Multiple divisions help the company thrive
Whether designing, constructing and maintaining a landscape for a high-end property or hydroseeding after a fire or landslide, the employees of Oakridge Landscape in Valencia, Calif., are constantly on the go. Of all of the company’s divisions, the maintenance division is the most active right now, notes Richard Dunbar, who oversees the erosion control division.
The downturn in new construction is driving that. The maintenance division has ramped up its work, running 80 trucks and doing a lot of municipal and community maintenance as well as arbor care work. “We’re pretty fortunate that in this economy our maintenance actually grew, and instead of laying employees off, we switched some over to the maintenance division,” he says.
In addition to its Valencia headquarters, Oakridge Landscape has offices in San Fernando, Anaheim, Santa Clarita and Camarillo. The award-winning company has 350 employees. About 60 percent of its work is commercial, with the remaining in residential development, including many high-end properties.
Oakridge Landscape began in 1967 as California Landscape, changing hands a few times, but for the most part staying in the same family (Oakridge was formed as a nonunion company to California Landscape’s union company). It is now owned by Jeff Myers and Chuck Johnson.
Oakridge Landscape is diversified into six areas:
• Landscape/irrigation and construction, offering services in landscape and irrigation installation, site amenities, synthetic turf installation and renovation, habitat restoration, drainage and other related services.
• Landscape maintenance
• Arbor care
• Erosion control systems, including erosion and sediment control installation, site erosion control maintenance (such as best management practice maintenance, storm response and street sweeping), slope repair, weed and brush clearing services, hydroseeding, coordinating storm water pollution prevention plans, fine-grading and hauling.
• Stone Ridge concrete and masonry, offering hardscape and landscape services in architectural concrete, stamped concrete, exposed aggregate/sandblasted and washed finishes, Proto walls, retaining walls, concrete masonry unit walls, pool decks, podium hardscape and masonry, water features and fountains, custom masonry and site concrete.
• Oakridge Estates, offering turnkey services for high-end properties from construction through maintenance with all of its typical services plus gates and iron works; putting greens and golf features; outdoor kitchens, BBQs, fireplaces and fire pits; and exotic pools and spas.
Dunbar says diversification has helped the company sustain itself in a challenging economy and increasingly competitive environment.
Dunbar notes the key to the company’s success is in not overextending itself. That and competent, experienced management. “We’ve got a lot of years of experience,” Dunbar says of the management team. “I’ve been in this industry for more than 30 years; the average is 16 years or more. We have a very good group and everybody works together. It’s not just about each individual division, we’re all here for the company.”
Customer service is a priority, Dunbar says. “We make sure the customer comes first, and we give them a high-quality product so the client comes back,” he says.
Maintenance contracts usually run from one to five years, and the work outlined in the contract is site-specific. “It depends on the size of the project,” says Dunbar. “Some projects we’re there everyday, some projects once or twice a week.” One long-term client that gets daily service is Anheuser-Busch. Oakridge Landscape’s client list reads like a ‘Who’s Who’ of commercial and municipal entities.
One common maintenance job is taking care of model sites for developers. “We’re looking up on those once or twice a week, adding color and making sure they always look good,” says Dunbar.
The erosion control division is also picking up speed as local, state and federal regulations are becoming more stringent about protecting water bodies from runoff pollution. Additionally, the division has been busy responding to natural disasters, such as the mudslides brought about by the rainy season.
“The nice thing about being in a big company is I have resources,” he says. “My division has between 60 to 100 employees, and sometimes I can pull from divisions where things are slow, so I can have more than 300 guys who can help take care of any catastrophe.”
Oakridge is big on employee training, especially as it relates to safety.
“That’s one thing that’s been taking a lot of companies down; they can’t afford the insurance rates anymore,” Dunbar says. “We do a lot of field training on safety. The maintenance division is doing training all of the time, because with the people we hire in, you’ve got to teach them the job and what they have to do to be safe while doing it.”
Emergency erosion control work following fires and landslides can be an ongoing challenge in California. “We do a lot of hydroseeding with a lot of native mixes or grass mixes to try to get a root back in the soil,” says Dunbar. “We try to get some growth on there so we don’t have catastrophes like the mudslides.”
One of the company’s clients is the Los Angeles Fire Department. Not only does Oakridge Landscape work at their fire stations, but the company partners with the fire department after fires to revegetate damaged land. “In the off-season, we do weed abatement before the fires hit,” Dunbar says.
With water efficiency a landscaping priority, Oakridge Landscaping’s construction and maintenance division has been focusing on cutting down on water use by using plants that don’t require much water. A trend toward using artificial turf has started to develop. “People in estates are starting to put it in,” says Dunbar. “The initial cost is more, but in the long run you save quite a bit. That’s especially big with the drought, which is becoming a bigger problem than it used to be.”
Artificial turf has pros and cons, says Dunbar, adding he used to coach football for many years, and the boys didn’t like playing on the surface because it absorbs the heat, creating a hot playing surface. It also needs to be watered down and cleaned to get rid of bacteria.
Dunbar says his company’s biggest challenge is competing with others who have driven prices down in an effort to get work. “It’s been a tough struggle,” he says. “We have to make a profit, but it isn’t the high margins like it used to be. We’ve been watching our spending through the past few years. Jeff [Myers] is real smart; he’s been doing this all of his life, so the team we have is working together on what we have to do.”
That includes having the right equipment for the job, Dunbar says.
“We’ve been efficient by having the right equipment instead of having manpower and breaking backs; having trenchers and augers instead of depending on picks and shovels like it used to be. That’s how we compete, especially in times like this. You’ve got to be productive to make the margins.”
Oakridge Landscape picks up clients through participation at trade shows, involvement in trade associations and through positive word-of-mouth. “We’re really active with the BIA, the Building Industry Association. We’re an active member of different organizations, and we stay with those organizations for the marketing, having our name out there and meeting with the right people.
“This whole industry is built on having those few relationships with people who they can depend on and who they can’t,” he says. “That’s what’s made Oakridge, which used to be the old California Landscape, last as long as it has, because of that reputation. People know that if they need to get something done in a pinch, they can count on us.”
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.