The evolution of Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction

When Glenn Jacobsen, CLM, entered the industry three decades ago, it wasn’t what he would have called a “professional” business. “It certainly has evolved, and it’s an incredible business,” says Jacobsen, president of Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction in Midland Park, N.J. “Many more people are knowledgeable about the green industry. Every year it’s going to get a little more sophisticated. Customers are demanding more professionalism.”

Jacobsen has been meeting those demands ever since he began cutting neighbors’ lawns as a young man. He studied landscape design and horticulture in college and started his own business more than 30 years ago.

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction offers design/build services, irrigation, maintenance and snow removal. The company’s equipment and employees were put to the test after major snowstorms hit the area in late 2010 and early 2011. “We’re pretty serious about snow,” Jacobsen says. “Snow removal is good money, but it’s difficult money to make.”

A masonry terrace with a built-in barbecue fridge and wood-burning fireplace replaced the existing wooden deck on the back of this house.

The company services northern New Jersey in a 30-mile radius from its headquarters. Until eight years ago, it focused primarily on design/build services before making a full entrance into the property maintenance sector. It was a decision that Jacobsen, in consultation with his management team, decided would be the best direction for the company. “We did it on a very small scale, but we wanted to make the company more diverse,” says Jacobsen. “We were too heavily relying on construction.”

As the recession began to take hold, Jacobsen was glad the company had made that transition. “At one time, we were 80 percent design/build and 20 percent property maintenance,” he says. “Our goal was to be a 50/50 company. One of the reasons we made it through this recent recession was because of the property management side.”

While Jacobsen concedes that diversification helped his company weather the economic storms, he points out that it’s not a change that can be made overnight. “You can’t diversify within a year or two,” he says. “A company evolves over time. A lot of companies started doing it when it was too late. You can’t just go from a construction company to a maintenance company and be good in a year or two.”

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction does not put its services under divisions. Instead, each has its own department with separate management teams, personnel, budgets, training and client services. “They’re almost different types of businesses within one landscape business,” says Jacobsen. “They’re hugely different as far as the mechanics of each of them.

“One of our initiatives last year was to refine the maintenance,” says Jacobsen. “We used to have it tied into the design/build arm of the business, but we literally split that department and put the sprinkler service in with the maintenance services. It’s pretty much the same clients.”

The company has two separate facilities with design/build, irrigation and lighting based in one, while another facility houses the property maintenance department.

Doing so offers customers better service because they’re tied into the same clients and it offers better communication among the maintenance crews, Jacobsen notes. Irrigation crews work side by side with maintenance crews to identify and fix problems; the same employees are matched with the same clients to ensure consistency in service.

The company utilizes route cards to track client preferences. “If for any reason we do have to switch crews because of a sickness or some other reason, the route cards are given to the new crew, which has the particulars of the client,” Jacobsen says.

Jacobsen’s approach to fertilizers is to offer what the client requests, whether it’s an organic or chemical program.

Jacobsen says he’s getting requests for more outdoor living features, such as outdoor kitchens and fireplaces, as homeowners want to spend what disposable income they have on improving their outdoor living areas. “Real estate has dropped here, but people still have significant market value in their houses, so they’re willing to put in money,” Jacobsen says.

The company works to educate clients on water management and proper irrigation procedures that strike a balance between overwatering and underwatering. His company provides midseason irrigation surveys to check for leaks, valve performance and proper irrigation coverage as part of the service contract. “We also give people upgrades or make recommendations on controllers and new technologies for irrigation and saving water,” says Jacobsen. “We do a survey of each property and make recommendations accordingly. It’s up to the client to decide if they want to upgrade it. Ultimately, we prove to the client how much money they’ll save. We get their water bills and water usage and do calculations on how much water and money they’ll save in a season or two.

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction’s garden care department plants seasonal flowers on this commercial property.

“It hurts me to say this, but the only time people are conscious about water conservation is when there are droughts in the midsummer and water restrictions are being imposed by the water utilities,” he says. “We do a lot of education because we’re not like Florida or Arizona or any of the Southwest. People take water for granted here, unlike other regions. We have well water predominantly, while some of it is reservoir.”

Jacobsen says what differentiates his company from others is the employees, which vary between 80 and 90 in-season. He also recruits at colleges for potential employees. “It’s great to bring in people who are young, fresh and have new ideas,” he says. “You can train them the way you want them to be trained if you have enough time. There is a learning curve with people from outside the industry.” The advantage of hiring people who have experiences outside of the landscape industry is that they can introduce positive experiences, good work habits and technical knowledge, Jacobsen says. “I’ve also hired people who brought bad things here,” he adds. “We’ve been accused of hiring slowly, and that’s done intentionally. We take a long time to hire people because we try to find the right fit for the person and for the company.”

When it comes to equipment, the company has different sizes for various jobs, as access to some job sites may require smaller machinery, but Jacobsen sticks with one manufacturer for ease of obtaining parts and maintenance.

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction’s employees install a new paver walk as part of a community service project in Waldwick, N.J.

He’s been affiliated with the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) for 15 years and now serves on the board. His company has received various awards through the organization, and employees obtain certification through the organization. Jacobsen says, “All of our supervisors are certified landscape technicians.” Also, he is designated a design/build Trailblazer, which, according to PLANET, is for “an elite group of dedicated professionals who were nominated by their peers for making significant and long-term contributions to the green industry.” Each Trailblazer sets aside one day each year to provide on-site mentoring to another PLANET green industry service provider member to help them develop and grow their own business. Jacobsen and his wife Melissa, the company’s CFO, are also ambassadors to PLANET’s Academic Excellence Foundation scholarship program.

Other achievements include a national environmental award and a safety achievement award from PLANET. The company also won the Landscaper’s Challenge on HGTV.

Jacobsen Landscape Design and Construction’s Design Center and Display Garden in Midland Park, N.J.

The company gives back to the community through participation in volunteer landscaping efforts and other charitable events, and also sponsors community educational series on topics such as growing herbs for consumption and how to create outdoor living spaces.

Like many business owners, Jacobsen tossed out the idea of a five-year plan when the recession hit. “We had a five-year plan, and it expired about two years ago, and basically we put it on hold,” Jacobsen says. “We used to be able to follow them pretty good, but there’s no sense in doing a five-year plan. We have a one-year strategic plan for this season we developed over the wintertime with the management team. We’re planning on revisiting it at the end of the season to see how we can extend it. It’s not that much different than a five-year plan; just a little bit more bite-sized.”

Jacobsen says the challenge facing him going forward is continuing to grow the company. “We’re starting to see regrowth of the economy, and we’re regrowing the company,” he says. “With the recession, we saw our top line number drop, but we were always careful of our bottom line. Retaining employees is a concern; we’ve retained all of our employees over the last couple of years, which makes us proud. Now that the economy is beginning to recover, we want these people to be able to regrow with the company.”

Looking ahead, he wants to see his company become the premiere landscape company in design/build, maintenance and irrigation. “We’re not going to reinvent the wheel here, but just keep doing what we’re doing, and be better at it with better people and better systems,” he says.

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.