Still Relevant After All These Years


This second-generation family operation in Delaware thrives by moving with the times

Brandywine Nurseries

Mission Statement: Leaving a legacy of beauty for generations to come
Founded: 1946
Headquarters: Wilmington, Del.
Principals: Brien Jamison, CEO, and Jamie Jamison, COO
Markets: Delaware and parts of New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania
Services: Residential and commercial landscape management, environmental services, yard waste recycling, and lawn care
Employees: 30

While Brandywine Nurseries doesn’t deliver every land care service itself, it can offer them to customers. The Wilmington, Del.-based company works cooperatively with other experienced service providers in its market on different projects. That’s what you have to do in these ultra competitive times, says Jamie Jamison, COO of the 65-year-old family business.

“You don’t want your clients looking at other companies that are more than willing to sell other services to them. You want them looking to your company,” says Jamison. “You don’t actually have to do the work yourself. Align with people you know who can do good work because it all reflects on you.”

The key to getting this kind of work is having relationships with other contractors – contractors that offer services you don’t, Jamison says, adding that the companies that network are almost always busier than companies that don’t. Word to the wise, though: choose your partners carefully. Are they reputable, dependable and honest? Are they financially sound? Are they bonded and insured?

Working cooperatively with other service providers is one of the trends that Brandywine, that billed about $2 million in 2011, uses to keep itself relevant in today’s business environment. Others include being able to provide services with less labor; running lean. The company has decreased its workforce by almost half in recent years to about 30 employees in peak season.

“We look at ourselves as a vertically integrated company rather than a linearly integrated company, where in all of our divisions I can take guys from hydroseeding and bring them into residential and commercial work,” he says. “We have guys who plant plugs in the ground and we can bring them in on larger projects when they’re not busy. It has everyone working.”

Even so, Jamison realizes what it means to clients to have the same crews on the same properties. Usually, customers get to know and appreciate the workers.

Brandywine Nurseries sods the Christiana High School practice field for lacrosse/field hockey in Wilmington, Del.

“If we’re running behind or ahead on mowing the lawns, we’ll send a different crew and we’ll hear about it,” Jamison says. “They’ll say, ‘Where’s Pedro? Where’s Alfredo?’ We tell them they’ll be there; we just wanted to get their property started. They know who our people are.” Matching crews to clients seems to boost client retention, he feels.

Down & Dirty for the Environment

Brandywine Nurseries is well-known in its regional market having been founded by Joseph and Margaret Jamison in 1946 as a small garden center and nursery with some landscape design services.

In spite of its longevity, it’s not behind the times – not by a long shot. Being able to change and adapt is one of the traits that has allowed it to remain relevant to the market. The second generation of the family business, brothers Brien Jamison, CEO, and Jamie Jamison, COO, are continuing that tradition by offering environmental services.

You can almost say that the company began going that direction in the 1970s when it bought a Finn Bantam 800 hydroseeder. Today finds the company heavily involved in erosion control and other environmental mitigation services, much of it spurred by regulations to slow pollution from the activities in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Another service provided by Brandywine Nurseries is the processing of yard waste, done in response to a regional 2007 ban on yard waste. It prohibits property owners from putting out yard waste with other refuse for pick-up.

While the regulation is relatively new, Brandywine had been processing yard waste for 20 years, mostly in response to escalating landfill tipping fees.

“Back in the day, everybody wanted their yard waste bagged,” says Jamison. “The tipping fees kept climbing and climbing.”

Jamison knew a contractor who used a grinder to process wood and concrete. “We brought this machine in, ground up the yard waste, left it in a pile and started breaking it up with our loaders,” he says. “Then we loaded it in the screen. We took it to a university to have it tested and they wanted to buy it from us. It will grow some tomatoes, let me tell you.”

Now, the only waste Brandywine Nurseries hauls out is scrap metal and aluminum cans that are collected on properties the company maintains, such as shopping centers. The income generated from the cans finances the annual company Christmas party.

Not much goes to the landfill anymore. The company has moved from a 10-yard dumpster to a 4-yard dumpster.

“All of our green waste goes into a pile and once a year we grind it and it goes into another pile,” Jamison says. “We own our own screen now. We take that pile, make compost and use it as soil amendment; we can topdress lawns with it.”

Not only is the company saving thousands of dollars in tipping fees, it’s creating its own topsoil product which is used on client properties and also sold to the trade. Some clients ask to buy it because it works well for growing tomatoes in their garden.

