Oregon man credits his faith for the success of his landscaping business

Graton’s Custom Landscapes

Owner: Ken Graton

Founded: 1992

Headquarters: Junction City, Ore.

Markets: Lane, Linn and Benton counties

Services: Lawn maintenance, design/build, low-voltage lighting and irrigation services

Employees: 14


Ken Graton loves working with the earth, tending to it and beautifying it.

While his landscaping business has encountered challenges, he credits God for opening doors he assumed would otherwise never have been opened.

Graton initially had his sights set on becoming a pastor, and while it ultimately proved not to be his calling, he still had the desire to work with young people in some capacity.

He turned down an offer from his father to run a couple of family businesses in the green industry, but forestry and the geographical region didn’t appeal to him. He moved from California to Oregon to help a friend with a nonprofit boys’ home called Timothy House. His friend gave him food and shelter; Graton in turn helped the boys develop a work ethic.

Graton’s first company was called Timothy House Lawn and Garden Care. “I would take these boys out after their schooling and teach them a work ethic while doing a yard clean-up and earning a couple of bucks as well,” he says.

This in-town residential property requiresmore "custom" maintenance, something thatGraton's is more than happy to take on.

This in-town residential property requires more “custom” maintenance, something that Graton’s is more than happy to take on.

In February 1992, the director of The Timothy House decided that the boys weren’t deriving enough benefit from learning landscaping skills. So, Graton changed the name of his business to Graton’s Lawns Unlimited (it would later become Graton’s Custom Landscapes to reflect the company’s approach to customized service).

Servicing modest properties in a high-end fashion

Eventually, Graton, whose business was limping along, was approached by a local landscape business owner, Greg Johnson, who asked him to work without pay for a few days in his own landscaping business. Johnson’s company serviced 24 clients in a manufactured home park, and it taught Graton the value of quality of service no matter who the client is.

“The properties were modest, but he took great care of things and he was just crazy about how they looked,” says Graton. “We sharpened blades every day. It probably wasn’t even necessary in a park like that, but we serviced to the highest end of quality.”

After those few days of unpaid work, Johnson told Graton he was leaving his business to go into mission work. Johnson said he learned through prayer he was not to sell the business, but give it away to someone who would “come into his path”, Graton says.

Johnson offered him the clients and a few pieces of equipment for free and stayed on for another week to show him the ropes.

Graton worked hard to build the business up, and just as it was going into its lean winter months, his wife, Lisa, was fired from her job. She joined the company, running the maintenance operations as he pursued what he had wanted to do all along: make sales and work on installations.

They bought a home, the value of which doubled in two years, and used the equity to move into a larger place, an old farmhouse, which served as a base for business operations.

Growth in a stand-still economy

Then came 2008 when the Gratons, as well as everyone else in the United States, began to face tough economic challenges. A four-car pile-up in the parking lot at the his home-based business prompted the couple to consider buying a facility elsewhere as parking the trucks had become what Graton describes as “organized chaos”.

Graton gave his realtor his criteria: a piece of property right on the highway costing no more than $250,000 with a minimum of 5 acres, preferably 40, where he could build his company. Within six months, Graton was buying 13 acres of highway property at half the original stated value.

Graton broke ground in September 2008 as the economy continued to tank. “I’m used to going into winter and things going a little limp, but everybody else was feeling this, too, and I thought, ‘What have I done?'” says Graton.

The property serves as a site where the company creates its own compost, ground up from the green waste brought in from its maintenance division. The compost is sold back into the installation jobs or to other businesses.

“I’ve talked with plenty of other fellows out there who wonder how we did what we did,” says Graton. “We procured a banker before the banks stopped lending. It pays to have a great bank. Also, we are a cash company. We do not buy anything on note. We were a strongly-positioned company in a good market having done good business for 16 solid years. They didn’t bat an eye at being able to do a loan for us and we were able to build well below our budget numbers.”

While 2009 was a bleak year in the continuing bad economy, “the very thing I thought was going to be a lead anchor dragging me to the bottom of the ocean ended up being an incredible boon for us because we were the company that was open for business.”

If you build it, will they come?

But a business building is useless without the client revenue to support it.

The new location offered a great marketing tool: high visibility right on the highway and a highway sign. “We happened to be sitting in a little notch that had my property line been 60 feet further to the south, I would not have been able to have any signs,” Graton says.

Graton's large sign on a busy roadacts as a billboard. He says morethan 44,000 vehicles see it every day.

Graton’s large sign on a busy road acts as a billboard. He says more than 44,000 vehicles see it every day.

Graton put up the largest sign he could, which acts as a “free” billboard advertising his business. He changes the sign out a few times a year to keep the message fresh. A five-year-old traffic study on that highway indicated 44,000 vehicles drive by the site daily.

The maintenance division carried the company through tough times, and the company’s own growth was steady at about 8 percent each year.

