Slow, Steady, Committed


Learning from the 2008 recession, Ohio landscape pro carefully grows a lean, customer-focused firm

JB Design Group

Founder/President: Jason Bornhorst
Founded: 2007
Headquarters: Hilliard, Ohio
Employees: 5
Markets: Metro Columbus and central Ohio
Services: Landscape maintenance, lawn care, design/build, rain gardens, water features, landscape lighting, irrigation, snow management, estate gardening, and seasonal cleanups

If the young JB Design Group, LLC has a business motto, says President Jason Bornhorst, it’s “Leave No Doubt.” That’s a tall order in a small but growing company with a lot of irons in the fire. During one short week in April, Bornhorst met personally with 23 families about their lawn care and landscape needs.

He promises that each potential new customer will receive the same attention to detail and the same guarantee of complete satisfaction that he offers to his established customers.

Atypical for a young landscape company, the JB Design Group is growing inside out. Instead of starting with the proverbial pickup truck and single mower, Bornhorst used his experiences in working with other landscape companies and his considerable experience in nurseries to begin the small business by concentrating on the design/build aspects of landscaping.

“We have a few properties that are mow-only, but most of what we do is in the design or build phase of the business. Right now only about 20 percent is maintenance, but that’s subject to grow.”

To be sure, it’s a different way to establish a landscape business, but it seems to be working.

Bobby Kerr, design assistant, left, and John Beams, operations manager, tackle a small Columbus-area landscape project.

After first meeting a potential new customer, whether to offer lawn maintenance or a complete design and build, Bornhorst will introduce his brochure, which includes illustrations of various plants and shrubs available at that time of year. If the customer is interested in a landscape design, he will measure the areas and complete a site analysis.

A second meeting will include a CAD graph and discussion of the types of plantings. After making any modifications, the design is job costed, and an estimate is given to the client at a third meeting. If the client says OK, the next phase is to meet with the client at a local stone yard, which features the latest in hardscape materials. Finally, he will take samples of the materials to the client’s home to make sure that the correct shade and hues are incorporated within the stone, and that the customer will be satisfied with the scheme.

Getting personal

While JB Design Group is better known for its landscape construction, it is building its maintenance business to be a bigger revenue producer.

This is the type of “personal service” not found in most larger, impersonal landscape and lawn care companies. Nothing is left to chance, leaving no doubts about anything in the upcoming build.

Says Bornhorst, “Even the nature of synthetic materials, such as pavers, which makes the construction much more cost-effective because of the uniformity of the product, is discussed. We still use a good deal of natural stone around bedding and edging areas, but the customers need to know the details.”

The last part of the equation is to move forward with a maintenance contract. “Oftentimes the client has someone who has been mowing their lawn for years and years. We’re not going to steal business, that’s an ethics line that I won’t cross,” he says. Instead, he offers to maintain the plants and shrubs and always leaves this advice to his customers: “I explain that there is no such thing as a maintenance-free or low-maintenance lawn or flower garden. Every plant and each lawn needs a certain amount of care; at the very least they should be cut-back in the autumn and pruned and fed in the spring.”

With only four employees, Bornhorst and his staff make the most of every day. The design/build aspect of landscaping has the largest return on investment. Each project also comes the opportunity to advance the maintenance part of his company, the recurring revenue part. The more designs they sell and build, the more of an opportunity to expand by handling the maintenance avenues.

When JB Design commits to a project, no matter how large or how small, Bornhorst sends a crew with the certainty that they will complete that job, whether it’s a simple mow or a complete installation.

“One project at a time, from start to finish for each person or crew,” he says.

In addition, the former president of the Columbus (Ohio) Landscape Association instructs his workers to, “Touch base with each customer on what they’ve completed that day, and what they will be working on the next day.” Bornhorst keeps the lines of communication open among his small staff and, more importantly, with clients and prospects.

Once again, Bornhorst echos his pledge, “Leave No Doubt;” although, he’s also quick to follow with “right plant, right place.”

“We always structure the design around the architecture of the home,” he says, citing the increase in the number of families incorporating plants, shrubs and trees that are native or natural to the area.

“We advise clients of the dependability of native plants to resist insect damage, and that indigenous plants can handle the extreme change in temperatures in Ohio. But people have to make up their own minds when it comes to planting selection. Sometimes pretty is preferred over practical,” he admits.

Bornhorst had the misfortune to start his business just as the country was heading into the deepest recession since the Great Depression, and he says it wasn’t pleasant.

