How Landscape Companies Are Riding the Wave of Economic Recovery

Creating a favorable client experience, building business, and effectively running lean and mean.

Mike Stegall, company president, is typically pulling or spraying weeds, picking up trash, and looking for problem areas in the lawn.
Mike Stegall, company president, is typically pulling or spraying weeds, picking up trash, and looking for problem areas in the lawn.

The market for landscaping services really started to rebound back in 2012. Here's a look at what leading contractors, as profiled in 2012 editions of Green Industry Pros magazine, were doing back then to stay one step ahead of the competition.

Creating a favorable client experience

Commercial Maintenance. Naples-based Greenscapes of Southwest Florida, owned by Linda Nelson and Steve Pruchansky, has adopted a team approach to client service. This ensures that each property is visited more often. Plus, clients enjoy the benefit of contact continuity.

Each Client Services Team has two leaders: a client services manager and an operations supervisor. The services manager acts as the client's primary contact, helping establish the vision for the property. All seven of Greenscapes' client services managers have horticulture backgrounds.

The seven operations supervisors, each of whom communicates directly with their respective client services manager, are in charge of executing the vision on each property. Each operations manager oversees roughly 30 to 50 employees. The number and size of crews vary greatly, as some of Greenscapes' larger accounts require massive on-site crews of eight or more people.

Crews are not the only personnel to regularly visit properties. Both the client services manager and operations supervisor also make frequent visits. This helps improve quality and ensure that any issues are handled promptly. Additionally, Nelson has worked diligently to restructure routes so that any given crew is never more than 10-20 minutes away from any of its properties.

Client services managers conduct monthly horticulture reviews, which go directly to the operations supervisors for implementation. Additionally, landscape audits are conducted annually, helping client services managers to work closely with clients to develop one-, three- and five-year landscape plans. Irrigation audits are conducted every two years.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Since being profiled in the August 2012 edition of Green Industry Pros, Greenscapes was named best landscaping company in Gulfshore Business magazine’s inaugural 2013 Best of Business Readers’ Choice Awards for the top businesses in Southwest Florida.)

Residential Maintenance. Mike Stegall of Manicured Lawn & Landscaping in Mocksville, NC, is the prototypical owner/operator. He's in the field with his crew, generally speaking, on a daily basis. He's also strategizing, selling and managing from dusk til dawn and beyond. It's easy to let the stresses of the job get to you, but you can't, Mike says.

Everything starts with how customers "experience" Manicured Lawn & Landscaping in the field. You won't see Stegall comfortably riding on a zero-turn mower, though. He's typically walking the property—pulling or spraying weeds, picking up trash, and looking for problem areas in the lawn.

"I think it's important for me, the owner, to be doing the detail work," Stegall explains. It's not just about making sure the finer details are perfect, either. It's also about communication. Many times, a (residential) customer pops out of his or her front door to ask Stegall a question or just say hello. "If I was on a mower, everything would have to stop," Stegall points out. "By focusing on the detail work, I'm able to stop and visit with the customer—but the crew keeps working and we don't fall behind."

Simple gestures like this, which add no additional cost, are what help Manicured Lawn & Landscaping provide standout customer service, one of Stegall's seven keys to prosperity. "It's such an impersonal world today," Stegall says. "Making clients feel loved is so, so powerful."

Residential Design/Build. At a time when many landscape construction contractors abruptly shifted their focus to landscape maintenance, Scott Parker of Parker Homescape in Basking Ridge, NJ, doubled down on his bread and butter: residential design/build. He's made it work, thanks to some standards and systems put in place long before the construction and housing markets collapsed in 2009.

"Some of the small things that have significant meaning are returning phone calls the same day, replacing plants that have perished in a timely fashion, and other complementary services," Parker relates. For instance, if a client calls five years later with a concern about a plant or an issue with an insect, Parker Homescape will make a visit to the property—free of charge.

Parker views this type of customer service as a marketing investment, as opposed to a profit drain. It has obviously paid off. Just to make sure, Parker sends clients a questionnaire at the end of every season so they can provide feedback on professionalism, workmanship and presentation. "We welcome feedback on any and all areas," Parker says.

Parker Homescape delivers a lot of services, including landscape design and installation, hardscapes, water features, drainage solutions, outdoor kitchens and lighting. What Parker Homescape doesn't offer in house is provided by its network of strategic partners. The company has a list of Preferred Contractors it recommends to clients. Parker Homescape then general-contracts an entire project, ensuring a seamless process that makes its busy customers' lives easier.

