Perennial Landscape creates a perfect outside environment for its clients
Scott Carzo has watched his landscape maintenance business take off based on what any good landscape professional would consider sound business principles, such as being on time and returning phone calls.
In 1995, Carzo started Perennial Landscape Corporation of Massachusetts with his wife Sheila. The company services the residential market in an area in Massachusetts encompassing Winchester, Lexington, Concord, Carlisle, Stoneham, Melrose and Andover. The company handles masonry, landscape construction and landscape maintenance, providing services such as constructing stone walls, retaining walls, patios, walkways, lawns, sod installation, plantings, waterfalls, ponds, fencing, and plant and shrub installation, as well as maintenance such as grading, pruning, hedge trimming, spring and fall clean-ups, and lawn mowing. There are 20 employees on staff.
Carzo started in the landscape industry as a way to make some “pocket money” after spending a decade selling medical products for a company that was bought out by another company, and then brought in its own sales force. He connected with a friend and started doing landscape maintenance work. Carzo was surprised to find that customers were awestruck at him showing up on time and answering their phone calls, because for many of them, that had not been their previous experience. He saw a need not only for landscaping, but for a company that embraced customer-friendly business practices.
Carzo believes consumers should consider 10 factors before hiring a landscape contractor:
1. Longevity—a company that has been in business for at least 10 years.
2. Insurance, including general liability, workers’ compensation and auto policies. “If I do 150 estimates a year, I might have two people ask for it, which is mind-boggling,” says Carzo. “It protects you so much.”
3. Financial stability. Carzo says, “Companies deep in debt may tend to make decisions based on such a situation. Will they rush through the job, cut corners or use substandard materials to save money? Insist on the names of the contractor’s suppliers to check their financial stability.”
4. References. “If a contractor gives you a small number of references and those references only have ‘mostly’ good things to say, what does that say if these are their ‘best’ references?” Carzo points out.
5. Written agreements that spell out in detail how the work is to be done from start to finish.
6. Pricing that reflects the cost of doing business, including insurances, quality employees, quality materials and adequate amount of time to do the job properly, says Carzo. Prices that are more than 5 percent or less than 10 percent of proven reputable companies should raise a red flag, he adds.
7. Follow-up to jobs.
8. Time frame before work can be started. “If a contractor can start a project right away [especially during the busy season], why is that?” Carzo questions. “Reputable companies quite often have a backlog of work because they do good work and many people want their services.”
9. Current and legal employee paperwork.
10. Quality work that encompasses the best work methods, appropriate amount of time to properly complete the job, the best materials and the most skillful, experienced and qualified staff. “A quality company takes the long view and wants your project to look great many years after the work has been completed.”
Carzo wishes all of his competitors would use this list, which he offers to potential customers. “It would put everybody on an even plane,” he says. “Quite often, we’re bidding against somebody and I hear they got a bid for 30 percent less. I tell the customer I don’t doubt that, but what I can tell you from doing this for 17 years is that there’s something missing. Either that person is too inexperienced and doesn’t know the complexity of this job, or they’re not insured, or they don’t have legal employees. Or, they’re not going to do the quality work that you’re looking to get done. We’re good about tracking all of our jobs. We’re good about knowing what it takes to do a job so when somebody is 30 percent less, we know that there’s something missing.”
A sample maintenance program that Perennial Landscape offers their clients includes a spring clean-up, lawn thatching, mulch installation, re-edging of beds, debris removal and reseeding of bare spots in March and April. Come July and August, the company will prune and trim shrubs and hedges and weed planting beds. Lawn aeration and mowing is conducted in September. In October and November, the company does a fall clean-up, rakes leaves and removes all debris. One clean-up is done in mid to late-October and two in November as weather permits. Lawn mowing is done weekly, including trimming and clearing of walks, edges and other areas.
In addition to the regular maintenance program, Carzo offers an Elite Estate Program, which is a customized garden to suit the property and client tastes. Employees practice integrated pest management and proven lawn, garden care and pruning techniques. Program services focus on design, installation and maintenance and include deadheading; pinching; planting of annuals, perennials, trees and shrubs; lawn mowing; and outdoor lighting, ponds and pond maintenance. The use of patio pots is a key element in the Elite Estate Program. The company creates and maintains patio pots, window boxes and containers that feature evergreens in the winter, and blooms for spring and summer.
Building upon a regular maintenance program, the Elite Estate Program offers clients complete clean-up beginning in March and April with the removal of snow protectors and burlap and stakes, which are stored in a dry place until winter. The crews also tie up and straighten branches; cut back, trim and prune all leftover plants; clean out winter interest patio pots; and set up all other window boxes, patio pots and containers.
Appropriate measures are taken for each perennial and shrub from winter dormancy and all garden beds are edged. At properties with compost piles, crews rotate and turn them over, spreading the compost on the garden beds. In the absence of a compost pile, all debris is removed from the property. All ponds, waterfalls and fountains are opened. Outdoor lights are readjusted and burned-out lightbulbs are replaced. From May through September, the company analyzes and diagnoses insects and diseases on plants and annuals weekly. Grow-through hoops are set up, and all plants, annuals, small trees and shrubs are staked, tied up, deadheaded, pruned, cut back and pinched. Fresh summer annuals and perennials are put in pots, and the property is weeded and mulched and a fresh edge is kept on the beds. Crews again utilize on-site compost piles, remove debris, check water features and replace outdoor lights as needed.
In October and November, patio pots are replaced with cold-loving annuals and perennials and stored, as well as unneeded window boxes. Perennials and annuals are pruned and cut back.
Grow-through hoops are removed and stakes and ties go into winter storage. Fertilizers are applied, mulched is spruced up and garden bed edges are freshened up. Grass seed is spread where needed. Compost is utilized, and leaf removal is done weekly. Plants get snow covers or are wrapped and sprayed for the winter months. Water features are disassembled and winterized, and outdoor lights get a final check.
Carzo is getting an increasing amount of requests for hardscaping. Driving that trend is a desire for the feel of an outdoor room, he says. “When you talk to designers and architects, they always talk about outdoor rooms,” he says. “If you have a patio in this area and a fireplace over there and a grill across there, it feels like a room. It gives you that solid definition and comfort of a home, especially if you get into a fireplace or a fire pit. It makes it so much nicer.”
Unlike other landscape contractors, Carzo doesn’t do snow removal services as a rule, but he will do it for select customers.
Carzo prefers the residential market because he embraces more of a detail-oriented approach to landscaping and finds that the commercial sector doesn’t need or want that range of service. “But, at your house, if there’s a weed in the backyard and they are having their accountant over for a barbecue, they’re in trouble,” he says.
One of the ways in which Carzo gets his name out is as a regular guest on Stu Taylor’s business radio show, where he discusses a variety of landscaping topics.
The economy has been Carzo’s biggest challenge to date. “We’ve been in business for 17 years and we’ve grown almost every single year except for the last two or three years,” he says. “I came into last spring saying I was not going to participate in this recession. ‘Let’s get going,’ I said. Then came June, I said, ‘OK, let’s just get through this year.’ You can’t fight it. It was really like wallowing in mud.”
Carzo deals with a lot of high-end property owners and his sense was not so much that they didn’t have the money, but that they didn’t want to spend the money they had. “It’s a little bit better now,” he says. “We’ve been fortunate. We have very good employees. We have a good reputation. We’ve been smart with keeping our debt to a modest level so when business drops off, we’re not choking.”
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.