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Design/Build Companies Morph Into Maintenance

| Landscape Maintenance
Have you ever designed and installed a beautiful landscape, just to see it become so overgrown that you´d never know it was designed and installed by a professional? Either the client let it get out of hand, or the person who was doing the maintenance really didin´t know how to care for plants. Well, who better to keep that landscape looking great, than the company who designed it?

If your company has not made the plunge into landscape maintenance, now might be a good time to test the water. Today’s dim economic outlook is making every company evaluate what they’re doing, and they are all looking around for a new focus and new opportunities.

Opportunities abound; however, they don’t come that easy. You’re going to have to work to get the business. But every property needs to be maintained. Even if they can’t afford improvements, owners still want to retain the value of what they do have.

Take a few lessons from those who came before you. In the recent past, many landscape contractors put their energies into building the construction end of the business. They paid little attention to running a maintenance division. However, in today’s world, there is very little new home building going on. One way to keep your company alive is to add a maintenance division to your company’s portfolio of services. It can be a great way to survive in this tough economy.

Maintenance is very competitive, and everyone seems to be courting the same customers; however, you have an advantage. That advantage is that you know the client. You designed and built their landscape, and you developed a relationship with the client.

Although you didn’t offer maintenance then, you do now. What better company to maintain it than the one that installed it? If the client was pleased with the work your company did, you can get them as a client for the maintenance of their property and make it the showpiece it once was.

Thornton Landscape, Mainville, Ohio, was kept busy working on design/build for many years. They didn’t have the time or the inclination to develop a maintenance route. Then the new housing business fell apart.

Rick Doesburg, president of Thornton Landscape, picked up on this early and realized that he had to do something to keep his business growing. He needed to generate new business. To hedge against a change in the economy, he put his company back into the maintenance business in 2007. “Maintenance is now 50 percent of our business. We’ve been able to go back to our old clients and pick up the maintenance of their properties. It’s been our savior,” says Doesburg.

“It’s tough to compete against the guy who is just trying to earn a paycheck. He doesn’t have the overhead of worker’s compensation, insurance, and he probably has lower equipment costs,” says Doesburg. “But we’re fortunate because most of our residential clients are our own installations.”

Running a maintenance division requires a different skill set than construction—in essence you’re selling time. “To run a maintenance division, you have to be very efficient and have a good handle on the numbers,” he says. “It’s a learning process, and the competition is very tough. The commercial marketplace is very cluttered; there are a lot of heavy hitters, so companies need to find a niche within the market, and then focus on service. Find the companies or homeowners who embrace quality—and will pay for it,” Doesburg advises.

There are a lot of things to consider with each market segment, according to Doesburg. “With home-owner associations (HOA) you have a lot of bosses, and they are all ‘experts.’ You have to keep all of those experts happy, so that extra bit of time to keep the loudest critics happy, needs to be figured into the service call. Sometimes you have to oil that squeaky wheel before it makes so much noise that you lose the account.”

Existing employees should be treated like a team, and brought into the loop about proposed changes in the company, says Doesburg. By making them part of the process, the transition can be much smoother, rather than if they feel they are in the dark.

“One of the most important areas is pricing the job correctly,” Doesburg stresses. “Having good, reliable equipment is very important. You also have to figure-in maintenance costs on your equipment, worker’s comp and other insurance, time involved—including traveling to the jobsite—backup equipment, and more. Many companies set their prices so low, that they cannot sustain the business over time,” he notes.

Doesburg adds that they build on their relationships so as to offer design/build, as well as maintenance services to their customers. “We’re glad that we got back into the maintenance business,” he concludes.

Ken Hutcheson, president of U. S. Lawns, Orlando, Florida, sees the maintenance—or what they like to call the management portion of the landscaping business—as a service industry, built on customer satisfaction. What they believe to be the four most important ideals to keep in mind are trust, quality, service and value. Those ideals have served their company well, and can be the key to any successful service business.

