Debby Cole knows bigger is better in Texas

Debby Cole, owner of Greater Texas Landscapes.

Even though Debby Cole is most likely the only American woman ever to single-handedly generate more than $7 million in sales with 125 employees in three branches after starting, owning and operating her own landscaping firm, she would rather you forget about her gender.

“I never wanted to get special treatment for being a woman business owner,” explains Cole. “I wanted to succeed on my own merit.”

Although available to Cole’s company, Greater Texas Landscapes (GTL) in Austin, with its many perks, Cole consistently opted out of using her gender to qualify for small business minority status. The only time she used this to her advantage when she opened up a new branch in San Antonio and prospective customers told her they would hire her if they could earn “points” for hiring a minority (woman-owned) vendor.

Cole was the only nationally certified landscape professional in Austin when she co-founded GTL in 1981 with Kay Wagenknecht-Harte. Prior to becoming the owner of a landscaping company, she taught at an Austin public middle school, heading up the vocational horticulture program, and she earned a degree at Texas A&M. In 1983, Cole bought out her partner, who married and moved out of Austin. With a new focus on commercial work, GTL really started to take off. “We had several growth years when Austin was in a boon period,” says Cole.

Crew member Andy Hernandez mows around one of the flower beds of Barton Skyway, a multifamily residential development in the trendy south downtown area of Austin.

By the time the late-’80s rolled around, GTL’s revenue was cut in half when the output of commercial construction decreased as a result of the commercial real estate bust. After that, Cole concentrated on slow, planned growth for GTL, became a savvy financial planner and expanded the company’s services.

In the depths of that first recession, Cole divided GTL into various profit centers, analyzing each one to see which were profitable and which lost money. This gave the company the clarity it needed to trim services that weren’t working. “Now we look for trends by analyzing data constantly,” she says. “We look at reports line item by line item. We’re always looking at where the differences are.

“We had started out doing work for residential clients, but as we developed systems to analyze profitability in certain areas, we realized that the residential maintenance market was the least profitable for us and required the most management time. You can’t separate the good from the bad when you don’t analyze your data properly. All the money goes into one pot, and if you have some left at the end of the year, you think you’ve done a good job,” Cole says.

After retooling in the mid-’80s, the next several years provided steady growth for GTL. In 2007, GTL opened a branch in San Antonio. The following year, it became a wholly owned subsidiary of Environmental Earthscapes, a Tucson, Ariz.-based multistate landscape firm doing business as The Groundskeeper. With 750 employees in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Utah, The Groundskeeper is considered one of the largest employee-owned landscaping firms in the country.

The merger of the two companies, formed under the ESOP (employee stock ownership plan), marked The Groundskeeper’s entry into Texas. It is expected to yield a combined annual revenue of about $45 million.

“We have shared best practices with The Groundskeeper for over 15 years,” says Cole. “So, when conversations on ESOP turned to how we could join forces to mutually benefit our employees and customers, it was a no-brainer. Not only will our employees become owners in a business they have helped to build over the years, but we will be able to share the best of both worlds. It will also provide employees with much better benefits in medical care and employee financing plans due to its vast size.”

After the merger, GTL added the Dallas market, doubling its revenues in the first six months. “We are looking to expand our services in Dallas and Houston and San Antonio,” says Cole. GTL also added customers in College Station, Waco and McAllen.

With the merger, GTL now has the ability to market on a regional basis throughout the Southwest. “We are like a family sharing resources,” says Cole. “In our new markets of San Antonio, Dallas and Houston, we’ve added shopping centers and banks thanks to the connections we’ve made with The Groundskeeper.”

Crew member Andy Hernandez trims the hedges at the Barton Skyway multifamily residential development in the trendy south downtown area of Austin.
Members of the maintenance team maintain one of the flower beds, featuring dwarf yaupon, at Barton Skyway residential development in downtown Austin.

The new partnership provides the support and resources needed to bid larger projects and contracts in the Texas region. It also gives GTL the opportunity to bring back new landscape construction services, dormant until after the merger happened. “We want to rev up our construction division, which was in sleep mode for the last decade,” says Cole. “With the expertise and bench strength of ‘brother company’ The Groundskeeper, we have reopened Texas Construction [GTL’s landscape construction division].”

Over the years, GTL has been recognized for its commitment to its employees. Recently, it was twice awarded a spot in the 2007 and 2009 Top 20 Best Places to Work in Central Texas. It also received the Vehicle Safety and No Loss Time Award from the Professional Landscape Network’s (PLANET) annual Safety Recognition Program, recognized for its achievement in maintaining and exceeding OSHA and other safety requirements.

“Our commitment to educating employees is important,” Cole says. “We don’t hire people to plant trees or push lawn mowers. There’s a pride in what they do.”

GTL was one of the first landscape companies in Austin to participate in the H2B program, a national initiative to provide work visas for seasonal workers-a big part of Cole’s business, because she hires many employees from Mexico. “You have to be a certified employer to participate, but the visas allow them to come to the U.S. and work for 10 months out of the year,” says Cole.

GTL’s employees are even featured “larger than life” in the company’s recent major marketing campaign. On new trucks and trailers, photo images with unique quotes of employees are placed within local garden environments, including native plantings of large cacti.

“We began to re-examine how GTL would differentiate itself from other landscape companies in the Texas market,” says Cole. “We were in the throes of competition, and we wanted to position ourselves as truly ‘Austin.’ We are, and have been, perceived as ‘fun loving, quirky and different,’ so why shouldn’t our 16-foot enclosed trailers portray us this way? The trucks and trailers are noticed everywhere around Austin, creating a major buzz.”

GTL has also become a crusader in social media. It provides service updates and landscaping tips via a monthly e-mail newsletter called “Tips & Tidbits from the Central Texas Landscape Lady.” The Groundskeeper’s quarterly newsletter, “Outside Solutions,” keeps its customers up to date on all it’s doing throughout the Southwest region branches. GTL has a loyal following on Facebook and LinkedIn, and is building a huge database with Constant Contact.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.