Ed Copps has always supported his wife Julie's passion for the Green Industry. He's offered one piece of advice, though: Keep your head down and just do what you do. That simple strategy has proved to work quite well for this Montana couple.
Sales have grown every year since 2003—the year Ed and Julie founded Outdoor Expressions in Billings, MT. Profit margins have held steady. They've been fortunate, Julie says, because the area economy has hung on pretty well. Much of their good fortune, however, can be attributed to the fact that they've remained focused on their goal: quality over quantity, and slow-but-steady growth.
"We started with an idea and pretty much nothing else, including any business loans," Julie says. "We've always wanted to maintain insanely low overhead and grow slowly."
Calculated risk takers
Ed and Julie have also had a tendency to be a little bit pessimistic—or at least cautious. This is another strategy that has proved them well. "We've gone into just about every year saying to ourselves, 'This might be the year when things aren't so good,'" Julie relates. "This mindset really forces us to buckle down and run lean."
Ed and Julie run their $500,000-plus company out of their home. They do a limited amount of marketing, including a website that will be revamped this year, a couple of phone book ads, and some TV spots. Yes, TV advertising can be quite expensive—but not for Outdoor Expressions. They have a trade-out agreement with a local station. "We mow and maintain their property. They pay us 70% and we bank the other 30% to be put toward commercials," Julie explains. "Luckily they have a huge complex, so our money adds up fast."
Ed and Julie are also very resourceful when it comes to equipment. "We like to pay cash for our equipment," Julie points out. "When we have some money saved up, we bring our employees together and talk about what our options are. We want to purchase something that will pay for itself within a couple of years. So we look at what we currently have that is pretty beat up, because we don't want to be spending money on needless repairs and downtime. We also look at what equipment might help us generate additional revenue."
Employee involvement is an important component. For instance, the three-man maintenance crew brought it to Julie's attention that it could use a smaller riding mower that can get into backyards more easily. Furthermore, the maintenance crew is stretched pretty thin. It might make fiscal sense to buy a new mower to create a second, one-person crew to tackle certain properties. As of early-February, Julie and Ed were still evaluating this potential scenario, although Julie felt pretty confident about the opportunity to add new accounts by adding a second maintenance crew.
Opportunity has presented itself in many different ways over the years. "When we first started out in 2003, it didn’t really matter if you were good or bad in this business, you were busy," Julie recalls. "We never really limited ourselves to a certain type of client or size project. We specialized in residential with a few smaller commercial clients. But we were open to taking on any client as long as the client was willing to pay our price and wouldn't be impossible to please.
"We're not in the habit of giving stuff away," Julie continues. "We tell all of our clients that we definitely aren't the cheapest, but we probably aren't the most expensive either. That approach has always worked well for us. We've done work for homeowners of just about every income bracket."
Julie graduated from Montana State University in 1999 with a degree in horticulture science. After a stint working for a local nursery, she decided to start her own business. Julie's Lawns & Such got its start in residential maintenance. Contacts she'd made while working at the nursery helped supply plenty of work. "My calling was really landscape design and installation, but I knew that maintenance was pretty low-startup, and could provide a nice return if you were willing to work hard," Julie says.