feeling that I grew up in working with my nine brothers. That's really why we do safety, because we care about the people. Being compliant is just a component of that. We say the same thing in terms of our brand's standards. There's a difference between brand compliance and brand alignment. We strive for alignment.

Q: Do you ever take a pass on people?

A: Yes. It can slow down the growth of the business, but in the long run it's the best way to go. You can't afford to make a mistake. We can train people to do the landscape side of things, but we can't really train them to care.

Q: As a founding member of the CEO Health + Safety Leadership Network, how do you see it influencing workplace culture on a day-to-day basis?

A: For Sunshine Brands, I see it as another tool in our tool belt. When you get a whole bunch of leaders together around the same topic, a lot of really good ideas come out of it and new tools are developed. We can learn from each other. The minute you step out into another industry, a lightbulb goes on. You see what's working elsewhere and start looking for ways to tweak it so that it will work within your industry.

I’m personally interested in being involved in anything that will make safety, first of all, more important or more at the forefront of everybody's business, but also simpler to understand, easier to implement, and more cost-effective.

I think this group will help us find practical ways to make safety work. It also has the power to influence law and regulation within the province and the country. Bring the right people together, and you can actually influence change. I think that's powerful and unique.

Q: What would you like to contribute to the process?

A: I've learned that I need to be a CEO. I need to be the number one safety guy in the company and lead by example.

Promoting a culture of safety

Workplace Network News' conversation with Peter van Stralen has been edited and condensed.