0.5 Power Skills
Our Guest This Episode: John Holmes
The FIFA World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. In the 2022 tournament in Qatar, it was reported that there were more than 5.4 billion cumulative views throughout the month-long tournament. We wondered if anyone noticed the grass! Our guest John Holmes has an extraordinary project story. Listen in as John explains how he navigated the selection process and was awarded the exclusive supplier of turfgrass for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. John describes the planning and logistics of this enormous project and the various constraints and risk factors his team had to overcome.
With his knowledge of worldwide distribution channels, John has helped to revolutionize the process of shipping live turfgrass to global markets. John describes how his team provides turf grass solutions to golf courses in very difficult locations, and how they also deliver solutions for land reclamation projects and erosion control. Join us as John shares helpful advice about productive collaborations and engaging in successful communication across diverse cultures. He also reveals the unique project challenges and the valuable lessons learned in this remarkable project.
John has a degree in turfgrass management and worked in golf course construction before joining a group that sold turfgrass internationally. He has lived in Mexico and the Philippines as superintendent and construction manager of seven new golf courses. In 2011 John created Atlas Turf, located in LaGrange, Georgia. Atlas Turf International Limited is the world’s leading source of licensed and certified turfgrasses, and they are recognized in the golf and sports industries as the company to go to for quality turf products.
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Favorite Quotes from Our Talk:
“But at the end of the day, everybody’s a human being and has the same struggles, similar struggles. I try to be very respectful, too. And I think that’s so important when you’re dealing with different cultures. Well, at the end of the day in a business deal, everybody’s trying to get to the same point and having a successful project. And figuring out a way to do it without animosity, without any issues is so important and makes things go very smoothly.”
“I go back to the communication skills and improving communication skills. It’s so important. And that probably more than anything else can help a project manager grow into a new position long-term.”
The podcast by project managers for project managers. The FIFA World Cup is the biggest sporting event in the world. With billions of people tuning in to view the games, we wondered if anyone noticed the grass! In this unique project story, John Holmes explains how he navigated the selection process and became the exclusive supplier of turfgrass for the 2022 FIFA World Cup. We share the planning, logistics, challenges, constraints and lessons learned in this remarkable project.
02:18 … Meet John
03:41 … Atlas Turf Production
05:22 … Sustainable Solutions
06:53 … The Bid for The FIFA World Cup Turf
09:23 … Transporting the Turf
11:46 … Project Coordination and Planning
14:12 … Kevin and Kyle
15:41 … Project Budget
16:57 … Project Timeline
18:47 … Biggest Risk Factor
19:39 … Collaborations and Cultural Differences
21:43 … Government Restrictions
22:38 … Lessons Learned
23:56 … Soccer vs. Golf Turf
25:52 … Leadership Advice from John
27:30 … Find out More
28:33 … Closing
JOHN HOLMES: I’ve been really fortunate to travel to some very unique places. And it’s really helped me grow as a person, and meeting folks from different cultures, nationalities, different beliefs than me. But at the end of the day, everybody’s a human being and has the same struggles, similar struggles. I try to be very respectful, too. And I think that’s so important when you’re dealing with different cultures. Well, at the end of the day in a business deal, everybody’s trying to get to the same point and having a successful project. And figuring out a way to do it without animosity, without any issues is so important and makes things go very smoothly.
WENDY GROUNDS: You’re listening to Manage This, the podcast for project managers by project managers. My name is Wendy Grounds, and with me in the studio is Bill Yates and our engineer, Danny Brewer. We love having you join us twice a month to be motivated and inspired by project stories, leadership lessons, and advice from industry experts from all around the world; and we love to bring you some support as you navigate your projects. You can also claim free Professional Development Units from PMI by listening to our show. Listen up at the end of the show for advice on how to do that.
Now, Bill, we have an interesting conversation with John Holmes today.
BILL YATES: Yes.
WENDY GROUNDS: He’s from Atlas Turf. Atlas Turf produced the grass for some of the world’s premier golf associations. And I love the story that he was responsible for the turf that was used in the 2022 FIFA World Cup.
