Turf Magazine - May, 2012

CENTRAL FEATURES

Gem Off the Beaten Path

Brothers Bill and Steve Miller set a goal to grow their Ohio family business into a landscape destination
By Ron Hall

Miller Landscape & Gardens


Owners: Bill and Steve Miller
Founded: 1982
Headquarters: Norwalk, Ohio
Market: North-central Ohio
Services: Lawn maintenance, lawn care, design/build, construction, landscape installation, water features and retail garden center
Employees: 40 peak season
Website: www.millerlandscapeandgardens.com

Miller Landscape & Gardens is one of northern Ohio's best-kept secrets. Brothers Bill and Steve Miller are on a mission to change that.

The brothers are co-owners of the full-service landscape company and garden center headquartered on a quiet two-lane road just outside of Norwalk, a small city of 17,000 located about 25 miles south of Lake Erie in north-central Ohio. The 17-acre property is a showcase of functional landscaping and garden products. Visitors and customers can browse a retail garden center, display gardens, functional outdoor kitchens and entertainment areas, a variety of water features and modern greenhouses.

And, that's not counting the incredible but informal landscape and pond (with beach) behind Miller and his wife Candy's modern log cabin home. The home is a two-minute walk from the demonstration gardens, garden center and greenhouses. Steve's home, with its formal garden landscape, is a mere five-minute drive away. Both properties are often used to show prospects the scale and quality of the landscapes the company can provide.


Brothers Bill, left, and Steve Miller own and operate Miller Landscape & Gardens, a full-service landscape company with a destination retail nursery and garden center.
PHOTOS BY MILLER LANDSCAPE & GARDENS, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.

While the firm's award-winning landscapes and timely maintenance and lawn care services speak for themselves, the brothers want to reinvigorate sales in their retail garden center. To that end, they're investing in billboard and other forms of marketing. Understandably, the marketing also provides directions to their amazing but off-the-beaten-path facility.

Clients' desires change

Miller says sales at the garden center boomed when the economy plummeted in 2008-09. Then, realizing that the economy wasn't going to quickly bounce back, many customers reduced spending, even in the garden center.

"The first year of the recession the garden center did really well. In a bad economy like that, everyone went from asking us to do their landscaping to doing it themselves," says Miller.

"I think initially people thought that the bad economy was going to be over in a year," he says. "Of course, that hasn't been the case. The garden center is down from where it was, but the last couple of years it has held its own."


PHOTO BY RON HALL.

Providentially and somewhat unexpectedly, the landscape construction business revived during the downturn, although in a direction the brothers hadn't anticipated. More on that later.

To say that the brothers live and breathe the landscape business is a gross understatement. Evidence, apart from how close they live to company headquarters, are the 70-plus hours a week each is putting into the family business because of this year's very early and protracted spring.

Miller is in charge of the landscaping business and Steve heads the greenhouses, the garden center and what the family calls "the farm."

As it turns out, describing the property as a farm is appropriate. That's what it's always been. In fact, it was a vegetable farm when the Millers purchased it 25 years ago. Now, instead of growing vegetables in the original coal-heated, glass greenhouses that came with the property, they grow bedding plants and perennials in modern, energy-efficient greenhouses.

Also, somewhat like a farm, they recycle all of the green waste that their operations generate. Leaves, branches, clippings and more all come back to the facility to be composted and reused. Even broken concrete is used again.


When the economy went south in 2008-09, demand for small landscape projects declined, but demand for larger projects and landscape renovations with ongoing maintenance increased significantly, says co-owner Steve Miller.

But greenhouses and landscape debris certainly aren't what prospects come to see. Prospects and clients want to see what the company can do in terms of producing beautiful outdoor living spaces and keeping their landscapes healthy and colorful.

Visit us, you'll love it

"We have all of these gardens that we want people to walk and to see," says Bill Miller. "We want this to become a destination location even if people don't buy anything. We know they will come back once they visit us. We go to great lengths and expense to make this facility unique."

