HOT to Trot

Heart of Texas Landscape & Irrigation in Belton, TX, has been built on maintenance. To continue growing, though, the company has focused on becoming a one-stop shop for landscaping services, positioning itself as a leader in not only commercial maintenance, but also outdoor living spaces and responsible irrigation.

“Maintenance has been our bread and butter, and is vital in the off season,” says the second-generation vice president and chief operating officer of the company, Ben Pamplin. “We have now become more customized in our services to allow customers to schedule according to their budgets.”

Founded in 1989 as a maintenance company, Heart of Texas added irrigation and landscape installation divisions in 2001, helping complete the full circle of services for its predominantly commercial clientele. More recently, the company has added “staycations” to its offering. “These outdoor living areas are taking the place of vacations for some consumers,” says Pamplin’s wife Leah, who serves as human resources manager.

Relationships fuel growth

Other family members also work in the business. Brother Tony Gallagher is president and CEO, focusing on the strategic direction of the company. Parents Doug and Carol Rowald are the owners. Doug acts as chief financial officer while Carol spearheads public relations and networking. Networking has been an important part of the company’s business development for years.

Heart of Texas is a member of several local chambers of commerce, an area homebuilder association, and numerous local and statewide apartment associations. In addition, the company is a member of the Better Business Bureau, the Texas Nursery & Landscape Association, the Irrigation Association, the Texas Turfgrass Association, and the Native Plant Society of Texas.

Alongside networking and developing relationships with clients, Pamplin says the “educational factor” is what has made Heart of Texas a successful landscaping company. “When we meet a client for the first time, we make sure they realize that we are not just trying to sell them something. We want them to understand why we do things the way we do. The idea is to create a relationship with that person. The sale may not happen then and there, but it will eventually. People want to do business with people they know and trust, especially these days. People are more frugal than they have been in the past, regardless of their social or economic status.”

Tailor-made maintenance

For most contractors, including Heart of Texas, client relationships have been tested over the course of the past two years, especially in the cutthroat commercial maintenance business. Customizing services and presenting customers with more options has helped nurture existing relationships and retain accounts.

“Before the economy tanked, we wanted to keep everything pretty consistent,” Pamplin tells. “When you start customizing trip counts, scheduling becomes a lot more difficult and there’s a lot more opportunity for things to slip through the cracks. But over the past two years, customizing has become necessary as the majority of our clients have had to cut their budgets back. We either had to fall in line or get left behind.”

Now Heart of Texas submits a proposal with recommendations based on what the client is looking for. “If they’re looking for that wow factor, we’re going to push full service with weekly visits. If they’re a smaller commercial property that just wants to make sure the city stays off of their back, we’ll keep it simple. You have to make adjustments in today’s market or a competitor is going to come in and clean it up.”

Clients are now allowed to select the number of times Heart of Texas services their property each month. The actual tasks the maintenance crew performs also varies from one client to the next.

“Every client has different thoughts on what looks good,” Pamplin points out. “Some people are fine with just having their grass mowed once a week and don’t really care about weeds or fertilization. Some even say they can have their son trim the bushes over the weekend. So we definitely have some contracts that are just mow, blow and go. And you know what? That’s fine with us. We typically experience fewer complaints and callbacks on accounts like that because there is a lot less going on and our feet aren’t held to the fire so much.”

A spreadsheet has been created that shows which customers are to receive which services. A couple of three-man crews are then assigned to the “minimal service” customers, while four-man crews continue to tackle full-service accounts.

Selling ‘staycations’

Installation crews plan on tackling more and more outdoor living spaces this year. Heart of Texas has long offered a variety of landscaping services including hardscapes and water features, which are common elements of an outdoor living space. This year, though, they are selling the “why” as opposed to simply the “what.”

“We’re telling customers that instead of spending $7,000 or $8,000 to go to Florida for a week, why not spend it in your backyard where you can use it every day,” Pamplin relates. “Plus, it’s an investment in your home.”

Heart of Texas kicked off its “staycation” initiative at its biggest public showing of the year, a local home and garden show in late-February. In addition to the impressive display and face-to-face interaction, a four-page brochure was created to assist in the educational effort. Heart of Texas also launched a more organized online marketing campaign this spring that aims to capitalize on popular keywords consumers are searching for, such as “outdoor living area.”

Providing options is important when looking to close the deal. Heart of Texas is working on a four-option outdoor living program. For example, the first option might include a seating area with fireplace while the fourth option could be a full-blown kitchen. In between there are amenities such as water features and paver patios which the consumer can choose. Computer-rendered designs allow consumers to see the project come to life in their own backyard, helping to further stimulate their senses.

Heart of Texas has shifted its focus from homebuilders to existing homeowners. “We want to go after that person who already owns a home and is looking for an add-on,” Pamplin says. “The biggest add-on in landscaping right now is extending your living space into your backyard.”

Investing for future growth

Heart of Texas Landscape & Irrigation is now investing to expand its own backyard, so to speak. The company recently purchased a 20-acre parcel of land less than a mile from its present facility, which sits on 6.5 acres. “We’re simply out of room where we’re at,” Pamplin relates.

To remain as competitive as possible, Heart of Texas is looking to do more bulk purchasing when it comes to landscape materials, which the dramatic increase in yard space will allow them to do. New offices and storage facilities for trucks and equipment are also being constructed.

Pamplin says that everything he’s read suggests that Heart of Texas is located in one of the greatest places to live in the country. Sure, building has been down in the area, but so far the company hasn’t been hit too hard. “We’re definitely better off than many parts of the country,” Pamplin says.

Heart of Texas is better off than many contractors, too, thanks to not only its tight-knit management staff, but also its experienced, well-trained workforce. The company employs three licensed irrigators, two backflow technicians, six landscape irrigation technicians, two licensed pesticide applicators, one certified professional turf manager, and two Texas certified landscape professionals.

“Our managers and laborers are aggressive and understand that we are all in this together,” Pamplin says. “For as long as I’ve been with the company, we have always gone out looking for work. We don’t just wait for people to call us. We try not to take for granted that we’re a larger company that’s been around for a long time, with the trucks and logo everybody recognizes. People are busy, and we can’t think they are going to thumb through a phone book to find us. We need to let them know that we are the company they need to hire.”

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