Staying Close to the Earth
Garrett Willink and his team bring the same work ethic they learned from farming to their tight N.Y. landscape operation
Willink Landscaping, Inc.
Garrett and Amanda WillinkFounded:
Chautauqua County and far western New York StateServices:
Landscape design, hardscape, lawn maintenance, spring & fall cleanups, winter services, property management and maintenance, including lawn care, mowing, annual color, pond maintenance, perennial garden management, pruning, and irrigation servicesEmployees:
In the valleys and gentle hills of far west New York State, just south of Lake Erie, is an area cut from the Erie glacial lobes millions of years ago. In these bucolic settings, Garret Willink, president of Willink Landscaping, Inc., and his family have found a new vocation.
"Our family has farmed in this area for four generations. My dad and brother milk about 450 cows, and we farm about 1,000 to 1,200 acres. We grow corn for silage, but because the growing season is short up here, we've always leaned more to livestock than grain," says Willink. "When my brother went to school for animal sciences, I decided to go another route and studied nursery management and landscape contract management at SUNY Cobleskill. I really enjoy watching things grow; it's a big part of who I am."
In 2003, Willink started his business, along with wife and partner, Amanda. "At first I worked during the week on the farm and worked weekends building the landscape company." But it wasn't long before he had to reverse his work schedule and beg his wife to leave her job as a registered nurse.
"Things really took off. Our maintenance crews do a fantastic job of keeping the mowing up, and I couldn't be happier with my construction crews. We're actually booking jobs two months in advance now. It's crazy," he says.
Willink gives his dad a lot of credit. "Dad always bought the best equipment and always keeps everything well-maintained. If you look in our storage barn, practically everything in there is John Deere. That's mostly my dad's influence; he wouldn't buy any other brand. And we've got great friends in Tim Rater and John Griffith over at Z&M Ag and Turf who keep us updated on new equipment and trends in the industry."
Garrett Willink and his wife and business partner Amanda with their children, Porter, 6, and Ava, 3.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF WILLINK LANDSCAPING.
Willink Landcaping generates about 40 percent of its revenue with commercial mowing. "I'm really impressed with the John Deere ZTrak. It has a tight turning radius and it's easy to maintain. It helps that we have Z&M nearby to help decrease downtime," he says, adding that it's all about the service. That's the same philosophy he applies to his landscape company.
"We've grown because our guys are prompt and courteous," adds Willink. "Customers see the type of services we perform and know that we will do our best. Whether it's a simple lot-mow or a complete outdoor kitchen installation, we're never done until the customer says 'perfect!'"
Willink Landscaping's experienced six-person design/build crew works in a much larger area of western New York state and far eastern Pennsylvania than its commercial mowing crews.
The company keeps its mowing routes to within about a 10-mile radius of its shop. However, for maintenance and design/build work, the company has broadened its horizons to include many outlying towns, such as North East, Harborcreek, Wesleyville and Lakewood.
"It's a natural progression in our growth. We'd like to offer mowing in those areas as well, but the costs are prohibitive. Fuel cost, along with maintenance on four trucks, mowers and increased labor cost makes mowing a very local business in today's landscaping market."
In addition to lawn maintenance, property maintenance and design/build, Willink Landscaping also does a good business with spring and fall cleanup.
Working with the seasons
"In spring we do a lot of mulching; last spring we handled about 12,000 yards of mulch. About half was resale to the public, but still, we do a lot of mulching. Wintertime in these parts is usually quite snowy, so we also offer snow removal. Last year, the winter was very mild, so we didn't grow the plowing business like we wanted to, but that's the nature of the business. You've got to take what God gives you."
The company employs six people in design/build, and because of their high customer satisfaction guarantee, it's seen that part of the business really take off this year."
Willink is extremely satisfied with his John Deere CT332 skid steer. "It's quite a versatile piece of equipment; it carries a great load and has a high tolerence tipping point. That track machine can move a lot of dirt in a short time. I really like being on our build sites, watching as our crews transform a lifeless area into something teeming with plant life. And the pavers we use can make almost any the grounds of any home look like a million bucks.
"We're doing a lot of fireplaces and barbecues because people want to spend more time outside. We're in a time when outdoor livings spaces are replacing the old wooden decks of the past and increasing the homeowner's quality of life, while at the same time increasing their property value. It's a great time for landscapers," says Willink.
The company has seen a sharp rise in interest in outdoor barbeques and fireplaces, and other easy-to-maintain landscapes.
Typically, he will meet with a potential design customer, find out how much of a budget the client has planned for the build, sketch out a preliminary design, then go back to the office to confer with Amanda. If the estimate that they come up with is within range, final plans are made. However, Willink cautions, "Almost always, changes to the original design seem to happen due to a different thought process and brainstorming on behalf of all the crew. It's part of the process, but we always communicate those changes to the customers as they come up."
Willink Landscaping operates from a 10-acre location outside of Clymer, N.Y. "We have a 40-by-40 pole barn for equipment storage, maintenance and the building also houses an office area for our foremen." Overlooking the operations, atop a knoll on the backside of their property is the Willink home and Amanda's office. "We have a separate room for the business functions. My wife runs the office, taking some calls, scheduling, payroll, taxes, things like that. I couldn't do it without her.
"Our dream is to own and operate a greenhouse and nursery. We hope to be self-sufficient in five years; from planting seeds to final harvest, we hope to be involved in every facet of landscaping. The growing is what we're mostly interested in, although the actual landscape operations will always be an integral part of our business," says Willink. "To be honest about it, I don't know if we can grow a tree for the same cost that we are now buying them. We have a great partner in the wholesale nursery that we buy from, but sometimes, it's not so much the money as it is in the pride of looking at a completed project and knowing that everything you see has come from your hands, your nursery, your greenhouse, by the grace of God. We also expect to sell to the public, much like we do with the mulch in spring. I guess, my being from a farm, it just seems natural for me to want to make things grow."
The company suffered a real setback this past year. "We lost three key employees to injury. Not on-the-job injuries, but nonetheless, losing the type of talent we had last year was tough on the business. We're back up to standard now, although, we've got some young guys who are new to the business, so I spend a lot more time checking on sites and that sort-of-thing than I had to last year. It all revolves around that complete customer satisfaction promise that's essential to our growth."
Just as his dad and forefathers built the family farm business, Willink is expecting to leave his mark on the area as well.
"My son, Porter, who is 5, almost 6 now, and daughter, Ava, who is 3, will reap the seeds that we will grow. If I can follow in my dad's footsteps, I'll have been a part of something special and have given my children a heritage that they, too, can be proud of," says Willink.
Jackie Ingles and her husband, Mike, are freelance writers who live and work in Columbus, Ohio. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.