John DeVore took the long way around in building a small, unique and highly respected landscape company. As a youngster he chased through the woods, waded creeks and relished whatever outdoor adventures he could find. But when the opportunity arose as a young adult, he left Ohio and set off for Australia where he worked as a bricklayer for two years.
“I loved it,” recalls DeVore, adding that the experience pointed him in the direction his later life would take: becoming a landscaper.
His stint in Australia, a reflection of his desire to follow his own intensely personal path to self-fulfillment, presaged a lifetime of traveling and learning, seeking out whomever he felt would kindly share their knowledge with him and sharing what he has learned along the way with them.
His travels — far from over — have seen him working in greenhouses and in a rose nursery in Oregon, as well as learning from some of the best minds in the horticultural industry in Southern California.
“I loved it,” recalls DeVore. “I learned I could do and be anything I wanted. And, to my surprise, I learned that I loved to work hard and creatively. It was the beginning of my journey to being a landscape artist and designer.
“As I traveled, I discovered a turned-on culture and met a lot of amazing people. I learned that when you get to know great people, people who share and enjoy life, you start to become just like them.”
But DeVore hasn’t shirked book learning. He’s studied horticulture at Ohio State University Agricultural Technical (Ohio State ATI). When he isn’t teaching himself, he’s traveling, participating in and attending workshops as his schedule allows. Often he brings employees with him.
Now in his 60s, DeVore owns and runs DeVore’s Land & Water Gardens in Hamilton, Ohio, with the same enthusiasm that fueled his desire to start his company in 1979. The years have not dulled his passion for traveling and learning from other individuals committed to designing and constructing sustainable landscaping, specializing in stonework and water features.
Apart from sustainable design, his real love is stone, and one of his favorite activities is “hanging out” with like-minded folks in The Stone Foundation, who he describes (grinning hugely) as “really creative people who are turned on in the world of stone.”
“I find mentors everywhere,” adds DeVore. “You can’t be shy. If you are all wrapped up in yourself, you won’t meet them. When you meet great people and get to know them, you become like them.”
DeVore’s Land & Water Gardens, counting John and his son, Nate, typically operates with three or four other craftspeople. And, it’s not a “traditional” landscape company because it does not rely on lawn maintenance and lawn care to grow — not yet anyway, although DeVore fully intends to expand his firm’s sustainable horticultural capabilities. But, he’ll expand in that direction only when he’s confident he can deliver the service with the same creativity and craftsmanship he and his team regularly deliver in designing and building landscapes.
“We started out slow and we’ve grown slow,” admits DeVore. This is due in part to the uniqueness of his company.
DeVore’s Land & Water Gardens provides very personal service to its primarily residential clientele. Clients become aware of this from their initial contact with the company.
“We send a six-page questionnaire to all of our clients before I meet them face to face,” says DeVore. “We learn fascinating things about our clients. When we meet with them, they know we care and we are connecting with them. Sometimes their answers even give us something we can laugh about together.”
Because he’s confident what he shares with clients is valuable he charges for each initial face-to-face discussion.
But, perhaps the bigger reason DeVore’s Landscape & Water Gardens has not grown larger in his Cincinnati/Dayton metro market is the owner’s rock-hard commitment never to compromise when it comes to craftsmanship — or to client satisfaction.
For DeVore, the issue is simple. Every business owner chooses whether they want to be viewed as the lowest-priced, average or excellent when it comes to their products and services.
“You can’t do artistic, excellent work when you’ve bid work too low. You will be driven to cut corners, and that is not the way to keep great clients,” says DeVore.
“My business is an expression of my joy, it’s about art and all of the great things we can do for our clients,” he says. “We have to balance all of these things. Low bidding never works. We can’t lose money on jobs and do our work joyfully and with excellence.”
Can excellence be achieved?
DeVore realizes excellence is not a goal that can ever be fully achieved, such as climbing to a mountain’s summit. As he sees it, the mountain keeps growing higher and higher, and he and his team must keep learning and improving their craftsmanship. They must always view the climb as worthy of their efforts and filled with promises of great personal satisfaction.
“How many of us have looked at things we did five years ago and cringed a little bit?” asks DeVore. “That’s OK because we learn from our mistakes. But we should always be improving and doing better work than we did a few years ago. Excellence has to be our standard, and we can’t compromise on that or on details. When we do a project right the first time, then we make money.
“If we make a mistake, we make it right even if we have to tear it out and do it over,” adds DeVore, who freely shares he’s made his share of mistakes — most notably on the business side of his company.
He regrets that earlier in his career he didn’t seek more help in becoming a better businessperson as he also worked on the technical skills of designing and delivering stunning landscapes.
“The discipline would have brought me more freedom, but I am not sure I would have developed the same as an artist,” he muses.
“As you strive to be the best, you have to set goals. Unfortunately, I have rarely written them down myself and I should; I know this,” he continues.
The realization that professional landscaping is as much a business as it is (well, in his case, perhaps) a personal pleasure finally led DeVore to invest in a popular business management system to streamline his company’s administration and operations.
DeVore spent much of this past February training his team on proper design, construction, drainage, planting and related services in preparation for a busy spring and summer.
“Right now we are working on a dream project for me. I love design and nature and, as such, am known for naturalistic designs with stone, water and native plants,” says DeVore.
That he will be marrying all of these features to the property surrounding a mid-century, prairie-style home challenges and excites him.