SOUTH FEATURES


Surprise Start-Up

Imperial Landscaping is now established-and growing
By Patrick White




Imperial Landscaping crew members are equipped with a variety of Bobcat mowers and STIHL hand-held equipment.
Photos courtesy of Imperial Landscaping.

James Tolentino didn't set out to build a career in the lawn care and landscape industry. It just sort of happened, he explains. "Really, it just fell in my lap," he says. "I was taking care of my own yard, and my lawn was the nicest in the neighborhood, so people would approach me and ask me if I could help them with their lawns."

Already working a full-time job, Tolentino would rush home at the end of each day and scramble to mow and maintain as many yards as possible. "I had to maximize as much of the daylight as I could," he recalls. "I worked very, very hard at it."

Imperial Landscaping

Owner: James Tolentino

Founded: 2008

Headquarters: Winston-Salem, N.C.

Markets: Winston-Salem, Greensboro, High Point, N.C., and surrounding communities

Services: Landscape design and installation; fertilization and weed control; grub control; lime application to lawn; core aeration and seeding; disease control; insect control; tree and shrub care; leaf blowing; full service lawn mowing; and mulch and pine needles

Employees: 3

Website: http://www.imperiallandscapingnc.com

Eventually, the workload was enough that Tolentino decided to officially enter the green industry full time and, in 2008, founded Imperial Landscaping. "It was humble beginnings," he acknowledges of the early days when he scrambled to provide estimates and sign up new customers while also completing the work.

"It kind of snowballed. From mowing lawns we started doing all sorts of lawn maintenance, and then installing lawns and landscaping and doing design work," says Tolentino.

Today, he has three employees to help shoulder the load and Imperial Landscaping services about 80 residential customers and 20 commercial customers in a 30-mile radius around Winston-Salem, N.C., including the communities of Greensboro, High Point, Lewisville, Clemmons, Kernersville, Lexington and others.

While his start was somewhat accidental, Tolentino now has a definite vision to grow his company. "Business is good and I don't intend the company to stay this size. We are growing," he says adamantly.

In part that means expanding services. Imperial Landscaping is licensed to apply pesticides and offers weed control and lawn treatments as well as fertilization. The company also now offers landscape design and installation, as well as tree and shrub care, mulch installation and more. "There's really nothing we're not doing at this point," jokes Tolentino. The plan for next year is to add snow removal services, which he says will help expand a season that now typically ends in November.

General lawn care and mowing remains the core of the company's business. Crews use Bob-Cat zero-turn mowers (both 48- and 52-inch models), as well as 36-inch Bob-Cat walk-behind units. He uses STIHL hand-helds, trimmers, blowers and bed edgers.



While lawn maintenance remains the core of the company's business, services being offered now include tree and shrub work as well as landscape design and installation.

Yes, SEO is important

Imperial Landscaping attracts most of its new customers either from word-of-mouth or through its website, says Tolentino. "We've done a lot of search engine optimization (SEO). And, frankly, that's been a pretty painful process. There are a lot of bad companies out there doing that work (SEO) that we've had to sift through and finally we've gotten a good company to work with," he explains. "We've been able to get some higher rankings on Google and Yahoo [search services], and that's where most of new customers come from." Tolentino says he could see immediate results once he was able to get his site on the first page of results of potential customers looking for lawn care services in his area.

In addition to the company website, Tolentino markets through a Facebook page and pays very close attention to customer reviews on independent sites. He says these reviews have a big influence on potential customers. "We're living in the Internet age. Whether it's a product or a service, pretty much everyone is doing their research and finding out the pros and cons online. It doesn't matter if it's a radio or lawn care service, they'll pretty much decide whether to buy based on those reviews."

Software helps

With a growing customer base, he has turned to Lawn Pro software to help him manage and schedule and bill for jobs. "It's been very helpful and it's pretty efficient," Tolentino explains, noting that there are much more expensive software solutions on the market but this particular option gets the job done as far as keeping everything organized.

"It wasn't like that in the beginning," he recalls. "I was doing everything with handwritten notes and it was hard to try to remember which customers we needed to visit." Initially, Imperial Landscaping couldn't afford software and didn't have the luxury of picking and choosing when to service customers. "We had to take everything that came in [and do it right away]," he states. "And we would do estimates in between maintaining lawns. But now that we're pretty busy we've had to get smarter about how we do it and schedule jobs in a way that lets us save on fuel costs."

Tolentino describes Imperial Landscaping's pricing as "very competitive. We're not the lowest price out there, but we're not the highest either." And he emphasizes that that holds true for both residential and commercial customers. While many landscape service providers charge more for commercial work, "our pricing is the same for both; we don't penalize a customer because they're a business," Tolentino notes. "We charge everyone pretty much the same, and we do great work regardless."

He feels this approach is one reason that Imperial Landscaping is growing. "Commercial work is competitive because most businesses will entertain several bids. But I think some people feel they can over-charge when it's a business account," Tolentino explains. Whether an account is large or small, Imperial Landscaping strives to treat each customer the same, and maintain a comparable pricing structure for the scope of work being done.

With similar pricing, Tolentino says he doesn't necessarily have a preference between residential and commercial work.

"Each comes with its own unique challenges," he says with a laugh. "So I just take it as it comes. It doesn't really matter if it's residential or commercial, I'm just very happy to be in business and be busy."

Personally, Tolentino says he happily splits his time between finding new customers and getting out on the lawns to do the work himself. "I'm doing both; I enjoy it. At this point, I could turn the work over completely [to the crew], but I find it therapeutic. So I'm still doing it."

What keeps driving him is what got him started in this business on his own lawn: A desire for a high-quality finished product. "We do very good work, no matter who the customer is. And I make sure my guys adhere to that," says Tolentino. "And our customer service is excellent. I think that's the reason why our customer retention is very high and we're growing."

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at pwhite@meadowridgemedia.com.