Ground Control to Major Growth: UVA Darden Alumna Builds Maintenance Giant
By Dave Hendrick
Kim Morrish (MBA ’93) has blazed an atypical career path — a journey that started as a candy striper in a hospital; included stints in the United States Foreign Service and successful forays in dot-com entrepreneurship; and ultimately led to the acquisition and growth of a booming grounds maintenance company in Great Britain.
The experience the Blacksburg, Virginia, native most directly attributes to her success, however, came from the unglamorous work of selling study guides door-to-door during college summers.
The job, Morrish told University of Virginia Darden School of Business students during a Leadership Speaker Series event, emphasized work ethic, the value of goal setting and the importance of effective personal engagement.
“It was incredibly challenging and there were so many days I really struggled, but I was good at it,” Morrish said of selling study guides. “I learned so much about setting goals and having plans.”
After graduating from UVA, Morrish followed her dream to the Foreign Service, where she got her foot in the door as a clerk typist and was eventually sworn into the service on the same day she was accepted at the Darden School, a bit of inopportune timing that led to a two-year break from the job she had long coveted.
Morrish headed back to the Foreign Service after graduating from Darden, and an early placement in Bolivia taught her the ins and outs of microfinance. A subsequent job in Washington, D.C., however, taught Morrish that she was not cut out for a big bureaucracy.
“Washington was not a great match,” Morrish said. “After the excitement of working in the field, it was stifling. It was awful.”
Morrish was soon headhunted to launch Washington operations for the global microfinance network IPC GmbH, where she combined her passion for development with running a startup.
Morrish and her husband eventually decided to make a go at starting their own business, and they moved to England to launch a property portal during the height of the dot-com boom.
Although early movers in the industry, they were quickly surrounded by deep-pocketed rivals, but managed to cash out with their “egos intact,” if not fortunes, Morrish said.
The lesson taught the new entrepreneurs that they enjoyed working together, and Morrish cited the “tremendously complementary skills” of her husband’s financial and operational acumen with her business development and people skills.
After their startup adventures, the pair settled on the goal of buying and running a business, and a fortuitous Darden connection eventually led them to Ground Control, a landscaping business that had established high-profile contracts with the Tower of London and supermarket chain Tesco.
Although the $10 million deal was larger than what Morrish and her husband believed they could afford, they eventually convinced the existing Ground Control management to go in on a buy-in management buyout — a deal commemorated in a Darden case study — allowing them to complete the deal with a large debt burden but without including any private equity.
“Trust lowers transaction costs,” Morrish said. “We invested heavily in building relationships with the existing management team and the previous owner.”
Employee equity in the company would become a hallmark of Ground Control’s hiring practices, helping it to foster loyalty and superior morale among employees.
Morrish said their new company went through an early period of tumult — one exacerbated by an early partner’s defrauding of the business — but as better controls and efficiencies came along, the business grew both organically and through acquisitions. It eventually added complementary services such as road winterization, fencing, vegetation maintenance along railway lines and electric utility networks, pest control, and roofing, among others.
With 600 employees and thousands more engaged in their supply chain of field teams, Ground Control is turning over $133 million in sales throughout Great Britain. Morrish, a mother of four, has stepped away from the day-to-day running of Ground Control and refocused her attention to being “a catalyst for positive change,” which for now means facilitating women-led, social impact investments.
“Don’t only think about what you are going to do with your incredibly exciting careers,” Morrish told the Darden students. “Think about who you want to be.”
The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.
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