The 2008-2009 recession is history, but its bitter lessons remains top-of-mind for many landscape company owners.
“Many landscaping firms in the area were devastated as business deteriorated during the recession,” recalls Rick Doering, 57, founder and president of Doering Landscape Co. Even though his firm is located in the affluent village of Barrington, Illinois (pop. 10,201), about 30 miles northwest of Chicago, he realized, as the recession deepened, that his company would have to adapt to new market conditions or fall victim to them. Doering promptly began remaking his family business to meet the changed landscape business environment.
Seeing new construction and major landscape projects drying up week by week, Doering refocused his firm’s efforts on landscape maintenance and landscape renovations. But he didn’t stop there. He realized he had to dramatically improve his company’s operational efficiency, too. Doering investigated and adopted technologies to streamline his firm’s operations and implemented more intense target marketing. He remained confident that “despite the economy, people still needed landscaping.”
The effort he and his team put into remaking his company paid off. Today, Doering Landscape employs 50 people and generates $4 million in annual revenue.
Fine-tuning and focus
Several dozen affluent villages in northwestern Cook and Lake counties surround Doering’s headquarters in Barrington. The region is dotted with large estates. On the surface, it’s a great location for a well established and services-oriented landscape company. (Doering founded his company in 1978.) But, the recession’s severity shook property owners even in this well-heeled region of the country. The recession also slammed the landscape companies serving this market. “The down economy definitely affected us in a big way,” Doering recalls.
As the economic free-fall worsened, Doering was forced reduce his company by about one-third. “With a smaller staff, we had to focus on jobs we were assured would be profitable,” he says. “In the landscape maintenance segment, we focused on large residential estates, mostly 1 acre or more, that were situated close together. This meant less travel time and reduced travel costs for our crews.”
His team also began taking on smaller projects, including selling and completing projects piecemeal. His business plan, as mentioned previously, also included a stronger marketing effort aimed at getting more landscape renovation business.
“As properties lost value, people felt good seeing completed projects,” he says, adding that the renovations his firm completed helped his clients recover some of the value that their properties suffered during the recession.
“Television programs on remodeling increased interest in landscape renovations, too,” he adds. The popularity of these programs, he feels, helped provide a boost to his firm’s landscape architecture division.
“We did more designing, making sure that landscapes were very well designed,” he explains. “Sometimes plans are drawn, and the projects are actually done a year later.” The company’s mix of services continues to be about 60 percent landscape construction, 30 percent landscape maintenance and 10 percent snow removal.
During the recession, Doering was committed to remaining active in the communities his company serves. “We partnered with other businesses in community business promotions,” he says. ”When people see our trucks in their communities, it increases our visibility.” Doering Landscape also revised its website to highlight renovated landscapes and initiated a stronger effort to reach out to clients and interested prospects via email. Even so, the majority of Doering Landscape’s work comes from client recommendations.
Managing for efficiency
“Business is economy driven,” Doering continues. “While landscape maintenance, in general, tended to be flat, we focused on larger residential estate maintenance. We looked at scheduling crews very tight and adjusting our landscape maintenance routes for cost savings.”
In addition, Doering looked for ways to increase efficiency. Selecting the right equipment for each job is extremely important in increasing efficiency, he explains. Matching the most efficient equipment for each job allows Doering Landscape to remain competitive in its market by passing along its cost savings to customers.
Doering Landscape uses Scag walk-behind mowers with sulkies. The company also purchased and uses powerful, lightweight blowers in its fall cleanups. These blowers reduce the amount of crew time required in each cleanup.
But perhaps, the most important lessons the company learned from the recession involved its business management practices—everything from budgeting to billing—and the better use of operating revenue. Today, job cost analysis is done following every project, and maintenance efficiency is evaluated weekly, focusing on production, time management and customer care.
The company also embraced computerization in designing projects. Dan Doering, landscape designer, says, “We started using Dynascape in 2012, and there was immediate savings for us in time and actual cost savings. When we start revising a design, previously it might have involved almost doing the design over, and now it’s so easy. Before, I might have had to drive to the north side of Chicago to get a design to a customer or to a municipality for permitting, and now it takes 10 minutes to send a file to them.”
Doering Landscape has been providing snow and ice management services almost since the historic 1978 Chicago blizzard. It’s a challenging business, even for an experienced company.
“There’s no way to plan in snow removal operations,” Doering explains. “You can’t oversell the service because of the time commitment in your responsibility to customers. You may make good progress in 2 inches of snow, but not so good in 12 inches of snow with wind. Here in the Chicago area, we get winds and lake-effect snow.
“It’s just more challenging than the landscaping segment of the business, and we have to meet customer needs by being available and careful not to oversell the snow services to more than we can handle,” he cautions.
Better times ahead
“Doering, as always, remains confident of the industry’s future. He sees plenty of new owners in his market and landscapes that could use makeovers. Also, he senses that property owners in the communities surrounding his headquarters feel more confident about the economy than they did, even as little as a year ago.
“People go on vacation to resorts with lovely grounds and gardens, and they think they would like to enjoy that type of setting at their own homes year-round,” he says. An increased focus on outdoor living is spurring more landscape construction in patios, retaining walls, outdoor kitchens and other hardscape construction as people start to feel more secure about spending money.
Government regulations and employee health care provisions continue to be unknown variables in business planning, even for landscape company owners. While Doering admits to being concerned about how they impact his business, he does not allow the unknowns to dictate his business planning.
“I’ve just decided I need to focus on my business and not worry about trying to plan for how those regulations may affect us,” Doering shares. “Our goal at Doering Landscape is to create unique landscape spaces that bring enjoyment for our clients. Our major operational goals are designing, installing and maintaining those landscapes with increased efficiency and cost-effectiveness.”