Horizon Landscaping still strong after 22 years in California’s Central Valley

One of the ways Horizon Landscaping is saving money (for itself and clients) is not mowing on a strict 7-day calendar schedule.

Businesses always face challenges. Successful business owners know when it’s time to take a risk and when it’s time to retreat from a particular business decision. Such has been the journey of John Dickman, who started Horizon Landscaping in Modesto, Calif., with his wife Nancy in 1991. In starting the business, they copied successful practices they saw while working in the industry and applied them to their company.

Horizon Landscaping provides landscape management for shopping centers, HOAs and residential properties. Over the years the company made one very successful move, and that was to expanding services. One move they wish they had back was the decision to try to do business in Mexico.

Horizon Landscaping

Founders: John and Nancy Dickman
Founded: 1991
Headquarters: Modesto, Calif.
Markets: San Joaquin, Merced, Stanislauscounties
Services: Residential and commerciallandscape management, flower color,new construction, weed control,irrigation and commercial drip systems,putting greens, ponds, nursery plants,clean-up and haul away
Employees: 13

Prior to 2007, Dickman’s company had targeted the commercial sector. When the recession hit, he started expanding his services and put more focus on the residential sector.

“That really helped us,” he says, adding that 2012 and 2011 proved to be among the company’s best years to date. “That’s partly because we did branch out. We started bidding on stuff that we never bid on in the past 20 years, and it really worked out. A lot of these projects were the most profit we made on any jobs.”

This enabled Dickman to keep employees on that typically would have been laid off during the winter.

“Usually around the first of the year, we lay off half of our maintenance people until March,” he says. “By getting some of this extra work that we didn’t normally do, we were able to keep some of those people, which is great for the business and, of course, for the employee.”

His unsuccessful move was a geographic expansion to Mexico. He says the biggest lesson he learned was to consult an attorney and an accountant when planning and executing an expansion.

“It seemed like a good idea,” he says. “We had extra trucks sitting around when the economy crashed in 2007. My wife and I bought a house in Mexico. In my brainstorming, I thought about what I could do with these trucks. I thought doing business in Mexico was the answer. We invested about $20,000 in getting the business set up, but it just failed. We were counting on a couple of people we met down there to help us run it and they didn’t work out.”

Today, Horizon Landscaping concentrates on serving the central valley city of Modesto (pop. 201,000) and three surrounding counties.

No problem finding employees

Horizon Landscaping has 13 employees. Because the area’s unemployment rate is so high, Dickman has been bombarded with applications, enabling him to be choosy about whom he hires.

He looks for someone who isn’t a substance abuser, shows up on time each day for work, works hard and is willing to learn. Having a few years of experience in the industry also helps.

Dickman prefers that his employees specialize in an area, but they are allowed to move between crews to make more money. “Our landscapers will help the maintenance guys and vice versa,” he says. “We do whatever we can do to keep everyone busy so we don’t have to do any more layoffs.”

Dickman also seeks reliable equipment to help employees do their best. He uses Chevy trucks, and his company runs Wells Cargo trailers, small Walker mowers, large Toro mowers, and Echo or Stihl equipment.

With the area’s high unemployment rate, many people fill out applications seeking to work at Horizon Landscaping, giving the company the luxury of considering only the best prospects.

Facing challenges

Since 2007, Dickman has faced the challenge of the battle for the client’s dollar.

“Some of the commercial properties don’t know, as far as landscape maintenance goes, what they’re getting from their current guy. They think they’re getting services that they’re not getting, especially weed control and turf aeration. A lot of commercial work does not have a supervisor.”

Because of companies like that, the worst move to make now is to raise prices, Dickman notes. “You’re almost asking them to put the job out to bid,” he adds

To run his business so he offers the same quality of service, doesn’t have to lay off employees and still turn a profit, Dickman has had to cut a few corners. “We’ve tried to edge every other week, if possible. Anything like that will save us time. Possibly not mowing the lawn if it does not need mowed,” he says. “A lot of our guys get into the habit of mowing every seven days and sometimes it doesn’t need it. We’ve tried to cut our routes down to be as efficient as possible with labor and gas. We’ve basically tried to save in every little area we can so we don’t have to raise our prices.”

