Joseph Ronnlof and John Harbord incorporated Westcoast Landscape and Lawns in 1998 near Clearwater, Florida, to escalate the level of customer service being provided in the green industry. Before the launch, the pair both previously worked for other landscaping companies and decided there was a business opportunity to offer more individual attention to each client. By engaging with customers more, Ronnlof and Harbord discovered that it was easier to determine not only what they were doing right, but, more importantly, what they were doing wrong and how to change it for the better.
“We started out with one truck like a lot of companies. We didn’t really have any money in the bank, but that’s the nice thing about this industry: It doesn’t take a ton of capital to get into. We started small, mowing residential and local areas, and just continued to grow,” remembers Ronnlof, founder and CEO of Westcoast Landscape and Lawns.
So the duo made a go of the company—basically two guys and a lawn mower between them. Since then, Westcoast Landscape and Lawns swelled to more than 250 team members, 100 trucks and two office locations covering 10 counties, including Charlotte, Citrus, DeSoto, Hardee, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota. The company primarily began serving the residential market, but within 20 years, morphed into mainly serving the commercial and multi-residential market—including carefree communities, homeowners associations, condo associations, community development districts, corporate campuses and retail plazas—which accounts for about 90 percent of its business now.
According to Ronnlof, it was a conscious financial decision to transition from the residential market to the commercial and multi-residential market. It takes more effort and expense for a two-man crew to cover a residential route of 100 customers than it does to cover one large commercial or multi-residential account for approximately the same amount of profit. Targeting commercial and multi-residential clients also helps Westcoast Landscape and Lawns stick to its promise of engaging more with each client as it’s easier to maintain with one large customer than 100 smaller ones.
Explosive Growth Equals More Staff and Services
While Ronnlof and Harbord founded the company, they also introduced two partners in 2015—Bruce Sabine, vice president, and Dan Schmitt, chief operating officer—to help manage Westcoast Landscape and Lawns’ explosive growth and round out the team. Sabine and Schmitt both earned it, according to Ronnlof, and are still earning it. Between the four partners, each has his own specific responsibilities: Harbord and Ronnlof are in charge of the finances and major decision-making, including the allocation of company resources and the overall vision of the company; Sabine is responsible for sales and business development; and Schmitt controls day-to-day operations. Between this leadership team, every responsibility is accounted for and everyone held accountable, making the business side of the organization more manageable.
As the company grew, so did Westcoast Landscape and Lawns’ menu of services, expanding from just lawn maintenance and mowing into the following array of jobs: lawn and ornamental care, trimming, landscaping, annual and flower installations, arborist and tree care, emergency services, storm weather management, irrigation, mulching, pump services, well and pump monitoring, and low-voltage LED lighting.
By providing a larger offering of services, the company made it more convenient for its customers to choose it as a one-stop shop and build the long-lasting relationships it was working toward. “We wanted to be able to provide our clients with first-class service, not only related to maintenance, but all landscape services. We wanted them to be able to call one company and one company only. So that’s how it evolved, staying focused on customer service and adding services as we grew,” says Ronnlof. Westcoast Landscape and Lawns was careful not to add these new services too quickly, though. Leadership ensured processes were established, and the right team members were hired or trained in advance to make certain these new services were successful from the outset.
As a result of adding this diversity of services, the company is now structured into six main divisions—maintenance, landscaping, arbor care, irrigation, seasonal flower installation, and lawn and ornamental care—each with its own manager who specializes in and is held accountable for its operations. The technicians being supervised by those managers are specialists in their particular fields as well because Westcoast Landscape and Lawns values training and certifying their people. “We invest a lot into these programs because we see the returns and our clients see the returns. When it comes to training and certifications, we feel it’s easier to get somebody specialized or trained in one, so [the divisions are] really broken up,” Ronnlof notes. The company prefers each employee being an expert in one or two areas rather than employing many jacks-of-all-trades who are average at everything.
Ronnlof’s father used to tell him: “If you’re not earning, you’re learning,” so training and continuing education is always going to be a priority for Westcoast Landscape and Lawns. When the business first started out, Ronnlof and Harbord made mistakes because they didn’t have the benefit of the formal training that their employees do. They learned everything in the field by trial and error, which cost them both time and money. If they planted the wrong shrub in the wrong place and it died, for example, they replaced it on their own dime to establish the trust and high level of customer service they were striving for with their customer base.
Ronnlof jokes, “It was years before we started earning. That’s why training and continuing education is so important in our company now. We made those bad decisions in the past and it cost us.”
Technology Comes to the Rescue
As a larger landscaping company, there are a lot of moving parts to manage—from scheduling and routing to sales and marketing. Westcoast Landscape and Lawns uses software and technology to stay on top of things and at the forefront of the green industry. But it’s still no easy feat with more than 250 team members, 100 trucks and two locations covering 10 Floridian counties.
To help keep things in order, the company uses customized and industry software in every facet of each division, including route logistics, sales tracking, customer relationship management (CRM) and even job profitability, but staying mobile is one of its more fruitful recent initiatives. Ronnlof says, “We realize that technology is about efficiencies and we have to be efficient in this industry because it’s such a competitive market. We trained our managers and technicians to be mobile in the field in order to have them on property more often. We found that, when they spend more time in the field and less in the office, we see better results. We’re always evolving with technology.”
Westcoast Landscape and Lawns uses both technology—social media, blogging and search engine optimization (SEO)—and good old-fashioned, time-tested marketing methods—hitting the pavement and cold calling—to increase business, although it took time for the company to identify what worked for it best. Ronnlof admits, “We have a wonderful team that’s dedicated just to social media, blogging and SEO. We know it’s the way of the present and even more so of the future. I would say 50 to 60 percent of our business comes from existing relationships now, but that’s going to be changing because, as the millennials get older, they’re going to be moving into these more manicured subdivisions and homeowners associations and community development districts. And they’re going to find us online, whether that’s by social media or SEO, so that’s why we are investing in this type of marketing.”
From Meager Beginnings to Realizing Dreams
Westcoast Landscape and Lawns has tremendous plans for the future, which include continuing to grow in the Tampa and Sarasota markets, then moving into new markets, the first being Orlando. Whether the company achieves those goals through organic growth, or a merger and acquisition is still a mystery, but it is confident with its team and leadership that this dream can be realized by 2020.
Ronnlof is feeling especially emboldened by the positive trends in the construction market and green industry. The company is observing both increasing profitability and competition, which means it isn’t the only one seeing the possibilities on the horizon. Even during the recession, though, the company was able to maintain its growth, although the bottom line dipped a bit. Fortunately, the commercial and multi-residential markets are more recession-proof than residential accounts, however, because they often require an organization to take ownership of maintaining these enormous properties.
“I remember we used to come home dirty and tired after 12 to 13 hours of mowing yards all day, park the one truck and trailer at the side of my house, and just sit and imagine that, maybe one day, we would have two or three trucks that we could manage,” recalls Ronnlof. “I think that vision grew as the company grew. Now we sit back and we think, ‘What’s next?’ The possibilities are endless for us and that’s the way we like it. We like to grow. It’s really what our vision is—continue to grow while providing good service.”