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Paving the Path to Success

Lisa Fratt | Business Articles
Starting a business out of the trunk of a car is not unusual for a landscape contracting company. In the 1980’s, that is exactly how Moon Brothers Landscaping in Lewistown, Pennsylvania, had its start. Says Sean Moon, director of operations for the company, “We provided mowing services and as the business grew, we gradually offered other services.”

In 1995 Moon Brothers added hardscaping to its portfolio. Today, hardscaping is a core division that accounts for a fair chunk of the company’s $1.3 million in gross sales.

Moon explains, “Each of our three departments—lawn maintenance, landscape and hardscape--feed off of the others. A customer might call for a quote on a retaining wall, but when we go out to the site, we’ll be able to sell landscape services as well.” In addition to retaining walls, which can be a necessary component of a landscape plan or an ornamental accessory, Moon Brothers Landscaping also provides segmental paving services.

Common uses for segmental pavers that can overlap with a landscape business include patios, pool decks, walkways and steps, courtyards and entrances. In fact, Steve Jones, president of Pave Tech, Inc., Prior Lake, Minnesota, points out, “Hardscapes are so integrated with landscapes. In many cases, you can’t do one without the other.” While it can make great sense for a business to dive into a related service, it’s important to ascertain that the second business is a viable one. Hardscaping certainly fits the bill.

Moon is not the only businessman to report increases in hardscape sales. Jones confirms, “Hardscapes are growing rapidly.” Indeed, the U.S. concrete pavestone industry grew from 80 million square feet in 1980 to more than 400 million square feet in 2001. At the same time, the hardscape business has the potential for high profits.

Larry Rovat, owner of Centennial Hardscapes in Denver, Colorado, claims, “We have never seen margins like we do in pavers. On a good job, top to bottom, we can net 25%.”

As Moon has shown, this growing market can be an excellent niche for landscape contractors. But there could be pitfalls associated with jumping on the bandwagon. Jones notes, “I see so many bad jobs going in.” Bob Streiff, owner of Precision Pavers, Inc. Plano, Texas, adds, “The quality of the product is totally useless if the installation practices are sloppy.”

Jones believes that no contractor sets out to complete an inferior job. Instead, the contractor foregoes the vocational training necessary to correctly complete a paving job. And while one might consider hardscaping and landscaping as cousins, hardscaping requires an entirely different set of skills from landscaping. “Moreover, while it might take some time for mistakes in the landscape business to show up, mistakes in hardscaping are not immediately noticeable,” says Alva Logsdon, director of marketing at Pavestone Company, Grapevine, Texas. “An improper installation can cause the project to fail. It has nothing to do with the quality of the product, but rather everything to do with first preparing a proper foundation which is critical to a successful application. Another key point is to select the proper paving stone for application. For example, some stones are designed only for pedestrian use, others for light vehicular, and some for heavy vehicular traffic,” continued Logsdon.

Technical skills are certainly important, but they aren’t the only part of the landscape-hardscape equation. Jones says, “The landscape contractor who wants to get into hardscaping needs to be able to find the balance between hardscape and soft landscaping. They are two different businesses, but they need to be integrated.”

What’s a contractor to do? Educating yourself and your employees about the various aspects of the hardscaping business is a key part of the quality equation.

ICPI Certification

A few of the common technical pitfalls that can plague hardscapers, especially those new to the business, include grading, water, equipment and business issues. Grading, transitioning from one elevation to another, is an art and science. Rovat says, “It’s critical to learn how to identify and solve grading issues in a bid or sales call. Otherwise, you can lose your shirt, as we did with a mistake.” A drainage plan is another critical ingredient in the hardscape plan. Jones doesn’t pull any punches. “Water is evil. It can destroy anything,” he says. A good hardscape plan takes water into account through the proper uses of aggregates, base materials and compaction.

Usability and accessibility are secondary concerns after water.

Moon says, “All of our installers are required to have Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI) Certification. The two-day course is great.” The course focuses on the essentials of the segmental concrete paving business. Contractors learn about basic material estimating, pave stone installation, job layout, soil classification, soil compaction, base material compaction, edge restraints and bedding sand. The skills training addresses all of the facets of hardscaping—layout, grading and elevations—that determine the final results.

The certification program establishes the minimum knowledge required to install pave stones. This increases a contractor’s speed and profitability. It also minimizes the call backs for improper installation problems. ICPI developed the standardization of specifications and installation.

“As with any job, and hardscaping is no different, it’s important to use the right equipment for the job.” Jones explains, “A five-horsepower plate compactor is only suitable for small work like 10x15 foot patios. A larger patio requires larger, more powerful equipment.

Consider the contractor who attempts to excavate for a patio with a shovel and wheelbarrow. It may take a day or two to dig out the patio. That’s a significant labor cost, whereas a piece of equipment like a Bobcat or a mini-skid steer loader like a Dingo or Kanga could have readily completed that portion of the job. It would have saved quite a few greenbacks in labor costs as well. Specialized equipment not only simplifies life, but also saves time and, therefore, money. Remember—it is possible to lay pavers with a stick—it’s just not efficient.

Jones says, “The business aspect of hardscaping is just as critical as the technical aspect. Contractors need to have a clear understanding of labor, costs and overhead.” Another facet of the labor issue is assigning the right person for the right job.

The foreman or owner may want to lay pavers or blocks, set stone or build the wall. “It’s a bad idea, “says Jones. “That’s because these folks need to move around the job site. There is no way to control the rest of the job if you are on your hands and knees laying bricks.”

“For a landscape contractor considering getting involved in the business to start with, it’s important to emphasize that the use of pave stones and retaining walls allow for unlimited creativity in designs,” says Logsdon. “The variety of shapes, colors, and textures are like the tools for a blank canvas. The contractor, along with the property owner, can create a truly beautiful landscaping while enhancing the value of their property.”

ICPI certification covers the technical and business basics of hardscaping, and also addresses sales and marketing, which can be a pitfall for contractors new to the hardscape business. Many ICPI instructors focus on marketing to the customer, presenting the project and instilling confidence in the homeowner.

Indeed, ICPI certification itself can be a big marketing bonus as many professional hardscapers report that homeowners are becoming savvier about the paving business and equate certification with professionalism.

Pat Connors, CEO of Tetrus Building Materials Reno, Nevada, explains, “Today, certification, more than price, can sometimes make the difference in who is chosen for the job.” Certification can be a good idea for other employees, in addition to owners, foremen and installers. Moon sent the company’s landscape designer to an ICPI training course. He explains, “It helps with the landscape plan because he can tell the customer upfront what he needs.” A clear and thorough design drawing and presentation can help sell the job to the homeowner and prevent any problems overall.

Naturally, the other part of a solid hardscaping business plan is a thorough, high-quality design and installation. It keeps the current customer happy and can win new customers in the future through positive referrals.

Looking for profit centers that dovetail with your landscape services makes an ideal business combination.

JULY 2004

 
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