He says the inspiration for his goal is the time he spent several decades ago while visiting Rogers Gardens in Newport Beach, Calif.

The Miller Landscape & Gardens property features six unique gardens. One of them is a stunning modern outdoor kitchen/entertainment area. Nearby are several different types of water features. Each garden is landscaped with specimen plantings, and finished with one of many different types of mulch and landscape stone. The stone is mostly used for paths and walkways, but it can be used in place of mulch, too, in some landscapes.

Visitors also get to see decorative ironwork and decorative rock sculptures along with different styles of employee-built pergolas, ramadas and gazebos.

"When property owners walk around our facility they can actually see and touch our products and our landscapes," says Miller. "They can hear the sound of the stone under their feet. They can hear the water in the waterfall. This gives them a much better idea of what we have and what we can do rather than just showing them drawings or brochures."

Miller says he's confident his team can deliver what clients see in his display gardens (and more) because the company is loaded with experienced, reliable employees.

"We have more talent in this size company than any other company that I'm aware of. We have a lot of people here that have degrees, and many have been with us quite a few years," says Miller, who earned a degree in landscape horticulture at The Ohio State University years ago kicking off his career.

On the morning that Turf visited the company, Miller had just seen off a mowing crew, two lawn care crews and four landscape crews. The rest of Miller's Thursday would be filled with catching up on landscape designs, which he draws by hand.

Miller says the size and scope of landscape projects the company delivers to clients changed dramatically as the effects of the 2008 recession dug in. He admits to being surprised by the sudden shift.


Visitors to Miller Landscape & Gardens can still experience some of the property's farm heritage along with functional outdoor rooms and gardens.

While demand for the modest one-day landscape install/construction projects dried up (at least until recently), demand for larger, more involved landscape projects took off.

"People's mindsets have changed since 2008," says Miller. "They're staying at home. They want to entertain at their homes. They want outdoor kitchens and outdoor entertainment areas."

Miller tells prospects that hiring Miller Landscape to design and install an outdoor entertainment room won't be inexpensive, but it will be much less expensive than a home addition.

"That's when they begin to understand that the money they'll be spending with us is a good investment, particularly when they see what we can do by visiting our facility," says Miller.

He says he's also encouraged by the renewed interest within his market for the smaller projects again. "I've gotten more phone calls this spring for these types of jobs than I have the past three years," he says.

Many of these calls result in landscape renovations, tearing out older landscapes and replacing them. "For us to get new homes for landscaping now is pretty rare," says Miller.

The brothers say they're fortunate to be offering services in a market that understands good landscaping and high-end maintenance services.

"People in this region of the state have an appreciation for good landscape care," says Miller. "They realize the importance of having their shrubs properly trimmed; their lawns cared for."

Crazy spring

In most cases, when Miller Landscape & Gardens installs a landscape, it also picks up the property's maintenance.

"Maintaining properties is a huge part of our early season," says Miller. The season generally starts in March with property cleanups, and lawn applications go gangbusters until July 4, he says.

The northern Ohio weather, he says, plays a large part in determining how successful the company will be year-to-year. The 2011 spring was depressingly cold and wet and hurt the company's landscape businesses and garden center sales. And this past winter, one of the mildest in history, gave the company few snow revenue opportunities.

"You're not supposed to depend on that income, but everybody does. Not having any snow this year hurt us," admits Miller.

Mother Nature, perhaps trying to regain favor with landscape pros, ushered in this spring with warm and sunny conditions weeks earlier than usual. Although still wary of Mother Nature's fickle moods, Miller is more optimistic about the company's 2012 fortunes.

Miller, who is five years older than Steve, says when he started the business he never anticipated that Miller Landscape & Gardens would get as large as it has.

"It can be overwhelming, how fast it all comes in and how much you have to do. It can get absolutely insane," he says. "I complain about it sometimes, but I love what I do."

Ron Hall is editor-in-chief of Turf magazine. He has been reporting on service industries, including the landscape/lawn service industry, for the past 28 years. Contact him at rhall@mooserivermedia.com.