He says that not all landscaping professionals will be able to make the transition into maintenance. “Design/build contractors,” he says, “are used to projects with a beginning and an end. Maintenance is a service business; you have to learn to think like the customers, share their vision and deliver what they want. Maintenance is ongoing, so to keep the contract, you must continue to deliver the vision.”

Hutcheson also says that there are a lot of differences between the contract side of the business and maintenance. There are many different types of equipment needed, and a whole different mindset. “If your customer manages a hotel, you have to think like a hotelier. The same is true for any other business segment, from shopping centers to office parks, to homeowner associations,” he adds.

Every franchisee of U.S. Lawns undergoes training for six days at the company headquarters in Orlando, Florida, and then, they are trained onsite at the franchisee’s location.

U.S.

Lawns recently celebrated its 25th anniversary, and their success is proof that to profit in the business, you need to think like a service provider, provide excellent customer service and build on those ongoing relationships.

Owen E. Dell, ASLA, of Owen E. Dell & Associates, a landscape architect in Santa Barbara, California, started his business doing landscape design/build and maintenance many years ago. He saw maintenance as a real opportunity for business expansion, and a way to keep his landscape crews employed. He says, “Imagine having gardening done by real gardeners, instead of by janitors! Adding a maintenance division creates opportunities that are not being met, and it can actually save the property owner thousands of dollars in the long run, because plants will not have to be replaced as often since real gardeners are caring for them.”

William Dickerson, president of Dickerson Landscaping, Tallahassee, Florida, agrees. “There is nothing more exasperating than driving by a project that you’ve worked long and hard to design and build, only to see it poorly maintained, or not maintained at all. You not only feel as if your client threw his money away, but your reputation along with it. What’s worse is that he also threw away any opportunity you may have had to showcase that project to another potential client.”

Dickerson says that in this economy, maintenance is about half of his business. “We do it all, but maintenance is our bread and butter in this tough economy,” he adds.

If commercial properties are not your niche, there are residences in your community with lawns that need to be mowed, and shrubs and plants that need trimming. Many homeowners would jump at the chance to have a real professional, instead of the “mow, blow and go” guy that they have now. They would love to have someone who really knows how to prune, or trim the hedge so it looks like a hedge—someone they know and trust, with the equipment, expertise, experience, and knowledge to get the job done right. If they know you from the install, you are very likely to get them for maintenance.

There are many ways to gain additional business for your company.

Doing community service is a good way of attracting clients, says Dell. “You can install a landscape at a school, which is just a good thing to do and something you can feel good about, and sooner or later, someone will remember that you did that for the school, and they’ll call.”

Dell has also explored other niches as a way of expanding his business, including sustainable horticulture, ‘firescaping’ and Xeriscaping, but now, after a 40-year career, he is content just being a landscape architect, he says.

Before you jump into that big pool of maintenance service providers, examine your service area for potential clients, analyze your desired market niche, run the numbers, and determine if the added clients will create the splash that you want to make in your market and to your bottom line.

Can your company sustain the added business and the added responsibility of a service business? If you can make it work, it will provide an ongoing, solid revenue stream for your company. At least you can use the property as a showpiece for potential clients, because you will know that it is being maintained the way the landscape designer/architect wants it to be maintained.

If you’re providing maintenance services for commercial clients, you need to understand that your crew will be identified with the client’s property, so it is important to present the best image possible. Your crew should be wearing clean uniforms, and it might be a good idea if you gave them some training in customer service and how to properly interact with the visitors.

Make sure that they’re familiar with the property, so they can give directions, or point them to someone who can. Your employees will be seen as an extension of the management staff, so make sure they impart that image. They should be polite and respectful. Your crew not only represents your company, but the property where they are working. They should always maintain a professional image.

If your company is ready for a new direction, maintenance may be the ticket, but before you get on that ride, analyze costs—consider the costs of additional equipment, uniforms, etc., and if you and your crew will be able to provide the services necessary to make the transition. Then go for it!

 
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