Turf Magazine - April, 2014

SOUTH FEATURES

Following a "Pattern" of Success

Florida landscape company CEO takes business approach to growth
By Carol Brzozowski


Safety vests and street cones attest to ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design's emphasis on safety.
Photos courtesy of ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design.

Acomplaint by an elderly female customer convinced Joe Gonzalez that he wanted his new company to be recognized as only delivering the highest quality services. He visited the woman's property soon after buying ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design. With a yardstick in hand she demonstrated to him that her lawn had not been cut a uniform 3.5 inches.

"I explained that our mowers were set to that exact height and that the natural unevenness of the ground prevented a precise, carpeted look," he writes of the history of his ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design company. "She grudgingly nodded, and as she walked away, I shook my head. It had been a long hot day. But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how that was the market we should be after: the discerning client with high standards."

ArtisTree Landscape Maintenance & Design

CEO: Joe Gonzalez

Founded: 1990

Headquarters: Venice, Fla.

Markets: Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties in southwest Florida

Services: Landscape maintenance, design/build, irrigation and tree work

Employees: 250 in-season (200 off-season)

Website: http://www.artistree.com

That's how he set his Venice, Fla.-based company on its path to growth.

Gonzalez had a long history in finance and fashion before buying ArtisTree. This included stints with Butterick and Vogue Patterns, now part of The McCall Pattern Company. Through various promotions, he was soon heading the internal operations, overseeing a team of designers where he learned an eye for detail and honed his management skills. Nearing age 40, Gonzalez wanted his young family to live in a better climate than his home base in Canada, so he cashed out his interests in the company and moved to the Gulf Coast of Florida. He bought an existing air-conditioning business for himself and an existing landscape business for his retired father-in-law, whom he moved down with his mother-in-law, "to give him something to do."

The air-conditioning business didn't take off, but the small lawn maintenance business showed promise.

"It had no structure and I knew I could build it from basically nothing into a formalized company," says Gonzalez. His father-in-law passed away within a year so Gonzalez took full responsibility for it, acquiring accounts and adding services, such as pruning and irrigation, to compliment its mowing services. Frank Fistner, one of the original four employees, acquired his chemical application license. Gonzalez and Fistner worked diligently to build the business. Fistner is now president of the company that is budgeted for $17 million in revenues this season.

Gonzalez attributes his company's success in part to its marketing efforts, particularly the branding it has established internally and externally under the direction of Debra Morrow, vice president of marketing.

The cornerstone of the company's marketing efforts is its website, which is attractive and rich in content. "Property managers or HOA board members who come to our site are a captive audience," Morrow points out. "They're out looking for a new landscape provider. We try to educate them on the site." The company bolsters its digital presence by blogging, pushing out email blasts and keeping a lively presence on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter.



Joe Gonzalez says the Gulf Coast market is rebounding.

ArtisTree rounds out its marketing efforts with regular promotions and contests, such as one in which people were invited to submit "before" pictures of landscapes, with the winner getting the equivalent of a $40,000 backyard makeover on a $10,000 budget. Then there was the "Plant Fairy" program that provided seven families with free landscape plants to spruce up their yards.

One of Gonzalez' strategies is to keep landscaping at a smaller percentage in relationship to maintenance because of the construction industry's fluctuations.At the onset of the recession, he realized that turned out to be a good move. Landscaping was bringing in 25 percent of the revenues, with maintenance bringing in 75 percent.

"It held back our profitability," Gonzalez says of the crash of the construction market. "We had so much structure built behind the landscape business. Maintenance held out pretty good based on our reputation, our branding and customer loyalty. We had a 10 to 15 percent shrinkage in landscaping, which got cut by more than half."

Florida market rebounds

These days, the landscaping sector is back and beyond its earlier levels.

"There's serious money pouring in down here between the harsh winters and people getting disgusted with their life up north," says Gonzalez. "They're coming down in droves right now. I've never seen it as busy as it is now. They're coming early, they're staying longer and they're spending money. Some people are retiring early. My only concern is that the construction will be low-end, adding population without value."

Presently, ArtisTree is a primary vendor for companies building semi-custom homes, with landscape projects running $15,000 to $30,000 per property.

Gonzalez attributes starting off his business with a healthy cash flow to being able to establish a business that separates itself from the competition.

"A lot of guys went into business without the financial backing," he says. "I have zero horticultural background. I'm totally business-oriented. I can always hire experienced people, but you won't succeed if you don't manage the dough, the pricing and don't have a methodology in mind.

"I had a goal of being the best from the day I went into the business. I surpassed my own expectations. My biggest skill is finding good people. I attract them, I motivate them. When I'm up, I'll bring them up."

At peak season, the company has 250 employees. ArtisTree is attracting a lot of talented people with a high level of horticultural experience and certification and existing employees are engaged in ongoing continuing education leading to more certifications.

"We look for motivated, aggressive people with a fair amount of responsibility who want to direct themselves forward," Gonzalez says.

As with so many other landscape maintenance operations, labor is the greatest challenge. Gonzalez relied on the H2B program for 12 years and had hired increasing numbers of seasonal labor from the program, but is now holding back.

"We get so much aggravation with it," he says. "It started with the decline in the economy. The U.S. Department of Labor told us we have to employ Americans. Americans don't want to do this work - full-time, yes, but not on a part-time basis."

