Landscaping company takes care of clients year-round

Bret Achtenhagen wanted to have a $10 million landscaping company from the day he started it in 1994. “I wasn’t exactly sure those first years how to get there,” he says of starting Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services. “I just knew the gas to fuel that engine was that we needed to have great employees and provide exceptionally high-quality customer services.”

Nothing is more pleasing than deep green, weed-free turf.
Photos courtesy of Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services.

Achtenhagen employs 75 people and provides southeast Wisconsin with services in outdoor architecture, design/build, maintenance, nutritional management, masonry, lighting, holiday decorating, snow removal and irrigation.

Although 16 years later Achtenhagen has not met his financial goal, his philosophy about what it takes to have a successful company has paid off in other ways: he has become a regional radio personality; his company was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year nominee several years ago; and Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services has received three Future 50 awards for the 50 fastest-growing companies in southeast Wisconsin. Other accolades include a Gold Award for Excellence in Landscaping from the Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association (WLCA); a WLCA 2009 award winner; a fourth-place ranking on the “A-List of Landscapers who stood out in 2007” by Wisconsin Builder Magazine; the Best Landscape Design Over $100,000 from Milwaukee Home Magazine; and a Concrete Design Award Winner from the Wisconsin Ready Mixed Concrete Association, among others.

Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services provides full-service turf and ornamental plant care.
An example of landscape lighting designed by the company.

Along the way, there have been growing pains for the company. Achtenhagen says, “I have revised my dream during the economic slowdown. Before the recession, our annual gross revenue was over $6 million; now it’s just over $5 million. “It was interesting because when we were exceeding $6 million, our foundation was beginning to feel a little unstable,” he adds. “When the recession hit, we retracted to about $5 million and that seemed to feel a lot more comfortable. We’ve maintained that $5 million for the last three years.”

Achtenhagen got his start in the industry mowing lawns for his brother-in-law’s company. “I quickly gravitated towards customers’ requests for landscaping services as opposed to lawn care,” Achtenhagen says. He’d cut grass for a few days, and on the weekends he’d return to those clients to build retaining walls or lay pavers.

These days, he has the ear of 20,0000 people on his own call-in radio show, “The Designer Yard Show,” on WTMJ, Wisconsin’s largest AM news-talk radio station. The show airs each Saturday. An advertiser on the station, Achtenhagen was offered the opportunity to do the show at no cost. “Every week, we start off with a topic, which varies from outdoor kitchens, landscape design, and how to properly install a retaining wall,” he says. The show has been a phenomenal marketing source, he notes. Although he’s giving free advice over the radio, it’s netted him a great deal of business when people realize they’d rather have professionals handle some of their maintenance issues. “Every Monday morning the phone is ringing off the hook,” he says. “It’s totally positioned us as the expert in the region.”

Achtenhagen has surrounded himself with employees who share his same philosophy about landscaping. “We truly enjoy its creative aspects,” he says. “It’s not only just the designing and construction of it. Excellent, well-executed, well-timed, superb maintenance really makes your design and build project stay looking beautiful for years to come.” That’s foremost in his mind when designing a project. “It starts on paper, and then starts to evolve around a newly constructed home or building,” he says. “We have a very well-defined process where we set the expectations early on with our clients that they will need to count on us for a minimum of three to five years so that the new landscaping will achieve its intended look. We’re in a position where we’re able to provide everything to a client.”

Achtenhagen says, “My philosophy is if our clients are happy, we’re going to be happy. We love what we do for a lot of the same reasons everybody else does. At some point, it really is just being full service. We’ve been in business for more than 15 years and I still have clients from that very first year.”

Achtenhagen believes that the most common mistake design/build companies make with respect to the subsequent property maintenance is that they do not design to a client’s budget. “We see a lot of people who want to spend $50,000 on landscaping on a new home and somebody’s designing a $75,000 to $100,000 project for them,” he says. “In talking to the client who wanted to spend $50,000, they really don’t have the correct understanding of what it’s going to take to maintain a $50,000 project. Typically, we need to simplify the plan for people who aren’t willing to hire professional maintenance so that they can maintain it themselves.”

Of his 75 employees, approximately 60 are in production, with the others in sales and support staff. Achtenhagen prefers concentrating full time on sales and letting someone else run the day-to-day operations. “I believe I’m the best person to be out there representing my company,” he says. “I’ve always liked to go out on the road; we have six people in sales including me and five who manage the operations, a couple of mechanics, a bookkeeper, an office manager and a receptionist.” The mechanics take care of the fleet and equipment, which includes Bobcat and Chevrolet products. “We try to buy the same brand of lawn mower and the same brand of skid loader, so it’s easier for us to maintain,” says Achtenhagen. “Almost all of our trucks are Chevys. All of our skid loaders are Bobcat. We do have different brands of lawn mowers for walk-behinds and ride-ons. We try to streamline maintenance by having a lot of common pieces of equipment so we can buy a case of air filters and a case of belts. It’s pretty basic that way.”

While Achtenhagen looks for school and work experience in a potential employee, what differentiates one from another is their communication and organization skills. He’ll peek inside their cars to see how organized they are, and he expects a firm handshake and wants a person to look him in the eye. He wants them to show up for an interview dressed appropriately, not in a T-shirt and jeans. “If someone sends us a handwritten thank-you note, they’re automatically going to be granted a second interview,” Achtenhagen says. “If they e-mail a thank-you note and they’re applying for a sales position, they will not get a second interview.”

While much of the country struggles with drought and water shortages, Wisconsin faces the opposite challenge: too much water as a result of a wetter weather cycle for the past few years. “We’ve been having a lot of problems with flooding and drainage, as well as moisture, in the last three years,” Achtenhagen says, adding that his company has responded by providing services in grading and drainage to address that challenge.

Holiday decorating is another service offered by Bret Achtenhagen’s Seasonal Services.

Another issue the company is dealing with is government regulations. With the housing market slowing down, building inspectors have now turned to policing existing properties. “We’re having to get municipal permits now for simple, basic everyday landscape projects,” says Achtenhagen. In response, Achtenhagen has a full-time employee that handles permitting issues. “Fact-checking and applying for the permit has become a full-time job,” he says. “We just deal with it because the fines are incredible.”

Looking ahead, Achtenhagen says the industry will have to focus on the needs of Baby Boomers, who will be assuming a greater percentage of the population as they hit retirement age. “Many of them are affluent and are going to want to live in Wisconsin in the summers and Florida and Arizona in the winter,” he predicts. “I think we’re looking at the possibility of providing year-round maintenance for those types of people, where they can entrust their exterior landscaping and painting to a one-stop shop.” His company is examining ways it can do a better job servicing those clients as they move into retirement and want to stay in their homes rather than condominiums or assisted-living facilities. “We’re constantly looking at ways to increase the number of services that we provide beyond just landscaping,” Achtenhagen says.

As his company has established long-term relationships with dozens of clients, Achtenhagen is often asked for referrals for other types of services, such as painting and window-washing. Looking for better ways to partner with other trades, Achtenhagen is pursuing such an arrangement with a friend who is a successful remodeling contractor on how they can work together to offer complete indoor and outdoor services for clients.

Five years ago, had someone told Achtenhagen he would be accepting lower-paying jobs in greater quantities, he would have laughed them off. “I was up to my eyeballs in full-services new construction,” he says, “but I’m sure glad I opened my eyes three years ago when this economy slowed down because we’ve been doing things like that. It keeps an extra guy or two working.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.