“I don’t want to say we saw our net increase. We would see spikes,” Graton says. “Our install division took a bit more of a hit, but nowhere near what was happening with other folks. We never did new home installs as far as working for tract homes and builder after builder. Then I would be relying upon them and that was the market that fell out. We’ve always been in the remodel market. The people we did work for generally still had money, they were simply more careful with the way they spent it.”

In 2010, Graton’s Custom Landscape took honors as the small business of the year in its local community.

“We’ve been around here for 16 years and we went from people not knowing we were out there to people now recognizing us and now I have speaking engagements,” Graton says. “People want to know how we did what we did and why we did what we did and where did we come from, and it’s exciting.”

Graton’s Custom Landscapes has two basic services: design/install and maintenance. The maintenance division market is 60 percent commercial and 40 percent residential. Two-person crews using enclosed trucks and trailers do all of the work, which includes fertilization, mowing, pruning, trimming and bed care.

There is also has a separate crew that takes care of low-voltage lighting and irrigation systems.

While the Eugene, Ore., area is known for its emphasis on being green and his company is trying to keep pace with that, Graton says he uses both organics and traditional approaches because it takes a “very large commitment to go all organic.”

The maintenance division market is 40 percent residential properties. While thearea is known for its emphasis on being green, Graton uses both organics and traditionalapproaches because it takes a "very large commitment to go all organic."

The maintenance division market is 40 percent residential properties. While the area is known for its emphasis on being green, Graton uses both organics and traditional approaches because it takes a “very large commitment to go all organic.”

“Truly, going all organic affects everything from the engine to the motor to the fertilizers to the chemicals we use and the compost and the bark we stick on – there’s a lot to it,” he says. “We can’t control all of those components, so suffice it to say we don’t employ an all-organic approach quite yet.”

Graton’s also found that certain landscapes don’t respond as well to one or the other approach.

“Our name, Graton’s Custom Landscapes, implies that we will custom set up that yard,” he says. “That may begin with a soil test that determines what that yard needs.”

The “new” customer

The economy has created what Graton calls the “new customer”, adding that consumer habits have changed in response to the tightening of financial resources.

“The consumer is no different than the way I want to haggle with my auto mechanic,” he points out. “We have HOAs and commercial entities and anytime I could, I shaved the service to retain them as a client. If they felt like shaving a service wasn’t good enough, we had to go back to our time trials in the field and ask ourselves if there was any fat in the contract that we can shave to hold onto things, and if there wasn’t, we stood our ground. We never discounted for the sake of discounting.

“I didn’t want to go to bidding wars. I wanted to say, ‘We want to show you that we’re working hard in this economy to be efficient and to be what you need us to be on this side of the fence as a vendor.'”

The company’s approach to the residential market used similar criteria. “I’m not going to discount for the sake of saving that client,” Graton says. “I don’t want to lose money on three accounts because I really like the folks so the other 10 accounts suffer because of these three loss leaders. We’ve never practiced that as a process. We’ve never been accused of low-balling. I felt like if we stuck to what we did best and held in there, this too shall pass.”

Graton uses a five-point grading scale for the maintenance division and instructs the employees that if they can keep the accounts looking good at a 4.5 to 5, “I can sell work all day long, all week long, all month long to that kind of quality work on their accounts.”

Graton’s Custom Landscape has picked up numerous accounts from people whose landscape company stopped showing up. “We stick to our guns in that the value is in the quality we do,” Graton says. “We have been able to maintain.”

However, the changing consumer has meant that every sale is more difficult, Graton says. “Whether they’re an old client of ours or a brand-new one, there’s a lot more scrutiny in general over services rendered and what they’re getting for the agreed-upon dollar,” he says.

“They want the overall experience to be a great one from how the trucks roll up to their drive, do they park so they can still get out, do they wave to them, do they not wave to them, do they leave one fleck of grass, do they come in on time, does it or doesn’t it depict what we did? This consumer, more so than ever before, is really interested in the whole experience being a very positive one.”

Learning from mistakes

The company has not been without its shortcomings, Graton points out.

“We have lost some accounts,” he says. “We have not moved quickly enough to meet their perceived or real need. We didn’t react the way we should have to what they deemed was an issue.

“We were slow on things and made some fatal mistakes with some of our clientele. It grieves me to even think about it, but we are not a company through this whole thing that has done everything right.”

The lesson was that sitting back on one’s laurels while letting some matters slip gave an opening to “predators” to sweep in, Graton says.

“One thing as a company that we are committed to is that while we may not do everything right, we sure are going to work very hard to make it alright and our clients know that,” he says. “We’re not always going to crack one out of the park, but we’re not going to leave their place looking bad for another couple of days or hours if it’s in our power to change that. We’re going to meet their needs rapidly and efficiently and smoothly.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at [email protected].