What separates a Michigander from a Floridian? Give up? If you’re Blake Crawford, it’s exactly 1,345 miles. That’s the distance due south from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to Naples, Florida. Crawford, formerly a Michigander, is now a confirmed Floridian.
Here’s how the process works for most folks from the industrial north: Early each winter thousands of folks from the Great Lakes caravan south seeking the balmy Gulf Coast breezes of Southwest Florida. It’s a daunting motor vehicle trek for Michiganders because much of I-75, the highway they travel, is featureless and mind-numbingly boring. However, “snowbirds” stoically suffer this inconvenience early each winter, so determined they are to escape the Great Lakes’ frigid winds. By mid-April, when the ice and snow is gone (hopefully), they flock back to their northern habitats.
Not Crawford, however. He liked what he saw when, at 31, he left Michigan in 2004 and relocated to one of Florida’s prettiest small cities, Naples (population 21,000). He loved the sunshine, the year-round greenery and the soft, warm Gulf Coast breezes.
But what excited him most was the business opportunity he sensed the region afforded him.
Arriving with a plan in mind
“The work was so plentiful that many of the contractors in Southwest Florida, in my opinion, felt they could basically snap their fingers and get work,” recalls Crawford, now 43. Soon after arriving and getting financial help from his family, he went to work, immediately setting out to provide the rapidly growing region with a high level of landscape services that he sensed were lacking there.
Turns out his instincts were good.
Just 12 years after putting down roots in Naples, Crawford, as CEO and president of Crawford Landscaping Group (CLG), runs one of the premiere independent landscape companies in Florida. His company employs 170 people and serves hundreds of residential and commercial accounts. His firm provides a full range of landscape and property improvement services south to Marco Island and north to Fort Myers, the largest city in the region.
Crawford came to Florida with a plan, having carefully mapped out what he wanted to do before arriving. He only moved south after studying service companies (including landscape firms) in southeast Michigan and scrutinizing what manufacturing companies in and around Detroit were doing to revive the automobile industry there.
“It occurred to me that if we came to this market and offered the same discipline that the manufacturing world was implementing, we could create a company that was truly unique,” recalls Crawford. “We could offer a level of service where quality and customer service were the main differentiators.”
In addition to quality products and customer service, Crawford says he also needed to convince clients that his new company was sincere about his third core principle — “always honoring our word.”
Crawford says providing exceptional landscape maintenance services to build a stable base of recurring revenue was the best (and probably only) route to establishing win-win relationships with clients that would lead to CLG eventually providing additional property management services to them.
Again, his instincts proved to be correct.
From initially concentrating on maintenance, CLG is now comprised of six operating divisions: turf and horticulture maintenance, landscape design and installation, irrigation, integrated pest management, landscape lighting and arbor care.
“From a maintenance perspective, we started out with estate homes and some high-end commercial projects. Then we moved into high rises on the beach, HOAs and COAs and master communities,” says Crawford. “We service all of these clients except government contracts.”
Crawford credits his company’s growth to his talented management team. “Even at the direct labor level, we try to hire the best. As a result, we have one of the highest crew average wages in Southwest Florida,” he says, adding that the company’s extensive on-boarding process seeks to place employees on tasks that best fit their job preferences and skill sets. The company will pay for job-related vocational education for employees earnestly seeking to advance within CLG.
Adapting to Regional Trends
The 2008-2009 recession devastated South Florida’s residential landscape design/build business. But that business is coming back, especially the renovation of developer- and builder-installed landscapes. This is one of the trends Blake Crawford is seeing in his market.
“Right now, new homes are dominating the large-scale installation market. Developers and builders direct this market, not the homeowner,” says Crawford. “Once the new construction is over, homeowners will want to contract with a design/build firm to design and install new landscaping.”
Another trend gaining traction in his market is the use of technology, including labor tracking, GPS, Google Earth and the use of tablets to speed the development and delivery of proposals during property walk-throughs.
“This way our managers can walk a site with a client, take a few minutes to type in the proposal, present it to the client, receive authorization and deposit, then transfer the information to the necessary department for completion — all electronically,” says Crawford. “All technologies that can streamline operating processes and enhance customers’ experiences are vital.”
“This culture promotes career advancement, higher pay rates, safer work conditions and better care of our tools. We have several employees who’ve excelled from direct labor positions to production managers or account managers,” says Crawford.
“We understand that our business boils down to people. Our goal is to constantly be building a culture that rewards people in a way consistent with our core values and company credo while weeding out those who don’t buy into our way of doing things,” he adds.
Even so, CLG, like most employers in Southwest Florida, is having to work harder to attract good employees, he admits. Despite the limited pool of qualified and eager employees, CLG management is determined that the quality of service his company provides remains consistently high.
“We realize we must maintain a robust quality control process to identify issues and correct them,” says Crawford. “We also take pride in our customer service department that insists that issues are resolved quickly and completely, and clients are notified when the issues are resolved.”
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