Two friends turn a love of the outdoors into a successful landscape company
Below: A before picture of a residential project, a plain backyard. Above: Here’s the completed project. Now there’s hardscaping, a play area for the kids with mulch, and various plantings to make an interesting landscape design.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF NATURE’S ACCENTS LANDSCAPE SERVICES, INC.
Justin Bentz and Travis Breininger have known each other since seventh grade and became best friends throughout high school. Their deep friendship and love of the outdoors forged a friendship into a business partnership. Today, the two men own Nature’s Accents Landscape Services, Inc. (www.naturesaccentslandscape.com) located in Hamburg, Berks County, Pa.
“We worked for the same landscape company during the summers through college. This is where we were exposed to the landscaping world – mostly mowing and maintenance; little exposure to installs, pavers and plantings. [We] found out about Pennsylvania College of Technology’s Landscape/Nursery program through our foreman [who was a past graduate of the school]. We each enrolled and transferred, which would have been the start of our junior year. Before graduation, we were both hired by a professional – we thought at the time – landscape company in Berks County. We did landscape installs and maintenance on nights and weekends, building enough demand to decide to leave our jobs the summer of 2003 and begin our own company … doing landscape work we wanted to do. This is our ninth year in business,” says Breininger.
Landscape service diversification
Nature’s Accents started offering a variety of soft and hardscape services from the very beginning of their business. At Penn State’s program, they were saturated in learning about plant material and landscape design. Today, both men are motivated by the creativity aspect of landscape design.
Yet, they realized that they needed to provide other regular income for their business, so they added lawn care, mowing and bed maintenance to keep positive cash flow coming in. Breininger says that this piece of their business keeps them in constant exposure to the public with people seeing their trucks on the street.
From left, Travis Breininger, CLT, PCH (co-owner) and Justin Bentz, PCH (co-owner), Corey Girard, Tyler Eckert and Anthony Moyer, CLT, PCH.
Also, Breininger says the company has seen an increase in sales during the deep recession years of 2009-10. “We were up 12 percent in installation – hardscape, plantings, lighting; 6 percent [in] lawn care services; 9 percent landscape maintenance, [which] includes mowing; and 8 percent in snow removal. We are currently about 50 percent installation and 50 percent maintenance, including snow,” he says. Nature’s Accents has 18 snow removal accounts throughout Berks and nearby Schuylkill counties. Eight are seasonal contracts and 10 are per push in time and materials. When it comes to winning landscape jobs, they concentrate more on residential clients than commercial clients. “We have found to have greater success and be more competitive with residential clients – single family homes,” explains Breininger.
The benefits of pesticide certification and Pennsylvania-certified horticulturists
“We feel professional certifications [and] education [are] what gives us a competitive edge over those individuals and companies which are not certified. We feel it adds value to our clients, knowing they are working with a company of professionals and industry experts,” Breininger adds.
Currently, they have three staff members who hold two or three of the following certifications and education: landscape industry certified technician; Pennsylvania-certified horticulturist; Pennsylvania commercial pesticide applicator’s license; Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute-certified installer; National Concrete and Masonry Association certified installer; and Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate with landscape and nursery degrees.
Nature’s Accents is also an EP Henry Authorized Hardscape Contractor and Techo-Pro, Techo-Bloc-certified installer.
Landscape business challenges
Breininger and Bentz have faced the following four business challenges: smart growth; hiring employees; purchasing equipment and vehicles; and time/project management – issues that many businesses must deal with in order to grow. For Nature’s Accents, these issues are a constant where they ebb and flow throughout the business year. “In the beginning, we, Justin and I, did everything basically seven days a week – sales, design, mowing, installs. This helped us establish relationships and build a reputation of quality work with our clients. We knew we had to hire employees because we were not only wearing ourselves out, but we would have become static and [would have not] grown financially,” says Breininger.
Nature’s Accents designed and installed a wider walkway with plant material and mulch to add a more modern look to the home.
A drab front walk to this home.
In the beginning, they also rented a lot of their equipment. They still rent some equipment today because certain pieces are job specific, and the rental price is worked into the bid and used only for that job. This practice enables Nature’s Accents to reduce maintenance and overhead costs. “We tracked all rental expenses and use and made purchase decisions off the data we collected. This made it easy to prove to the bank – [it’s] very hard for a young company to get a loan – what we used and needed,” says Breininger of the when they decided to purchase equipment and vehicles that they used on a regular basis.
Not only do the owners track their rental expenses, but they also track the jobs that they have done using an Excel job tracking system. In addition to tracking jobs, the system allows Breininger to keep up with production inefficiencies that can be evaluated and improved upon for the next job. For example, Breininger shares the labor process of installing a stone base paver patio. “We looked at ways to become more efficient, and we decided to purchase/rent equipment to speed the process and make our crew more efficient the next time,” he states.
Breininger also explains that job tracking evolves with each job that they do. “I also use this information as a benchmark for similar projects to bid man hours and equipment use. One piece of equipment was a huge time saver for our install crew, an enclosed job trailer. This all but eliminated the ‘Oops, I forgot that tool. Better run back to the shop’ mishap. It greatly increased our efficiency because we spent less time at the shop in the morning and preparing and cleanup [at] the job site each day,” he explains.
Breininger finds the most rewarding aspect of his career to be able to make a living working outdoors and doing something that some people think is a hobby. “Also, for me, it was finding a career which I never thought would bring so much enjoyment to me. There are a lot of positive rewards in landscaping. It is a feel-good career,” he says.
If Breininger could change one thing about the landscape industry or his business, what would it be? “Two things for the industry: simplify the Pennsylvania sales tax codes for landscape maintenance services, enforcement of