Richard Mercurio strives to reach his goal

A maintenance staff employee hand-weeds a customer’s circular drive.
Photos courtesy of Richard Mercurio.

Richard Mercurio wants to get over the wall with his landscaping company, Green Valley Landscapes in Skillman, N.J., which means hitting that elusive $1 million mark in sales. If it wasn’t for the economic downturn, he would’ve been there by now. The fact that he keeps topping out at $650,000 in sales the last couple of years presents a fascinating challenge to him, and he’s taking it on with a vengeance.

Richard Mercurio stands in front of one of Green Valley’s fleet trucks.

Despite flat sales in the midst of one of the deepest recessions, last year was Mercurio’s most profitable year revenue wise, which he attributes to sharpening his management skills. “I cut labor by reducing crew sizes and capital spending. I budgeted for a 20 percent drop in customer base, but in actuality it held.”

For most of his career, Mercurio has lived and breathed the world of construction and engineering removed from landscaping. Born in New York and raised on Long Island, he graduated with a mechanical engineering degree from Bucknell University in Pennsylvania. He went on to become a construction engineer for Ebasco Services, a builder of nuclear power plants in the southern U.S., and Getty Oil. In the mid-1980s, he entered the franchise world as a corporate construction manager for McDonalds, then went back to work for a couple of smaller construction companies and even became owner for one. It was his final corporate gig with Boston Market beginning in 1994 that created the unique opportunity for him to cross over into landscaping.

In 1998, Boston Market declared bankruptcy, closing 400 of its restaurants. Mercurio was one of a handful of surviving corporate employees, but in the midst of the turmoil, he enrolled in Master Gardener School at Rutgers Cooperative Extension in Mercer County in 2000. It was there that he met Barbara Bromley, who encouraged him to start a landscaping business. “Due to the flexible nature of my job always out in the field, I was able to pursue my passion for landscaping by enrolling in the Master Gardener certification program simultaneously with my duties at Boston Market,” says Mercurio.

Green Valley provides fall leaf removal. The collected leaves are shredded and recycled by local farmers and mulch distributors.

“I had no doubts that he would succeed and become successful in the landscaping industry,” says Bromley. “Richard was one of the brightest trainees, with a ton of energy. He was so passionate about learning all aspects of landscaping, including lawn maintenance and soil testing. He was always thinking about how he would apply what he learned into his own business. One example is how he incorporated soil testing as a key service with his company for his clients. To this day, he is one of the few landscaping service companies that recognize soil testing as an important tool in diagnosing proper lawn care. He has learned that in the lawn care business, not one size fits all. His customers appreciate the fact that he knows the difference between shade and sun, and differences in soil types. He then applies different tactics depending upon the type of lawn.”

In 2002, armed with a deep knowledge of landscaping after obtaining certification at Rutgers, Mercurio was more than ready to take the leap. In the same month he received his Master Gardener certification, he resigned his post at Boston Market and opened up Green Valley Landscapes as a full-service landscape maintenance company.

With a lean contingency of 10 employees out in the field, Green Valley offers 15 services in five major divisions, including lawn maintenance, enhancements, chemical applications, irrigation services and snow and ice removal. The only services subcontracted are tree work and irrigation repairs.

Green Valley’s contracts are 95 percent maintenance and 5 percent new installs. Not surprisingly, construction and installation has been down 50 percent during the last couple of years while maintenance has held steady.

Green Valley’s customer base began as, and has remained, residential, with the vast majority of customers clustered in suburban housing developments. The steady growth strategy for the company has always been economy of scale. “Currently, we service nearly 225 customers; 200 of those are considered ‘full-service’ customers, all within less than a 10-mile radius,” says Mercurio. Every year in business up until the last two, Green Valley has experienced growth, including double digits in 2005 and 2006.

The last couple of years have forced Mercurio to take time to step back, analyze and work the efficiencies even more. He is focusing on increasing the number of homes within a single development near his headquarters that he has already infiltrated in a big way. “Currently, I have one-third of all homeowners within this development of about 300 homes,” he says. “My goal is to increase that number of these home through a new loyalty and referral program.”

Many upscale HOA customers choose Green Valley for full-service plant bed care, which includes pruning, hand-weeding and mulching.
Green Valley mows more than 200 lawns per week; half are situated in a planned golf course community.

Another recession-survival tactic for Mercurio is to provide an incentive for his existing customers to increase the number of services, rather than offering individual discounting. “Currently, our customers choose about half of the available different services we offer,” says Mercurio. “If we can get the majority of our customers up to using 10 to 12 of our services, our profits would shoot way up.”

Mercurio has also taken the time to track all of his customer calls over the last three to four years. “I found that 80 percent of my new customers came from referrals,” he says. The days of focusing his efforts on the standard of placing flyers in mailboxes and mailing postcards in bulk are over.

“Richard’s business tactics in this industry are shrewd, and he is doing a lot of the right things to survive this recession,” says Judy Guido of Guido & Associates in Los Angeles, Calif., who met Mercurio at an ALCA meeting six years ago and has done some consulting for him. “He has the ability to soak up knowledge from everyone he meets. He came into this industry with the right attitude. He sees the value in ongoing education; he sees the economics in taking on single neighborhoods. He is an inspiration for this industry.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.