Kirsten Mormino says there is an increased demand for hardscaping in the residential sector as people are becoming more invested in their properties.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MORMINO LANDSCAPE SERVICES.

In a male-dominated industry, Kirsten Mormino believes that the skills many women bring to the table in their personal lives can translate into success in the business world. As the owner of Mormino Landscape Services in Lincolnshire, Ill., nurturing her customers and helping them stay within a budget have not only helped her retain clients, but employees as well.

Mormino did not intend to own a landscaping business. Rather, she had set out for a television career. Her ex-husband started the business in 1991, and she came on board the following year. “I loved it so much that I became a partner and eventually became the sole owner in 2000,” she says. Her son Drew, a former college and professional football player, is in charge of field management for the company. The company serves the residential, commercial, association and municipal markets equally in the North Shore areas of Chicago, with an occasional job outside the region.

“Right now, larger landscape companies are trying to go back and pick up the smaller residential customers. That market sector has been good to us,” she says. “As a small business, we have much more flexibility than a much larger construction or landscape company with all of that overhead. We’re able to make decisions much more quickly. Staying ahead of the game and trying as best we can to diversify the portfolio is really key.” Mormino points out that while “most anyone is capable of cutting grass, there are many aspects of managing a lawn—including turfgrass and plant material—that could be overlooked.”

Services provided to the commercial sector include landscape design and installation; spring and fall cleanup; complete lawn maintenance including grading, seeding, fertilization, core aeration and weekly trimming; planting, trimming, pruning and removal of shrubs and trees; and gardens for seasonal color including bulbs, perennials and annual plantings. The same services also are offered to homeowners’ association clients. Mormino Landscape Services designs, installs and maintains common community grounds through hardscaping, lawns and gardens, and scheduled maintenance, improvement projects and snow removal are also offered.

Single-family residences can receive all of the services provided to the commercial and association sector, as well as the construction of fireplaces and decorative boulder settings for gardens. Customers are much more invested in their property and want to be home with their children or grandchildren, Mormino points out. And, she notes there’s an increased demand for hardscapes. “People are really investing in their hardscaping,” she says. “You can get so many quality products right now from our suppliers, who are very eager to move their products, making it very affordable for us to pass it on to our clients.”

Work flow

Mormino maintains a “digital” workplace, using GPS tracking, iPads for communication and estimating software. While she’s looking to purchase more equipment, she adds that she does so with an eye toward “measured growth.” “I don’t like to overextend myself with equipment,” she says. “Whatever equipment we have, we own.”

The company takes a three-pronged approach to maintenance: trimming and pruning, fertilization and mulching. Fertilization consists of four applications. A complete lawn fertilization is conducted in late March to early April and includes a crabgrass preventer. The second application in May includes broadleaf weed control. July’s application encompasses insecticide for grub prevention. The winterizer/weed control application is done in October. Soil samples are taken from various areas throughout a lawn to determine nutrient deficiencies, and custom fertilization programs are offered to customers.

Mormino maintains an organized timetable for the company’s services. In January and February, the company focuses on scheduling seasonal maintenance, planning or designing installations and snow removal operations. Spring cleanups begin in mid-March and end mid-April. In March, lawns are dethatched or power raked, and an optional early crabgrass preemergent may be applied in addition to the April fertilization application. Weekly maintenance and trimming services begin in April, with spring core aeration performed, and installation work begins. In May, June and July, weekly maintenance and trimming services continue, annuals are planted as temperatures permit, and installation work continues. Hardscape projects are usually done in August as weekly maintenance and trimming services continue. In September, Mormino Landscape Services begins mailing snow removal agreements, conducts weekly maintenance and trimming services and continues installation work.


A crew from Mormino Landscape Services installs an outdoor living space for a client.

Mums and fall flowers become available to customers at this time. October is the final month for weekly maintenance and trimming, installation continues and fall core aeration is done. Fall cleanups begin in November, as well as any needed snow removal, and flower bulbs are planted. Snow removal dominates December, and the next season’s lawn maintenance agreements are submitted and scheduled.

Caring for grass

Mormino’s philosophy about turf is that healthy turf is the cornerstone of an effective groundskeeping program. “Core aeration is important,” she says. “The type of product you’re putting down is important. You need to know if your customers want strictly organic-type products or a little more of the security that comes along with chemicals.”

Her company used increasingly stronger applications during spring 2010 in response to the manifestation of broadleaf weeds, although she’d like to see her customers become more accepting of broadleaf weeds and crabgrass. “We’re helping the environment more,” Mormino says. “Who knows what’s going to be happening? We’re starting to communicate with our distributors regarding what we can look forward to this season with all of this snow we had.”

Chicago took a hit this winter with snow, which melted quickly, Mormino notes. “The biggest thing is what are we going to be doing proactively now that the salt had to go down? We use potassium chloride, so we’re trying to make sure our spring programs will accommodate whatever complications we’re going to have from all of the salt we put down,” she says. “We’re really trying to be proactive with our clients, so we can help educate them and prepare them for the season ahead with their turf.”

Her customers love their turf. “In the northern suburbs of Chicago, they’re used to having grass,” she says. “This isn’t like being out West, where you adapt to the environment. We have grass, and healthy grass is a real turn-on.”

Building connections

Customer retention is important, and Mormino believes she has some advantages as a woman business owner. “We really do connect with the residential as well as the facilities managers because it’s all about service, and women are caretakers by trade,” notes Mormino. “We’re taking care of their investment.”

She says customers also respond to her commitment to stay within their budgets. “Where other companies will want to sell, sell, sell, I’m all about customer retention,” she says, noting that she’ll work with her customers on payment arrangements.

Even if it’s a $5,000 job, which Mormino acknowledges is a lot of money for some people, there is still profit to be made from that, she points out. “Profit is the name of the game,” she says. “It’s profit that you use to give back to your business and to buy new equipment, the profit you give back to your employees in the form of bonuses or compensation packages, and that’s what makes everyone happy.”

Mormino says what differentiates her company from others is follow-through and a commitment to keeping her word with customers. “We have a one-year warranty on everything we install, provided they don’t overwater or underwater or there’s damage done,” she says. “We have always replaced items without question. We’re there when we say we’re going to be there, unless weather interferes,” she says. “We’re not pulling crews off one job to go to a different job. When they put a deposit down with us, we have a calendar and they’re the next job. People appreciate that. It’s that direct communication that when someone is giving you a 50 percent deposit, they are not feeling they’ve been strung along. It keeps people engaged and excited about working with us. They know what to expect, and they’re going to get it.”

Mormino also has engendered loyalty from her employees. The company has between 25 and 30 employees and a low turnover rate. “The bottom line is there might be clearly defined supervisors in the field, but the foremen are given instructions to really take care of their crew, to think of each other,” says Mormino, adding that she adopted the teamwork philosophy from her son Drew. “We have a fully trained staff, and we have seasonal employees who are with us for the commercial snowplowing,” she says. “We take a team approach with all employees, not just the ones who are designing or who have a little more investment in the outcome of a project. Everybody matters in this company, whether they are a day laborer, a foreman or pushing a plow. It is irrelevant to me. They are part of a team. When any of our employees are on a property, they are management. They represent the company to the client.”

Mormino says her vision for her company is that one day it will be completely employee-owned. She also intends to use her television background to produce media based on landscaping topics, such as a children’s garden show. “I would love to be able to bring the concept of growing and environmental responsibility in creating some kind of vision and follow-through to get people more engaged,” she says.