Turf Magazine - March, 2014

WEST FEATURES

Family Affair

Bemus Landscape remains true to its 'Basic Five' goals
By K. Schipper


Bemus Landscape contines to grow commercial maintenance and decrease installations.
Photos courtesy Bemus Landscape, Inc.

Bill Bemus launched his landscape company in 1973 with a '62 Dodge pickup and matrimony on his mind. A 20-year-old junior-college student at the time, he soon married his high school sweetheart and began growing the company into a regular maintenance route.

After transferring to Cal Poly Pomona, Bemus attained his contractor's license, and Bemus Landscape, Inc. began growing into one of Orange County's premier installers of residential landscapes - and the Bemus family began growing, as well.

Now, more than 40 years later, Bemus is feeding not only his own family, but those of more than 300 employees from that modest beginning, and all three of his sons have management roles in the company.



General Manager Jon Perry, left, with President Bill Bemus.

However, his greatest feat lately may have been getting Bemus Landscape away from a heavy reliance on installation and back to its roots in landscape maintenance.

Commercial maintenance focus

Today, Bemus primarily provides oversight to the company. Jon Parry, Bemus' brother-in-law, and Colin, the eldest Bemus son, manage much of the company's day-to-day activities. Colin supervises the company's field operations and customer relations, and Parry, who has invested more than 30 years with the company, serves as general manager.

Bemus Landscape, Inc.

Founder and President: Bill Bemus

Founded: 1973

Headquarters: San Clemente, Calif., with presences in Santa Ana, San Marcos, Chino and Perris

Markets: Orange County, San Diego, Inland Empire

Services: Commercial maintenance, HOA, Hospitality

Employees: About 300

Website: http://www.bemuslandscape.com

"This started out as a summer job for me out of college, and it's never ended," says Parry, adding that he focuses on everything from financial and insurance matters to human resources and also serves as company spokesman.

Parry says the Bemus Landscape of today is nothing like the company he joined so many years ago, and not just because of its size. Up until the mid-2000s, fully 90 percent of its work was doing installations.

"Bill started with what we refer to as, 'backyard work,'" says Parry. "He did small design-build projects for clients and then morphed into doing more tract residential installations. We worked primarily with builders as our bread-and-butter business."

Today, that installation work has decreased to about 10 percent of the business mix, and Parry says the goal is to take it still lower.

"We've decided to focus on maintenance, commercial maintenance," he says. "We just realized that the ups-and-downs of the installation business were not there with the maintenance business. It's more steady and the risk-reward ratio is in better balance."

Today, approximately 80 percent of the company's work is in maintenance, with three-quarters of that being done for homeowners' associations (HOAs). The remainder includes commercial, industrial, office, retail, hospitality and a small amount of municipal work.

Unlike some of its competitors, Bemus considers hospitality as a separate category. Parry says it's done that way in an effort to reassure those in the hotel industry that the company is capable of handling those jobs.

"They want to see very similar experience," he says. "It's really commercial work, but people get a sense that we're capable of doing hotel work. The hotel community seems to be a fairly tight-knit community and we just made that distinction."

Green waste recycling

That's not the only way where Bemus Landscape tries to set itself apart. The company also offers some services that are fairly unique to landscape maintenance operations. One of the biggest is green waste recycling.

The recycling of green waste is a twofold effort. Not only does it reflect a desire to keep the waste from landfills, but Parry says it also makes economic sense for the company.

All of the green waste recycling is done at the company's Chino facility, and primarily involves grinding and aging materials that are then used in subsequent projects.

"I don't know that we're saving much money over what we would pay to be taking it to a landfill every day," says Parry. "As long as it's not costing us money, it's a worthwhile effort. We're doing right by the environment and not harming our pocketbook at the same time."



The Bemus Basic Five: No weeds, no trash, no dead plants, green grass, beautiful flowers.

Green-waste recycling may be on the cutting-edge of today's landscaping services, but in many ways Bemus Landscape's culture reflects that it's been in the game awhile. When it comes to marketing, Parry says the company has a website and utilizes social media, but that really doesn't drive its sales.

"We find the old-time, personal touch is still the best," he says. "It's really just calling on people personally and maintaining long-term personal relationships and getting referrals from that."

Bemus' second son, Corin, heads the company's business development efforts (a third son, Spencer, manages one of the company's five locations), but Parry says maintaining those relationships is also handled by a four-person sales staff and the company's operations staff.

It doesn't hurt that the company still runs on the same philosophy that helped launch a young college student in his own business. Known as "The Basic Five," they are: no weeds, no trash, no dead plants, green grass and beautiful flowers.

Parry says that simple list is to help keep employees' eyes on the ball and internally focused as they go about their work.

"Once people have been on the job for years they can start overlooking little things," he says. "Things don't get dealt with one day, are forgotten the next and not seen thereafter, even though somebody new on the job would see them right away. We want to stay focused on the really basic things."

And, he adds that by doing that, it's certainly possible to keep up to 95 percent of clients happy all the time.

Keeping that high level of performance across all those employees - in fact finding good employees - is one of the biggest problems Bemus Landscape faces at present. With the economy recovering, there's a lot of competition for the same pool of people, especially in the field crews.

"We have people who are constantly recruiting," Parry says. "We also try to treat people well. We try to pay them well, provide a decent working environment and offer some incentives."

At the same time, he says the recession has made clients more price-sensitive, "possibly on a permanent basis."

Still, the company keeps moving ahead, with an emphasis on expanding its commercial maintenance services and tree care. Also, the company plans to add a sixth location in 2014 to complement current operations in San Clemente, Santa Ana, San Marcos, Chino and Perris.

"We're hoping to open up something further south in San Diego later this year," says Parry. "We've also made a couple strategic acquisitions."

Whatever the future holds, Parry says he's proud of the success Bemus Landscape has enjoyed, and seeing his brother-in-law take what started as a one-man garden operation to a respected regional landscape company.

And, while Bemus isn't ready to shut the door on his own career just yet, Parry says he's excited to see how the business has evolved.

"Along with our longevity and reputation, there's now the generational shift taking place," Parry concludes. "People who weren't even born when this started are now coming on and assuming responsibility, and that's been very satisfying."

K. Schipper is an experienced business writer who lives and works in Palm Springs, Calif. She is a partner in Word Mechanics. If you have an interesting story to share in the pages of Turf magazine, you can contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.