Collecting clippings is no longer the norm for Heads Up Landscape’s 22 maintenance crews.
Company president Gary Mallory (left) with maintenance account management supervisor Eric Spalsbury.
Native landscapes can be labor-intensive, requiring hand pruning and hand weeding.
When Gary Mallory and three of his buddies launched a sprinkler company in 1973, little did they know that 35 years later the water supply in Albuquerque would be an issue. Little did they know that homeowners would be receiving “credits” for converting lawns to Xeriscape—the same lawns in which they were installing sprinkler systems.
Hindsight is 20/20, yet it’s opportune that the owners of Heads Up Landscape Contractors Inc. kept their eyes on the market and transitioned with it. Eight years after installing and repairing sprinkler systems, the company started offering landscape installation services. A few years later, it offered maintenance services to its customers. Today, Heads Up generates 70% of its $26 million in annual revenue from commercial installation projects and 30% from commercial maintenance accounts. The five-year plan is to even out the two service offerings.
“To say that we’ve changed our focus over the years is an understatement,” says company president Mallory, who has since bought out all his partners. “We still install and maintain irrigation systems for the landscapes we install, but even these systems have changed dramatically. New control technology plays an important role in controlling water usage, as does drip irrigation. Company-wide, we’re also spending more time educating our clients about changing their watering habits. For example, just resetting timers can save a half billion gallons of water a month in the city. That’s a lot of water, especially for an area that receives only eight inches a year from an average of 18 rain events.”
Mallory says he’s had a great career, and is happy that he and his three friends decided to go to work for themselves. “One thing is for sure,” he adds, “I haven’t been bored.” And there are plenty of challenges remaining to keep this owner and his management team occupied. That, too, is an understatement. The company goal to aggressively grow maintenance comes at a time when the H-2B program is in question, the economy is sluggish, and maintenance practices themselves are in transition to care for native landscapes.
“In maintenance, one of the biggest challenges is to find the people to get the job done,” Mallory emphasizes. “We’ve been relying on the guest worker program, and last year we had 100 H-2B employees. This year, their availability was questionable until late in the season, and who knows about next year. Our aggressive growth strategy in maintenance depends in large part on the availability of a reliable labor supply.”
One of the reasons Heads Up is targeting maintenance is because the service is, as Mallory puts it, “recession proof.” Unfortunately, companies aren’t so lucky. As this owner notes, the cost of everything—not only fuel but also irrigation pipe, fertilizer and anything else that is petroleum-based—has risen dramatically, just as the housing market is putting on the brakes. “We are in a market that is impacted by inflation while leaning toward a recession,” says Mallory. “Owners need to be creative and proactive to be profitable.”
Heads Up meets the challenge in several ways. The company now leases some of the larger equipment such as skid-steer loaders, tractors and trucks, and continually looks for ways to improve productivity. “In an effort to save time, we’re practicing lean management principles,” says Eric Spalsbury, maintenance account management supervisor. While driving around the yard, he points out several stations where maintenance crews load equipment, fuel up and resupply before heading into the field. Each of the stations has specific instructions detailing procedures.
“One of the first areas we targeted with ‘lean’ was the traffic pattern around our yard,” Spalsbury explains. “Just by rearranging stations and altering driving habits, we have saved 15 minutes per crewmember per day. With 22 maintenance crews, that adds up quickly.”
The company has also rearranged routes to be more efficient, and now uses mulching decks on its mowers to save time handling clippings. Efficiencies, though, are slightly more difficult to come by on native landscapes. Spalsbury explains, “When one thinks of a native landscape, a vision of a heavily maintained property doesn’t accompany the thought. But there’s nothing further from the truth. Native shrubs need to be hand pruned, weeds need to be pulled, and blow sand is pervasive, especially on days like this when wind gusts are over 50 miles per hour.”
Spalsbury points to a gravel walk where the sand is making unsightly piles. “When the wind dies down, we will get a crew in here to rake the gravel,” he notes, adding that crewmembers will also corral wayward tumble weeds that have made their way onto the property.
Maintaining a native landscape so its looks natural, without looking over- or under-maintained, is a fine balance, both Spalsbury and Mallory point out. The effort is not unlike trying to grow a company when key economic indicators are pointing in the opposite direction.
Heads Up Landscaping has experienced double-digit growth for the last several years, but Mallory admits that to strive for similar growth this year would be difficult at best. “I believe owners have to be realists and strike a balance between what is practical and what is real,” he emphasizes. “For the past few years, we have focused as much on strengthening our relationships with customers as we have on sales. We want to addict property managers to us.”
Mallory’s company builds rapport in part by holding training seminars for clients. Topics range from how to maintain plants between visits to how to irrigate responsibly. Heads Up also operates with a customer advisory council comprised primarily of property managers. As Mallory relates, the best way to find out how you are performing for clients and how you can better meet their expectations is to ask them.
To find out if he’s meeting or exceeding expectations as a business owner, Mallory participates in a peer group comprised of five other company owners from around the country. The group meets three times a year to discuss problems and talk about solutions.
“The meetings are a wonderful and very valuable exercise,” he says. “In fact, I cannot believe how powerful this tool truly has been for our company. It works for us, and I believe it would work for nearly anyone willing to open up and share difficult challenges and important financial information with industry peers.”
New service offerings, practicing lean management, advisory councils and participating in a peer group have all been part of a natural evolution for Heads Up Landscaping. The four partners who started the company became acquainted by playing basketball together after work. The idea they formed between driving to the basket and shooting jump shots eventually matured into a multi-million-dollar operation that, today, also operates a satellite facility in nearby Santa Fe.
The company has thrived, just like the game of basketball has, by evolving with the times and staying a step or two ahead of the marketplace.
Eric Spalsbury emphasizes that recruiting is a big deal for Heads Up Landscape. “We have developed relationships with some very good universities that have great horticulture programs,” he relates.
“We routinely visit these schools to talk with the faculty and students about the industry and career opportunities. Occasionally, someone from our staff will volunteer to be a guest lecturer. In fact, last fall I visited a Midwestern school and gave a lecture to a landscape maintenance class on customer expectations. While there, I also met with faculty members and students to discuss our internship program and career opportunities within our company.
“We encourage students and faculty members to visit us in Albuquerque. We will give them a tour of our facility, show them the sights around town, and introduce them to landscape techniques that are unique to our area.”
Heads Up Landscape Contractors Inc.
Owner: Gary Mallory
Employees: 350 peak season
Sales Mix: 70% installation,
Customer Mix: 100% commercial
Equipment includes 20 Exmark riders and 40 walk mowers; Stihl trimmers and blowers; 26 Bobcat skid steers; John Deere backhoe, John Deere tractor; 9 Ditch Witch walk-behind trenchers, 6 Ditch Witch ride-on trenchers; Finn hydroseeder, Finn straw blower; Truax drill seeders; 65 Ford trucks (mainly F-250s) with trailers; 1 Hino and 2 Isuzu spray trucks for lawn care; International 4700 boom truck