Californian Bruce Corney still loves the people part of landscaping

Bruce Corney, founder and president of Total Landscape Care, Inc., Ventura, Calif.
Photos courtesy of Total Landscape Care, Inc.

Bruce Corney, president and owner of Total Landscape Care, Inc., has a lot to be proud of with his business, which is celebrating its silver anniversary in 2013.

Total Landscape Care, Ventura, Calif., offers commercial and residential landscape installation and maintenance, and Corney’s proud that some of his customers have been with him almost from the time he first started with his own residential maintenance route.

Still, he’s had to cut back in recent years because of the economy, although he says that’s only one of his company’s challenges. Even with the economy looking a little better, he’s still concerned about rising workers’ comp rates, the difficulty of finding good employees and the need to continually help his clients save ever more water.

Fortunately, just as important as doing a great job for each client, Corney says, is the satisfaction he takes from building good relationships with his customers, as well as with his employees.

Total Landscape Care, Inc.

Founder and President: Bruce Corney

Founded: 1988

Headquarters: Ventura, Calif.

Markets: Ventura, Calif., and surrounding communities

Services: Landscape design & construction, lawn installation, landscape maintenance, flower beds & gardens, irrigation systems, clean up, aeration and fertilization

Employees: 7 full time


As with so many others in the industry, Corney started Total Landscape Care on a shoestring after learning the ins and outs of the business working for others.

“An acquaintance of mine had a small route that he was pretty much through with,” says Corney. “He sold me 10 accounts and some start-up equipment, and off I went on my own. I started really small and slowly built things up over the years. We’ve done most of it by word-of-mouth, providing good, honest, hard work for our customers.”

Less chatting, more supervising

As time went on, Total Landscape Care added employees and services. Corney says he had a real revelation when he noticed he was spending his time driving his employees to jobs and then talking to the clients the majority of the time while his employees were working.

“I realized that probably wasn’t the best use of my resources,” he says. “I hired a foreman and spent my time focusing on supervision, selling, administrative work and expanding into landscape installation.”

Today, he describes himself as a “car jockey,” and says he spends a large part of his day driving around to check on things, put out small fires and oversee the installation jobs the company runs.

“I like to keep a handle on things,” Corney says. “I’ve found if you want the job done right, do it yourself. As far as management of the business has gone, I’ve never relinquished much of the quality control or management to anyone.”

For that reason, Total Landscape Care has remained a modestly sized operation. Corney runs two maintenance crews and an installation crew, with a total of seven full-time employees.

Southern California’s dry climate dictates that many landscapes feature relatively small areas of turfgrass (in comparison to the Midwest) along with drought-tolerant ornamentals.

“We’re able to do residential and commercial landscape maintenance, which includes condominiums and HOAs,” he says. “We also do residential and commercial design-build installations including hardscapes, water features, lighting, irrigation and planting.”

One area Corney tries to stay away from is tree maintenance (“That’s better left to the guys who are specialists,” he says). Still, he estimates 98 percent of the construction work is handled in-house, although he’ll hire contract labor to help finish large concrete pours.

Today he estimates 45 percent of his work is in the commercial realm, with the other 55 percent in residential. And, 55 percent of the work is in maintenance.

“We have two classifications on our residential market,” Corney explains. “One is full care, where the client wants us to take care of the complete property, including trimming, mowing, weed control, fertilizer, edging and sprinkler maintenance. Other clients strictly want the lawn cared for and they handle the rest.

“Of course, with the HOA and commercial maintenance, that’s all full care,” he adds. “They want the full package.”

Corney describes himself as a “car jockey,” meaning he does a lot of driving meeting with clients, meeting with crews and reviewing job sites. He says quality control starts with him.

Water management is an increasing vital (and appreciated) service for his maintenance clients. Corney says that’s because of Ventura’s high water rates and California’s precarious water situation.

“We’ve gone to the smart controllers trying to minimize overwatering for commercial clients,” he says. “We’re trying to keep water use to just what the landscape needs. We’re also watering deeper watering less frequently.”

One recent improvement he notes is drip irrigation products that have become more commercial-friendly.

“Before they were more accessible to vandals; people stomping on them and breaking them. That was definitely an issue,” Corney says. “Now, with the inline tubing you can bury, we’re using it a lot more in perimeters and small beds.”

Keeping himself educated on changing irrigation technology and taking that to his customers is one of Corney’s big concerns. Another is rising costs, particularly for workers’ comp and gasoline.

“Right now, my maintenance crews strictly stick to Ventura,” he says in response to concerns about gas prices. “We began to cut down our maintenance crews’ travel time when gas started increasing in cost. We have a great location for my construction crew to get to both ends of the county.”

The big advantage to his location, Corney explains, is good freeway access. The site also provides 2,600 square feet of interior storage for trucks and other equipment. “It suits our needs well,” says Corney.

Some of Corney’s clients want total lawn care-fertilization, mowing, everything.

Wanted: good people

Getting and keeping good people for those crews is another concern of Corney’s. He says as the economy has improved it’s become harder for him to compete with the local agriculture industry, which has increased its pay scale significantly.

He would like to add another person to his installation crew because jobs are starting to back up, but says it’s been a real challenge.

“I’ve always tried to hire my labor force by asking the guys I work with or those I see out in the field if they know someone who’s looking for work and knows the work,” Corney explains. “The times I’ve thrown out the net I’ve been inundated with people who aren’t appropriate. Word-of-mouth usually works pretty well, but the last couple times it’s been harder.”

Despite his need for more installation help, as Total Landscape Care recovers from the recession Corney doesn’t expect his greatest growth to be there.

“I don’t want to grow to where I can’t keep my thumb on the pulse of things,” he says. “I’m going to focus more on maintenance growth, especially expanding into more of the HOA business. That will create more of a secure income stream. It’s less profitable, but if I can expand the quantity of it, it will add up.”

No matter what direction Corney takes in the future, it’s a good bet his decisions won’t be based solely on financial considerations. He says what he most enjoys about his business, and where he believes he’s most successful, is in his relationships with his clients and employees.

“Getting to know these people and working with them, whether it’s my employees or my customers, is the biggest thing,” he says. “I enjoy working with them, working hard to overcome problems or obstacles involved and then being able to figure it out.”

He says some clients have been with him since the late 1980s, and he has employees who’ve worked with him since the early 1990s.

“If I didn’t have any people, would I have a business?” he asks rhetorically. “No. I think that’s most important. That, and going the extra mile so they’re happy before we walk away from the job.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at [email protected].