Turf Magazine - September, 2013

NORTH FEATURES

Partners with a Plan

Doug Caldwell and Brad Groff take River Valley Landscapes & Pools in new directions
By J.F. Pirro


The company's River Valley Organics brand, with its busy blower truck business, serves markets from governmental to playgrounds.
Photos courtesy of River Valley Landscape & Pools.

Partners Doug Caldwell and Brad Groff have expanded their own original company, headquartered in Wrightsville, Pa., into new services multiple times since its founding in 1991. They've parlayed their primary company, River Valley Landscapes & Pools, into River Valley Organics and River Valley Recreation - and into a slightly different diversion, Schedule 2 Win.

The process began in 2000 when they, already comfortable with the design/build business and seeking an additional revenue stream, acquired a small fleet of blower trucks to use for large landscape applications and other "green" work. This move paved the way for much of their pubic sector playground design/install jobs. By 2010 the playground work had grown into such a successful niche business that the partners formed River Valley Recreation, a separate division to build playgrounds.

River Valley Landscapes & Pools

Owners: Doug Caldwell and Brad Groff

Founded: 1991

Headquarters: Wrightsville, Pa.

Markets: Gettysburg to Philadelphia and Harrisburg to Baltimore

Services: Landscape design-build, blower truck services, and commercial playground design and installation

Employees: 9 full time,15 seasonal

Websites: http://www.rivervalleylandscapes.com, http://www.rivervalleyorganics.com, http://www.rivervalleyrecreation.com, http://www.schedule2win.com

This summer, the partners launched Schedule 2 Win business software that they had been using successfully in their company for a decade. Designed for service-oriented companies, particularly ones who bill in time and materials, Schedule 2 Win (http://www.Schedule2Win.com) schedules manpower and equipment, and also determines profitability and revenue targets.

"We partnered with a software writer, but it uses our ideas," Caldwell says.

Together Caldwell, Groff and Pat Killian, the software writer, own CAPAX, the parent company that offers Schedule 2 Win software.

How can it help? For example, if you're borrowing money from a bank, it'll require a monthly payment, but what the bank doesn't necessarily understand, he says, is that the landscape industry has variables like weather delays and equipment failures. The bank still wants a payment and you still have to make sure you're profitable enough to make that payment. Schedule 2 Win can help make that determination and more.

Using a drop-and-drag interface, using your own numbers, they used the system for 10 years to build their companies' revenues to $5 million a year. They're working with a marketing firm to get the word out in addition to promoting it at trade shows and conferences.

"It's designed to bring more green (in the form of dollars) to any industry," Caldwell says. "We've begun with the landscape industry because that's our background."

The typical cycle for any landscaper, or service-oriented firm, can be vicious. You field calls, bid work, schedule it if you're lucky (or good), then develop a timetable to complete the work and get paid, only to then repeat the cycle again with the next client.

Schedule 2 Win allows proprietors the ability to figure out the profitability of a project before it's too late, even before you have signed on the dotted line as the contractor, or after to make critical adjustments before it's too late.

"We've had a lot of positive feedback; the response has been good," Caldwell says.

Learn the business

Caldwell and Groff bring two distinct interests and outlooks to their businesses. Caldwell loves everything involved with growing the business. He knows that landscaping is more than just planting a tree properly or designing an appealing poolside landscape. Understanding the business, in particular the economic side of running a landscape company, is vital to any firm's survival and ongoing success.

The two met at Delaware Valley College where they were both studying ornamental horticulture and landscape architecture and design. When they graduated, it initiated what Caldwell calls "the school of hard knocks," but they took advantage of good advisers, listened and worked their butts off. They had built their combined companies to 50 employees, but around 2006-07 they began scaling back.

"We were scheduling a lot of work, getting it all done, and on the established pace and timeline, but then at the end of the month, despite how hard we had worked, we really hadn't made any money," recalls Caldwell. "Either we hadn't scheduled enough work to eventually succeed because we hadn't sold and scheduled enough to do, or we had to reduce our inputs and expenses. That's when you learn how to run a business, how to manage and lead people, how the healthcare system and regulatory agencies work, how you learn about state worker's compensation."



River Valley Landscapes & Pools, founded in 1991, initially focused on design/ build projects. It has since diversifed into other services.