BILL YATES: Isn’t that amazing, yeah. And he happens to be – their company is headquartered here in Georgia. But he has delivered product and solutions all over the globe. He’s had a lot of personal travel. I’d like to see his passport and see some of the stamps in that.
WENDY GROUNDS: And he also has been in places like Sri Lanka, Mauritius, the Maldives, New Caledonia, Seychelles. It’s all over the world into very interesting places he’s taking his grass.
BILL YATES: That’s true. He delivers.
WENDY GROUNDS: Hi, John. Welcome to Manage This. Thank you so much for joining us today.
JOHN HOLMES: So glad to be here and able to share our unique story.
WENDY GROUNDS: Have you always worked with turf? What was your career path?
JOHN HOLMES: I have a degree in turf grass management. But my career started when I was a teenager working on the local golf course in our town. And in doing so I discovered that you could actually go to college and get a degree in managing turf grass, and I did that and became a golf course superintendent, managing the turf grass on a golf course, almost 32 years ago.
BILL YATES: How about that. So you’ve been working with grass for 30-something years. And then how did you come to Atlas, you know, what was that transition?
JOHN HOLMES: My career as a golf course superintendent took me and my wife to Mexico and the Philippines, managing golf courses. And eventually I landed back here in the United States working for a turf farm as a salesperson. And we created a unique business of exporting turf grass. We didn’t invent the process, but we somewhat perfected it. And then as the recession came along, the great recession in 2008-2009, I essentially bought the business from the company I was working with and created Atlas Turf. And we set off, took off running in 2011.
WENDY GROUNDS: Where are your turf products produced? Where do you grow the grass?
JOHN HOLMES: So our core business is exporting turf grass stolons or sprigs. And they’re grown in South Georgia, in Adel, Georgia; and in Camden, South Carolina at two different turf farms. And we’ll get into that process, sure, in a little while. We also have a seed company based just south of Portland, Oregon.
BILL YATES: You are located in LaGrange; is that right? LaGrange, Georgia?
JOHN HOLMES: LaGrange, Georgia, yup, just southwest of Atlanta.
BILL YATES: For some I think they know it as LaGrange. Those are for the fancy folks. It’s amazing to me, I mean, what caught our attention was we started reading about Atlas Turf and the impact that your company was having all over the world. Your turf is showing up in these huge projects, like the World Cup. And it really brought attention. But it’s not all about sporting fields. You guys have a whole line of different products that meet different needs. So describe a bit about those different products and how they’re being applied.
JOHN HOLMES: Our company in earnest starting providing turf grass solutions to golf courses in very difficult locations. And when I say “difficult,” places where water quantity was a challenge, water quality was a challenge. And we had products that would grow in those conditions. But challenging for both the customer and us was getting the product to those unique, sometimes far out of the way locations. And we really started our business hitting those obscure markets and just kind of grew into the business that we are today.
WENDY GROUNDS: I was looking at your website. I was very interested in some of the products that you do produce. And I saw that you also, other than golf courses and sports fields and turf for soccer, you also have products that are solutions for erosion, reclaiming land, and those type of issues. Can you tell us a little bit about that, and the grasses you produce for that?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, so we have a turf grass. The scientific name is paspalum vaginatum. Seashore paspalum is the common name. Platinum TE is the one variety, and Pure Dynasty is the seeded variety. The paspalum turf grasses are very salt-tolerant, meaning they don’t grow with ocean water, but they tolerate higher levels of salt than almost any other turf grass. And along with that tolerance comes the ability for those grasses to grow in adverse conditions like mining sites where heavy metals may be mined; and, you know, those mines have to be reclaimed and put back into their natural state. Paspalum fits into those markets. And because of the deep rooting of the paspalums, they’re also used in land stabilization, as well. So we work with a number of companies across the United States on land reclamation projects and erosion control.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
WENDY GROUNDS: The next thing I want to get into is the FIFA World Cup. And for those who are not in the know of the FIFA World Cup, it was in 2022 towards the end of the year in Qatar; and Platinum TE was the turf on all the playing fields. How did you bid for that project? How did you get that project?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, it’s kind of an amazing story. So about nine years ago I received an email from a person over in Qatar who was interested in trialing the Platinum TE on one of the soccer pitches at a facility called the Aspire Zone, which is the Olympic training facility for Qatar. And they were interested in the Platinum TE, again because of its salt tolerance and its ability to grow in harsh climates.
