Finding Success in the Philly Market
Lentzcaping grows by diversifying, building upon environmental services
Lentzcaping is gaining an enviable reputation for its water-related services - from preventing runoff to installing and maintaining great water features.
Photos by Lentzcaping.
Every problem is an opportunity in disguise," firmly believes Al Lentz, co-owner of Lentzcaping, headquartered in Warrington, Pa. Like many other well-run landscape companies, the 25-year-old Lentzcaping has been growing since the depths of the 2008-2009 Recession.
Lentz started off at 15 years old working in the "bed crew" mower for his uncle's company, Serogo Landscaping. Lentz is the third generation of his family to get into landscaping and make it his lifelong profession. Lentz's grandfather, Giuseppe Serogo, came over from Italy in 1910 when he was just 12 years old. With a pair of hand clippers and a mechanical mower, he started Serogo Landscaping.
Principals: Founders Al Lentz and Steve Happ; President Christine Lentz
Headquarters: Warrington, Pa.
Markets: Greater Philadelphia area and Delaware Valley
Services: Landscaping, night lighting, patio/pavers, water features, rainwater harvesting, utility services, Aquascape of Delaware Valley.
In 1988, Lentz, working for his uncle's firm, enlisted his friend, Steve Happ, who was also working for Serogo Landscaping, to start a new company. Happ recalls Lentz calling him and sharing his idea. The coming Monday Happ quit his job, and with $5,000 to invest he joined his friend and new partner. They ran the business, mostly mowing and bed prep, out of a garage.
Happ now directs the company's growing Utility Department, and Lentz serves as vice president, with his wife, Christen, as president. Lentz talked her into joining the family firm despite her concerns about having a 24-hour-a-day marriage. Lentz said he wanted to use her knowledge of how to run a business and also appreciated her keen insight.
"She picked it right up. She could come in from outside and saw things that needed to change," says Lentz. This included the need for better time management and an investment in company iPhones. "She does not work in the business, but on it, listening and learning and not taking sides," adds Lentz. "I go to her to learn." The business is now officially listed as a woman-owned and woman-operated business.
So what fueled the company's comeback after the Recession? It started with an intensive marketing plan and a host of new service options.
"We had to learn to diversify," Lentz says. "You can't just cut grass. It used to be about how good you were, but then it devolved into who was cheapest."
So the firm got into landscaping, ponds and patios, and then utility work as a subcontractor of Asplundh, where it had family ties. "We do all the stuff other people don't want to do," he says. "Before the Recession, we were almost bankrupt, but the downturn taught us that we can invest in the company in the lean times, in marketing, in development; you don't hold back."
Marketing is number one
"The biggest thing is marketing, and every day I ask myself how to do it better," Lentz says. "The first thing we did was to have a sign in front of our business. We had to fight to keep ours, as we are in a residential area."
The sign uses interchangeable letters to spell out something as simple as "How's your day?" or "Happy birthday to Ed Conway," a loyal client. "We said 'hello' to the waitress who served at a company dinner once; and she told everyone; servers are always interacting with others," Lentz says. "People ask what they can do to get their names up on the sign. I tell them to buy a job from us."
On home calls, Lentz starts out by looking around at the prospect's family to find their interests, and develops a relationship first, making it personal. Next comes a video presentation of relevant past jobs. Often this shows the client something that appeals to them.
"Pictures tell, but videos sell. Then, we go outside to see how we can work it," says Lentz. He also encourages customers to have parties to show off their new projects, and contributes to their party funds. "That way, customers sell for me," he adds.
Lentzcaping sells to an area of about 200 square miles from the headquarters in Warrington, just outside Philadelphia, but concentrates on the area within 15 to 20 miles, especially for residential services. It supports that presence with appearances at local home shows and in local publications. More innovative is Lentz's idea to work with local entities, like restaurants, to put its name on one of their signs in exchange for a company party subsidized by Lentzcaping.
"Businesses can work together so each benefits," he says.
Also planned as a possible marketing strategy: a radio show once a week, a "show about nothing, like Seinfeld," he says. "It's where you talk about everything but what you are selling. People want to buy, but they don't want to be sold," he says. Visibility is also served with a recent move to standardize the paint job on all company trucks to create brand identity, in this case a beautiful fish logo.
The fish means something dear to Lentz's heart. Lentzcaping is an adherent of Philadelphia's plan to become greener by investing in ways to slow down stormwater to prevent it from washing pollutants and dirt into the waterways and to keep it from overwhelming the city wastewater plants.
"It's been done in the Chesapeake, and we can do it here, and it doesn't take that much time," says Lentz, a man who is professionally positioned to contribute to the victory. Lentzcaping works with local utilities to contain and slow water runoff as part of its Utilities Division, which is headed by Happ.
Christen says that the company plans to grow its water filtration business as well as targeting utilities and construction firms with mats, soak socks and other anti-erosion technologies. Customers who invest in water reuse systems often find their gardens looking better, thanks to the effects of rainwater. Plus, Lentzcaping is targeting townships and municipalities with truck-washing systems. "We are very environmental," she says.
This has led to one area of savings: Lentzcaping's 10-acre lot recycles its water, about 100,000 gallons a year. This supplies its truck-washing bays and irrigation needs, as well as serving a beautiful half-acre display of water features that include ornamental ponds with beautiful fish.
Lentzcaping houses a pond product distribution division called Aquascapes of the Delaware Valley, which is an authorized distributor for Aquascape, Inc., St. Charles, Ill. Both Lentzes are proud of this, as well they should be.
Technology has also helped the firm. Costing, as always, is a challenge, Lentz says. "It's hard to do with energy prices going up and down, and you have to know the costs all the time." Here, computers are a plus. And other technological advances help as well. "With the new equipment that is out now, we work smaller, stronger, safer," Lentz says, with Christen adding that weekly staff meetings keep the focus on safety.
Lentzcaping also has good relationships with its subcontractors, sometimes bringing them in under its name to share equipment and keep the work moving toward completion.
Lentz credits a lot of his growth with working year-round. New technologies now allow hardscaping work to get done even in winter. Christen adds that having a permanent staff year-round means stability for her employees as well as for the company, with less turnover and training. "And we cross-train, so our staff is flexible on the landscaping side or the utility side," she adds.
Lentzcaping's new graphics are attracting lots of positive attention.
"My greatest joy is seeing my employees advance and be successful," Lentz says. He likes to go into the field a lot and is often asked how long he's been with the company by new hires. "I have 46 on staff, and I want them to come to work because they want to, not because they have to. It isn't supposed to be hard. We have good people, and we let them get on with their work. And we let them make mistakes - but only once," he laughs.
When it comes to growing a business, Lentz relies on meeting the needs of his customers with a full-service, full-year attitude. "The work we do now is smart work," he says. "No is not in our vocabulary."
Cindy Greenwald has more than 30 years experience writing about contractors and their business issues from her office in Cleveland, Ohio.