By the early 1990s, they were quickly doing $700,000 to $800,000 annually and were growing, thanks in large part to networking and relying on the advice to paid industry consultants. They began to think like a business, and "not a mom and pop," Caldwell says. They began to delegate responsibility to others they trusted, to invest like a business and to manage people like a business.

Blowing up new business

River Valley Landscapes, which has focused primarily on outdoor living spaces throughout south central and eastern Pennsylvania, has become smaller the last two or three years. Caldwell blames the poor economy, but says that people are still spending. "They're just shopping it more," he adds.

In their market, any home improvement project will typically net three or four proposals, and the same number of different prices. Caldwell says it's a different sales process than a new automobile on a dealer's lot. The new car is tangible and absolutely equal to any other of that same make, model and year on any lot.

By contrast to the fortunes of River Valley Landscapes, the blower truck business (Express Blowers and Peterson trucks) under the River Valley Organics brand continues to grow and make up for some of the loss of design-build jobs. The trucks efficiently apply bulk commercial landscape mulches and organic based materials. Services include organic erosion control, wood carpets, rock blowing and green roof media. This specialty service has allowed River Valley Organics to partner with the Pennsylvania DOT.

The company also does a lot of work with Filtrexx, a Grafton, Ohio, company, with various products of stormwater management with about 100 total applications. That work accounts for 10 percent of the revenues that the blower trucks generate.

"It's a niche market and one that will continue to be important with all of the federal standards and mandates and with compliance with the Clean Water Act," Caldwell says, obviously pleased with the reoccurring nature of the service.

The three blower trucks are expensive, and so the blower truck customer base must continue to increase. Demand for them is greatest each spring.

"We serve so many markets, and we need to because if you're not keeping those trucks running it's an expensive service to offer," Caldwell says. "We're even working for other landscape contractors. Once the grass starts growing, they're busy, so they subcontract with us to do the (mulch, wood chip) blowing efficiently and fast."



The company still offers and performs traditional landscape services.

With design-build work, he says, you renovate a backyard, but with blower trucks, they're mulching hospitals, municipal parks and public playgrounds, etc. "It's work that's coming back every year," Caldwell says. "It's reoccurring, whereas with a single residential customer, the job is done and you're looking for more work."

Filter socks are used for stormwater management, mostly in new home construction and road construction. What's really driving the Pennsylvania market, in particular, is the advent of fracking for natural gas. The gas and oil industries are providing River Valley Organics with an enormous amount of work. The filter socks they fill and apply are the preferred means of maintaining environmental compliance.

"All I can say is that in communities where (fracking) is going on and being done right, it has done a great deal to revive those communities," Caldwell says.

River Valley Recreation designs and installs commercial playgrounds, mostly for municipalities and school districts, largely with direct factory equipment representation. It's a new venture, but already there's a certified playground expert on staff. The offshoot grew out of the playground business the partners were securing in its regular landscape and blower truck work. Most of the new playgrounds it's building are in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In almost every case, they're placing old equipment with new. "The equipment all has a lifespan to it," Caldwell says.

A sound software approach

As for Schedule 2 Win, for those using or experimenting with the new software this winter, the timing is right. Landscape companies are starting to prepare their 2014 budgets this fall. Caldwell and Groff exhibited this summer at the Penn Atlantic Nursery Trade Show in Philadelphia, and are planning on hitting the GIE+EXPO in October in Kentucky, MANTS, The Masterpiece of Trade Shows in January at the Baltimore Convention Center, and CENTS, the Central Environmental Nursery Trade Show in January at the Greater Columbus Convention Center.

"The program allows us to learn from the past and from the present to predict the future," Caldwell says. "It's easy to use."

The pair is targeting small- to medium-sized companies generating anywhere between $1 million and $10 million in annual revenue.



This summer the partners launched Schedule 2 Win software that, they claim, will help other contractors boost their profits.

"It (Schedule 2 Win) is not going to supplant account, but there's a benefit in that it's based on real-live numbers and fills a niche," Caldwell says. "It really should, and will, allow users to quickly figure out what parts of their business is profitable and what isn't so they can increase profits if they chose to do so."

As these owner-operators have well proven.

The author is a reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa. Contact him at jfpirro@enter.net.