Mike Christopher says the most reassuring thing about his landscape business is that he's geared for commercial. It's also what scares him the most. This past year has been about the most frightening in his decade-long career.
Drive around Christopher's market area roughly 20 miles northeast of Kansas City and you'll see an abundance of unfinished commercial developments--projects where Christopher had contracted to do the landscaping, at least until the funding was pulled. Christopher's Lawn & Landscape in Kearney, MO, has also gone from doing installs on more than a hundred new homes per year to just a tad over 40 this year.
Why is it, then, that Mike Christopher is as confident and content as ever? First of all, his hard-working, blue-collar roots have taught him to count his blessings. He's relieved that he's not running on too much debt. And he's more than happy to be back working in the field again, at least for the time being. "Am I completely recession-proof?" Christopher asks. "No ... but I'm probably better off than a lot of contractors."
A little luck doesn't hurt
Sure, the dramatic drop in installation business has stung. But Christopher is quick to point out that things could be much worse. This contractor's ability to withstand the downturn thus far can be attributed to skillful management, and a little bit of luck.
While several area homebuilders have gone under in the past year, Christopher has been partnered up with one that's hanging on. That's cause for a huge sigh of relief, because this homebuilder is also a commercial developer--and has been Christopher's biggest customer on both the installation and maintenance side of the business.
The relationship goes back several years. "I was mowing a commercial property in an area he had developed," Christopher tells. "Apparently his contractor wasn't doing a great job. He saw me one day and came up and introduced himself. He asked me how he could get his properties to look like the one I was maintaining. I told him, 'Hire me to mow it.'"
Before long Christopher was on the account. Around the same time, the developer was also in the process of building up a residential neighborhood and needed someone to mow the common areas. Christopher landed that account too.
Christopher's Lawn & Landscape had its opening to break into the installation business a few years later. Again frustrated with his current contractor, the developer looked to Christopher once more. "We landscaped a few homes to show him what we could do," Christopher recalls. "He was pleased, and thankfully continues to be. These days, when he or his son or foreman call me, they're not asking for a bid. They're asking what we can do, and when we can do it by."
Landscaping combo meals
Christopher's landscaping portfolio also includes some sizeable commercial projects, including a complex of health care clinics that took about two weeks to complete. But due to the current economy and credit crisis, no commercial installations were contracted for 2009 (as of mid-May).
Many of the company's residential installs, though, are done for the homebuilder. Christopher's Lawn & Landscape tries to keep it very simple. "We have three separate plans to satisfy different budgets," Christopher explains. "Plan 1 might include a certain amount of plants and bed space, where Plans 2 and 3 would include larger amounts. Having three clear-cut options makes it easier on both us and the builder. But we still make sure each property looks unique."
Christopher has also begun setting up meetings with the actual homebuyers themselves. "I'd say at least 30% want to add something above and beyond what's outlined in the plan," he points out. "We do a lot of walls and walkways, and trees in the backyard. This has really helped drive our installation sales up."
Writing on the wall