Most of the employees come from Puerto Rico or Mexico. The 28 field employees are trimmed to a group of six who stay year-round and help to do maintenance during the slow winter season. “Some of them will work for some of our clients in the restaurant, hotel and extended living facility over the winter,” says Jamison. Referrals from his good employees usually provide other good employees.

“Even on larger commercial sites, we’ll have a second crew come by. One will do the trimming, the other will do the mowing. The three-man crews are able to handle everything,” Jamison says. Generally, he runs two- and three-man maintenance crews.

“We’re not the highest-paying outfit in the world, but we’re not exactly the cheapest either. We try to provide a fairly decent work environment with the proper tools,” says Jamison, who is a firm believer in cross-training.

Brandywine’s employees are crosstrained to perform many services, such as hydroseeding at a DuPont property.

No substitute for safety

He’s also adamant about safety training. He insists his employees wear appropriate safety gear, including work gloves and safety glasses, and to operate their equipment properly. To that end, he forbids them from mowing with grass shields in the upright position. He’s heard about too many stories (and experienced a few himself) of mowers shooting rocks or other solid objects through windows.

“Some guys have worked for other companies and sometimes bad habits are hard to get rid of,” he admits candidly.

Jamison regularly gets into the field and talks with clients. He wants them to tell him how his crews are doing. It also gives him a great opportunity to suggest other services his company can provide. He’s convinced this adds to the professional image he wants his company to project, not just to customers to prospects in the same neighborhoods, as well. There’s no substitute for looking and acting professional, he’s convinced.

“One of the things I tell my people in the local trade group is to paint their trucks the same colors and put their names on the side of the trucks,” Jamison says. “Don’t have five different-colored trucks. It doesn’t cost that much. Hats and T-shirts are really cheap.”

Just as he likes hard-working employees, Jamison likes equipment that can be worked hard and will last long. Brandywine Nurseries uses certain types of equipment and does most of the servicing in-house.

“We’ve had very good luck with Echo,” says Jamison. “We use a lot of Scags for our walk-behinds. We like Ryan and Turfco for our other equipment.” Jamison says cost and the availability of parts influence his buying decisions. He views all of his equipment for its ability to reduce labor. “Labor is expensive. Equipment in the long run saves you a lot of money,” he says.

Employees quickly learn that they must keep their equipment in safe and top-flight operating condition. “We’re real sticklers about that. Nothing gets put away broken. You won’t get yelled at bringing it in to me. You will get yelled at if you’re standing around the next morning with a broken piece of equipment that could have been fixed the night before,” says Jamison.

No idling here

Keeping costs under control is the reason why he instituted a “no idle” policy for its trucks and other equipment, and also instituted route optimization. The concept grew from some employees suggesting that certain accounts be bundled in one region for servicing during the same time.

“Computer routing is all well and good, but it comes down to our guys,” says Jamison. “They work better than the computer will. They know not to go to certain places during certain times of the day because they might be stuck in traffic.”

Over the past 65 years, Brandywine Nurseries has grown to offer a range of landscaping and environmental services in the upper Mid-Atlantic market.

Looking ahead, Jamison says his company will adapt and change as market conditions and customer preferences change.

“We’re looking at everything, including holiday lighting,” he says. “It’s not something we’ve traditionally done. We’re landscape contractors. The service mix has gotten more personalized over the years. I see that continuing. It’s going to be where we’re keeping better records on what we’re doing right down to what type of pumps are in a client’s koi pond and to knowing when people’s birthdays are.”

Brandywine Nurseries also is looking to provide online bill-paying capabilities. “They go to their bank website where they do their online banking and will be able to pay us directly,” Jamison says. “We’ll send their bills via email. I’m still not comfortable to the point of them going online to look at their accounts. That’s a lot of work for a company even our size.”

Brandywine Nurseries has been processing yard waste for 20 years.

One service Jamison will not consider is snowplowing. It’s too unpredictable for his tastes. With the exception of a few clients he plows, he prefers recommending other companies for the occasional requests he gets from friends or prospects.

Instead, his six full-time employees use the winter to take care of repairing and servicing all of the company’s equipment. “When I start up in the spring, I like the front ends, the transmissions and the brakes the way they were when I put them away in the wintertime,” he says.

“We do that without fail every year,” Jamison says. “Whether it’s been serviced or not, before it gets put away, we go through it again; everything’s checked out. We found out that we do not spend as much money when we’re constantly on equipment servicing it as we do repairing it.”

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].