The Columbus, Ohio, market is a brutally competitive landscape market. The city is the largest (pop. 797,000) and it (including its surrounding communities) comprises what’s generally recognized as the most dynamic region in the state.
Consequently, central Ohio can boast more than its share of large, well-run landscape operations. There’s also an incredible (and largely uncountable) number of largely indistinguishable mow-blow-go operations, says Karl McCullough, CFO, McCullough’s Landscape and Nursery, headquartered about 30 miles northeast of Ohio’s capital city. The family business calls New Albany, with just over 7,000 people, its home base. That small city ranks 11th out of the 1,065 places in Ohio in terms of per capita income.
“Most of our New Albany, Ohio, customers are prominent executives of large corporations and professionals from various fields,” says Karl’s son, Nick McCullough, company CEO. “Many of our best customers own estates covering acres and acres of land.” Virtually all of their customers are single-property homeowners, with the exception of one high-end builder with which they’ve established a strong relationship over the years. Relationships are important to the McCullough clan.
Nick and his brother Josh, who manages the family’s greenhouse operations, grew up around agriculture and learned at an early age that there are no shortcuts in doing industry-leading work. Karl has 30 years of experience in agriculture. The sons’ memories include working in the family’s strawberry fields in Upper Sandusky, Ohio. When Karl was transferred to Iowa, the family moved there for a short time. It returned a few years later where the two boys attended high school and started a mowing business.
As the business grew, Nick decided this was going to be his life’s work and enrolled at The Ohio State University, concentrating on building his knowledge of horticultural. Their mother, Terri, realizing a chance to work in the soil once again and seeing how this might grow into a family business, earned an associate’s degree in horticulture at Columbus State Community College. Working together, this family of four is bringing their clients the best property maintenance services possible. Not surprisingly, the family business has been blessed with steady growth over the past years.
Blueprint for success
Currently they operate 15 truck/trailers, most of which are diesel-powered. Of those vehicles, four are crew-cabs purchased to help get staff to the larger jobs and reduce the cost of fuel.
With eight disciplines within their business, including a certified arborist and an irrigation specialist, the company can manage all aspects of grounds maintenance at even the largest estates.
Click photo to enlarge.
Many of the firm’s landscapes feature English garden elements thanks to CEO Nick McCullough who studied there.
“Good work leads to more work,” says Nick. “By giving attention to details, we can offer a number of services to each estate, and our reputation for quality is paramount.”
Employees wear uniforms and appropriate safety gear (including goggles), vehicles are clearly labeled with the company logo, and orange cones are set out to warn to the public when work is being done. Several employees have earned Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association technical certifications.
“We encourage and love the idea of certification for our employees. We offer a professional experience, and our customers expect that from us,” says Karl. “That’s not to say that we don’t appreciate farm intelligence as many of our people have years of experience from farming. A little dirt under the fingernail is a pretty good lesson planner.”
The company tries to keep its employees working year-round. Says Karl, “We’ll use them in any way we can, from snow removal to our building a 52-by-128-foot barn last winter. We want to keep them busy if we can. Family is an important element of who we are.” Even so, about a third of the firm’s employees take a voluntary layoff. The company continues to pay their benefits.
Following the plan
In addition to the immediate family, a key associate is designer/salesman Ryan Lauber. “He’s family. We couldn’t do it without him,” says Nick. Working closely together, the two stay in constant communication and close about 85 percent of their sales calls.
“We have a small consulting charge for new design customers to help us determine if the client is serious about the build. At this time of year there’s a lot of springtime excitement in the air and we’re very busy answering inquiries.” Typically, after an initial survey of the client’s home, the designers will find out the particulars of what the customer would like to build and begin measurement of the areas. The second phase is to use CAD design, and email those images and proposals to the client.
After adjustments are made, they take samples that they’re considering to use to the homeowner. “We try to follow-up in one day and get the proposal out the door,” says Nick. “We’re not big on utilizing artificial pavers in these Georgian settings; we’re a big proponent of natural stone in our designs and on these exclusive homes. No one really knows how pavers are going to hold up in the long run, whereas, limestone pavers have been around for hundreds of years. We want these homes to still look great after 20 years. Thermal Bluestone and Indiana limestone are my preference in these high-end homes.”
The company specializes in specifying and using flowers, shrubs and trees native to Ohio. This is material that can withstand the region’s weather extremes and resist the ravages of indigenous pests. It has its own nursery and greenhouse and prides itself on offering the healthiest and widest plant choices for its customers.
“If we don’t have a particular plant that a client asks for, we have developed a network of growers in Ohio to get what that customer requested. We believe in ‘Ohio Proud’ and we rely on our neighbors and friends,” says Nick.
Although loyal to plants natural to Ohio, Nick has had an ongoing love for the boxwood family. “Even though they’re not native to Ohio, the boxwood does well in our area. I studied in northwest England for a time and became familiar with them. They’re ideal for standing planters that sit beside the entrance to a beautiful home or in tailored garden areas,” he adds.
After the sale is finalized and the build complete, the company offers a maintenance contract. “Most of our customers rely on us to keep their grounds in great shape. And a good number of new customers come to us after seeing the type of work we do on neighboring properties,” says Nick. “A lot of our business comes from word-of-mouth.”
In recent years, outdoor kitchens have been hot items and, to a lesser degree, containers growing attractive but edible plants.
“We think planting in-between stonework to create art is going to be a big seller in the future; Scotch moss, a chartreuse shade, or creeping thyme, which has this wonderful fragrance, are our top choices,” he says.
Another focus has been LED landscape lighting. “Manufacturers have made major improvements in their product lines,” says Karl, whose responsibilities include longevity and costs. “They’ll pay for themselves in a few years. For a time the light was problematic, and gave off a blue shade, but now the light is soft and warm, not bluish, and the savings for the customer can be tremendous.”
Awards help to get ahead
The family is a past recipient of the prestigious Ohio Landscape Award for Maintenance. Nick explains, “We love the community, our customers, our employees and our vendors. We’re in a good place and we know what our customers expect, and more importantly, we know that we can deliver.”
The McCulloughs have even designed a limestone dog run, complete with plants growing between natural pavers, to prevent the client’s dogs from damaging the plantings. Nick’s blog, “Designing for Dogs” is just another example of the diversity of services that this Ohio Proud family offers.
Facts About McCullough Landscape & Nursery
Principals: CEO Nick McCullough, CFO Karl McCullough
Headquarters: New Albany, Ohio
Market: Central Ohio
Services: Turf maintenance, snow removal, design, bed care & pruning, organic fertilization & pest control, plant & turf fertilization, irrigation service & repair, and seasonal color plantings
Employees: 27 full time