Match Made in Heaven

Richard Casey has always loved landscaping, even throughout the more than decade-long absence he took from the industry when he decided to pursue a new career. Unable to shake the landscaping bug, Casey re-launched his landscaping business in 1995. He's glad he tried that other career, though. In a lot of ways, it's the reason Casey's Landscaping & Maintenance in Olympia, WA, is the success it is today.

In 1972 at the age of 21, Richard was busy earning his associate's degree in horticulture and landscape design, while at the same time establishing his landscape construction company. With an emphasis on plant installation for residential clientele, things were going very well.

Then the bottom fell out of the market. As quickly as interest rates rose in the 1980s, Richard's target customers slammed their wallets shut. It was pretty tough grubbin'—even for a young man right out of college—so Richard decided it might be a good time to try something different.

He became a salesman for a large paper manufacturer in the Seattle area. Then it was on to real estate. Neither job gave Richard the same satisfaction landscaping had. But they taught him a lot of things that would help him run a better landscaping company if he ever decided to take another crack at it.

"My career in sales, and especially real estate, taught me how important personal relationships and networking are," Richard tells. "They also taught me how to handle objections and present yourself in a professional way."

Along with the people skills it allowed him to hone, Richard's eight-year real estate career made one other pivotal contribution to the landscaping business he was about to re-launch. Richard met Pam, another real estate broker, in 1991. The two married in 1993, and then left the real estate business together in 1995 to launch Casey's Landscaping & Maintenance.

Partners share the passion

"I never thought I'd want to take on a partner," Richard relates. "I've heard that most business partnerships don't last more than five years. I knew it would be different with Pam, though. Yeah, she's my wife. But she also shares the same passion for this business that I do. I'd rather focus on quality than pure growth, and so would Pam."

The company has grown, though, to the tune of about 10% a year. Richard runs the construction division, which accounts for 80% of the company's revenue. Pam runs the maintenance division—literally. "I spend most of my time out working with my crew," Pam tells. "That's where I love to be."

Richard spends time working in the field, too, but not nearly as much as Pam. He now focuses his attention on running their growing company, putting bids together, keeping the books and networking. That networking is what got the ball rolling in 1995. Richard attended a real estate broker's breakfast and passed out flyers. Shortly thereafter the phone rang. One of the brokers wanted Casey's to bid on some work. Things took off from there.

Since then, Richard and Pam's concerted focus on quality is the reason the company has grown comfortably for the past 12 years. A substantial percentage of the maintenance business has resulted from installation jobs Richard had done. In both construction and maintenance, the couple is very selective.

"When I'm doing an installation project, I can tell if the customer would be a good fit for Pam," Richard says. "If they really want the service, and geographically make a good addition to Pam's route, we pursue it."

That's happening less and less these days as Pam and her crew have about as much work as they can handle. "We've been turning down 80% of the maintenance leads we've been getting," Pam says. "It's a manpower issue. Plus, I don't like to be running all over the place. It's easy to lose money in maintenance. Right now we're booked full—and we're profitable. We want to keep it that way."

Small lots, big results

The Caseys are so content with their current customer base, along with the referrals it generates, that they don't even want to plaster their name on the side of their trucks. "We'd just be saying no all day long," Pam points out.

In 2004 Richard had said "yes" to a builder in Olympia. The deal helped Casey's land some 120 residential properties in the Indian Summer subdivision. Nearly all of the houses in Indian Summer are now completed, but Pam has ongoing maintenance contracts with many of them. Another large subdivision on the other side of town, Jubilee, is keeping Richard and his construction crew plenty busy these days.

In the past few years, Casey's has become well-known for small-lot landscaping. "The Urban Growth Management Act encourages small lots and more density," Richard explains. "I really like them. They're close to each other and fairly quick to complete, which helps with collections and cash flow. Irrigation costs are lower, too."

Richard's construction crew has been tackling several gated 1,000- to 2,000-square-foot backyards in Jubilee. The key to making money on these smaller properties has been offering a variety of services. "The property owners, most of whom are retired, want native plants, hardscaping and water features," Richard tells. "One nice thing is that most of these yards are laid out the same. So a lot of what we do repeats itself, though we strive to make each property unique."

In total control and on a roll

Even back in 1972, Richard preferred to serve the residential market. "I've found that residential customers are often easier to deal with," he relates. "They're also more appreciative—often to the point of tears. That's almost payment enough for me."

As gratifying as that kind of customer satisfaction is, though, Richard and Pam realize it takes more to run a profitable landscaping company. Since returning to the landscaping business in 1995, the couple has learned a thing or two.

"Relationships with suppliers are just as important as relationships with your customers," Richard says. "We will stay with a materials vendor or equipment dealer until they give us several reasons to leave. Good suppliers make our lives easier and help us be successful."

The Caseys have also learned to keep payments on term loans below $1,000 a month. Richard is very careful about investing in new equipment. If he can clearly see that he'll get a quick return, though, he'll do it. For instance, he bought a Boxer compact utility loader from Olympia-based J&I Power Equipment in 2005. The loader comes in handy on the tightly gated properties at Jubilee. "I knew that if we could secure 10 properties,
the unit would justify the purchase price," Richard says.

He'd also purchased a used hydroseeder from a contractor who went out of business a couple years ago. "I'd been subbing out a lot of hydroseeding," Richard says. "I was doing the prepwork, and knew I had an opportunity to go ahead and provide the hydroseeding in certain situations. Now I handle anything under 10,000 square feet."

The used hydroseeder has performed nicely, paying for itself in less than two years. That sits quite well with Richard, a calculated risk taker who's somewhat conservative with his business's money. He learned long ago how volatile the landscaping business can be. The real estate business helped thicken his skin even further, not to mention his wife Pam's. Now the two are just happy to be doing what they love for customers who appreciate it.

Casey’s Landscaping & Maintenance
Olympia, WA
Owners: Richard and Pam Casey
Business founded: 1995
Estimated annual sales: $675,000
Business breakdown: 80% construction, which includes hardscaping and water features; 20% maintenance
Business mix: 80% residential, 20% commercial
Employees: 8 peak season, 4 all year
Equipment: includes Honda walk mowers, Kubota tractor, Stihl handheld, ASV RC-30 track loader, Boxer compact utility loader