And so we shipped some material over there, and one of my business trips over to the Middle East region, I stopped into Qatar. I’d never been there before. And I went to visit the field manager. And he was just over the moon with the quality of the turf grass. This was way before Qatar was awarded the World Cup. And so they were happy with it. We were happy that they were a happy customer.
And then the country was awarded the World Cup. And FIFA came in, and they started trials on which turf grass would work best there. So the Aspire Zone folks, FIFA, and a couple of independent parties, STRI out of the U.K., started trialing turf grasses from all over the world in various different conditions, not knowing during the trials that the tournament would actually be in the cooler months of the year, but they also trialed the turf in heavy shade conditions because most of the stadiums are almost completely covered, not totally. And during those trials, the Platinum TE kept on trialing number one, number one, number one.
And so eventually we started getting requests from contractors in Qatar for our Platinum TE. No one ever picked up the phone and said, “Hey, your Platinum TE’s going to be on the World Cup fields.” But we kind of made that assumption. And so we started sending turf grass over to Qatar from the farm in Adel, Georgia with our partners Pike Creek Turf.
The turf, just a background on how that process works, is harvested by a machine, and imagine squares of sod shredded into small pieces of grass. And they’re washed free of soil, hydro-cooled and boxed, and flown over to Qatar. We do that with the majority of our shipments of turf grass. And over about a five-year period we grassed all eight stadiums and 71 practice fields in Qatar. So it’s a pretty neat story for us.
And the even cooler thing about that, so because the time of year changed, FIFA mandated that all of the fields be oversown, or overseeded, with rye grass, which is a very common practice in the winter months or cooler months to add another layer of turf. So with our seed partners out in Oregon, we provided all of the rye grass seed that was intersown into the Platinum TE on all of the stadiums, as well. So, yeah. It’s just a very unique and special story, and it speaks volumes for I think the quality of the products that we have.
BILL YATES: The logistics on that are fascinating, too. You know, John, for me, when I think of turf, I think of, you know, sod. I think of, okay, I’m in my neighborhood, and I see somebody’s getting their lawn completely revamped. So you see this huge truck pull up with pallets of, just like you said, harvested, it was in a field, and now it’s just been cut underneath so there’s soil and everything. And I was thinking logistically, how in the world did John’s team take something like that, and you ship it?
But now, hearing about that process, that had to take years and years of evolution to figure out, okay, how do we transport sod in a way that doesn’t weigh a ton, but survives and then can flourish once you get it into the soil in a place like Qatar, thousands of miles away from Georgia in the United States. I guess you figured that out a long time before Qatar came along.
JOHN HOLMES: We did. And really the sod is shredded into small little pieces. When those pieces are planted into the ground, they root, and they grow and spread into that full field effect that you see on TV.
WENDY GROUNDS: Something that is really important to project managers is planning, and I am sure that there was a lot of planning that went into this process of getting the bid, growing the grass, getting it there. So what went into your planning process for this project?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, the growing the turf is almost the easy part; right? So the logistics and the planning are so important because this is a live product. It’s perishable. So it requires refrigeration from the time it is harvested and washed to the time it lands. From the time of harvest to the time that turf grass lands, whether it’s Qatar, whatever country it is, the port of entry, the chain of control has to be refrigerated. And that takes a lot of logistics coordinations, not only with our staff, but our freight forwarder and the client on the receiving end, as well.
But there are a few more steps involved in this. We have to work with the USDA here in the United States. They provide what’s called a phytosanitary certificate which really is the license, if you will, between United States and the receiving country that the turf has met certain requirements on the receiving end. Again, a lot of coordination and communication has to take place in a very short amount of time once the workflow starts.
