Express Yourself

Montana company eyes hardscaping, organic lawn care

Homeowners aren't putting in hardscapes because they want to get rid of grass. They simply have the room and want to extend their homes.
Homeowners aren't putting in hardscapes because they want to get rid of grass. They simply have the room and want to extend their homes.

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."

True calling

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.

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.