How I Got Interested In The Landscape Industry
I was sixteen years old and looking for an after-school and week-end job. The idea of working outdoors appealed to me so I applied at a nearby garden center. They needed help loading cars, stocking inventory and just generally helping out where needed. They hired me for $1.50 an hour. The year was 1970.
It turned out the garden center had a nursery as well as a design/build contracting business. It was owned by a family that had immigrated to the US from Europe two generations ago.
The current generation had college degrees in the field and were very devoted to the trade and business. For me at the time it was just a cool job, but I was interested and anxious to learn.
I was a happy guy. I liked the work, I liked the company and I liked the people.
After proving myself doing all sorts of labor tasks they asked me to start assisting customers in the garden center. The owners said “Just come to us with any questions you don’t know the answer to.”
Needless to say I was at them constantly with customer’s questions. I took the responsibility of answering those questions very seriously. These customers were ready to spend their money in return for the right advice, and trusted us (the company) to give it to them.
The company owners were great and made ever effort to share their knowledge. I was learning with each customer I helped.
In the summer months I would work full time and often be put on a landscape construction crew. There I found the same dedication and work ethic. This was my first exposure to landscape design and construction.
I was the young, inexperienced one on the crew and even though that came with a little good-natured “ribbing,” I was learning proper construction techniques and operating procedures. What a great job. I liked it more and more.
Career Commitment and Start
High school was almost over and I needed to make a decision on a career path. I really loved the landscape work and after seeing the success of the company I was working for, I felt it would be a good fit.
I earned my degree in ornamental horticulture with a major in landscape design. Not only did I return each summer during college to work at the same company, but then took a full time position with them after graduating.
During the next several years I worked for that company as a project supervisor and then in design/sales.
The experiences with this company exposed me to many aspects of the business.
I found the design work to initially be the most challenging – perhaps because at this point I had enough knowledge to know how important good design is. Customers were depending on me for creative solutions that would last for years.
One of the company owners and designers mentored me in the beginning and that was really helpful. He shared his own methods and techniques – things I had not learned in school. I was careful and took my time with the designs. I implemented the jobs the same way.
People appreciated my care and determination in “getting it right”. I’m sure this helped alleviate any concerns they may have had with my age and inexperience.
A Business Beginning
I guess I always had it in the back of my mind to have my own business. Being conservative and practical, I waited until I felt I had most of the basic ingredients for success. And from my simple (and youthful) point of view, they were: a good base knowledge and the desire to do things correctly.
So in 1979 I left the company and started Hickory Grove Landscape Co. Another coworker joined me and we developed a partnership.
All things considered, the split with the company worked out OK. It was discussed early on and they had time to prepare. They were supportive.
We started operations in the spring with 3 days per week of scheduled maintenance contracts. In fact, we got these accounts through the company we had worked for. They did not operate a maintenance division and were happy to refer some of their design clients to us.
It was a win-win situation because the company knew we were trained in the same work ethic and quality standard that they represented. I must say, these homeowners got maintenance services like they’d never seen before.
Any concerns we had for not having enough work gradually lessened. It was not long before we were working five and six day work-weeks. Our maintenance clients all needed and wanted additional work. They were also referring us to others.
This was our goal. Use the maintenance accounts as a secure and steady income base, but pursue the design/build/contracting work.
My partner and I both enjoyed the business and had similar knowledge and experience. We prioritized on meeting the needs and expectations of each customer. We did everything as professionally as we knew how; almost neglecting the business aspects of our new company.
Looking back we should have been more business conscious. Although we were successful selling and producing work, our profitability was not what it should have been. On that level it was the “school of hard knocks”.
Things Get Rolling
There came a point after a couple of years where the design/contracting work was conflicting with the maintenance work. We would have to pause on our construction jobs to do the maintenance contracts. Not good.
We discussed hiring help to not only keep the maintenance business going, but also start growing the construction division.
Our decision: Let the maintenance work go at the end of the year and focus exclusively on the design/build construction work.
Looking back I believe we should have created a “small” maintenance division of the company. Today, I have some strong beliefs and feelings about the maintenance aspect of the industry. You’ll be hearing more and more about that on LandscapeAdvisor.
Over the next few years we established two landscape construction crews. Each crew was outfitted similarly in terms of trucks, equipment and tools.
My partner and I divided business responsibilities. He was in charge of the main crew which handled all the larger projects. His strengths were in the technical and production end. He also handled the bookkeeping.
I took care of design/sales and managed the other construction crew, which did more of the smaller projects. This crew had a foreman to help offset the time I would need to be on the jobsite.
This worked pretty well for us, and business was good at the time. It was early to mid 1980’s and the housing market was booming.
The Business Changes
During the winter in the northeast (US) we typically shut down the production end of the business. We work until the ground freezes and then start again in the spring. We did not do snow-removal as a winter service.
During the “off-season” I would continue to work on landscape designs, and my partner would tend to any issues regarding trucks, equipment and the like. That work for him did not take long and he would then go work for a company installing home security systems.
My partner enjoyed the electronic and technical aspect of that work and got quite good at it after a few winters. He decided to change careers and went to work for that home security company.
This all happened through mutual discussion and planning, and with time for me to re-group for the next season. We dissolved the partnership amicably, and to this day remain good friends. He eventually started his own security alarm business. It has an excellent reputation.
I decided to keep both construction crews going and moved the most qualified employee to foreman position on the other crew.
