The Artist as Entrepreneur
Q. How did you get started in the landscape design business?
A. I started when I was in high school. My dad owned a business, and I didn't like the idea of working for someone else, and so I started my own lawn care business. I continued the business to help pay the way through college. When I graduated, I went to UPS an an industrial engineer doing time and labor studies, but the corporate environment wasn't really my cup of tea. It was a little too structured for me, and I felt my true potential wasn't being realized, so I left there and went to Wetterau, who owned Shop & Save in St. Louis, and I helped implement labor standards at the warehouse in St. Louis.
While I was working at Wetterau, I got married. I played a lot of golf at the time, and my wife wasn't digging the idea that I was spending our family money to support my golf habit. So, we came to an agreement. If I wanted to do some lawn care on the side, I could use that money to support my golf habit. So, I started doing the side jobs, but at that same time, Wetterau was bought out by Super Value, based in Minnesota. I was asked to transfer to Minnesota because the labor standards program I was working on in St. Louis had been so successful.
Well, at the same time this was happening, this little lawn business that I started to support my golf habit had really become a business of its own. I had three or four guys working for me during the day and was working about 50 hours a week on the business. I was also working my full-time job about 50-60 hours a week. So, my wife gave me an ultimatum. She said I either need to change something or find a new wife (laugh). She knew I wasn't really happy in the corporate structure, and she said, "Look, you've got this business. Why don't you see what you can do with it." I was about 30 at the time, and our thoughts were that if this business wouldn't work out, we were still young enough that we could go back to the corporate world and be successful. So, we decided that we would give it a go, and we've never looked back.
Q. How many years has Total Landscape been in business?
A. We've been here since 1989. We incorporated in '92.
Q. How many employees do you have?
A. Right now, we have 50. We'll do $3 million [in revenue] this year.
Q. This is a really competitive business. I see landscape companies all over the place. What do you suppose is your edge that allows you to be so successful?
A. We are really focused on our clients. Part of landscaping and lawn care was easy. I understood it, and it was not a problem. One thing I've had to learn is what business is, and part of learning what business is, is learning who your client is and focusing on your client.
There are a lot of companies, and this business is very competitive, but I think what we've done is unique. We continue to attract business because we understand who we want our client to be and who our client is. When we talk with somebody, if he or she doesn't fit our client profile, we are able to walk away from it. When we determine that you are our client, we are able to service you like no other company can. It creates a very loyal client who tends to stay with us for a long time.
Q. What is your client profile?
Q. What would you say is the percentage breakdown between your commercial and residential clients?
A. We're about 50/50.
Q. How far do you span with your services?
A. Right now we cover the entire metro [St. Louis area].
Q. How do people hear about you?
A. We have a very nice ad in the Yellow Pages. We do some direct mail. We do some radio advertising, and we get referral, word-of-mouth business. Then, we do some direct marketing where we call home builders, management companies, and individuals. If we see a new subdivision being built, we'll get in with the home builder, and that allows us to get to their clients. On the residential side, we want to design and build a project from the beginning. After that experience, we've created a bond that serves as a natural transition to maintenance. So, we're growing our maintenance business with our design and build business. We also market our design and build business to our maintenance customers. Ultimately, we can build our business as customers expand into our other services.
Q. Your educational background is not in horticulture or a related field. Although you had your landscape business in high school, that doesn't necessarily prepare you as a landscape designer. How did you become educated in this field?
A. I'm self-taught. I believe in education, so I have attended continuing education programs and [Missouri] Botanical Garden seminars. That's how I've learned. But the real key to my success is hiring people who are the best at what they do. We just hired a landscape architect out of Purdue University who is as good as any landscape architect in the business. We have a landscape designer who works for us that I feel is the best landscape designer. So, it's not necessarily all about what I do, but it's what our people do.
Q. Did you do the design work when you first started?
A. I did.
Q. Does that experience help you assess applicants' talents?
A. I have the background, and I can look at a design and know a good one from one that will not work. That's an education that I've put myself through by attending classes and asking a lot of questions of landscape architects. I got what I call the "hard knocks" education - the straight view of things.
Q. How do you maintain that balance with wanting to be hands-on but then having the responsibilities of running the company?
A. The hardest thing, as the owner of a company, is to get to the point where you realize that you can't control everything. You have to release some of that responsibility. However, at that point, a great thing happens. Once people know they have the responsibility to make decisions, they start to grow and become greater than you ever expected.
Q. Would you say your philosophy reflects your own experience in the corporate world? It sounds to me like your were pretty independent.
A. I was very independent. I think part of my problem with the corporate world is that people are promoted to their highest level of incompetence. The guy at the top is not looking to find his replacement. There is a structure in corporate America to keep people one notch below you. There has to be a place for a guy like me, but I wasn't able to find it in the companies I worked for. So, I chose to build my own company because I could be my own boss and we could do it my way. When I was in the corporate world, I always thought that my way was the right way - whether it was right or not. (laugh)
I've learned that being independent and being your own boss isn't always the thing it's cracked up to be. I tell people all the time, we all have bosses. Our clients are our bosses. So, we can run our company anyway that we want, but if we're not taking care of our clients, we're going to get fired. So being able to make your own decisions only goes so far, and there is a structure that must be followed. Ultimately, we all have bosses.
Q. In the last few years, there has been a proliferation of stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. Do you find that these stores have become your competition in that they cater to the do-it-yourselfers?
A. That's really funny that you should ask that because your tape recorder is sitting on two books from Home Depot, which has asked Total Landscape to become its certified home installer. So, Home Depot would refer us to their clients to install all of their products.
