Heaviland Enterprises still evolving after 27 years serving Southern California

Heaviland Enterprises, Inc.

Founded: 1985
Headquarters: Vista, Calif.
Principals/Founders: Tom Heaviland, president, and the late Ron Heaviland
Markets: San Diego, Orange and Riverside Counties
Services: Landscape management, irrigation management, best management practices
Employees: 100

What’s Michigan native and former hockey player Tom Heaviland doing in Southern California? Keeping his eye on the puck, of course, as he skates Heaviland Enterprises, Inc. through the soft ice of the local economy.

Heaviland, who founded Heaviland Enterprises with his father, Ron, in 1985, has served as president since his dad passed away in 1997 and has seen his workforce cut almost in half since the economy bottomed out.

His greatest challenge? Being sensitive to what’s going on in his customers’ businesses and adjusting his rates to accommodate their issues. But, he says it’s been a “learn as you go” experience ever since the company opened for business.

The father and son duo entered the landscape maintenance business after the Heaviland paid a Christmas visit to his father and stepmother, who were living in Carlsbad, Calif., at the time.

“My parents were renting a house from a gentleman who was with a large development company,” he explains. “This developer had a small maintenance company to maintain their commercial contracts and accounts, and we ended up buying that business from him.”

The Heavilands started with one truck, a handful of employees, and about a dozen commercial maintenance contracts. And, Heaviland adds, not much of anything in the way of landscape experience. Ron’s background was in parks and recreation management, while Heaviland had a degree in business administration.

Tom Heaviland says his company helps its commercial, HOA and multifamily property management clients solve their landscape water use issues.

More than a quarter-century later, the more things have changed, the more they’ve also remained the same. Then, as now, the core business remains commercial landscape management.

“It’s primarily office-industrial,” says Heaviland. “We do a fair amount of homeowner associations, we do apartment complexes, we have retail centers, and we have a couple high-end residential properties, but the residential is not something we actively solicit. Our bread and butter is the office-industrial segment.”

On the other hand, because of its San Diego-area location, the company is much more focused today on what Heaviland characterizes as enhancements for resource management and sustainability.

Heaviland employees, in a team-building exercise, spent a summer day at K-1 Speed Go-Kart Racing in Carlsbad, Calif.

Focusing on water management

One of the company’s divisions deals exclusively with water management and the design and installation of sustainable low-water-use projects. In a state where regulations are strict and in a market where water can be scarce, Heaviland says it’s vital to be prepared to act as clients’ water rates go up, water restrictions are instituted, or fines are imposed for runoff.

“I sometimes feel we’re more water managers than we are landscape managers,” he says. “Water is the priority and everything hinges on that.”

Sustainability may be one of the biggest challenges he faces with his clients, but Heaviland says that also has to be weighed against multiple bottom lines.

“It’s a good buzzword, but the question is whether they (customers and prospects) are willing to really invest dollars into sustainability,” he says. “We have to prove to our property managers and their clients, if they’re third-party managed, that the return on investment makes sense for them.”

That, in turn, leads back to the pressure landscape maintenance companies nationwide are facing: the need to give the client a high level of service while still finding ways to deliver that service more efficiently, and often for less money.

Part of Heaviland’s challenge is that his business isn’t based on mowing a lot of large lawns. The concept of the flat corporate campus often doesn’t fit with the terrain, and even where plenty of turfgrass existed in the past, it’s increasingly being phased out. Instead, the company does a lot of slope work, which is more labor-driven than equipment-driven.

That can be a problem when Heaviland says his employee roster is currently at a little more than 100 people. The upside to that is he feels he has a very stable workforce and the company can afford to be a little more selective in hiring. And, it’s rare to advertise a job opening.

Good training and good retention practices are also parts of the Heaviland Enterprises success story.

“We have a program set up at each of our branches, so the training is identical throughout,” Heaviland says. “We tend to train along the PLANET certification test so there’s both field training and then classroom-type training. We do a lot of training on irrigation management and controller programming.”

The Heaviland Enterprises, Inc. management team gathered at Big Bear, Calif., this past November for several days to share ideas and plan.

Training for supervisors is contracted out, but the company’s director of field operations handles much of the other training. Despite the tight economy, Heaviland says that’s an area he chooses not to scrimp on.

Field supervisor training is taken seriously at Heaviland Enterprises headquarters.

“We really promote certification,” he says. “Whether it’s through PLANET or our state association, CLCA, we’re networking with other individuals who are on the cutting edge, and we try to take full advantage of learning from them.”

Keeping those employees is also important, and retention practices range from a paid vacation schedule to a boot-and-jacket program that subsidizes those clothing items to a small cake on an employee’s birthday

Heaviland also conducts what he calls “town hall” meetings at each of his four locations – Vista, South Bay, Poway and Temecula, Calif. – to discuss how the company is doing and answer questions about where it’s going.

“They’re able to ask the tough questions,” he says. “We don’t keep a lot of secrets. We let them know how the company is performing, how we did last year, and what our plans are for the present year.”

The other area where Heaviland doesn’t like to skimp, no matter the economy, is marketing. Much of that involves participating in real-estate-related trade organizations, such as BOMA, IFMA, IREM and CAI.

The company also relies on its website, which Heaviland plans to update this coming fall through a “senior experience” program at California State University San Marcos.

While he describes the Internet as “a good tool,” he adds, “I prefer more face-to-face marketing. I like getting out and meeting our clients because that’s our best source of new opportunities. I believe through good service we’re able to connect with other people in a property management office.”

Perhaps that’s not surprising, since Heaviland says his greatest pleasure, and at times his greatest challenge, with the business is dealing with people – both employees and customers.

“We really have to be in tune with what’s going on with our customers and partner with them,” he says. “We spend a lot of time during their budgeting process to try to match our dollars with theirs and make it work.”

His greatest source of pride with Heaviland Enterprises is that it’s been providing good livings for a lot of families over its 27 years of existence. Whether that will continue to a third generation with either his college-aged son or high-school-aged daughter, he isn’t sure.

However, he intends to keep doing his best by those employees well into the future.

“It’s a tough business, but our strategy is to continue to grow,” he concludes. “People want more opportunities and it’s my task to see that that happens. I want to create more opportunities for these people to achieve their full potential. That may mean looking at some new services down the line, or looking at other markets, but right now, with our four locations, we feel there’s a tremendous opportunity.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at [email protected].