BILL YATES: I can think of our project managers who, you know, in some cases they’ve had to ship people and supplies to different countries. But when they’re organic, they’re alive, those materials, just the level of complexity, having to get the clearances, I mean, you can’t have this stuff sitting at a dock or sitting on a tarmac at an airport on some remote area where your team can’t get to it and say, no, no, no, we’ve got all the paperwork. That takes so much complex planning. That must be something that you guys have really gone deep into to make sure that you’re not losing product, and you’re able to get the grass to those that have ordered it in the right time.
JOHN HOLMES: Yes, for sure. I mean, it’s a collaborative, coordinated effort by several different parties. And we love repeat customers so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. But when we have a new customer, we spend a lot of time on the front end before shipping, coordinating and making sure they understand what’s coming at them.
WENDY GROUNDS: Time for us to have a little break. We’re going to listen to Kevin and Kyle for a minute and hear what they’ve been up to.
KEVINRONEY:Thanks Wendy. Have you ever heard of the 90/10 ratio? It’s the idea that when you are 90% done with any large project (a house, a film, an app), the last 10% of work will take 90% of the time to complete. Or in other words, the first 90 percent of the code of an app will take 90 percent of your development time, while the last 10 percent of the code will take you another 90 percent of the time.
KYLE CROWE: In other words, nothing is ever quite finished. It’s always almost done. How is the 90/10 rule killing your projects? The sad but true observation is that the last ‘little bit of stuff’ always seems to take forever to get done. When you’re working on your projects, ask yourself are you busy or productive? When is the last time you measured your efficiency ratio?
KEVIN RONEY: And what is an efficiency ratio? Consider your typical workweek and log your normal activity during the workdays. Identify the time spent creating value. Value is defined as activities that directly contribute to the product or service you are providing. Add up the total number of hours worked. Then add up the total amount of hours spent creating value. Your efficiency ratio is the number of value hours divided by the total hours worked. Don’t be too shocked – it’s common for efficiency ratio to be in the 20-30% range.
KYLE CROWE: If this is something you find yourself struggling with, we have some great resources to help. Alan Zucker’s Agile Beyond IT course, delves deeply into how using an agile mindset can help improve productivity on all types of projects. Maybe you should take a look at it.
BILL YATES: So John, one other thing we wanted to talk about is just the “triple constraints,” as we refer to them in project management: the scope, and then the schedule, and the budget; or scope, time, cost, as many times that you hear it referred to. Talk a little bit with this particular project. Obviously the scope, I think we’ve got a sense for that. What about the budget? I mean, I can’t imagine the expenses on your side to pull this off, to get this material harvested, and then transport it thousands of miles, and all the red tape that you have to jump through. So what kind of budget are we looking at for a project like this?
JOHN HOLMES: It was a lot.
BILL YATES: Yeah, yeah.
JOHN HOLMES: I hesitate to throw out any numbers. But I think it’s been pretty well publicized that Qatar by far spent more money than any other FIFA event in history. And I tell you, from their infrastructure and the money they spent on the stadiums and moving people around and just general infrastructure was well worth it because I think it was a very successful event. And yes, there was an expense on the turf grass. But we were far less of a cost than just building one stadium.
BILL YATES: What about the timeline? You know, obviously, as you mentioned, you guys had been providing samples of the Platinum years before the big event. But when they said, okay, we’re ready to place a significant order, what kind of timeline were you dealing with?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, so we had to work with multiple contractors there. There was not one general contractor who was over the whole construction process. There was what’s called the “supreme committee” for the government of Qatar that we coordinated with a certain amount. But we literally had to work with four different contractors who all had different timelines. And so I made multiple trips over to Qatar over five years, meeting with the contractors, trying to understand timelines, because we really only have a window of two weeks from the time we harvest to the time we land it there.