Here's what we see happening. First, the only challenge that Total Landscape has is our ability to perform the work that we take on. We have to understand what our capabilities are as a company and how much we can produce each year with the staff we have. That's why budgeting and the business part are so critical. We have to set those goals and expectations at the beginning of the year, and we have to understand what our capabilities are because we set an expectation with our client that cannot waver. We want to live by the promises we make, and so to deliver on those promises, we have to understand our capacity.
As a part of this understanding, we must consider how the market place is changing. The baby-boomer generation is becoming 45, 50, 60 years old. People in those age brackets are typically not going to do the work themselves. They're going to hire a contractor. So, although there will always be a need for a do-it-yourself centers like Home Depot, our work is actually growing.
Home Depot's profit increased in the last quarter, and they credited their at-home services division for the growth. If you talk to most people, they don't want to do the work that we do. They may want to take care of it once it's installed, but they don't want to do the installation. Their number-one fear is being ripped off by the contractor. Home Depot provides a solid and reputable background for the client to purchase those services and know that if they get a bad contractor, Home Depot - the largest retailer in the country besides Wal-Mart - is going to back up its customer. That's what they're buying through Home Depot. They're buying the guarantee that the contractor they select will do the job, or their money is protected by Home Depot. So we don't feel that Home Depot is competition; we feel that Home Depot is supporting the installation business. They recognize that there is a large percentage of people that don’t do it themselves. They may go to Home Depot to get the idea, but when it comes down to the nitty gritty, they don’t want to do it. They want to be protected from the contractor. So there is another growth opportunity for our company to get together with Home Depot.
Q. So when those companies started to appear, was your immediate thought that this was a partnership opportunity, or was there a moment when you were worried?
A. We, as a company, are always looking at our market position and where we’re going. We really don’t feel like we have any competition at the level that we’re at. I’ve never felt threatened by Home Depot. I’ve never felt threatened by Wal-Mart. I’ve never felt threatened by the local nursery that opened. Home Depot provides materials. Or, they might provide materials and installation, but they don’t take care of everything. They can't design.
We find that our clients are willing to pay even a little bit more because we can bring the whole package to them. Two years ago, when we identified who our client was, we went through the research and development of our idea. In the course of that process, we looked at our competition, we looked at their websites, we looked at the services they provided. We tried to find a market that wasn’t being serviced. We feel like our growth potential right now is unlimited because the core companies out there are not providing the service. We have come across numerous situations where a client may be totally happy with the guy who’s done his landscape maintenance, he may be totally happy with the guy who put in his bushes, he may be totally happy with the guy who did his lighting, but what he’s not happy with is the fact that he’s had to call five different people to make that happen. What we provide is an opportunity to consolidate those services and make sure that they only have to make one phone call. Often, our clients terminate their existing contracts with other companies for the benefit of having only one company to call. I don’t make light of our competition. I don’t think that we’re the only game in town, but I think the game that we’re playing gives us a clear advantage over the competition.
Q. Do you see young people, for example, your employees, interested in striking out on their own?
A. I think that’s one of the more competitive areas for our company. The same way that we look at our business development is the way we look at the development of our people. We have to provide opportunities that not only provide for their satisfaction today, but also for their satisfaction in the future. Part of the challenge for our company going forward will be to provide that opportunity so that an employee doesn’t become disenfranchised. I don't want our employees to feel what I felt when I was in that position. I felt that I really couldn’t express myself. I was an employee, and I wasn’t part of the process. I want our company to offer good pay, and to develop incentives beyond pay, to encourage people to remain as long-term employees. Our design/build manager, who was our first employee, quit and started his own company. Three years ago we bought that company and he works for this company again as our design/build man.
The idea of striking out on your own is very appealing but it’s not always successful. We want our employees to have an opportunity to make a good business decision, and understand that there is an opportunity here at Total Landscape for them to do as much as they want to do. We want them to achieve their goals, but maybe not have to start their own company to achieve those goals. So we are continually reevaluating how we can keep our people fresh, so that we keep them involved in the process, or keep them developing the process, and not just feeling like employees.
Q. How did family and friends feel when you decided to leave your corporate position to develop your own business?
A. It was a worry for my parents. The day I quit working for Wetterau and started my own landscape business, my dad told me that I was an idiot. He told me that that was the stupidest decision that I had ever made in my life and that I would regret that forever.
Part of my background was filled with people telling me what I couldn’t do. My whole success story in life has been preceded by people telling me “you can’t do that” or “it can’t be done.” I guess I was a rebellious kid, who when my dad would say “you can’t do that,” I would do it and then take it to another level that my dad never imagined was possible. No matter how bad it was. I might have said, "Gosh, I wish I wouldn’t have done that." But, I had to prove that whatever people said couldn't be done, actually could be done. Determination and hard work can, often times, overcome any obstacle. That’s the way I look at life.
That article on the wall behind you was published in 1996, and the article below it was published in 1995. When that article was published in the paper, my dad thought I was a hero, and it was the greatest thing I ever did. I turned out to be successful. Part of it is that as an individual, you have to have that self-confidence to know that you can’t fail.
It’s not all been glory; we have encountered some very troubling times. I’ve made some business decisions that would have broken most companies, but I’ve always had this mindset that I can’t fail. No matter how deep and troubled the water is, we’ll always find a boat to paddle our way out.
I’ve had some great people working for me, which allowed me to grow the company and become successful.
Visit Total Landscape on the web.
copyright 2004, Center for Entrepreneurship and Economic Education, University of Missouri-St. Louis