Coastal Carolina company approaches its 15th year with a goal of $2 million in revenue.

Todd McCabe’s formula for success is simple. He says it boils down to desire, discipline and hard work. He is living proof that it works. He founded Landscapes Unlimited in 2000, and after guiding it through the Great Recession, drought and the financial struggles that beset most small businesses, he is poised to take his company to the $2 million level.

Landscapes Unlimited is based in the coastal town of Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. It is located in a prime location in the upscale Wilmington metropolitan area of North Hanover County.

Folks appreciate the outdoors in this region of the country, and McCabe is no exception. He got into the landscape business because, as the son of a golf course superintendent, he learned to love the green industry working in it at a very tender age.

“I loved to work, and I loved working the grounds of the course,” he recalls. “I compare it to growing up on a farm. I still remember how excited I was when I was given a 10-hp Craftsman lawn tractor to mow with. I also had a pull-behind spreader that I used to fertilize the tees. I was 10 or 11 years old.”

His passion led him to pursue a degree in environmental science at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington. As a student he worked for a tree and landscape company one summer and for a high-end design/build firm another summer. Those experiences opened his eyes to the possibility of owning a small business of his own.

“I learned a lot from my experience at these companies. But I think the greatest lesson was that I gained an employee’s perspective,” he says. “Had I started my own company before working for others, I would not have the insight I do now about employees’ feelings about the company they work for.”

Focusing on team building

Finding, hiring and keeping good employees offer the biggest challenges to the owners of most small businesses. McCabe admits he is no exception.

“I work hard to make sure everyone is valued for the work they do. But I still feel that my management team and I need to constantly work to do a better job at employee appreciation,” he says.

“We have many skilled team members. A few have been with us more than 10 years and a handful have been with us for more than five years,” he continues. His employees enjoy paid holidays and paid vacations, as well as 401K accounts.

“Each Monday we have a meeting that includes all of our field staff,” he notes. The meetings are devoted to horticultural and operational issues and conclude with safety training. The company’s weekly management meetings generally focus on strategic planning, scheduling, client concerns and HR issues.

Getting A Better Handle On Labor

In spite of his best efforts, Todd McCabe says labor was a big problem for his company this past season. He doesn’t want a repeat of that and is taking steps to prevent it from happening.

“We were short-staffed for a majority of the season. We were never able to find a qualified irrigation technician. We should have done three times the revenue we actually produced on the irrigation service and repair side.”

Only about 5 percent of the company’s $1.3 million 2014 revenue came from its irrigation services. Landscape management accounted for 65 percent and construction 30 percent.

McCabe instituted changes in the company’s hiring practices and is now confident that he has a much better handle on labor. Job candidates respond to formal employment postings that contain detailed job descriptions and also clear language about the drug testing and background checks the company will require.

“We ask that they (job candidates) send us an email with their basic information and why they want the job,” he says. “This lets us know right off how well they can follow directions.” That hurdle met, the potential employee is interviewed over the telephone. If that interview goes well, the candidate is invited to the office for further interviews and meeting.

“I was not happy with our past recruiting efforts,” says McCabe. “But we learned from our mistakes and feel good about our plans for 2015. I have the key people in place. We will do approximately $2 million in 2015. We will grow our design/build side significantly and continue maintenance growth at about 10 to 12 percent.”

Getting the word out

Like many successful lawn services businesses, the bulk of Landscape Unlimited’s clients come through referrals. McCabe laughs as he remembers some of his earliest marketing efforts.

“I did a ton of fliers. I remember one of the first phone calls I got. It was the postmaster, and the postal service was not happy with the fact that I had put fliers in mailboxes; their count actually exactly matched mine,” he recalls. “As obvious as it seems that you can’t do that, I had no idea at the time. I was a college kid still gaining real-world experience.”

McCabe admits that his marketing efforts have not been as effective as he would like.

“We have tried different, more obvious marketing techniques in the past, things like postcards and door hangers,” he says. “They haven’t produced the results we expected, especially considering the quality and content of the pieces. I’ve talked to business owners in other markets and their response rate is three to five times higher than ours.”

Although a highly desirable place to live and work, McCabe believes that his area offers special challenges for lawn and landscape companies. “Every market is competitive and every contractor thinks theirs is the most competitive. But I really think the coastal markets are some of the toughest,” he notes.

“There are some new competitors here from other markets,” he continues. “I can’t figure out why they are here. Their markets are much stronger than ours; the pricing is much stronger in the markets they come from. If they put half the energy into their core markets, they would achieve much more success than entering this one. They are driving pricing downward and it doesn’t make sense.”

