Jetstream may not be an ordinary name for a landscape and irrigation contractor. It's a familiar one in Grand Blanc, MI, though, where Kurt Litton has been operating his business for 21 years.
Litton and a buddy came up with the name to highlight the new company's irrigation service. Since then, Jetstream has grown from a two-person operation that installed irrigation systems to a full-service landscape and irrigation company with 1,500 customers.
"I didn't realize until several years later that a jet stream is really a stream of air and not a stream of water," says Litton. "Oh well, the name has stuck and the business has a good reputation among homeowners and area builders." Indeed, last year, his company brought in more than $1 million in revenue from design/build and irrigation projects, and the owner has set a goal to reach the $5 million mark by the year 2013.
"I know the figure is aggressive, but it's realistic, too," says Litton, who has a degree in business administration from the University of Michigan. "If I develop good systems, continue to hire and retain good employees and stay focused, I know we can get there."
After a couple years working for an area landscape contractor, Litton launched Jetstream in 1986 with the purchase of a used pipe puller. Through 1989 he did nothing but install irrigation systems, thanks in part to a series of overly dry summers in the Flint area. In 1990 he diversified his service offering by taking on landscaping projects. His service mix—which consists of landscape construction and irrigation installation/service—has since been the company's mainstay.
Going with the flow
For Jetstream and its owner, the 1990s ushered in a period of economic boom. Armed with a business degree (Litton said he didn't want to go to college, but got his degree in large part to satisfy his father) and a couple years of solid experience, the young entrepreneur grew his business. He developed relationships with builders, designing and installing landscapes and irrigation systems for new construction. Later, when the boom ended, he switched gears and promoted renovation services to homeowners, all the while building his reputation and client list.
"Over the years, I've thought about diversifying into landscape maintenance and possibly lawn care, which would enable me to offer customers in-house full service," says Litton. "But I can do the same thing by picking up the phone and calling an area maintenance or lawn care contractor. If a customer needs some concrete flatwork done, I can call in a contractor who is an expert in the field. I can also call in a carpenter for deck work and an excavator for dozer jobs. I enjoy giving other people work. It's good for their businesses and it's good for mine since I get referrals, too, and can continue to focus on what we do best."
Litton says that growing the business has not been easy. "Training employees who often leave and become your competitor is common in this industry," Litton relates. "From time to time, I think about my dentist brother and how all he has to do to go on vacation is block off a week or two on his calendar. People will wait a month to have their teeth cleaned, but consider a broken sprinkler head a state of emergency."
Litton's overhead structure differs from his brother's, too. Dentists don't have four sprinkler service technicians, three landscape construction crews and two irrigation installation crews, along with a host of other equipment that totals upwards of $300,000. Nor do they have 20 employees to drive and operate the equipment.
Litton just shrugs it off and says, "I enjoy what I'm doing, but it's also important to make a decent living and have a good quality of life." His advice to any young landscape or maintenance contractor is to start paying attention early to the business of having a business, and get administrative help. "Hire someone to answer the phone and do clerical things well before you think you need help," he emphasizes. "This will reduce stress and keep you out in the field installing, selling and doing what you do best."