Down-to-earth, humble and at the helm of his own company, Robert Olsen is a rising star in the Hollywood landscaping scene.
As former manager of Estate Gardens by ValleyCrest, Olsen developed expertise in how to offer integrated design/build and long-term maintenance services for luxury garden clients. Today, he’s president of Los Angeles-based Goldenstate Landscapes, a newly independent landscaping firm. In this new venture, he offers services including complex irrigation installations, retrofits and landscape installations and management of large estate properties encompassing 15-plus acres in and around the exclusive Hollywood Hills area.
Year founded: 2008
Client mix: 50 percent residential, 50 percent commercial
Service mix: 40 percent design/build, 40 percent maintenance, 20 percent irrigation
Business motto: Your Property, Our Passion.
Proudest moment in business: Surviving and thriving through the last recession. We began operations in March 2008. Six months later, the markets crashed and businesses started failing. We were able to adjust our services to what people were willing to pay (i.e., irrigation retrofits, detailed maintenance, turf removal) and grow at a healthy rate of 30 percent or more per year maintaining good profit margins throughout the period.
Biggest business challenge: Making the leap from a small business to a medium-sized business has been quite a challenge. It’s new territory for me as a business owner. While the business grew quickly in the beginning due to our service quality, maintaining those standards now is the greatest challenge. I’m learning an entirely new skill set to grow the business intelligently. It’s called hands-off, delegate and communicate.
Best sources of landscape design/build inspiration: I like landscapes that work well with our climate. Well-designed outdoor living spaces installed right in people’s backyards inspire me. Popular features included in Southern California landscaping projects are swimming pools, fire features, outdoor kitchens, sport courts and more. When I see a garden design that recognizes these facts, I get really excited. It helps me to remember why I do what I do every day.
Favorite plant or plant combination: I’m really loving African succulents these days, including aloe, crassula and kalanchoe. They really perform well in our local climate requiring infrequent watering. They don’t resist domestication like our local natives.
Monday morning motivation: While I suffer from the same kind of Monday blues that most people experience in our industry, I must leave on Friday knowing that the week was productive for me and my team. My motivation is future reward achieved as a weekly expectation and not a weekly exception.
Business worry that keeps you up at night: Every once in a while staff members go to pieces. When we help them get it together, it sometimes backfires on us. When we try to help them, they resist any attempt we make to improve their performance. Also, keeping our worker’s comp rates in check is a difficult challenge. California laws are weighed heavily against the employer. If an employee wants to stop working for a while, all they have to do is say they can’t work (whether they have a good reason or not) and they will still get paid. There’s nothing employers can do to prevent this. I’d love to see somebody in Sacramento, our state’s capital, do something about that.
Landscape design mentor: Burt Sperber, founder of ValleyCrest. I was fortunate to get to know him personally. He was a real success because he had a great relationship with his wife and family while at the same time accomplishing impressive business feats. Burt went out of his way to make me aware of my own potential. I really want to be like that for my employees.
Favorite business or landscape design book: I’m always reading business books, but the one that has impacted me the most is “The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack. He outlines how he built a thriving business by educating his employees about business finances and how their roles play a significant part in it. When employees are personally successful, they help their company gain success. I want to accomplish this in my own business. What bothers me most is seeing the disillusionment of some of my workers. They don’t believe they can be successful, which makes them an automatic failure. Willingness to learn can change all that.
Landscape design project that makes you smile every time you drive past it: I had a unique opportunity four years ago installing a landscape for an apartment complex in the San Fernando Valley. This is the hottest, driest and windiest region in Los Angeles. While reviewing the design plans, I saw many costly problems. I decided to change almost the entire plant palette to include Palo Verde trees and succulents. It worked so well that it helped evolve my own horticultural understanding and has changed the type of plants I now recommend to my future customers.
Describe your business in five years: I see my business day-to-day operations being run by a motivated and talented professional staff. I want to be involved closely with my staff in the direction and creative vision of the company providing great employment opportunities and real value for our customers.