For 17 years, Wilton, CT-based LaurelRock Company grew. In fact, during that stretch of time, the company realized only two years when revenue was flat. Sales reached their highest level of $4.5 million in 2008. Then, a year later, sales dropped 30%.
“We did what most companies were forced to do,” says company president Burt DeMarche. “We sold a couple of old trucks and trailers for $15,000, held off on buying any new equipment, and even cut back on annual equipment maintenance—something we paid for last year.”
LaurelRock Company also started to hold service providers more accountable. Finding a new, more proactive insurance agent led to a change in carriers, which saved the company $35,000 in premiums in 2009. Then, LaurelRock’s long-time CPA agreed to compensate the owners for a mistake it made calculating a fuel tax credit. The mistake was uncovered by LaurelRock’s administrative team. “We scrutinized our operation from head to toe,” says DeMarche, “and turned what could have been a very unprofitable year into one in which we broke even.”
Accustomed to vibrant growth, however, Burt and his father, CEO Dickson DeMarche, wanted to quickly get back on the upward beam. In August 2009, slightly more than halfway through a difficult year, they retained a PR firm to help generate new sales. The company, MAX Communications, immediately worked to gain publicity for its new client in the hometown newspaper. Within a year, LaurelRock had gained additional exposure in the local press and was featured in eight regional magazine articles, 10 newspaper articles and five Internet articles. The company also had a new website up and running, along with a presence on Twitter and Facebook to drive potential customers to that new site. Additionally, LaurelRock was a finalist for the 2010 Pros in Excellence Award.
Becoming an Authority on Sustainability
In 2009, the PR team helped LaurelRock conceive and launch an ambitious educational event series for residential architects, positioning the company as a reliable and knowledgeable resource and trade partner for area sustainable design/build projects. Featuring green building experts across a multitude of disciplines, along with cutting-edge technologies, the seminars sought to inspire, inform and empower the area’s home design and build trades to work together to guide homeowners down the path of sustainability.
DeMarche explains, “Over the course of 12 months, we conducted two breakfast seminars on sustainable design for the benefit of residential architects. These were held from 8 to 10:30 a.m., with each featuring a panel of expert speakers. Among topics were ways to help communities adopt eco-friendly regulations, home energy efficiency, how to create inter-disciplinary sustainable design teams, geo-thermal applications for residential use, and site planning techniques to make best use of Mother Nature’s natural systems. Both events attracted more than 20 architects, most of whom wanted further seminars.”
During the same timeframe, LaurelRock was powering-up its sustainable service offering. It hired a Master Gardener to work with customers already interested in “organic” maintenance practices. DeMarche, along with Allan Broadbent, one of his designer/project managers, became a LEED Accredited Professional (AP). DeMarche soon began to leverage his newfound knowledge by partnering with other landscape architects and developers who helped him get on the ground floor with new design/build projects. His company has since installed its first rain garden and roof garden.
On the maintenance side, nearly 25% of LaurelRock’s customers already request some level of organic lawn care. The company offers two organic lawn care programs. One fully organic program, which runs about twice as expensive as its traditional service offering, includes spring and fall aerating, seeding, fertilizing and topdressing with compost. The other, a transitional program, which includes only the fall regimen, is approximately 65% more costly than their synthetic program. Both also include the use of organic controls and IPM practices throughout the year, along with keeping the grass cut higher, spot treatment for weeds, soil testing, and an application of lime in the fall.
“The organic service is more expensive than our regular lawn care service, but our goal by 2015 is to make it so affordable and effective that customers will have no reason to opt out of it,” DeMarche relates. “Every year we learn more, and there are always new products coming out on the market. Last year, for example, we found a mulch blower at GIE+EXPO in Louisville that takes the work and time out of topdressing lawns.”
The PR push and creating awareness about its sustainable service offering didn’t come without a cost, DeMarche emphasizes. “Our marketing budget went from $8,000 annually to $50,000 in 2009, and then up to $100,000 in 2010. It’s a lot of money but we feel it has been worth the investment.” As he points out, spending money to prime the business pump when sales are down isn’t easy to do, but it has paid off in both exposure and sales.
In the Face of Adversity
From starting out 35 years ago as a pure design firm, LaurelRock has evolved. Dickson DeMarche started the company with a partner in 1975 under the name Dickson DeMarche Associates. After the partnership dissolved in the 1980s, he formed a new company, Dickson DeMarche Landscape Architects (DDLA), with one employee. Three years later, his son Burt, who had graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in horticulture, purchased a 25% share in the venture and donated his old pickup truck to the cause—and LaurelRock was formed.
“We wrote a business plan to accommodate a design/build company, and gradually added maintenance services,” DeMarche relates. “My father focused on the design part of the business while I concentrated on operations, eventually managing our first design/build crews and later our maintenance crews. Today we have two installation crews, two fine gardening crews, two enhancement crews, three weekly maintenance crews, and one property health care technician. In 2010, maintenance accounted for nearly half of our $4.1 million in sales.”
When asked what it takes to be successful today, DeMarche says company owners must have a positive attitude in the face of adversity. For example, in February 2008, LaurelRock was among several unlucky companies across the country that lost their entire H-2B workforce. DeMarche recalls how difficult it was to replace these workers, many of whom had been returning for years.
“The first thing we did was hold a Job Fair, and I would guess that before the year was out, we hired 60 people to ultimately fill 24 positions,” DeMarche tells. “The 2009 slowdown actually helped in a couple of ways. It allowed us to keep our best employees, and it gave us an opportunity to retain some very talented individuals who found themselves out of work.
“One day, either after the H-2B incident or sometime during 2009, a long-time employee offered some great advice,” DeMarche continues. “I evidently was preoccupied with an issue and wasn’t as affable as normal. The employee reminded me that my attitude sets the tone for others in the company, and that a negative attitude is contagious, just as a positive one is. I took his advice to heart. A positive outlook and the right energy are imperative to being a successful leader at any level.”
DeMarche emphasizes that networking with other landscape professionals through his state association and PLANET has been extremely valuable, as has participating in a peer group for the last four years and being a member of Jim Paluch’s A Better Way Community. “Every Monday at 3 p.m. we attend A Better Way webinar, and a couple of times a year have a face-to-face meeting with other area Better Way members. It’s almost like being a member of a larger peer group.”
DeMarche says that successful companies today have to be proactive in driving-out costs, adding value, marketing their service offerings, growing partnerships with their suppliers, holding team members accountable, and enhancing their relationships with peers. This is still a relationship business, and there are plenty of individuals and groups willing to offer assistance.