Relying solely on reputation and word of mouth as his source for new business, Parker takes great care in assembling his list of Preferred Contractors. "We bring them to our office to interview, just as we would a potential employee," Parker says. "We want to see all of the essentials, like insurance and licenses. We ask for at least 10 references, and ask to visit multiple properties to inspect both work-in-progress and finished work. We also pay attention to integrity; appearance, punctuality, and so on."

Make landscaping fun for the client

Julie Copps of Outdoor Expressions in Billings, MT, loves her job and wants her clients to feel it. “Landscaping is such a fun part of a new build, or even a revamp on an existing home. I try not to take that fun away by not returning calls, doing half the work and leaving, or whatever. I like to keep things light. I don’t like to whip out my knowledge and make people feel small. I like to involve clients in the process. We talk about how they spend time outside—and then create a landscape that matches their lifestyle."

As the company has grown, though, Julie now spends the majority of her time in the office—much to her chagrin. "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."

Building business

Residential route density. There's a side benefit, North Carolina contractor Mike Stegall says, to his heightened focus on creating an amazing customer experience. In residential maintenance, route density is the most efficient way to grow sales and profits.

That is why Stegall trains his uniformed employees to smile and wave at every customer, neighbor and passerby. This helps reinforce the idea that Manicured Lawn & Landscaping is an approachable, professional organization from top to bottom that is pleasant to do business with. "And you just never know when that casual greeting might turn into a new customer," Stegall adds.

Signing up a client's "neighbor" has happened more than once, to say the least. Thus, Stegall doesn't do any direct mail or door hangers to try and land new accounts. Rather, he personally knocks on doors to offer a quick handshake and a business card.

"I like to tell people that we're looking for new customers to join our family," Stegall explains. "I point out that we're currently servicing so and so down the street, and feel like we could also help with their needs. I also try to get the prospect to talk about their property and expectations, which opens the door for me to explain the benefits of working with my company."

Once working in a neighborhood, Stegall feels confident about holding onto accounts. One thing his crew does is stripe lawns at a 45° angle. "I've heard about other commercial-oriented contractors driving through one of our neighborhoods, thinking about making a push into residential," Stegall shares. "They see those stripes and think about the expense of driving all the way here just for one or two yards. We make sure we set the bar high—that's the best way to ensure your future success."

Diversifying a commercial construction company. Co-owners Bill Chevalier and Michael Sittaro consider their Denver-area company, Environmental Landworks, to be a commercial construction company. But over the past several years, they've built up a substantial "service" operation (i.e. maintenance and snow removal), and are even working to establish a residential design/build division.

The process of bringing commercial maintenance in house was natural. Initially, construction crews started doing irrigation system maintenance and landscape maintenance. Today, maintenance and snow removal is its own fully staffed division. Like commercial construction, commercial maintenance is highly competitive. The margins are tight, too, and have gotten even tighter. Chevalier says, "You can't eliminate this challenge, because every day there's a lowballer coming after just about every job we have. We need to make sure we don't open the door for them to take work from us. That simply comes down to quality and communication."

Environmental Landworks does offer full-service commercial maintenance, but relies on subcontractors for some of it. For example, as far as tree work goes, Environmental Landworks handles "anything they can get from the ground," but subcontracts the more intense work. They also subcontract plant health care, simply because they can't match the efficiencies of the current subcontractor they are partnered with.

Chevalier and Sittaro are also interested in growing residential business. With respect to design/build, Chevalier says, "My goal is to have patience and a strong desire to educate. That's why we're proactive in communicating with not only the (HOA) board president, for example, but also the homeowners themselves. We regularly send bulletins to every single member."

Environmental Landworks has also begun targeting the single-family estate market with respect to maintenance. Like in the commercial arena, competition is hot. “I might bid a property at $125 a week, but we’re getting undercut by more than half,” Chevalier says. “But it’s usually a small crew with an old truck that’s bidding against us. So for us it’s about image and knowledge. There’s a fine line between regular residential maintenance and estate maintenance. We want to help make that line a little bit clearer through the way we operate.”

Running lean, yet mean

Ed and Julie Copps of Outdoor Expressions in Billings, MT, have a tendency to be a little bit pessimistic—or at least cautious. It's a 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 are especially 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."

Involving employees in the process is an important part of running lean. Without their buy in and support, your lean company can turn rather sickly in a hurry.