Leaf removal is a must for New Hampshire properties.
Photos courtesy of P & L Landscaping.
In 2008, when most businesses were in a panic over the impending recession, Eric Brand viewed it as an opportunity to expand.
Ever since he took over P & L Landscaping in Merrimack, N.H., in 1989 from his brother Lee and partner who started it in 1985, Brand has sought a variety of ways to generate income.
Brand has created a company that offers a broad range of services to the residential and commercial sectors to help get through economic upticks and downturns.
P & L Landscaping
Owner: Eric Brand
Founded: 1985 (Brand assumed leadership in 1989)
Headquarters: Merrimack, N.H.
Markets: Southern New Hampshire
Services: Landscape maintenance; new lawn installation; design and installation of landscape, hardscape and irrigation; pond and water gardens; low-voltage lighting; snow management; parking lot sweeping; and materials center
Employees: 28 (65 in peak snow season, including part-time and subcontractors)
"We were renting some old renovated chicken coops for about 15 years and at that point we knew we wanted to get out of there and have main road frontage," says Brand. He established company headquarters there.
"Moving to the new facility gave us the opportunity to buy more materials and get better bulk pricing from our vendors," Brand notes, adding that he also generates additional revenue by selling materials to other contractors and retail.
Another move Brand took was purchasing a second bark blower which his company would use in-house and rent out to other contractors.
"It brings in new streams of revenue, expands that umbrella," Brand says. He's also tried to leverage contracts with established maintenance commercial and residential customers to offer more services, such as aerating, slice seeding or installing an irrigation system to better maintain the property.
While each crew member is trained in one area, that person also is cross-trained to help as needed across business sector projects.
"We don't just mow lawns. We don't just install irrigation. We don't just do walls, walks and patios. We don't just snowplow. In our area, there are people who specialize in doing just that where we do all of those areas so that when we've got a full landscape project, we incorporate all of our different crews into one project," Brand says.
Expanding a business without having the means to deliver quality services and products is meaningless, Brand says.
Apart from the pack
He points out while most contractors promote themselves as offering superior service and products, he endeavors to separate his company from the pack with certifications.
P & L Landscaping is one of three New Hampshire organizations that have achieved the Snow & Ice Management Association's certification for snow professionals. The company also is the only certified Aquascape contractor in New Hampshire for pond installation and maintenance. Its construction foremen are certified installers for walls, walks, patios and driveways. Brand himself is a Hunter irrigation specialist and he holds certification in paving and masonry.
"If you've got other competitors that don't have those certifications and they're trying to sell themselves as being the better or best, at least you have the credentials that you've been through the training and that your crews have been through the training," he points out.
It is said that the proof is in the pudding. Brand and his organization have accumulated a number of honors over the years, including awards for his company being the best in his business segment by local media.
One of Brand's challenges is to be able to determine how many employees he'll need at any given time, especially during the unpredictable yet demanding snow plowing season. He employs 28 during the summer and that number can reach 65 in the winter, encompassing full time and part-time employees as well as subcontractors to accommodate snow events
Brand ensures quality service by having new hires, even if they have previous industry experience, partner with and learn company procedures from veteran employees.
"It's an ongoing concern of ours to make sure that jobs are getting done in the way that we would want them done," says Brand. "I'm not opposed to saying if I don't like something, it has to be re-done."
Fall can be stressful time for New England landscape companies. Like P&L Landscaping, they have to prepare their gear for winter even while doing fall services.
Cushioning for downtime
Brand deliberately does not operate his company's schedule at 100 percent efficiency.
"We allow time in our schedule for an open day if something goes wrong; if it's equipment-related, personnel-related, weather or trying to get products delivered," he says. "We're running at 85 to 90 percent efficiency to make room for those hiccups."
Yet when the unplanned events occur, the crew looks to see what else needs to be done. "If we're working with loam and that loam is turning to mud, we can't work on that project or we're trying to lay a walkway and it's too soupy, we can't work on that project so we see what else we can do; is there some improvement that needs to get done? Some touch-ups or service calls we need to go to? We try to leave certain work that can be done on rainy days for those types of days," Brand says.
During the snow season, which many landscapers rely on for additional revenues, a typical staff can handle the usual 3 to 8 inches of snow.
"Last year, we got 28 inches of snow," Brand says. "That tried a lot of people in the industry, including us, who went away from that storm with a greater level of experience and knowledge. We went into that storm knowing a lot of things we needed to stock up on, not just supplies, but also back-up on labor."
Brand cites his biggest challenge as one that many businesses face: other companies that will do work for less than what it costs to do it.
"As we're running into competitive bid situations, we're looking at the numbers and certain people are doing the work for less than it costs us," he says. "Not that we have this outrageous overhead because it is divided up over numerous crews, but it still gets to the point that if at the end of the day you can't make a profit, then there's no sense in doing certain pieces of work for one-time customers."
Not one to sit still
In this season, Brand has focused on increased marketing efforts to keep his company's website at the top of search results in an effort to stay in front of potential new customers.
"With existing customers, we're evaluating all of our maintenance customers' properties, coming up with a list of potential improvements or maintenance items that could be done that haven't been done and try to use that as a tool to continue work as we go through the fall," Brand says. "We're also feverishly out there looking for new snowplow contracts. We're definitely not one to sit still."
That's a lesson he's learned from the recession, Brand says. He recalls the days when all one needed to do was advertise in the phonebook. Work would just "fall into our lap as we grew," he says.
But now, he depends on his company's umbrella services to protect the company.
"If one area is going bad, we have something else to make up for it," he says.
The next step is assertive marketing.
"We have to market ourselves and go to our existing customers to make sure they're happy and keep everything going," he says. "You don't want to lose any customers in this economy, because everybody knows it's hard to get a new one. We've had to focus right back down to our core, to the maintenance and to our residential customers, working with our existing customer base and continue to keep them happy and work on growth."
Brand always wants his company to have cutting-edge technology. To that end, his company has purchased digital imaging equipment to combine with a design program, enabling the company to offer customers a virtual 3-D tour of what their landscape can look like.
Brand values good relationships with vendors.
There's a type of black bark mulch that will emit gases if not properly aired out and it will kill softer vegetation. Brand had tried to do due diligence with one particular customer who did not air it out after it was delivered to them. The vendor nonetheless credited Brand for the mulch.
In another case, a vendor did an acid wash on patio material for one of Brand's customers who complained that paver color did not resemble what was seen at the distributor's facility.
"It's essentially knowing they've got your back to help you, not in a bad sense to cover up a potential issue so we don't look bad, but to work with us to work with a customer to make sure we all have happy customers at the end of the day," Brand says of the vendor relationships.
Lending a helping hand
Brand is heavily committed to community service. For years, he has been the top fundraiser for a local Muscular Dystrophy Association Lock Up event. Last year, he was named Volunteer of the Year by the Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce.
Brand completed the Leadership Series from the New Hampshire Institute on Disabilities. He participated in The Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce Leadership of Greater Nashua training and was elected leader of the Legacy Playground Project. The project team is working on an accessible playground, scheduled for construction next year.
It's a project that's close to Brand's heart as the father of a child with multiple disabilities.
"We can all have a legacy and leave something back for our community for all of the years of living and working within it," says Brand.
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.