Husband and wife team split duties in building successful N.J. landscape business
Shelly and Rick Hewson, co-owners of Hewson Landscape for 25 years, prove that a husband and wife can operate a successful company together.
There are approximately 4 million family-owned businesses in the United States, with more than 1.4 million of them being run by a husband-wife team, according to The Guardian Life Small Business Research Institute.
For most husband-wife couples operating an outdoor services company, including landscaping, it can be a pressure cooker environment putting an enormous strain on the relationship. In fact, more than half of these businesses crash-and-burn within a few years, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Hewson Landscape, Inc.
Owners: Rick and Shelly Hewson
Headquarters: Plainfield, N.J.
Markets: 50-mile radius around Plainfield, N.J.
Services: Mowing, trimming, edging, pesticide applications, pruning, spring and fall cleanups, planting annual flowers, mulching, and design and installation
Yet, some couples are so in sync that their business becomes a mere extension of their relationship. That’s how it’s played with Shelly and Rick Hewson who together operate Hewson Landscape in Plainfield, N.J. Hewson Landscapes has surpassed its 25th year in business with steady growth. You could say it is safely out of the woods.
According to many small business experts, the key success factors for husband-wife entrepreneurial businesses include: ensuring that both are ready; playing to each spouse’s different strengths; setting clear rules of operation, and then trusting your spouse that they will fulfill them. Finally, it’s often a good idea to involve trusted third parties to assist with the business. The Hewsons have these four factors sewn up.
“We do as well as can be expected as a husband-wife business team,” says Shelly. “Rick has his roles and I have mine. We are running down the same train track with clearly differentiated tasks. But, if I have to climb on the freeloader one day, Rick knows I’ll do it.”
Twenty-six years ago the Hewsons were ready to go into business together. They admit that at first they knew nothing about landscaping, but believed that it complimented what they both had already been doing in their careers. “I worked for someone else in the real estate field,” says Shelly. “Rick had a previous partner in the excavating business, then they parted ways.”
The timing was right because in the late ’80s commercial buildings were starting to outsource services, including landscaping. To prepare for their new careers they took horticulture classes at Rutgers University, and started slowly by attracting homeowner clients. They started with residential properties, but through referrals, began signing up commercial properties. It snowballed from there.
For a time, they operated a roll-off (dumpster) business, offering it as an add-on service for their clients. After deciding that it was taking them away from what they truly wanted to do and wasn’t delivering the profit they desired, they sold it, including all of the equipment, as a turnkey operation in 2008, says Rick.
Hewson Landscape offers a range of services allowing it to bid on and land larger government property improvement projects in its market.
Photos courtesy of Hewson Landscape, Inc.
Each partner’s role
The Hewsons’ roles are clearly differentiated. Shelly does the administration, including hiring employees and handling employee issues. She’s also the comptroller handling all the purchasing, payroll and contracts, which takes extensive research. She’s also the firm’s chief marketer.
Rick estimates and schedules the jobs. He also manages the crews. Both partners sell and they work together to fulfill the extensive contracts necessary to obtain a variety of maintenance and installation services for utility companies, commercial and industrial properties together with government and local municipalities.
Many of the properties they maintain are huge, upwards of 50 acres or more that have to undergo periodic inspection for safety compliance standards in the aftermath of Sept. 11. It’s all about economy of scale for Hewson Landscape because their clients buy complete high-ticket packages, including right-of-way mowing, side trimming, weed abatement, tree removal, stump grinding and pesticide and fertilizer applications.
“We like working larger parcels of land,” says Shelly. “It’s like one-stop shopping. We are always problem solving on industrial properties. We take pride in softening up a standard no-frills industrial building through landscaping. We’ll build attractive retaining walls, plant seasonal color and perennial flowerbeds, set up picnic areas and add patio space for employees to enjoy.”
The downside, says the Hewsons, is that their customers generally take longer to make decisions and scrutinize their budgets more than others.
The Hewsons outsource professional services, including payroll, accounting and insurance, knowing they can’t do it all themselves. They need to be freed up to do the actual landscaping work, employee training and sales and marketing.
Super Storm Sandy, which struck coastal New Jersey this past fall, also created havoc inland. Other storms striking the state later in the year boosted demand for cleanups and tree removals.
Slow but steady growth
Hewson Landscape has maintained limited steady growth on average of 2 percent per year. It all depends on the increase of maintenance contracts. When the economy downsizes, they adjust accordingly.
“We recently had a big surge in work commitments,” says Hewson. “Customers are spending more this year due to pent up demand and cleanup work from super storms affecting central New Jersey. There are more company plant expansions going on. If a utility or industrial company is expanding, we’ll get a call.”
Shelly capitalizes on being a certified Woman Business Enterprise (WBE), which allows her company to be registered in multiple resources where contracting officers can learn about her business. Large corporations still like to be seen as small and community minded businesses as part of their procurement solutions.
For bidding in larger government-style properties, Shelly attends procurement information sessions. “Even though you are certified as a minority enterprise like a woman-owned company, that still doesn’t give you any guarantee that you will win the bid,” she explains. “It opens up the door for you, but you have to take it upon yourself to get through that door.” Nowhere is it mandated that companies have to hire minority-owned companies for services.
For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been following and writing about the green industry. Contact him at [email protected].