Ohio Firm Embraces the "Big Hug"
Suncrest Gardens strives for full-circle, four-season customer service
Suncrest Gardens has 115 employees, and Owner Ric Haury looks for people of quality and character. He believes that skills can be taught, while personality traits cannot.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SUNCREST GARDENS.
From the time he started Suncrest Gardens in 1976, Ric Haury, who earned an accounting degree from Akron University, sought to distinguish the company from others by taking a "very businesslike, professional approach" to doing business.
For him, that meant not naming it after himself. "It wasn't going to be 'Ric's Lawncare'," he says.
: Ric Haury
: Peninsula, Ohio
: Northeast Ohio
: Maintenance, design/build
and retail garden center
"It was designed to have a corporate image, a very professional image that gives the client a feeling that they're doing business with somebody who appreciates a businesslike approach," he says. "We want them to appreciate the value of the relationship. Our account managers get close to our clients and they know that they can count on our consistency and the uniformity of what we deliver."
Still, Haury didn't know much about the industry. But his business partner, who had a degree in horticulture from Ohio State University, did. He took care of the technical side of the company while Haury tended to business matters.
"When he left the company six years later, I learned to hire quality staff who knew what they were doing. I stayed on the business side of things. Having said that, I have walked behind the mower, dug holes and mulched beds. I've done it all," says Haury, who is now a certified landscape professional. "I've chosen to move the company in a direction where my role now is almost 85 percent administrative and 15 percent sales."
Full slate of services
Suncrest Gardens has three divisions: landscape management, landscape development and a retail garden center. All three groups benefit from one another, Haury notes.
"We get a client walking through our garden center and they see this beautiful product and realize they can't install it, so it leads to a design/build sale," he says. "Conversely, our design/build team uses our garden center as a focus point. We bring clients in to our conference room and show detailed plans and walk them through the garden center. They get to actually see and feel the plants rather than just look at a picture. That benefits both ways."
Design/build projects can lead to maintenance contracts, although the maintenance group primarily services commercial, homeowners' associations and multi-family dwellings.
"We don't do a lot of residential maintenance," Haury says. "We have a section we call estate management where we will take care of a large estate. We are not designed to be a company that has 200 small residential accounts on a weekly basis. Instead, we have 50 large accounts on a regular basis."
Ric Haury wants his relationship with clients to be full circle by providing all of the turf management, chemical and snow and ice management services that clients need.
The company provides services in spring and fall cleanup, turfgrass maintenance, certified lawn care programs, tree and shrub bed care, tree and shrub bed mulching, selective pruning of trees and shrubs, water feature management, seasonal color enhancements, irrigation system installation and maintenance, overseeding, core aeration/renovation of turf areas, and landscape renovation projects.
Suncrest Gardens utilizes conventional treatments in its turf care.
"I appreciate the value of organics and the use of them," says Haury, adding that his company will use some organic products with tree and shrub bed care, but that for the most part, "we're settled into the standard effective products that treat our turf the way we want it to perform."
Each group within the company faces its own challenges.
The challenge in operating the retail garden center is getting customers to the store, "once they come to the store, they fall in love with it and it's all good," notes Haury. For that, the company focuses on advertising and marketing campaigns throughout a wide geographic area to generate interest.
In the landscape development design/build business segment, the challenge is in finding skilled leaders to handle the company's design work. Like many companies, Suncrest Gardens downsized following the 2008-2009 recession in response to shrinking construction activities. But in late 2011 and through 2012, Haury started seeing things change back to the positive.
"We have three registered landscape architects on staff at Suncrest Gardens who can produce some very intricate, detailed, exciting and creative landscape designs that aren't just cookie-cutter patios and retaining walls," he adds. "They really get into the outdoor living spaces to make creative space for our clients. Having competent help to create that work in the field is probably their biggest challenge."
While the company's maintenance segment is steady with the help of the H2B guest worker visa program, their biggest challenge is realizing the competitive nature of that side of business, Haury says.
"Some national organizations have come into this market area and have driven labor pricing down," he says. "We've had to learn to adjust to that and find ways to maintain our competitive edge. Suncrest Gardens is about the value and the quality of the work it brings more so than the price. We like our clients to appreciate the value of the relationship more than the price."
Haury says if one was to stack his company up against five other bidders, his company won't be the low one.
"We'll be close, but we're just not going to deliver the lowest price," he says. "We are going to deliver quality service, the customer care that people want and appreciate. Secondly, it's a matter of economics. We would rather mobilize three-man, two-man or five-man teams to one site and have them work there all day. Getting guys on the job site and having them stay there all day from our vantage point is much more economical than having to pick up and move every 20 minutes."
The company now has 115 employees. Haury looks for a person of quality and character; he figures the skills can be taught, but personality traits cannot.
"I've hired for skills in the past and it can hurt a company sometimes if the character or work ethic is an issue," he says.
To ascertain that quality of character, a potential hire goes through an interview and testing, while managers call referrals.
Suncrest Gardens' maintenance group primarily services commercial clients, homeowners' associations and multi-family properties. The company focuses it efforts on about 50 large properties and also on large estates.
"One of my managers calls the interview process an employee's 'shining moment'," Haury says with a laugh. "It's always a challenge. I think we do a good job of it, but sometimes we swing and miss with a staff member. If you bring somebody in, you can tell pretty quickly whether you've hit the mark or not."
Haury favors consistency in branding with fleet and equipment. He values positive relationships with vendors.
"Pricing is important, but the relationship is just as critical," he says. "That involves timing of service, delivery of service, availability, parts and inventories. We weigh the value of the relationship almost as much as we do the pricing."
Haury has placed checks and balances within the company's system to deliver to client expectations.
"We have a pretty good structure of operational field management teams that go all the way from operational manager to account managers to field supervisors to crew leaders," he says. "That goes from written documents to site inspections to touching base with customers to make sure we're delivering as expected."
The value of relationships
Suncrest Gardens' commitment to professionalism is reflected in the number of associations to which the company belongs, including the Ohio Landscape Association (OLA) and staff involvement in the American Society of Landscape Architecture.
The professionalism has paid off: the company has earned a long list of awards, including a 2011 OLA Landscape Ohio Award for landscape maintenance.
Suncrest Gardens gives back to the community as well and is actively involved in donating assistance or hosting topical seminars for more than 66 various nonprofits and charitable events.
The company serves northeast Ohio, and will go as far southeast as Youngstown.
"We are learning to broaden our geographic markets a little bit more than what we did five years ago," Haury says. "The thought of driving to Youngstown for a day at one time didn't make sense, but now we've made it make sense."
One of the trends that Haury is noting in client requests is for improved outdoor living spaces.
"The evolution of what used to be a patio or deck is now a very functional outdoor space: kitchens, TVs, fire pits, water features and lighting," he says. "Those are all woven into the outdoor space to make it a little bit more enjoyable for our clients."
Services are provided to clients year-round. In the winter, the company is actively involved in snow and ice management services.
"This is all part of the value of the relationship," says Haury. "I call it the 'big hug' where we want the relationship with the client to be full circle, four seasons. We want to be able to provide all of the turf management services, all of the seasonal color programs, the chemical programs, the snow and ice management services. That's the way Suncrest is built. When we grab a hold of a client, we prefer to really dance with them the whole way."
Haury says after "coming out of the foxhole" of the 2008 through 2010 economic challenges, he sees upward, forward movement for his company.
"We are looking to expand our operations," he says. "Suncrest is a very vital, growing entity. We have one year, three-year and five-year goals we're trying to reach that includes a steady, continual growth."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at email@example.com.