Person of the Year Joe Hobson
Joe Hobson is a quiet, thoughtful guy. If you don’t know him, you should. He’s president and chief operating officer of Midwest Trading in Maple Park, Illinois. And, he was recently chosen as ILCA’s Person of the Year. When ILCA President José Garcia called to give him the good news, Hobson said, “I was speechless.
It’s quite humbling and quite an honor.”
Hobson’s 23 years of professional leadership experience in the horticulture industry followed more than 30 years in landscape management, design and maintenance. He’s served on ILCA’s board and is a past-president.
“Joe has worked for some of the largest member companies within ILCA, but he always tried to walk in the work boots of the small, independent contractor,” said Scott Grams, ILCA’s executive director. “Joe realized there was a silent majority of members who needed more from the ILCA than golf outings and glass plaques. He committed himself to understanding what the average member needed and challenged the Board and staff to address those needs above all others.”
Raised on a farm in southwestern Missouri, Hobson appreciates the importance of hard work. “I did everything from mending fences and working cattle to hauling a lot of hay and cutting a lot of firewood. I had a never-ending appetite,” he said.
At 17, he worked after school and on weekends for Gladys and Brown Thomas, an elderly couple with a greenhouse and big garden. “I’d cut the grass, water the greenhouse, dig potatoes, attend to customers or deliver plants—whatever needed to be done. They were super good people to be around and I was fortunate.”
Hobson knew he wanted to go to college. “Out of the 15 grandkids on my mom’s side, very few headed in that direction and I was the first to graduate.” He started at Southwest Missouri State University where he took an Introduction to Horticulture class as a freshman. “I didn’t have a game plan, but during that class a landscape segment caught my attention.”
An outdoorsman who loved hunting and fishing, he debated pursuing a career in forestry or wildlife management, but ultimately decided on landscaping. “If I went into one of the other two, I might well end up in the boonies, which would be fine, but I had a close, tight family and a lot of friends. I decided landscaping
would give me more versatility and would allow me to balance my work and family.”
A friend who was studying landscape architecture gave him advice. “I concluded that I wanted to do landscaping, so I switched to the University of Missouri-Columbia.” He graduated in 1986 with a degree in horticulture with an emphasis on landscape design.
After graduation, Hobson had an internship at Powell Farms, an 800-acre site near Kansas City. “The owners joined with the University of Missouri to figure out what to do with the farm.” He worked there for two years becoming the interim director and performing master planning. “Working with the master planners was interesting, but it’s a one-time shot and done, even though it takes many years to implement the plan.” And, the planning involved a great deal of paperwork and approvals that made projects cumbersome and drawn out. “I like the system where we go get things done—I decided to do something different.”
One of the master planners gave Hobson job leads. “I interviewed with the Brickman Group who took a chance and hired me. That’s what really got me into the landscape world.” That was in 1988 and he stayed at the Long Grove, Illinois, location for five years before transferring to Atlanta for three years where he handled the firm’s commercial landscape maintenance. “In the design-build world, each project is a “wow” factor. In maintenance, it’s much more repetitive. I found my passion improving properties and developing people.”
In 1995, Hobson went to work with Frank Mariani, another mentor. “I ran the maintenance division and learned so much from so many people. Larry Weil took me under his wing and taught me how to do the best quality work you could find in the country. Frank and Larry mentored
me through that transition. That’s where I explored a whole new level of landscaping and how to get to perfection.”
It was at Mariani that Hobson recognized the account manager and crew leader are the two most important people in the client’s eyes and that employee career paths were critical. “We developed support systems to satisfy customers and train employees on required skills. Recruiting
nationally helped build a bench for growth.”
He’d have new hires rotate on crews. “You need to literally do the work for some period and then you understand what it’s like to work in varying weather conditions and to develop the detail-oriented skills and mindset necessary. Working with different crew leaders in the field accelerated education.”
Back then, there was a shortage of people joining the industry. “I wanted the top one percent of graduates and became involved in recruiting.” He visited schools in several states and developed relationships with professors. “These relationships were important because I could explain what we did and if students wanted to move to Chicago and do this kind of work, they’d refer them.”
Hobson was also involved with ALCA the former National Association of Professional Landscapers. “They held a student
competition each year which moved around the country. I was heavily involved with that for seven years in a collaborative, relationship-building manner. I learned a lot and it forced me to get involved in a broader scale with the school system.”
Training goes a long way with willing participants. “It’s learning to deal with difficult people. I have a pretty high level of patience and tolerance. If someone is talented, but can’t get along with people, I can’t change you, you can only change yourself.”
Hobson joined ILCA in 1996 at Frank Mariani’s suggestion. “Not too long after that I became involved with the Joliet Junior College Horticulture Advisory Committee.”
He also joined ILCA’s education committee and spent 120 hours developing an advanced pruning course.
“ILCA adopted the Certified Landscape Technician program which was a lot of fun and hard work to implement. Fortunately, Joliet Junior College said yes to participating. It took over 50 judges on one day to test participants, which is a testament to ILCA voluntarism. Proudly, at Mariani we had 32 candidates achieve certification.”
Hobson was also part of ILCA’s professional oversight committee. “I asked ‘how do we know the resources are aligned and are right for our members?’ We formed a group and our job was to analyze each event and give it a thumbs up or down.” He has a tremendous amount of respect for ILCA. “I’ve taken the time
to get to know about the original founders and old-timers. I view it as we stand on their shoulders. It’s important that we respect our history and align for our future to the mission.”
In 2003, Hobson returned to Brickman where he spent the next decade overseeing residential services in Chicago. “There’s a culture of giving back at Brickman and I’m
thankful to Neil Carter and Rick Corby for allowing me to continue with ILCA when I was on the board.” Hobson has been with Midwest Trading since 2013, where he says ownership, leadership and overall company values are of highest integrity. “We work closely with our sister company, Midwest Groundcovers and I sit on the board of both companies.” The best part of his job? “It falls into a few buckets. I really enjoy strategic planning—where are we going and how do we get there—watching others grow and be successful, and the alignment of our products and services to customer solutions. The company cares about people and is extremely involved in the
industry. A great example to others.”
Success is based on teamwork. “I value our team’s opinions and input—they know best what is happening. Listening to others and acting on their input creates a positive and collaborative environment when they are part of the decision-making process. My job is to pull it all together in an effective manner and then we can agree there’s a path.”
Down the Road
A lot of Hobson’s time is spent looking to the future and where the company is going. “We focus a lot on our company culture and values. Some of it is just how we get along with one another as well as making critical business decisions.”
Hobson and his wife Sue live in Woodstock and they have two adult daughters, Hannah and Olivia. They also have a young godson, Daniel, who they spend a great deal of time with and they’re involved with their church. “I could have golfed a lot more or been outdoors more, but it’s not a sacrifice, it’s a choice. I’ve learned to be happy and satisfied when I decide what I want to do.”