Photos courtesy of Stano Landscaping.
From push-mowing lawns to building retaining walls to installing green roofs, Matt Stano has learned the landscaping business from the ground up over the last 50 years. With demographics trending favorably, Stano Landscaping seems well-positioned to continue beautifying Milwaukee-area properties for many years to come.
"I can only tell you that our research shows people are spending more time at their homes," Stano says of the future. He adds that homeowners increasingly want enhanced views outside their picture windows and an aging population wants professional assistance with grounds maintenance.
"These trends are not going to stop. That's the reality," he says.
Stano entered the real world of lawn care and landscaping at age 13 when he began to mow neighborhood lawns. His first job was his grandfather's yard, earning $3.75 at $1.25 an hour. At 17, he hired his brother part time and a year later, with the 1960s military draft in the background, Stano decided the grass was green enough to make it a life's work.
Does he regret turning a summer job into a career?
"I have regrets every day," he says with a laugh, lightly acknowledging that developing and maintaining a successful landscaping business is hard work. "The business part has gotten more complicated and keeps me from actually doing landscape work, which is what I most like to do. Running the business is taking up most of my time."
Officers: President Matt Stano, Vice President of Administration Judy Stano
Headquarters: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Markets: Metro Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin
Services: Landscape design & installation, green roofs, landscape management and horticultural services, decorative lighting, fences and decks, water features, perennial gardens, irrigation systems, holiday lighting, rain gardens, sports turf installation and lawn care
Employees: 50 full time, approximately 100 peak season
The first big step
Stano incorporated Stano Landscaping in 1971 when he acquired his first 1-ton contractor's dump truck and an early-model M600 Bobcat skid steer. He ended up buying the equipment with the help of a financial institution and a customer.
"I showed the bank my great book of business, and a loan seemed like a no-brainer," he recalls. The banker was not sufficiently impressed, however, so Stano turned to the customer for an equipment down-payment loan.
Two years later, he set up an equipment area in a Quonset hut on a third of an acre, with an office situated elsewhere. The company then expanded into commercial landscaping and, in 1980, consolidated operations at the current location on North Industrial Road in Milwaukee.
There, Judi Stano, vice president of administration, oversees office and personnel functions. Thomas Stano manages equipment maintenance and operations. Several architects, project managers and accounting help round out the executive staff.
Fifty employees work in the field, with up to 50 more helping in season. The Stano fleet of equipment has grown to 25 trucks, two wheel loaders, two tandem rigs and a dump hauler, mini-excavators and numerous Bobcat and New Holland skid steer loaders.
Lots of iron
"There is no iron deficiency in our company," quips Randy Hill, a sales and project manager.
On any given morning, a crew will pull out of the equipment yard in a dump truck with, perhaps, a skid steer in tow, but Hill says there is no typical job.
Stano is convinced the public will continue to desire and demand major outdoor living/entertainment enhancements.
"Some crews use hand shovels for a few hours for a couple hundred dollars. Some will unload mini-excavators and loaders and be there for three months. It's across the board."
Company projects are 65 to 70 percent landscape construction and 15 to 20 percent property maintenance. The balance is snow removal and miscellaneous services.
In 2006, the company took its work to another level, literally, installing landscape materials on rooftops. The roofscape projects essentially create designed green spaces using living plants, with the end result being more pleasing views from adjacent windows and lessened runoff from rainfall. Stano Landscaping was one of the first area contractors to do the work. To date the company numbers 14 green roof projects to its credit.
Matt Stano had never heard of green roofs in 1963, of course, but his company has mastered the art of building them. Three roof plantings at a Monroe clinic earned the company a Gold Award from the Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association. A "healing garden" on a roof at St. Luke's Hospital won the Grand Award from the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), which represents 4,200 landscape contractors in the U.S. A third project was awarded a green building citation by the Wisconsin chapter of Associated Builders and Contractors.
The company's work at ground level has been similarly singled out for praise. A major overhaul of a residential entranceway on Lake Drive in Milwaukee earned the company another Gold Award. The transforming makeover included Redspire pear trees, shrubs and hedges, a tiled walkway and a bell-shaped courtyard with a pedestal planter that mimicked architectural details on the house.
The company's Wisconsin Country Club project involved broad concrete walkways leading up to a new main entrance staircase. Other new features include the installation of an event lawn and new landscaping.
"We've won a few landscape awards," Stano concedes, "but I'm not looking for such recognition. I don't seek it out. I'm running the business to make money, but also to produce quality work and satisfied customers. Awards are not the goal."
Personal awards coming to Stano include his induction into the Wisconsin Landscape Federation Hall of Fame. The honor recognized his years of service on the federation's board of directors and in other industry leadership positions in the state. He and a handful of peers also started a scholarship fund some 20 years ago that helps support students in technical colleges and horticultural industry coursework.
Landscape construction continues to bring special satisfaction to Stano and useful recognition to the company, which completes upwards of 200 such projects a year. Yet Stano is realistic about the comparative bottom line value. "The more complicated projects with water features, retaining walls, seat walls and other features are very satisfying to me from a visual point of view, but they often are the least profitable."
Is there a signature Stano look in its landscape projects?
"I hope not," the president says matter-of-factly. The work's high quality is the only company trademark. "We treat each project as an individual creation. Our work is driven by what a client is looking for."
Stano Landscaping competes on quality and professionalism, because the same ease with which the young Stano entered the industry a half-century ago is enjoyed by others today.
"It's not like plumbing or electrical work where a contractor needs to be licensed," Stano notes. "When things get tough and people get laid off, they get into the landscape business. They buy a trailer and a mower and all of a sudden they are competition for us."
Hill runs into this in sales and project management contacts.
"It's a dollar-driven industry and we have to overcome the low-bid contractors out there," he says. The company does it by offering value-added services. "We try to give clients other options, or save them money by doing things differently. We may use different materials or different sized plants, or redesign part of a project to better utilize space."
The industry has changed during the last five decades, Stano says. Materials are different in some cases, a good example being the supplanting of old railroad ties for terrace walls with such material as Lannon stone, a versatile and handsome rock found in southern Wisconsin. In general, more landscaping components are incorporated into projects.
Also, because clients are so particular about the grass on their properties, lawn care now involves using more preemergent and postemergent herbicides, he says.
Grounds maintenance work is increasingly important for business stability, Stano believes.
"My first love is construction and working with homeowners. Maintenance is more repetitive and less attractive to me personally, but in hindsight I would have developed more of it. A company can depend on it more, whereas with construction a property owner may or may not need you after a project is done," he says.
The company founder says he hopes to expand each service offered by Stano Landscaping, probably without establishing multiple locations. Increased efficiency is the preferred method. He especially foresees outdoor spaces as a growth area for the industry, with homeowners continuing to be attracted to the idea of extending their homes into outside areas.
That homeowners in winter-challenged Wisconsin are looking outdoors is not surprising to Stano. "When you can get outdoors," he says, "you want to be outdoors as much as you can."
Giles Lambertson is an experienced researcher, editor and and business writer who lives and works in Winchester, Kansas.