Adam Neilson fears boredom. To avoid it, he’s sought out change throughout his career — for better and worse. Mostly, for better. And right now, his focus is on a growing landscaping business, Pika, located in Whistler, just north of Vancouver.

We talked about self-knowledge, what it means to be transparent in running a business, his experience of entrepreneurialism versus senior management, the highs and lows of running a seasonal business, managing workers in a housing crisis, and how to figure out what’s working when things are going well.

What follows are excerpts from our conversation.

On the ups and downs of change

“I’ve transitioned between a lot of jobs in my career. And the beginning of every new job, it’s been exciting, because I’ve had to bite into something new, and learn some things that I didn’t know before. I think a lot of the time, whether I knew it or not, I was actually looking for a new challenge, and was putting myself in an uncomfortable position to keep it exciting. I look at life as an adventure. And I have a fair bit of confidence that I can figure things out if the people around me are patient.”

“I think the younger me created change that ended up looking a bit like sabotage in some cases too. It certainly wasn’t my intention, but in my desire to create something new, out of a lack of maturity or appreciation for the situation I was in, I sometimes made decisions that were not very good for me or those around me.”

On gaining self knowledge

“In my late twenties, I had a really good business with a great partner. And I know now that I was bored, and I was looking for a spark, but I didn’t know that then. And one of the things that I instigated, not just on my own, but with others, was bringing on a third partner into the business, which made it exciting again.”

“And I learned lots from the fellow we brought in. But I don’t think that the three of us really did our homework on each other, or the scenarios that could play out if things didn’t go so well. And things didn’t go so well after a while — mostly because we came into a big cash crunch — and that resulted in some decision-making that we all got hurt by. And it wasn’t just me, but I was as much a part of it as those two guys were.”

On how snow is good for a landscaping business

“There’s both a really positive side and a really tough side to running a seasonal business. On the plus side, I get a built-in sabbatical every year to work on my business. So when there’s snow and ice on the ground, we essentially shut down for three to five months. And in that time, I can work on systems, take courses, read books, learn new software, and invest into recruiting and marketing. There’s all sorts of things that I can do without the time pressure of day-to-day operations.”

“One of the things I love about Whistler is the dramatic seasons: summer’s hot and dry, winter’s cold and wet, and the shoulder seasons are kind of in between. The seasons go by so quickly, and they’re so different, and the business follows that rhythm. In the spring, I’m super energized to get going. In the summer, I get a bit beaten down. And then by the fall, I’m stoked to finish, and getting to the finish line is really fun. And then it’s about learning to relax, which usually takes me a good six weeks. By January, I’m awesome. And then by February, I start to get anxious, because I’m like, ‘Are we going to have enough work? Will we have enough people? Do we have the right people?’ And all these questions, I can’t solve until the snow melts. So I love, and I hate that.”

On employee housing as a competitive advantage

“Everywhere in North America, housing is a problem. But it’s especially hard in Whistler, where homes are often five million dollars plus. You have all these international dollars feeding into this amazing place because people want to recreate here. But it means that there are fewer and fewer options for someone making twenty five, thirty, forty dollars an hour. And that makes staffing really challenging, because I’m in a people-heavy business. And every business here has the same challenge.”

“The positive side of being in Whistler is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of young people who wish to come here. It’s like the tides: there’s always tons of new people coming and also people leaving. Many want to come and be a ski instructor or ride their mountain bike. And if they can latch onto a job where they can learn new skills, and work outside, and create beautiful things, and get paid fairly – even if it’s just for a year or two — then it’s a win for them. But it just comes down to that housing equation and where they’re going to live.”

“So I’ve come up with some ways to mitigate that, but it’s really hard. For three or four years, Pika rented a house, and provided staff accommodation to five or six people. And then just this past January, the business purchased a house. Both houses are in Pemberton, which is 25 minutes north, and it’s still very expensive, but the numbers work for both Pika and our staff living there.”

