Case in point: While leaving one project a customer waves and says she has a check ready for him. DiBenedetto turns around, waves back, and says he will stop by later in the week to pick it up. “I don't want to just take the check and close out the account,” he explains. “I would rather talk about the project with her and discuss future enhancements.”
When asked what's driving up expectations, the partners talk about technology and the availability of information at their customers' fingertips. But even more significant, they add, is the changing world where homeowners either want to spend more time at home or cannot afford the cost of a second home, and look forward to having a recreation area that their entire family and friends can appreciate.
“It's amazing to me to see how our customers are using their redesigned landscapes,” says DiBenedetto. “Family members will be cooking out, playing volleyball, sitting around a fire pit, swimming, and all the time moving freely between the house and the yard. When selling landscapes, we explain to customers that in comparison to interior home construction, the square-footage price they will pay for their landscape is truly minimal.” Not to mention, he adds, the many benefits, including the fact that functional backyards will encourage children to spend more time outside, away from computer and television monitors, and they will provide a recreational area for friends. “As a parent, wouldn't you like to have your teenagers' friends swimming and playing volleyball at your house, rather than being someplace else?” DiBenedetto asks.
“Most customers are not going to invest in a beautiful backyard without making arrangements to have it maintained,” adds De Souza. “That's why many of our customers want the service level a personal gardener provides. Each of our four classic care crews is comprised of two people. As a general rule, we block out eight-hour days for each customer, meaning that a crew of two will spend a half day a week on a property. This is in addition to a mowing crew making its weekly visit.
“Sure, some customers will balk at the cost of classic care, which can be upwards of $10,000 to $30,000 a year or more depending on the property,” De Souza continues. “But nine times out of 10, if they sign up for it and experience it, they will want that level of service forever.”
DiBenedetto incorporated his company in 1982 after spending a couple of years in high school mowing and cleaning up yards. His high school friend Manny (De Souza) joined him five years later. The two admit that despite working long days, their business didn't begin to show a profit until the early 1990's.
“This is a challenging business with lots of moving parts,” DiBenedetto emphasizes. “If you run it right—have all the right insurance, pay your people a living wage, and operate and maintain quality equipment—margins are very tight.” N.D.'s owners saw glimmers of light at the end of the tunnel after they joined the Professional Lawn Care Association of America (PLCAA) in the mid 1980's and started networking and benchmarking their business. They continued developing a network of friends after PLCAA and the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA) joined to form the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET).
“When we started, we didn't know that a design/build business should generate approximately $100,000 for every employee or that every maintenance employee should represent about $70,000 in revenue. We also had no idea how much work a typical account manager could handle. Once we started meeting people and sharing thoughts, we could compare our business model to others. We discovered how some owners reached the $1 million plateau and how others catapulted over that number to become bigger and more profitable.”
Through their new network of friends, DiBenedetto and De Souza were introduced to several key industry consultants who they still routinely invite to their facility. Two years ago the partners joined a peer (networking) group comprised of five other like companies from around the country.