Andrew Lala, left, and John Freitag, right, founded Yellow Wagon Landscaping LLC in 2010.
Photos courtesy of Yellow Wagon Landscaping LLC.
Yellow Wagon Landscaping LLC is a unique name, with a unique story to tell about its founding. Owners John Freitag, 25, and Andrew Lala, 26, were in middle school in 2002 when they decided to earn some money mowing lawns and doing yard work in their Bergen County, N.J., neighborhood.
It started with Freitag's grandmother and a neighbor. At first, they were too young to drive, so they carried their equipment piled onto an overladen mower - until the mower wheels broke off. Then they bought a yellow wagon to use for carting around their equipment, and this wagon became the identifier for the company, even after the boys were old enough to drive the beater 1989 Range Rover they bought.
"It was wetter inside than out, but it seemed like a Caddy to us," says Freitag.
Lala graduated first, going off to the University of Maryland for a landscape architect degree, and Freitag went off a year later, heading to Rutgers to study the landscape industry and learn how to run a landscaping company. They sold the business, at least the equipment and the customer base, but kept the name Yellow Wagon Landscaping for later.
"It intrigues people," says Freitag.
Yellow Wagon Landscaping LLC
Owners: John Freitag and Andrew Lala
Headquarters: Ridgefield, N.J.
Market: Northern New Jersey and New York City Services: Design and construction, maintenance
Later on in 2010, degrees in hand, Lala and Freitag started up Yellow Wagon again as a professional entity, this time in the crowded Ridgefield, N.J., market.
Even so, Yellow Wagon is making a success of it by smartly leveraging contacts. One of these was through Lala's interim job with New York City Mayor Bloomberg's Million Tree Initiative, which gave him invaluable knowledge about scheduling and working with other trades on streetscaping and green traffic islands.
The duo caught a break when they were asked to design a memorial plaza for the 10th anniversary of 9/11 for the nearby town of Fairview. It went well.
Clients now include Palisades Medical Center, some high-end residential customers and two catering halls. The medical center project was especially challenging in that Hurricane Sandy had pushed 4 feet of water onto the property, which did great damage to the landscape.
"It (medical center) was reopened in a week and a half. We had to get all hands on deck to get it done with 14-hour days," says Freitag.
That, and other projects that the partners have picked up, are the results of networking outside of the industry. One example is the work they've been doing for the catering centers.
"One thing I have learned is that you never know how a connection you made will help your business," says Freitag. "I parked the cars, got to know the owners, and they got to know me."
In another instance, a friend turned the guys onto an opportunity to work with HGTV's Genevieve Gorder, of Dear Genevieve. That led to a green wall installation on a Brooklyn rooftop.
"It was new to us, but we had just started and were saying 'yes' to anything. We learned all we could, and we tapped into our extensive network of colleagues for the information. We pride ourselves on knowing who to go to to get what we need. It had to take plantings that were ready to go," says Freitag.
He referenced another urban rooftop garden that they completed, this one designed by a friend, Benjamin Heller, an independent designer who went to Rutgers.
"We want to concentrate more on design and construction," says Freitag.
Lala is also proud of an installation the team is doing for a family with two large back-to-back lots on separate streets. Not only do the backyards conjoin, but there is special accommodation for a resident in a wheelchair, with accessible pathways and vistas.
Entering this season, the two Yellow Wagon Landscaping owners are sharing production with two employees. So far their revenue stream is about 60 percent maintenance and 40 percent design/build.
The market is competitive, especially in the mowing/maintenance arena, adds Lala, who feels there is more opportunity for his company in specialized design work. "The kind of clients we are looking for wants what we have to give. They are like-minded, pay attention to detail and want someone who can deliver."
Lala says that the company, realizing that clients' almost always want more landscaping than they can immediately afford, is becoming better at designing and selling projects in phases.
Yellow Wagon Landscaping services both commercial and high-end residential landscapes. Note the incredible job the company did with seasonal color on The Venetian in Garfield, N.J.
"It all starts with a good landscape plan," he says. "You converse with the land itself, and then you converse with the clients. There is a lot of give and take with customers in planning so there there expectations are met, there are no surprises and, in the end, everyone is happy."
Stepping up marketing
To get the bigger (and more profitable) projects the company is aiming for, it will focus, for the first time, on marketing beyond direct mail.
"To grow the construction end this year, we have to figure out how to advertise," says Freitag.
This will likely include improving search engine optimization (SEO) for the company website and even the Yellow Pages. "We look at Yelp as it has helped out a lot of businesses," says Freitag, "and SEO is a proven way to go. And, we're just staring to research the Yellow Pages. It offers packages with Web pages, videos, all you can do on the Internet."
Also worthwhile is Facebook. It's so easy to update, to just take a picture of an installation and click and upload. It is cool machinery and gets the word out." The key, says Freitag, is to use a variety of approaches. You don't know how each client will approach will find out about you.
Up until now, Yellow Wagon has rented production equipment, but it is now in a position to buy. "You need to get the right tool for the job," says Freitag. "Boys will be boys, and we love machines. We want to get a skid steer."
One of the biggest challenges, says Freitag, is to find qualified employees. "We would rather grow more slowly and keep the quality of our work high," says Freitag. "When we make a hire, we give the guy a task and observe to see how he approaches it. We watch how they do things, and sometimes we learn from that. Everybody brings something new to the table. I don't always know the best way to do everything. Leadership is to learn from others. I think it should be 'eyes open, mouth shut.' Observe first and correct second."
"Our first employee found us!" adds Freitag, noting that the particular individual cold-called to ask if they needed help. The second employee was a friend of the first.
"We believe that hard-working, ambitious people have friends that are like them," says Freitag, and that those friends have already have built up relationships and trust with one another.
The company also offers indoor planting services, like at the Taco Truck in Morristown, N.J.
But, he adds, workforce development is still the biggest challenge he faces because networking through employees doesn't necessarily mean that a particular skill set matches exactly what the team is looking for.
The partners do not know how fast that Yellow Wagon can grow, "just as a parent does not know how quickly a child will mature. Our company grows and matures as our employees and we do," says Freitag.
He adds, "Camaraderie is vital. Employees don't work for us. We all work for the company as a team." He says that vendors and employees are chosen on the basis of compatibility, shared values and like-minded business practices. "Our growth is a natural progression, you can't force it," Freitag adds. "We don't want to stress ourselves. We love what we do and do what we love. If we don't think it will be a good project, we won't take it."
He also adds that Yellow Wagon's strongest suite is probably communication. "You call back. You email back as soon as you can. The number one problem my clients bring to me is that they have to wait for someone to get back to them. And especially in sending bills on time, which you wouldn't think would be a problem, but it is. You watch out for your cash flow, and you pay your own bills on time. We pay our vendors for a project even if we didn't get the payment for it yet," he adds.
Freitag continues that he loves owning his own company.
"It is living a dream. I have never worked a day in my life. I get to drive a cool truck, talk to people, be outside, and do what I love to do best."
Cindy Greenwald has more than 30 years experience writing about contractors and their business issues from her office in Cleveland, Ohio.