Denver-area Environmental Landworks burst onto the scene in 2007 when co-owner Bill Chevalier was presented with a career-changing opportunity to do a large commercial landscaping job. From that day forward, one job has led to another—to the point where the company has racked up sales of more than $5 million in this its sixth year in business.
Environmental Landworks considers itself a commercial construction company. But over the past couple of years, they've built up a substantial "service" operation (i.e. maintenance and snow removal), and are now establishing a residential design/build division. Chevalier, together with partner Michael Sittaro, say it's all part of an effort to improve the financial health of the company as it enters the second phase of its young existence.
Commercial construction paves the way
Chevalier started out in the Green Industry in 1991. He studied landscape design and construction at Colorado State University and earned a horticulture degree in 1996. He even had his own small landscape company for a short time after graduating. Then he got married, and decided to put having his own company on the back burner. Chevalier went to work for another landscape firm. This is where he developed a love for commercial construction.
In time, Chevalier took a new job with another large landscape company in the Denver area. "I networked like crazy," he relates. "My goal was always to learn as much as possible so I could start another company of my own. An amazing opportunity came up with a developer in 2007. I was a bit hesitant, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance I couldn't pass up."
Although Environmental Landworks has since branched into both maintenance and residential design/build, commercial construction still accounts for roughly half of the company's overall revenue. Chevalier likes to refer to it as the company's lead blocker.
"Commercial construction opens up holes for us to run through," Chevalier says while sticking with the football metaphor. "The margins are tight. But with the dollar volume it generates, it helps us absorb a lot of liability. Our commercial construction division alone allows us to recover the majority of our overhead, including our trucks and equipment."
Commercial construction also helps establish a level of comfort among staff. "We've never had a mass layoff in the six years we've been in business," Chevalier points out. "If we retained employees for four or five months, and then let them go for the rest of the year, we'd have a hard time getting them back. So we have an annual staff meeting at the end of each season. We look at our backlog of work and projected man-hours, and then leave it up to them. Do we want to lay some guys off, or do we want to divide those projected man-hours equally so we can keep everybody? Our crew members might be cut back to 20 hours a week for the off-season. But they're usually OK with that. This is what seems to work best for us, as well."
Two keys to standing out in commercial
Chevalier says he's heard some refer to Environmental Landworks as a "boutique" landscape company. Not because the company is small or niche, but because it's sophisticated. "We're willing to take on more challenging, time-sensitive projects that are more integrated with an overall construction project," Chevalier says.
Two things have helped Environmental Landworks establish a strong reputation in this regard: close collaboration with architects from the beginning, and "unparalleled" pre-construction services.
"We always try to make sure an architect knows that we will not mess with the integrity or intent of their design," Chevalier says. "We want to work hand in hand to solve problems. There can be no finger pointing."
Grading issues are a good example. Sometimes there's a slight miscalculation on a plan—which can result in several additional cubic yards of dirt that need to be hauled away. "We get together with the architect to discuss our options," Chevalier says. "We try to move some things around and massage the grades so we won't have to export as much material."