Gas prices are another external threat to business. “Gasoline prices are just killing us,” Dickman says. “Fifteen years ago, I didn’t even factor gasoline prices into a job. It used to be one-third the cost of our insurance. Now it’s 50 percent higher than our insurance. It has really taken a toll on us.”

To prevent layoffs, John Dickman says that his employees, while they may specialize in certain duties, are often asked to help out with other tasks.

Another challenge is customer retention. “We’re trying not to increase the prices,” says Dickman. “We’re trying to pay attention to details on our maintenance projects. We try to emphasize to our guys that when you walk by a weed and don’t pull it, there’s someone from another company who will.”

Dickman also has been trying to discourage theft. His company lost thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment in 2011 when thieves cut the locks and stole trailers. “We’ve actually had people run up within 20 or 30 feet of us and grab a mower or weed-eater and hop in the back of truck and off they went. They’re very daring. If you’re not holding a piece of equipment, it needs to be chained or locked up. Now they just use bolt cutters to cut the locks and chains.

“In 2012, we didn’t have any problems. We beefed up our security. All of our trailers have three locks instead of one. We went to all hockey puck locks, which is basically bolt cutter-proof. We reinforced some of our trailer doors with more steel,” he adds.

Professionalism needed

Dickman has raised a red flag in the industry with respect to unlicensed contractors. “Landscape maintenance in California is in the grey area,” he points out. “I’m still not sure if you need to be licensed to do landscape maintenance. I cannot get a clear answer from our own state board.”

Horizon Landscaping uses equipment whenever possible to maximize efficiency. The company is pursuing more municipal work as it builds out its landscape maintenance capabilities.

Recently, he turned in another landscaper whom he alleged had no contractor’s license or pesticide license. “All pesticide applicators in California have to be licensed, trained, certified and then all of the chemicals you buy from your suppliers are tracked,” Dickman says.

The contractor had been working for major property management companies in the area whose bid forms indicate that one must have a contractor’s license and a pesticide license, Dickman adds.

“He knew I turned him in and he called me,” Dickman says. “He said he didn’t even know he was supposed to have a pesticide license. We spend thousands of dollars per year getting inspected and going to classes for continuing education and this guy has been in business basically for years and didn’t know he needed one.”

Dickman says he’s frustrated by the clients who hire companies with unlicensed contractors and with county officials who say they have no one to pursue unlicensed pesticide applicators. “One of my biggest challenges is competing against people who don’t have the expenses I have,” Dickman says. “We always feel if they’re not abiding by those laws, they’re probably not paying payroll, they’re probably doing cash on the side.

“Our licensing board mostly appears to go after construction. If you can turn somebody in who’s doing a new construction job and they’re not licensed, they’ll go after them very fast. When you call and say they’re doing gardening work, it’s a very grey area. Basically, the law says if you sign a contract over $500, you have to be a contractor. It’s pretty cut and dry to me.”

Emphasizing maintenance

Looking down the road, Dickman hopes to maintain the current level of his business.

“The economy where we’re at is very bad,” he says. “We’re in one of the foreclosure capitals of the world. That’s really hard. We’ve been either very lucky or very hard-working, maybe a bit of both.”

His company is doing well despite the fact that the area is not out of an economic slump yet. “The jobs are far and few to bid on and the ones you do are very competitive,” Dickman points out. “The profit margins are very slim.”

As a result, he is increasing his efforts in landscape maintenance over construction. “It’s steady income for us,” he points out. “You don’t have to go out and continually find new work.”

His company also plans to pursue more municipal work, such as parks and school grounds, as many of the area cities have begun putting landscape maintenance work out to bid.

Dickman says as a business owner or manager, it is critical to stay on top of matters. “There have been a few times over the years where I let things go and have not been on top of things the way I feel I should. They do go south quickly,” Dickman concedes.

“You have to make sure your crews are doing what they’re supposed to do,” he adds. “It’s not just about being out there mowing somebody’s lawn, but being professional about it, being courteous, shutting off a blower when they’re walking toward you. It’s all of the little things.”

Dickman says the value that his company provides his clients is that they don’t have to worry about whether their landscape crew is professional. “When there’s a problem, we call them before they call us,” he says. “That’s always been one of our goals. We never like a customer to call and tell us a sprinkler is broken. We like to call them and tell them we fixed it. The more you can do without them telling you to do it, the better off you’re going to be.”

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