Blackjack Horticulture honored with Alabama landscape awards
When a company receives one award, that’s a distinctive honor, but when the same name is called the next year, it’s time for the competition to sit up and take notice.
The Alabama green industry is watching out for Blackjack Horticulture, Inc. (www.blackjackhorticulture.com), which received laurels from the Alabama Nursery and Landscape Association (ALNLA) in 2009 and 2010.
Blackjack Horticulture, named for its Blackjack Ridge location, got its start back in 1998 when a Birmingham firm added it as a garden division. In its early days, the company was small and, according to its current owner, unprofitable. That all changed with the arrival of Bryan Word.
Word grew up in Alabama, where he developed an interest in lawn and garden care at a young age. As a teenager, he mowed lawns and trailed the landscape designer working on his parents’ new home. He also operated a small landscape company while in college.
After receiving a landscape design/horticulture degree from Alabama’s Auburn University, he joined Blackjack Horticulture as a landscape installation supervisor in 2000. The following year, Word took over company management.
“That was the first year that it was profitable,” he adds. “Since 2001, the business has grown four to five times larger.”
Building the business
Blackjack Horticulture, which offers limited design services, installation, maintenance and floriculture, continues to flourish under Word’s management. In 2004, he and Kim Bynam bought the company. Moving into the owner’s seat brought its own challenges and rewards.
“I had a lot to learn and began carrying all the risk,” he says. “There was more pressure to perform, but it meant more when I did well.”
Word initially focused on increasing commercial business. Today, his accounts are equally split between commercial and residential customers. A branch office opened in Auburn in 2007. From the Birmingham and Auburn locations, Blackjack services all of the state of Alabama except the Gulf Coast region, and occasionally works in neighboring states.
Blackjack’s profits also grew with the introduction of a seasonal color package that has earned the company new clients. The firm offers design, installation and maintenance of annual and perennial beds for year-round interest.
“We offer comprehensive maintenance and focus on detail and quality,” Word says. “Our crews spend more time at each place. We may have fewer accounts than some companies, but they’re higher value accounts.”
Until the launch of the Auburn location, Word didn’t invest in advertising. Instead, he relied on word-of-mouth marketing. Although he does now advertise in both markets, he sees better results with personal references. “Word-of-mouth is best; that brings in higher quality business,” he says.
Blackjack now employs 25 year-round employees, as well as an additional 10 workers during the busy season. Of his business philosophy, Word says well-equipped and well-trained employees who care about the job are essential. “It’s important to take care of employees and subcontractors,” he says. “Crew leaders, supervisors and managers are the face of our company and must go the extra mile. All crew leaders and managers have degrees in horticulture or many years’ experience.”
Word’s building of the business has paid off during the current economic downturn. Last year was actually a good year because a number of projects had been bid one to two years before and were under contract. Although business slowed early this year, by spring it was picking up again.
The ALNLA tapped Blackjack in its awards programs in both 2009 and 2010. In 2009, the company was named winner of its landscape awards for residential and commercial landscape management. Projects such as the president’s home on the Auburn University campus, University of Alabama Birmingham University Hospital and the Women and Infants Center were cited in the honor.
This January, Word was named the 2010 Horizon Award winner. This recognition is given to an outstanding member who is under the age of 36 or has worked in the green industry for no more than eight years. “Bryan is a smart and professional young man who is an asset to Alabama’s green industry,” says James Harwell, ALNLA’s executive director.
Word says his involvement with the ALNLA and with the Greater Birmingham Association of Landscape Professionals helps educate the public and young contractors. “Building the professional image of the industry is important,” he says. “Promoting the industry as a whole helps us all.”
For the 2009 commercial award, Blackjack submitted a portfolio of its work at Princeton Baptist Hospital in Birmingham. About four years ago, the company took over the maintenance of the older campus with established landscaping. The age, inadequate previous maintenance and budget constraints has made Princeton a challenging account.
Word placed a full-time crew at the hospital to provide comprehensive service, including litter collection. The crew maintains the grounds, manages seasonal color and finds that the job keeps growing as the hospital purchases neighboring properties. Word says an account such as this requires the maintenance team to start over and rehabilitate the grounds, realizing that improvement won’t occur overnight.
“We felt it had come a long way in the last few years, and the owner is proud of the progress,” Word says. “It’s still not at the level we’d like, but the improvement made us enter it into the competition.”
The ALNLA isn’t the only organization impressed with Blackjack’s renovation at Princeton. Independent hospital evaluators recently gave the grounds an A+ rating.
Blackjack’s residential work is exemplified by a Birmingham home set on a 5-acre wooded lot. The Frank Lloyd Wright-style house is set on a ridge. “The landscape is patterned after the home with linear features,” Word says.
An especially unusual feature is a large berm in the front. The structured and terraced berm is sodded, posing a mowing challenge for the maintenance team. Native plantings are used throughout, with a wildflower meadow in the back. A natural stacked stone wall, built to appear as if it has been in place for ages, surrounds it. The garage is camouflaged with a 40-foot green wall. Vines grow on every level of the gabled structured, which is watered with drip irrigation.
“Our crew has to put on repel gear to climb the wall to pull leaves and maintain the irrigation system,” Word says.
Several years after installing the landscape and servicing it, Word has encountered few maintenance problems. “Some plant material is unique, so we had a learning curve on maintaining those,” he says. In addition, watering such a large landscape has been challenging. Ultimately, a well was dug to support irrigation, and it still takes 10 to 12 hours for the irrigation system to cycle through one time.
Word says, “This is a great industry to be a part of; we help each other, and that helps us all.”
Based in Greensboro, N.C., the author writes articles about horticulture, landscaping, agriculture and travel. She has been a contributor to Moose River Media publications for three years.