Cape Cod-based company owner employs 17th-century business model to build success

Maffei Landscape Contractors

Owner: Bob Maffei
Founded: 1991
Headquarters: Cape Cod, Mass.
Markets: Plymouth to Provincetown, including the South Shore and Cape Cod
Services: Landscape maintenance, construction, and design and architecture
Employees: 80-plus

For the past 10 years, Cape Cod-based Maffei Landscape Contractors has owed its ongoing growth to its unique apprenticeship business model and employee motivation and retention programs.

Although owner Bob Maffei says his company’s business model, which he calls the “Maffei Master Landscaper Program,” is unique to the industry, it’s really nothing new. In fact, it’s an age-old 17th-century tradition adapted from the first colonial New England settlers.

In the Maffei Master Landscaper Program, each worker becomes a specialist in a particular landscaping discipline, and subsequently trains others to do the same.

“Most landscaping companies operate their work crews as ‘jacks-of-all-trades, master of none,'” says Maffei. “It’s quite the opposite at Maffei Landscape. We create master craftsmen who become specialists in carrying out very specific landscaping tasks.”

Each Maffei crew consists of a master craftsman, a craftsman and an apprentice, and is organized within specific divisions. Each crew is assigned a truck and a trailer with all of the tools necessary for the day’s tasks, which usually include mowing, mulching, edging, and bed installation and maintenance.

At first, Maffei Landscape did things the way most landscapers do: dividing up the customers with each worker performing all of the different jobs such as mowing, mulching, planting and edging. But when Maffei’s 10-year-old company started to grow after he graduated from college, he created the master craftsmen system quite by accident.

“I had to train others for edging work,” Maffei says. “I found it difficult to hand off to others due to their lack of preciseness. I experimented with different methods of training consistently in how to edge. First, I had the crewman follow a rope that outlined the edge, a painted line on the curb for the grass, and finding the right kind of equipment. I found that three crewmen work best for training, representing three different levels: apprentice to craftsman to master craftsman.”

Today, each Maffei crew, consisting of a master craftsman, a craftsman and an apprentice, is organized within specific divisions and assigned a truck hauling a trailer outfitted with the necessary tools for the work to be performed.

For example, a typical Maffei edging crew works like this: the master craftsman uses a power edger to cut the contour of the bed edge; the craftsman works behind him, using a stick edger to refine the contour; and finally, the apprentice cleans up behind the craftsman.

“The apprenticeship model developed for the Maffei Master Craftsman Program results in advantages for everyone in our operation,” says Maffei. “Because efficiency lowers our operational and service costs, our clients also enjoy very competitive service charges.”

Vince Greco, a maintenance manager, hopped on-board for several years after leaving a major competitor of Maffei’s, primarily because of the master craftsman program. Currently, due to health reasons, he had to resign from Maffei, but is now working for a property management firm in the area that has now become one of Maffei’s largest customers.

“In my 15 years in the landscaping industry, I’ve never seen a more effective model benefiting managers,” says Greco. “It provides an effective management infrastructure within a tiered system. It cultivates management skills for those who want to become managers. The account managers can concentrate on the customers, while the production managers, horticulture managers and mowing managers can concentrate on their respective disciplines.”

To keep his 80-plus employees motivated and morale high, Maffei incorporates elements of team sports acquired from his days on the high school football team. “Once a week, our coach would blow a whistle and yell ‘Bring it in!'” Maffei recalls. “We’d get in front of him on one knee and have a meeting. During that meeting, the coach would designate players of the week, and each honoree wore a sticker on his helmet with pride.”

So, every Thursday at 7:20 a.m. inside the company’s enormous truck bay, Maffei rings a bell and yells “Bring it in!” after a 15-minute strategy meeting. He doesn’t make them get on their knees, and instead of “Player of the Week” stickers on helmets, Maffei offers gift certificates to the local donut shop or movie theater. Employees of the month are in line for flat-screen TVs or Xboxes, and the employee of the year walks away with an all-expenses-paid trip for two to the Caribbean. Maffei takes all his employees stock car racing, out for spaghetti dinner and on fishing trips, as well.

Revenues at Maffei Landscape have held steady at $6 million to $7 million for the past several years, as well as the 60/40 ratio of residential versus commercial customers. The company, which occupies a 4-acre office complex in Mashpee, Mass., is known throughout the Cape for its fleet of signature black trucks with shiny chrome. Clients include distinctive properties such as Ballymeade, New Seabury, Oyster Harbors and The Pinehills, as well as hundreds of individual homeowners from Plymouth and Wareham to Provincetown.

According to the Cape and Islands Workforce Investment Board, about 90 percent of all businesses on Cape Cod have 20 or fewer employees. Maffei never expected to one day employ four times that number. When he started out with a handful of guys from his Barnstable High School football team cutting lawns and spreading mulch, he was just looking to make a few extra bucks for college.

“My buddies were all in the same situation,” he says. “Our dads were involved in the building business. My dad was a contractor. It got really slow for New England builders in the early ’90s, so we came up with an idea for a business and called it Yard Helpers.”

Keeping his landscaping business going, Maffei went to college to study civil engineering and environmental science. He started taking college classes in Stockbridge evolving around landscaping and design. By his senior year, he picked up some major landscape accounts at a few of the bigger developments on the Cape and realized landscaping was going to be his career.

Every Thursday at 7:20 a.m. inside the company’s garage, Maffei rings a bell and shouts out “Bring it in!” to kick off a 15-minute strategy meeting. During the get-together Maffei passes out gift certificates to the local donut shop or movie theater, recognizing them for their fine efforts during the week.

Despite Maffei’s continued success, the biggest challenge during the prolonged recession was for the company to find qualified high-level managers that want to relocate to the Cape. The company uses all the major online job boards, maintains a Facebook Fan page focused on recruitment, hires outside recruiters and advertises on local radio shows.

While company managers earn between $40,000 and $150,000, which is considered a well-paying job for the area, Maffei says there just aren’t the bodies around to fill the positions. “We’ve moved people here from all over the country, from New York to Tennessee, to work for us,” he says.

Maffei finds it difficult to overcome the misconception, especially from states in the South and Midwest with a low cost of living, that the cost of living is high throughout the Cape. “There are many pockets where the cost of living is the same, if not less costly, than other areas of New England,” he says. “I think if you don’t stay aware of things like what it costs to live here, and you don’t set your pricing models according to what people need to make and what you need to charge, you can get into trouble quickly.”

For the 36-year-old Maffei, his business has come before everything else in his life. And while it’s been successful, he’s a bit remorseful about putting off having a family. “For most of my adult years, I’ve dedicated myself to Maffei Landscape,” he says. “I’m still hopeful that I’ll be able to start a family.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at