Sports turf managers develop many important relationships over the course of their careers. Of these relationships, some of the mostimportant are those formed with vendors and suppliers.

It’s commonplace to rely on vendors and suppliers for their knowledge of materials, care and maintenance of equipment (big and small) and more. After all, even the most experienced sports turf manager can’t be expected to know everything. Forming long-lasting and mutually beneficial relationships with vendors goes a long way toward running a successful athletic field/facility operation and maintaining safe, playable and aesthetically pleasing fields.

Kevin Scott Mercer, CSFM, CGM, LIC is the grounds and landscape services manager at Denison University (Granville, Ohio). He has a background in sports and golf turf, as well as landscape management, and has served on various Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) committees, including the Environmental Committee and K-12 Board. He was the recipient of the STMA Presidents Award in 2011. Earlier this summer, he discussed the sports turf manager-vendor relationship with SFM:

From your perspective, how has the sports turf manager-vendor relationship changed in the past five to 10 years? “In this day and age, the green industry vendor is no longer needed for the basics of product knowledge and pricing, as they were just a decade ago. Back then, your local sales rep would stop by your office weekly during the growing season to help you troubleshoot, find solutions to your challenges and keep their product cost competitive. Today, it’s very competitive and things happen at a faster pace. Finding solutions to turfgrass challenges and pricing options can be found by a click of a mouse or on a mobile app.”

How has increased market competition changed the sports turf manager-vendor relationship? “There’s only one word for that: technology. The purpose of technology is to make things more efficient and cost-effective. This has always been the case; nothing has really changed since the invention of the wheel. Both the question and problem with technology are summed up in a quote by the Dalai Lama that I refer to from time to time: ‘I think technology really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion.'”

What questions should sports turf managers ask themselves in order to determine if they have a productive and worthwhile relationship with a vendor? “How can the vendor help me reach my goals, within my budget? Can my salesperson help me with the expectations that my company is expecting from me? How can my vendor help me to sell my fields via outreach and social media?”

What’s one thing every vendor should know about sports turf managers? “Everyone’s situation and needs might be different, but athletic fields should not be maintained like a lawn or a golf course. This relates to everything from equipment to grass seed and everything in between.”

How can a vendor make a sports turf manager’s life easier? “Listening is key. Coming in with a grounds management plan for the basics of the products you sell, with cost and ROI (return on investment) savings per square foot is useful for sports turf managers. Developing data charts in a dashboard format and goal measures are also key components these days. Act as an assistant to the sports turf manager, not as a salesman. Offer a sports turf manager some free services, like budget tracking and goal measures. Take the extra steps to ensure everything is buttoned up. Treat your customer as if they’re your only customer. I hate it when I’m very busy and a truck driver for one of my vendors calls me for directions — if my salesperson knows how to get to my facility, why can’t he share those directions with his driver? It’s the little things that matter.”

How can a sports turf manager make a vendor’s life easier? “This is a great question and one that’s been overlooked for the last decade. Simply planning ahead makes big difference. We all have vendors that we rely heavily on, but we need to remember they have a life, too. I know salespeople that will answer the phone at 8 p.m. if I call. But just because they’ll take my call doesn’t mean they should. It can be tough for them, as a lot of salespeople are now driving further and further from home to take on new territories and keep their company competitive. Also, what have we done, as an industry, to support our vendors? Vendors have always shown support to our local and national sports turf, golf course, landscape and turfgrass associations. They’ve supported events put on by these various associations to obtain more customers, but within the last decade the number of customers has fallen off. In some instances, there’s more vendors than sports turf managers at these events — a waste of a vendor’s time and money. Yet, we still ask them for funding and support for our education and outreach events without fixing, or even addressing this problem. We should all be working closely with our local vendors, and within our local STMA chapters, to take some time and come up with ideas and solutions to make their company dollars go to work for them when they invest in our industry.”

SFM has compiled some tips for engaging in productive, positive sports turf manager-vendor relationships:

  • Value the relationships you now have with your vendors and be proactive in communicating with them to keep those relationships stable. If you’re looking to cut costs, ask for realistic price breaks. Remember that they may be facing the same cost-cutting measures you are. For example, if your facility’s budget has gotten smaller, maybe you can purchase materials at the same price level as the previous year if you guarantee the same volume and a preset payment date.
  • When looking at equipment, work with vendors to compare lease and purchase (new and pre-owned) options.
  • Your relationship with your vendors may open up other opportunities for your facility. After all, the quality of your field is maintained with the materials and equipment your vendors and suppliers provide. Work with them to explore new opportunities, perhaps helping them develop new business. For example, an equipment supplier might provide a machine or use of an equipment package in exchange for signage at the facility or ads in printed programs/on the scoreboard, or for endorsements of products or equipment you use on your fields.
  • Hold a field day at your facility for regional sports turf managers that includes a vendor trade show.
  • If you’re in the position to choose between multiple suppliers, take the time to examine each one’s pros and cons. Determine which one can give you what you need, when you need it and for the right price. Evaluate everything from their response time to their contract terms to their costs. Relationships are most successful if they have the time to grow, so you want to select a supplier that you and your organization will be able to grow with.
  • There are normal everyday contingencies you should plan for, like late shipments or weather-ruined pallets. There are also major disruptions to plan for, such as natural disasters or critical equipment failure. Most of these contingencies will probably be developed in-house, but make a concession for your suppliers and make sure they have a clear understanding of how you expect them to respond should the unthinkable happen.
  • Look for opportunities outside of general day-to-day contact. If you invite your suppliers to come and visit your facility, make sure to personally spend time with them in order to create stronger bonds. Also, ask your suppliers for feedback. Have open discussions with them about ways that your relationship could work better or more efficiently.

Editor’s note: Portions of the above were originally published in the October 2009 SFM from the article titled “Economic Evaluation,” written by Murray Cook.