BILL YATES: I was wondering about that. Like with an aquarium, you know, we were talking with somebody who built the world’s largest aquarium. And they said when you bring in whatever, these whales or these particular fish, once you pull them from their habitat, you’ve got to put them back in a new habitat in a certain amount of time. So everything has to be ready.
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, everything has to be ready. And of course, you know, from a contractor’s side, they have certain timelines that they have to meet financially, as well. So it was well coordinated. It worked well on our end and for the most part on their end. You know, fortunately in Qatar it does get really hot, but they don’t have a lot of rain delays there. So, you know what I mean?
BILL YATES: Yeah.
JOHN HOLMES: So, you know, the heat certainly slowed them down in the summer because they do have mandatory non-work hours during the day. But it went fairly smoothly.
BILL YATES: Looking back on it, what project constraint do you think worried you the most? What was your biggest risk factor?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, you know, we were fortunate that out of Atlanta Qatar Airways had started a direct flight from Atlanta to Doha. And it allowed us direct access, where in the past we were having to go through another country, transship our product, and hope everything made it on the plane, hope everything got put in refrigeration during the transshipping and everything else. So that really helped us. Constraint-wise was really on our end. There were days where we had weather come through here that wouldn’t allow us to harvest and put us on some tight timelines, tighter than we wanted to be in certain cases.
WENDY GROUNDS: One of the questions we wanted to ask you about your partnering and your collaborations with others on this project, I’m sure there were some constraints with regards to cultural differences. How did you find that collaboration? Did you have any challenges there?
JOHN HOLMES: You know, making so many visits over there and developing the relationships were so important. And one of the things that went well with the contractors, it was a pretty stable environment as far as there weren’t many managers that moved out of their positions. So we were able to develop some rapport, good communication. And I think that really helped along the way, you know, as the project management business goes, especially in big construction sites. You see people move in and out of positions, and when that happens you’re kind of having to reengage with people. And fortunately in Qatar there was a very stable environment when it came to working with multiple contractors.
BILL YATES: I wanted to ask one quick follow-up on that, John. You’ve traveled a lot more internationally than I think the typical project leader. What advice do you have, you know, how do you break the ice? How do you make that connection with, many times, those customers or those contractors that you work with that come from a different culture, a different country?
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, I’ve been really fortunate to travel to some very unique places. And it’s really helped me grow as a person, and meeting folks from different cultures, nationalities, different beliefs than me. But at the end of the day, everybody’s a human being and has the same struggles, similar struggles. I try to be very respectful, too. And I think that’s so important when you’re dealing with different cultures. Well, at the end of the day in a business deal, everybody’s trying to get to the same point and having a successful project. And figuring out a way to do it without animosity, without any issues is so important and makes things go very smoothly.
WENDY GROUNDS: Are there any other challenges that you had to address for that project?
JOHN HOLMES: You know, Qatar 2022 was fairly streamlined once we got everything going. You know, in our regular everyday business and what we do, we’re constantly being challenged with government import rules being changed, and we really have to stay on top of that and understand when, you know, a government decides to put restrictions on some of our products, how to kind of navigate that and use our government’s liaisons in those countries to help negotiate on our behalf. But for the most part, most of the countries in the Middle East region are open to do business. And we are sending an agricultural product over there. There are restrictions. We respect that. Our biggest challenges a lot of times are just government restrictions.
WENDY GROUNDS: From the project in general, what have been your lessons learned and your takeaways?
JOHN HOLMES: Gosh, communication is so important, both written communication and verbal communication and the follow-up there. I tell you, because I wear a lot of hats, whether it’s on the sales side, just running some of the day-to-day business. But when you’re dealing with project managers on the other side of the desk from you, making sure that that communication back and forth really makes things go smoothly because when it gets disrupted, or if there’s not enough communication, that’s when problems arise. I really find that most effective project managers, small scale or large scale, are very good communicators, both written and verbal.
BILL YATES: Couldn’t agree more. That is so true. We’ve had project managers describe their role as being like this hub of communication. One guy talked about there’s a wheel for my project, and I’m right in the middle, on that hub.
JOHN HOLMES: Yup.