“Mowing jobs were few and far in-between. There were times I was thinking that maybe I’d made a bad decision, and maybe I should go back to work for someone else.”

Saved by a big job

But good fortune, in the form of a large contract for a local golf club, came his way in October 2007. The work helped his fledgling business make it through the winter, and through the darkest days of the lingering recession, and gave him the insight to keep the operation lean and hungry when the economic recovery began last year.

“I learned early on that you first have to do the best you can with what you’ve got,” he says. You won’t find any excess equipment in his company’s maintenance garage. “We lease what we need to do a specific job; if I find a regular need for a particular piece of equipment, then we will cost it and add it to the inventory, but not until we’re sure there’s an ongoing demand for that type of work,” he explains.

Long hours are nothing new to Bornhorst, having been baptized into the horticulture business at an early age. “I began working at Springhill Landscaping & Nursery, Tipp City, Ohio, in 1991 when I was in high school. After learning what I could there, I became interested in design and started working for Chaney Landscaping in Troy, Ohio, and followed that experience at KAH Nursery.”

After moving to Columbus, Ohio, and receiving his master’s certification as a nursery technician, which included certification in three disciplines (landscape, grower and garden center), Bornhorst began working for the Ken Helmlinger Company.

“I owe a great deal to Ken and his employees,” he says. “I learned a lot about design and build working with Ken, especially his attention to detail and ensuring customer satisfaction. Ken understands, and taught me, the value of building relationships; simple things like how remembering a person’s first name or asking about their family pet can help them to remember you and recommend your company to their friends and neighbors.

“A lot of our growth has been by word-of-mouth. We have one customer who has purchased three homes over the years, and has had us landscape each one. In fact, the last time they looked at buying a new home, they asked me to give them an estimate on the landscaping before they would close the deal.”

In addition to grounds maintenance, design/build and irrigation services, JB offers snow removal during the winter months.

“Of course, we’re a seasonal business, but we try to stay busy and keep our employees working throughout the year. However, this year was especially tough, with the mild winter and all; several times we got all geared-up for a big snowfall that never materialized,” he recounts.

Maintaining employees and reducing turnover is key to a successful operation, according to Bornhorst. Working through his associates at the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association (ONLA), he has been an active member of the “Next Generation Committee” and joins their three-pronged efforts to keep younger people interested in landscape professions – first, by engaging high school students and teaching them about the opportunities in the landscape industry; secondly, by addressing college students about future educational elements and certifications available; and finally, by advising newer landscape professionals and business owners on changes and additional educational developments in the industry.

Owner Jason Bornhorst humorously labelled this posed photograph “The Lazy Boys,” but he assures us that he values the efforts of this small group of employees that routinely take on and complete large and complicated landscape projects.

JB Design Group is actively helping to develop the next generation landscape professional by offering a paid internship for a student from Bowling Green University. “He’s just graduated with a degree in architecture and is interested in the design aspect of landscaping. This is Bob Kerr’s second year with us, and we’re trying to teach him the right way, the way I was taught”

If he has a fault, Bornhorst says it may be a mixture of being frugal, of being honest and of being too blunt.

Saving clients money

Jason Bornhorst goes over a landscape design with his client Rick Bailey.

“I designed an outdoor kitchen for a family who had bought a $4,000 grill just a year before. They wanted a matching refrigerator, and told me where they bought the grill so that I could match the new fridge. This refrigerator they wanted cost $2,200. I told them they could buy a fridge that is just as good for $198 at Home Depot, and that in the long run it would be less expensive for them to buy a new fridge every year for the next 10 years than to pay that outrageous price.” The family took his advice.

So, what’s next for JB Design Group?

“Slow and steady, attention to the details and, of course, leave no doubt!” says the president. “We were born during a recession, and we’re not about to over-capitalize just because there seems to be a little more life in the economy and housing markets.”

Noting that a lot of good companies met their demise during the recent downturn, Bornhorst wants no part of undisciplined growth. “We have a steady flow of business that’s growing with the completion of each job, and we found there was a lot of interest in our services at our booth during the winter Home & Garden Show in Columbus.

“Our commitment to get employees certified through the Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association (ONLA) is going to help us to offer a professional service. With each completed project our reputation grows and so does our business.” Until then, JB Design wants to “Leave No Doubt” that they are a proud, young company doing what they love to do.

Jackie Ingles and her husband, Mike, are freelance writers who live and work in Columbus, Ohio. Contact them at [email protected].