Turf Magazine - January, 2012

CENTRAL FEATURES

Getting Aggressive

Twin brothers are double-teaming the central Illinois market with their growing Bellas Landscaping
By Nancy Riggs

Bellas Landscaping


Founded: 2003
Headquarters: Bloomington, Ill.
Owners: Adam and Justin Bellas
Markets: Bloomington and Normal, Ill., and surrounding counties
Services: Lawn maintenance, lawn care, mulching, design/build, construction, irrigation, snow management, erosion control and hydroseeding
Employees: 22 to 24 peak season, with 15 working year-round
Website: www.bellaslandscaping.com

We've had our best year ever," says Adam Bellas, co-owner of Bellas Landscaping, Bloomington, Ill. Bellas credits aggressive marketing and selling for propelling the company's sales. The company advertises in newspapers and on the radio, but gets its best leads from referrals.

Bellas and his twin brother Justin started the business as a lawn maintenance service in 2003. The company has evolved into a full-service landscape company, offering lawn maintenance along with design and build landscaping. Bellas handles most of the administration duties and Justin manages operations.

A number of landscaping firms, particularly those that worked in the construction segment that was booming just a few years ago, are looking for work in homeowner landscape upgrades. Others are bidding jobs that require lots of travel just to keep work for their crews. Providing high-quality work and maintaining sound business practices combined with the proactive marketing and selling approach are fueling the growth of Bellas Landscaping, even in this poor economy.


Adam and Justin Bellas view a recently completed residential job that they installed.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NANCY RIGGS.

After earning associate degrees in business at Heartland College and working in computer-based jobs for four years, the Bellas brothers started their business as a lawn maintenance company, doing primarily residential work. But that didn't last, mostly as a result of the economy's plunge after 2008.

"Because of the economy, more people got into the lawn maintenance business and we weren't competitive in our pricing as some people just kept lowering their prices. We started doing other things along with the lawn maintenance," says Bellas. These included finish grading, ornamentals, design/build, hardscaping, irrigation - just about anything related to landscaping.

Bellas credits much of the increased business to having the right people on board and a continuing focus on quality work. "We have a great designer and a great estimator. They call back on all the call-ins and go out to meet with the callers. They use landscape software to show customers exactly what their projects will look like upon completion," he says. "It comes down to the designer selling himself to the customer."

Job costing is critical

Along with effective presentations and on-target estimates, another element comes into play that is significant to obtaining increased business and maintaining an acceptable profit margin. For instance, Bellas works closely with the designer and estimator, and they pay special attention to job costing. Critical to the process is determining man-hours for each project. Don't forget overhead, as well, says Bellas.

"Our designer and our estimator have worked for us on actual jobs. They know how much time it takes to do the work, so they don't bid jobs based on times that our crews can't meet," says Bellas.


Kentucky bluegrass is the grass of choice in a sunny area like this because of its beauty and durability. This turfgrass came from M&M Sod, Lexington, Ill.

"People have been able to see that we do quality work. We're not always the cheapest bid, but people are willing to pay for quality," he adds. He cites the correct use of plants in landscape settings as an example of their knowledge and dedication to quality. "We know how the plants will fit as mature plants and trees," he says. "That's important so that five years down the road, they don't have to be taken out and replaced, resulting in extra costs to the customer."

He also cites the importance of quality work in hardscapes. "Even if we have to do something extra to fix a problem, we'll do it. We want to keep the customers happy. If we keep them happy, we will have them for another project, and they will refer other people to us. That often saves us from having to bid against several other people on jobs," says Bellas.

A recent project involved developing a pavilion with a fireplace and grill at Rainbow Resources, a family-owned, educational distribution business in Toulon, Ill., about two hours away from their headquarters. Rainbow Resources serves as an employee perk where lunches are prepared and served two or three times a week in the remote business location. The landscape project included finish grading and installing a small amount of sod from M&M Sod, Lexington, Ill., and several plants and trees. "We used a Unilock kit to build the fireplace and built a custom grill, and installed Unilock pavers," Bellas says.

Excellent retention

Bellas Landscaping has about 90 customers (mostly residential, but a growing number of commercial accounts) taking its complete package of lawn maintenance services. The company is currently processing spring contracts and expects to retain about 90 to 95 percent its contracts.

Bellas says that low-priced competitors seemed to be more of a problem several years ago than they are now. "People are willing to pay a little more knowing that we provide the full-service lawn maintenance. They like our attention to details. We provide everything from adding new mulch when needed and pruning their shrubs and perennials to managing their irrigation start-ups and shut-downs." Bellas Landscaping subcontracts irrigation installs.

Bellas is pleased with his company's ability to keep good employees. The company counts on 22 to 24 peak-season employees, with about 15 working through much of the winter months delivering snow removal services. Bloomington lies north of Interstate 72, which is generally regarded as the boundary for heavier snowfall.


Paveloc pavers and building stones are featured in this residential landscape project.

Equipment maintenance

Bellas says that equipment maintenance is high on his list of priorities. "We have a great mechanic, and we keep all of our equipment well-maintained. That saves on downtime," he says.

Bellas Landscaping uses primarily Exmark mowers and Stihl trimmers and blowers purchased from Martin Brothers Outdoor Power in Bloomington, which services units when the company's full-time mechanic is overloaded. The company tracks truck and equipment use carefully and replaces equipment that threatens problems lost production. "All the service invoices come through me, and I watch the service that is performed," says Bellas. "We update our equipment before it gets to the point of having no value."

Looking ahead

About a year ago, Bellas Landscaping opened a garden center in Bloomington to sell plants wholesale and retail. The garden center has about 100 varieties available at the garden center site, along with displays of Paveloc Pavers and other hardscape materials.

Bellas says one of the biggest challenges that he and other landscapers deal with daily is the bidding process. It's also often very confusing to prospects. "It's not always bidding apples to apples. Sometimes customers don't know the quality of the work that a bid represents," says Bellas. Experienced landscape professionals know their true costs in bidding projects and bid accordingly. Only then can they provide customers with the quality of services that they, the customers, expect.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at NFRIGGS@aol.com.