Jeff Lavigne founded Giant Landscaping in 2003 in Manchester, New Hampshire, and the name came from one of his favorite sports teams, but he didn’t know he was going to be prescient.
“Basically, we started out in snowplowing,” says Lavigne, 34. “Nobody around here likes to do their own snow. We do well with snow. We chase snow removal work, not lawn care.”
But Lavigne had started out mowing lawns back when he was 13 and kept on landscaping each summer as he was earning a business degree at the University of New Hampshire. Those hot summer days on neighborhood lawns never daunted him, and after gaining a reputation for managing snow and ice on customers’ properties, he knew it was time to begin offering other services, as well.
In 2009, his friend Tim Boyle, 35, left his family’s pizza business and came on as co-owner. An experienced mechanic with an associate’s degree in automotive technology from the New Hampshire Technical Institute, he brought a new skill set to the landscape company
“I can do anything mechanical,” says Boyle, which includes everything from repairs to the company’s equipment to lighting installation to troubleshooting irrigation systems.
It was a match made in heaven, with Lavigne as vice president of sales and Boyle as vice president of operations.
Lavigne notes that the company has grown tenfold within the last five years, doing $2.5 million today, and it now has 18 full-time employees. “We built it up in the middle of a bad economy,” says Lavigne.
Adding people and services
Adding Boyle was a major catalyst in this success, as it allowed Giant Landscaping to expand its offerings, adding irrigation services added two years ago.
“We are the go-to company for irrigation systems,” says Boyle. Too often, he says, larger proprietors do not have the manpower or practical knowledge to keep their irrigation systems in great shape, and then he is brought in as a troubleshooter to recreate them.
“I love solving mechanical and electronic problems,” he says. “I reverse engineer them. I go in and dissect it and make it work again.” The challenge is compounded, he adds, by the fact that the systems are hidden underground.
Hardscaping is also a new growth area.
“We hired guys who knew their stuff and learned from them,” says Boyle. “And we also took courses from the materials suppliers. They have an interest in making sure their products are used properly.”
The hardscaping guys were put on the job and set free. “Beyond GPS and watching time, we don’t micromanage,” Lavigne says. “We know how long a job should take.”
Today, the business is about half lawn maintenance, with a growing design/build business enabled by the key addition of Landscape Designer Karen Garland to the staff. But snow removal is still a large component of the service offering.
“This year, it wasn’t snow so much as ice,” says Lavigne. “We used a lot of salt on that, and there was a lot of snowplow damage so now we are doing a lot of turf repair.”
Another big new part of the business is serving as a materials supplier for do-it-yourselfers, which began about four years ago.
Why? The closest supplier to Giant closed at 5 p.m., leaving it in the lurch a few times, so it began stocking its own shop. “We already have the stuff on-hand for our own use, so it just makes sense to sell it to others as well,” says Tony Rahe, Giant’s sales director. This also adds to the company’s visibility in the neighborhood, he adds.
Rahe, 40, came on the Giant sales team two years ago, an experienced professional looking for a smaller landscape company with great potential but where growth could be controlled.
The “neighborhood” company
The firm grows from networking and from interactions with customers, he says, noting that this leads to another factor in Giant’s growth: customer referrals. The company is situated in the middle of a dense community with a lot of local ties, supporting its position as “the neighborhood landscaping company.” The firm sponsors four community sports team, adds Lavigne.
“Tony is a huge asset,” says Boyle. “He’s been in landscaping all his life.” Rahe specializes in cold calls, while Lavigne concentrates on referrals, word-of-mouth, estimating.
Of course, adding all these new services meant adding qualified personnel as well. Staffing, Rahe says, is a big challenge. “You recruit to find good help and then build off that,” he says. “This year was one of the good ones for personnel.” Keeping good workers is as important as keeping clients, and Giant has an 80 percent success rate here. “It’s all in how we interact with our employees, and with our customers,” he says.
Giant Landscaping is encouraged by the reception by residential property owners to its growing design/build business. Because of that the company added another designer to its staff.
“We can only hire people with experience,” adds Lavigne. “We can’t take time to train newbies.”
When it came to adding the design/build component, they could offer good pay to hire a top-qualified pro, he says. Giant also relies on an intensive interviewing process and on drug testing, and it hires throughout the year, always looking for the best.
“People come to us because they know we are good,” says Boyle. “We try to attract people who are passionate about their work. I know I have made a good hire when I see the guys use their cells to take pictures of their work to take home to show people.”
Getting right on it
But one newbie is seen as a serious asset to Giant’s growth: Katie Pollard was hired to be office manager with no background in landscaping. Says Boyle, “We took a gamble and added this position, and it’s one of the best decisions we made. She learned about landscaping and is a huge part of our success. We grew because we became a better run company.”
Pollard’s presence, says Lavigne, “allows the owners to get into the field, spend time with clients and customers instead of behind a desk. It’s personal service.” It also translates to speedier service. Callers get actual people to talk to and quick responses.
“I learned this from a competitor early on,” says Lavigne. If a rep is out there selling all day and not getting back with less-than-timely quotes, 80 percent of the time the customer had already moved on by the end of the day, he explains. Boyle adds that Giant can quote before others can even pick up their voicemail.
Giant Landscaping started out in snowplowing and was very busy this past winter. It is now in full landscaping mode.
Rahe notes that the biggest challenge in the industry is margins.
“Costs are up in everything from insurance and workers’ comp to materials, but no one wants to pay more. And every guy with a truck wants to get into landscaping,” he says. “When they bid, they don’t know what they are doing. When we bid, we work it all out up front so we eliminate change orders, and the customer doesn’t get blindsided.”
Adds Lavigne, “We do quality work at fair pricing. We know our margins, and we stay in them. We don’t price per square foot; we bid on our costs.”
When asked about the industry’s future, Boyle said he saw a need for licensing for irrigation services in the state to make sure work is done professionally, an initiative driven also by a need to conserve water.
“Of course, I didn’t start out licensed,” he grins, “but now that I am I see a lot that is done wrong.”
More personally, the company is exploring CRM, customer relation’s management. This means making the office more efficient, computerizing in a way that will streamline financials and lead to such efficiencies as automated billing.
Giant Landscaping is looking to a future of more growth as it is constantly evolving and becoming more efficient.
“We can do just about anything now,” says Boyle. “We will keep getting better and better. We can afford to hire more qualified technicians. They know we’re not a little mom-and-pop place anymore. I see skills. They see opportunity. I don’t have to do it all myself.”
Officers: Jeff Lavigne, owner & vice president sales; Tim Boyle, owner & vice president operations
Headquarters: Manchester, New Hampshire
Markets: Manchester, New Hampshire area
Services: Residential and commercial landscaping, design/build, hardscaping, irrigation, materials supply and snow removal
Employees: 18 full time