A local labor agency is helping to fill the spots, but Gonzalez would like to see the H2B program gain strength again.

"It constitutes 66,000 employees, which is a pimple compared to what the employment situation is in this country," he says. "They are a very strong supplemental support for companies like ours. It's a good program but it's a battle to keep it going. It's approved every year so there are no guarantees from one year to the next that it's going to be in existence."

Gonzalez views employee specialization as being the best approach to a client base comprised of large communities with multiple homes. One group of employees is dedicated to mowing, weed-eating, edging and blowing. Another team makes monthly visits for pruning, taking care of weeds and touching up the beds. An irrigation crew inspects the system, cuts around the irrigation donuts and checks on the clocks.

Florida's communities have had water restrictions in response to dry seasons, so ArtisTree employees keep a close eye on irrigation clocks, ensuring they are timed to be operative only when necessary.

The company has a water truck for clients in emergency situations where a pump might be going down or a lake that is the source of irrigation water is low. Clients can purchase water service on an hourly basis.

Personal service

ArtisTree assigns account executives and sometimes a few assistants for each maintenance client, typically HOAs, to ensure costs and landscaping challenges stay in line. Each account executive handles $1 million to $1.5 million worth of business.

Customer retention is high, and the company has some accounts dating 20 years. Pairing qualified employees with state-of-the-art equipment helps ensure that customer retention.

ArtisTree has augmented its line-up of riding mowers with stand-up mowers, which employees find easier to use because they can get between homes easier and are easier to maintain and repair, as well as have a smaller footprint on a trailer, Gonzalez says.

ArtisTree is also one of a few companies that Husqvarna has chosen to test out the installation of software into small tools, hedgers and weed-eaters that downloads information for later canalization. The company also keeps back-up pieces of all equipment on the truck as well as new tools that can be deployed as needed.

Gonzalez says the company is getting increasingly firm about safety and it's paying off. ArtisTree has monthly safety education meetings. Teams are equipped with personal protection equipment such as gloves, guards, helmets and earplugs.

Crews are financially rewarded for periods of accident-free days.

Serious pricing issues

ArtisTree has struggled with pricing on maintenance jobs. Those serving on the highest levels of boards of HOAs are most concerned about price, says Gonzalez. The second level of HOAs, landscape committees and directors, are concerned about keeping up the appearance of the community and real estate values.

"There is a battle going on between these two factions and price is winning out more," says Gonzalez.

In the past two years, ArtisTree has tightened its standards to make its services more affordable to the average client. In the case of one major client, the company reduced its annual costs by a quarter-million dollars. "They were desperate to keep us, but they didn't want to go out to bid because they knew we weren't going to be

Even as his clients were cutting back during the Recession, Gonzalez looked at his own operations to trim expenses. "We manage our staff a little better and found a lot of wasted money," he says.

GPS units have been installed on most of the equipment in the fleet. "I know the whereabouts of every vehicle," he says. "I know where my account execs are from moment to moment if anybody wants to know. Not that anybody is trying to cheat, but we want to be efficient.

"In the past, we had mowing crews sitting at the back gate because they were down at 4 p.m. and didn't want to punch out until 5 p.m., so they waited it out until the end instead of finding another job and finishing it the next day. We have to outsmart ourselves and use modern technology as well as analyze it."

Gonzalez calls quality a "perception" clients have - if they believe they are getting the service they want, that also means they're getting the quality they desire. Part of quality control is the company's "no-no" policy, which means not saying "no" to customer requests. But "they can say yes as much as they want, because we have to make money," Gonzalez says.

ArtisTree has five core values:

  • Do the right thing.
  • Communicate.
  • Be safe and watch out for each other.
  • Pursue growth through self-motivation and learning.
  • Leave the world better than we found it.

The company also supports more than 50 local charities.

Continuing success

Referencing his past work history, Gonzalez seeks to be the "Vogue" of the industry. ArtisTree's website lists a number of awards it has achieved from the local to national level, year after year.

"I don't think any of my competition puts as much marketing as I have into their business," he says. "I also feel that designing landscapes that are chichi, exciting, image-building and artistic leverages into the maintenance business, which is pretty mundane, simple and ordinary in a lot of ways."

Even in renaming the company, Gonzalez put image front and center. The company was originally named Save On. Gonzalez kept the name as he established the company and then 12 years ago changed it to ArtisTree to reflect a more upscale image of "artistry".

Gonzalez believes he's achieved the goals he set when he first bought the company. "I want a company where people can get up and go to work, knowing they're working for an honest company and that we give them the tools to do an honest job, deliver a good product and have happy customers as opposed to going out there and figuring out how to cut corners and make money. That I think we've done successfully and will continue to do so."

Gonzalez says if he were to have done anything differently, it would be to take quicker action with weak employees.

"Whenever I make a determination, I discover it was a lot deeper than I thought it was after the fact," he says. "I like to be absolutely sure about decisions before I make them and have enough personal evidence that I'm comfortable with it before I take somebody out of a job. That's been a mistake of mine. I've lost business over it. I've lost money over it."

Gonzalez sees potential to double business in his present geographic range. His five-year plan is to get the company back to where it was before the recession began. He'd like to establish an equity program for key employees that builds on current bonus programs.

"I need to get the company to a profit level and return on sales where I can afford to do that," he says. "We're making pretty good money now, so I think in the next couple of years, we can get to that format."

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.