On why he went from being a boss to a senior manager to a boss

“My risk tolerance has changed over the years, mostly in line with where my family’s been at. When my wife, Sarah, and I had small children, and weren’t making much money, my risk tolerance was very low. And so when my first business venture essentially fell apart, I knew I needed a job to stabilize and get a chance to figure out what’s next, and make sure that Sarah and my kids are well supported. And so I did that for ten years — for most of my 30s.”

On why he likes being in charge

“In the past I had great executive positions with several companies, including startups and an advertising agency, but it wasn’t the same as owning a company for me.

“In those companies, I had good domain empowerment, and good relationships with the CEO. But I had mandates dictated to me, and it was my responsibility to drive them. And I struggled. I often felt like I was being asked to do things that didn’t make sense. Or things that took time away from solving problems I knew were critical. Or I had to wait for decisions to be made by others. Ultimately, I like to keep moving, and I get worn down by the friction that doesn’t allow that to happen in larger organizations.”

“In the future, there may be a time where I enable a key employee or two or three, or my kids, to obtain some equity, and the responsibilities that go with it. Until that happens, it’s very clear to me I’d prefer to be in charge.”

On why he runs a transparent business

“I remember my first season, I was on the other side of a bush from a crew, and they didn’t know I was there. And I heard someone say, ‘Hey, I found out Adam’s charging 60 bucks an hour for us to mow this lawn, and I’m making 20. He must be making 40 bucks an hour for every hour I’m mowing the lawn.’ It was just such a clear example of what happens when people don’t understand the business. Because there were a lot of things I had to spend that 40 dollars on before any of it could go in my pocket”

“I wanted to be open: to share the numbers, and to teach people how the business works, where the money comes from, where the money goes, how much is left at the end, and what happens to the money that’s left at the end. It’s taken me a while to get to a point where I can honestly say that we’re striving to do that. It took the first four or five years of this business to figure out how to do it, and I had a steep learning curve. And of course, it’s never perfect, but there’s not much in my business now that is a secret.”

On how he became transparent

“There were two obstacles for me. First, the fact that I had no facility to meet in — whether to put something on a wall or on a TV, or to do any kind of formal training. We all worked in the rain and out of our pick up trucks. And second, the transient workforce — I have a meaningful number of new staff every April, and then a lot of that staff leaves in October. That will always be normal for us in a seasonal business in a place like Whistler.”

“But two years ago, in spring of 2023, I worked through that with some help, and since then, have opened up the books. We talk about our financials twice a month as a team. There are about ten different people in the business that own different revenue and expense line items. So it’s very collaborative. Like, ‘Hey, here’s our plan for April. Here’s how we think we’re going to net out based on what we know today. What are some things we can do in the business to influence where we’re going to net out?’ Or ‘Gosh, we spent ten grand more than we thought we would this month because of this thing.’”

“It’s been very good for me. I like it. I feel good about running a business this way. And I’ve gotten over my fear of people knowing too much, because, if I break that down into its essence, what am I afraid of? And there’s not much.”

On whether he credits transparency with his results

“We had a very good year last year. How much of that was related to starting to share more numbers? Or related to our very simple profit share plan that’s based on everybody hitting a critical number? I think some people were really influenced by it, and I don’t think other people really cared.”

“But something I wonder about is long-term benefit. Will it be that, someday, enough people will have heard how Pika is running the business? And maybe for some who like landscaping, they’ll get curious, and pick up the phone, and say, ‘Hey, I hear you’re doing something differently.’”

“Some of the signs that it’s already working are that we had an overwhelming number of people applying to work at Pika this spring without spending money on advertising, which has never been true before. For years, we hung on to poor performers because we didn’t believe we could find even a single person to replace them. And I think some of that’s Covid, some of that’s the market, and I hope some of it is just the little things that we’ve been doing to improve the experience our staff have working for us.”

Adam Neilson is the owner, designer, and project manager of Pika Landscapes, a full service landscape company that works in Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton, B.C.. In their words, they “create and maintain custom outdoor spaces that showcase the Sea to Sky’s natural beauty.” Pika has been in business for 22 years (although Adam’s been at the helm just seven), and has about 40 employees when there’s no snow on the ground.

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