That's exactly what she did. Julie serviced maintenance accounts alone, and then hired a couple of other women to help with smaller landscaping jobs on the weekends.
By 2003 she was at a crossroads. Opportunity presented itself in the way of a rapidly growing market. Husband Ed, who had been working in his family's bridge-building business, decided to join his wife in her venture. They rebranded as Outdoor Expressions. "I liked that name because it left the door open to a variety of outdoor services, not just lawn maintenance," Julie points out.
Ed and Julie flew solo for the first two years. Then they hired an employee to help with landscaping. Today they have eight employees. In addition to that three-man maintenance crew, a separate two-man crew handles a variety of unique jobs such as cleanups and enhancements, weeding, and rooftop garden maintenance. Ed runs the four-person landscape/hardscape crew. Julie, to her own chagrin, spends the majority of her time in the office these days.
"I still do a lot of designs, and always do the plant layouts on landscaping jobs," Julie says. "I tend to tweak things once I'm on site, like maybe pull some plants out of a design. I don't want to force anything. I want a new landscape to fit as well in 10 years as it does in two."
Julie also likes her landscapes to be unique. Her degree in horticulture science comes in handy. "Understanding plant material is the biggest thing with effective landscape design," she says. "It seems like you're always limited to different types of rock and plant material depending on where you're located, especially out here in Montana where we're so far from everything. You sometimes end up with cookie-cutter landscaping.
"One of my pushes from the beginning was that there's a lot of plant material out there that is low-maintenance, yet hearty, that doesn't get used," Julie continues. "An example would be Fine Line Buckthorn; a great upright shrub. I've made an effort to work hard at finding unique things that homeowners will like."
Letting go and looking ahead
One thing Billings-area homeowners seem to like more and more is hardscaping. Julie says that a desire to extend one's home is driving this trend.
"There are a lot of expansive lots in our market," Julie explains. "We're talking about two-acre lots in subdivisions. So the addition of hardscapes doesn't really hurt our mowing business; there is still plenty of grass to mow. Homeowners aren't putting in things like patios and outdoor kitchens because they want to get rid of grass. They simply have the room and want to extend their homes. We're happy to help them."
In addition to becoming one of the area's premier hardscape installers, Outdoor Expressions has also become a dealer for Willow Creek Paver Stones; yet another example of opportunity presenting itself.
Looking ahead, Julie sees two potential opportunities: adding that second maintenance crew, and branching into organic lawn care.
Right now Outdoor Expressions is subbing-out all of its fertilization and weed control services. However, an organic program is something Julie thinks could be offered in-house. She's just looking for the right products to use. "Organics is definitely something people around here would be interested in," Julie says. "I don't think it's as much about protecting the environment as it is about keeping their children safe. But they will also want to keep their lawns green and weed-free. So I need to make sure we can easily source some products that will work well."
Whether or not an expansion into organic lawn care is right for Outdoor Expressions is a decision which Ed and Julie—and Ed and Julie alone—will make. Julie has taken her husband's advice about keeping her head down to heart.
"It's easy to look around and see what other landscape companies are doing, both here in Montana and across the country," Julie says. "Ed and I try not to tempt ourselves. We do what's in our comfort level; what we think we can handle and do a good job at. Then we price how we price—and I think that's a good business model for any contractor to use." It certainly has worked for Outdoor Expressions.