BILL YATES: There are different spokes that come out that I have to communicate the right information to.
JOHN HOLMES: Very much like traffic cops directing traffic at a big intersection.
BILL YATES: Yes. Yeah.
JOHN HOLMES: And trying not to get hit by a car.
WENDY GROUNDS: Just from a project perspective, was this very different doing the World Cup as compared to when you do golf courses? Because you’ve done golf courses all around the world.
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah. Great question. So our business when we started out was probably 85% golf. And over the years now it’s probably 60%. So football, sports in general, but especially soccer, as we call it here in the U.S., it’s a very different sport. Yes, it’s turf at the end of the day. But how the fields are built and the expectations of the field managers and then ultimately the players are very different expectations than those of people playing golf. So yeah, we enjoy the sports field business very much.
BILL YATES: When you’re watching somebody on a golf course, and you know it’s your turf on there, and they take this huge divot, do you just cringe? Is there a little part of you that just dies inside? Or are you okay with that?
JOHN HOLMES: Oh, I’m okay with that. You know, our particular turf grass, like this past weekend the Abu Dhabi championships were on at Yas Island in Abu Dhabi. And yeah, there were big divots flying out there. And it was kind of just cool to watch, I think.
BILL YATES: Yeah. You’re in a good place with this emotionally. I like that.
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, for sure.
WENDY GROUNDS: Because you’ve also done baseball stadiums. I think you did Truist Park?
JOHN HOLMES: Well, the Platinum TE that we own the IP on has grown on the Atlanta Braves stadium, the Houston Astros stadium. And what was cool, two years ago Braves played the Astros in the World Series, so it was neat to see our turf on a…
BILL YATES: Both places. Nice.
JOHN HOLMES: Both the fields. So being in Georgia, I think you guys know who I was pulling for. But it was neat to see both teams playing.
BILL YATES: That’s fantastic.
WENDY GROUNDS: Finally, do you have any leadership advice that you can share with our project managers? Any last words you could leave with them?
JOHN HOLMES: Well, I think continuing education on personal, interpersonal skills is so important. So, you know, project managers are project-based. And as a project finishes, they tend to move on to other projects, especially in the construction side of the business which we’re heavily into. So I go back to the communication skills and improving communication skills. It’s so important. And that probably more than anything else can help a project manager grow into a new position long-term.
BILL YATES: Yeah. Many times a project manager has to almost be like a CEO for an effort, for a small group, a small team, and really take control from the beginning to the end. And the success or the failure of the project so many times is so influenced by the leadership of that project manager. So it’s a great place to grow, to learn, and to see where your interests are…
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah.
BILL YATES: …and your strengths and go into different areas.
JOHN HOLMES: Yeah, for sure. I mean, project managers are typically in control of very large budgets. They’re in control of contractors and some subcontractors. They have to learn how to manage conflict in a lot of ways sometimes. So it is a very important role, again, just like you mentioned being the hub in a wheel, for sure.
BILL YATES: Yeah.
WENDY GROUNDS: John if our audience wants to find out more about Atlas Turf or get in touch with you, where can they go?
JOHN HOLMES: For people that want to find out more about our company, they can visit AtlasTurf.com, and they can find us on social media, on Twitter and Facebook and LinkedIn – @atlasturf, Twitter; atlasturf on Facebook; and atlasturf on LinkedIn.
BILL YATES: Well, we’re so impressed with you and with your company. And we look at the different projects that you have, the restoration projects, the ability to use something natural and organic to help reclaim land, you know, and some of the examples you’ve shared, we’re so impressed by that. And then there is the fun side of your business, too, where you have these amazing projects, these high-profile huge projects where we get to see world-class athletes stepping all over your field, man, it’s your turf. So well done.
JOHN HOLMES: Thank you very much. And it was a pleasure spending time with you guys today.
WENDY GROUNDS: That’s it for us here on Manage This. Thank you for joining us today. You can visit us at Velociteach.com, where you can subscribe to this podcast and see a complete transcript of the show.
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