McCabe is undeterred and plans on expanding his presence on the Internet and social media.

“Our website needs work, and we plan on addressing that over the next few months,” he explains. “We have a Facebook page, but we really need to do a better job of keeping it active. I would also like to engage more people with it. We do a lot of things that people would think are pretty cool.”

Providing landscape services in Wrightsville Beach, a North Carolina coastal town, offers Todd McCabe lots of opportunity but big challenges, too. The region is regularly visited by hurricanes, and now competitors are moving in. Above, the company began offering irrigation services after a severe drought hit the area in 2008. PHOTO: LANDSCAPES UNLIMITED

Embracing sustainability

Landscapes Unlimited is leading the way in coastal North Carolina in adopting and promoting sustainable services. It’s nothing new for the company. McCabe has been taking his green waste to recycling centers for so long that he doesn’t know whether conventional landfills charge extra or even accept landscape waste.

“We don’t have a formal composting program, but we try to be as environmentally conscious as we can,” he notes. “Last year, we brought in a big soil screener and recycled 500 yards of topsoil we had accumulated.”

Mulching mowers are a given at the company. “We only use baggers in the fall when there are a lot of fallen leaves on the property,” he says. And, of course, the bagged leaves go to the recycling center.

This year, McCabe began converting his mower fleet to propane. “We just purchased three units and plan to purchase more before spring if everything works the way it should with them,” he explains, excitedly. “I like the idea of the reduced emissions with a fuel that is produced here in the U.S. We also expect to save a fairly significant amount of money on the fuel and expect more hours out of the engines on these units.”

McCabe admits that there has been a learning curve all the way around. “We were the first to buy them from the dealership,” he says. “Getting the canisters/tanks to the mowers has been difficult. They are on backorder because the manufacturer has been overwhelmed.” McCabe hopes to install a fueling station at his shop eventually.

Also, some of his employees were skeptical of the conversion to propane. “My employees weren’t as on board as I thought they would be,” he says. “Safety was one concern, but we convinced everyone there was no way they could blow up. There were also performance concerns. They thought they would be underpowered, but it turned out to be just the opposite.”

As well as recycling green waste, the company is conscientious about recycling and reusing paper, cans, bottles and plant containers. McCabe also makes every effort to minimize pesticide use.

“We work on warm-season grasses, so there aren’t that many pest and disease problems,” he notes. On new installations, he is moving toward planting native and low-water-use plants.

The company began offering irrigation services after a severe drought in 2008. “The municipalities were ready to ban landscape irrigation,” he says. “That was affecting not only existing landscapes, but new ones as well. They decided to work with an advisory board, which I joined. That’s when I became interested in the process and became a Certified Irrigation Contractor through the Irrigation Association.”

PHOTO: LANDSCAPES UNLIMITED

Show me the money

One of McCabe’s biggest challenges in getting his company to a profitable level was getting paid for the work his firm did.

“We were primarily design/build from 2003-2009. We had several clients who took longer than expected to pay for projects. I loved doing those projects, but I had many sleepless nights during those days,” he recalls, adding the problem worsened as the company grew.

“The late payments negatively impacted the business, especially since we were relatively new and growing quickly; growth takes a lot of money,” he says. “Looking back on those days, I regret not being more aggressive in our collection techniques, but I am also grateful that our delinquent clients had full intention of paying.”

McCabe emphasizes the collection problem was never due to complaints about workmanship. These days he pays much closer attention to his accounts receivables and he also requires deposits on design/build jobs.

“We used to let maintenance clients go up to four months before we would stop servicing their accounts,” he explains. “Now we do a weekly collections review and my office manager keeps me abreast of any delinquent clients. And we’ll cut off service if we have to.”

Because of the changes, he hasn’t had to employ any collection agencies. “We talked about it, but things are working fine now,” he says. “Ultimately, I think it just means being more aware.”

Although as this was being written gas prices were falling, McCabe is preparing for expansion with fuel prices in mind.

The company’s account manager is getting a new fuel-efficient car, and operations managers will be driving more fuel-efficient light-duty trucks this coming season.

McCabe plans to open satellite offices in the north and south markets within the next 24 months. “We are only a block away from the highway that we use to reach each market,” he explains.

Although still a young man at 37, McCabe’s success in starting and growing a profitable small business has taught him several lessons. “My best advice to landscape business owners is to focus on your goals and do whatever is ethical to achieve those goals,” he says. “I often hear the term ‘business is business’ when the time comes to make difficult decisions or make strategic moves. I can’t disagree with that term more. To me, ethical business is ethical business. No excuses.”

Helen M. Stone is a freelance writer on the West Coast specializing in commercial turf and landscape.