This had to be the busiest time of my career to-date. I had gotten married and we had our first child. I was running the business out of the house we rented. It was owned by a fence company and they let me keep the equipment on the property.
It was time for us to buy a house of our own, but I had to also solve the issue of where to keep the equipment. For months we searched for a home that would also allow a business like mine to operate on the property. Not an easy thing to find.
As circumstance would have it I had the opportunity to invest with a partner on a commercial piece of property. Our plan was to put up a building that would serve as a garden center/office for my business, and also have several other offices as rental units.
We had plans drawn for the building and site, secured all the necessary permits and did the initial site work including clearing, grading, drainage, etc. We were ready to start construction.
A Change of Plans and Serendipity
It was October of 1987 and the stock market was declining. Remember Black Monday? Economists predicted that “the next few years could be the most troubled since the 1930’s”.
We had no choice but to not go ahead with the construction. I did, however, operate my landscape contracting business off of the property.
During the next year or so I had opportunities to speak with a number of industry people including those that had retail garden centers. Their opinions were almost unanimous, “Keep contracting and stay clear of the retail business”.
As I look back through the years I can safely say that what happened to the economy and stock market in 1987 was a blessing in disguise. Diversifying into retail would have been a major mistake for me.
So for years I continued with design and contracting while maintaining the two construction crews. As you might expect, I had my hands full.
By my nature I struggled with delegating – believing that no one would do things as well as I would. This was foolish really. The crew people and foremen were excellent. They knew and practiced all the standards of the company.
Looking back I could have confidently delegated work and freed up more of my time to be a more effective and “balanced” owner/operator.
Towards the end of one year, sometime in the late 1990’s it just so happened that one of the foremen was leaving to work in his father’s business and two of the crew guys also had other plans.
This was good timing in the sense that I needed to change the business in some way to better fit “me”. I made the decision to now operate just one main crew (1 foreman, 3 crew members). The fit was good in every respect.
I felt the pressure relief almost instantly. In addition, I worked at delegating and having confidence in the crew. I was finding more time to manage and think about the business.
Although I had sub-contracted some of the specialized work in the past, I began to expand on that. Having worked with and known these companies for years helped tremendously.
I ran the business successfully like this for several more years.
Another Change and My Current Model
In 2005 my foreman (and good friend) told me he was moving out of the area. He and his father had built a log home in upstate NY some time ago. His father had past away and he was moving there with his mother. He was a trained electrician, but there wasn’t anything he couldn’t do – carpentry, plumbing, masonry…you name it. An awesome foreman and a great person.
Again, this happened at the end of a season so I had time to think, strategize and regroup.
At this point I was 50 years old. I had experienced many aspects of the landscape industry both by myself and through my working relationships with others. Most importantly I felt I really knew my strengths and weaknesses, and how I best fit into the industry.
I decided to let go of the in-house contracting work completely and offer design, consulting and project management services.
I explained my decision to the remaining crew guys, who could now use the off-season to find other work for the spring. I also went about selling the last pieces of equipment.
This was a strange feeling for me because at each stage of my business’s development I always did in-house contracting. This was how I knew how to make money.
Design, consulting and project management is certainly not a new concept, but I was thinking about it a bit differently. I honestly had no intention of developing it into a staffed operation. Traditionally these offices have designers, drafts-people, project supervisor/managers, etc.
Over the years I built my business around me. This was not a strategy in terms of marketing and personal branding, it’s simply who I am – always involved in one form or another to get the outcome the homeowners expect and I want to produce.
So much of my work came from referrals or repeat business from existing clients. People knew me and the type of work I represented, and I felt I could bring that to the table in this new role.
I did not make any formal announcement to my client base, but mentioned it to friends and people within the business. Perhaps I could have been more deliberate and strategic, but I honestly felt the “new model” would evolve on its own and this would give me a chance to tweak it along the way.
As I expected, past clients and new referrals called asking for design and contracting services. I explained to them my new business model and offered to send them a one page description of the services and pricing.
I separated the design work and project management services so that people would have the option to just take my drawing and do with it as they wished.
Today the business model has evolved to meet the demands of a particular customer-type. It’s based on the premise that everyone involved in the project has the same standards, values and expectations. Fundamentally this includes the client, designer and the contractors.
Over the years I have learned that if there is a difference of standards, values and expectations in any one of the “players,” the project is in jeopardy.
The majority of my work includes both design and project management. Almost all my projects are done using a network of contractors that have worked with me for years.
My Work Continues and The Blog
I’m very content with my business now and how it evolved. It’s funny because thinking back I remember with each frustrating mistake and challenge my father would say, “Have no regrets. Use what has happened and take the next step.” I think any healthy business is a work-in-progress.
I look at the landscape industry and see such potential. I look at the market and see such a need. Many of our projects are renovations – redoing design and construction that was never done right in the first place. Even some of the maintenance regimens contribute to some of these failing landscapes.
I started writing articles for LandscapeAdvisor in 2006. I felt I could help homeowners know what to look for whether choosing a contractor or doing the work themselves.
The blog, like my business, is evolving. As a designer/project manager I’m interacting with others in the trade constantly. I wish I knew more capable owner/operators to recommend and work with. The landscape industry is in such need of knowledgeable, skilled people.
Today, I’m gearing LandscapeAdvisor to help those that have a landscape business or are planning to start one. The content I produce advises on developing a landscape business around the owner/operator model. Because when done well, it is consistently the most manageable and reliable model in the industry.