Lancaster landscaper balances traditional values with untraditional services

Brad Groff, co-founder and co-owner of River Valley Landscapes, has the formula down to successfully blend Lancaster, Pa.’s, traditional values with untraditional products and services to manage and grow his landscaping business.

A River Valley Landscaping crew working on the planting portion of a project.
Photos courtesy of River Valley Landscaping.

Together with partner Doug Caldwell, Groff spun off a division, River Valley Organics, to complement their low-key but committed approach to sustainability. They also added residential master planning services to their traditional landscaping menu and focused their marketing on a multifaceted social media campaign and spearheading a community-wide professional landscapers garden tour.

River Valley offers the traditional line of residential landscaping services, including specialty gardens, water gardens, patios, walls, maintenance, irrigation and seasonal décor. Within the past decade, it also added outdoor lighting, outdoor kitchens, urban courtyards and a multitude of organic services through its River Valley Organics division, working hard at developing long-term relationships with property managers and spending a lot of time educating the regulatory community. The division has undertaken an extensive educational process for its commercial customers to embrace organic maintenance erosion control beyond conventional methods such as silt fencing. Its compost and ecoblankets offer sustainable alternatives to traditional rolled blankets and hydroseed applications. The company also installs soil mixes for green roofs and blown mulch.

“It has taken us many years for excavators to learn about our process,” says Caldwell. “We’ve spent a lot of time with engineers to integrate our Filtrexx filter soxx into the specs of our projects. It has paid off, because now River Valley Organics is responsible for fully half of our revenues. Once our customers experience the difference, they incorporate organics into future projects.”

River Valley’s two divisions operate under very different business models, and therefore, operate like two separate companies. “Organics operates with expensive equipment and fewer people, while landscaping operates with less-expensive equipment and more people,” explains Groff. “Organics primarily serves the commercial sector, while landscapes primarily serves residential.”

Groff insists that even before the organics division came along in 2000, River Valley has always been a pioneering landscaping company in sustainability for the area. “Back then, we called it ‘ecologically-strong design,’” Groff explains. “We’ve always encouraged our clients to use native plants and employed water management. We installed rain gardens even before they were named that.”

Although River Valley may be a pioneer in sustainable landscaping practices for Lancaster, it doesn’t use that as a marketing tactic. “We haven’t marketed heavily that we employ sustainable principles,” explains Groff. “It’s not that we don’t think it’s important, it just isn’t that urgent or necessary to the majority of our clients in the farmlands of Lancaster versus the urban landscapes of Baltimore or Philadephia.”

Designing the vegetable garden next to this home was created to build on a historic theme.

Another unique trait of River Valley is how it looks at the big picture for customers when taking on landscaping projects. “We want to change the mindset of many of our customers who consider landscaping for their homes to be an afterthought,” explains Groff. “To save money and time, and maximize good design, landscaping should be considered front and center as part of any new construction or remodeling project. That’s why it’s not uncommon for us to offer master planning services for homebuilding and remodeling right along with landscape installation. When you integrate everything together, it increases efficiencies and overall quality of design.”

Putting its theory into practice, River Valley designs balconies, porches, swimming pools, basements and additions. If the customer desires, River Valley will also install and build them. “Oftentimes, the customer has no idea that our landscaping company can also do construction projects,” says Groff. “Many times they are relieved to find this out and award us both jobs.”

Groff says, “Inevitably, we find that the customer saves money initially when they opt for the lowest bid on the pool or addition, but because the builder put the walkway in the wrong place or the pool’s orientation the wrong way, the landscaping will inevitably cost them twice as much,” explains Groff. “In the long run, they don’t save anything because they can end up paying twice as much for the landscaping.”

River Valley has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1991 when Delaware Valley College graduates Groff and Caldwell “mowed and blowed” the lawns of their high school and college friends’ parents and neighbors. “In a way, we started out as a family business,” says Groff. Working out of his home, Groff’s father assisted early on with bookkeeping and payroll, and his brother served as controller. Caldwell’s father donated the land where River Valley is currently operating.

Lancaster continues to offer an ideal business environment for River Valley. It’s comprised of many mid-sized cities such as Lancaster, York and Harrisburg, yet not far from huge population centers such as Philadelphia and Baltimore. “When you start a business in a mid-sized city, it’s easier to cultivate a customer base right away,” says Groff. “It’s small enough so that someone you know knows someone else, and it snowballs from there. Once you get established, you can grow beyond your immediate community branching into the larger population centers.”

River Valley is weathering the recession better than most due to the luck of the right customer demographics combined with the skill of shrewd restructuring. “Other regions around the country are more prone to recession,” explains Groff. “Our residential customers come from a more conservative lifestyle. In our region, generally, people save their money, so when they are ready to do a landscaping project, the money is there for them to go for it.”

River Valley is enjoying one of their best years in business with revenues surpassing $1 million. Last year was their worst, so it ceased a shotgun marketing program and reduced its workforce substantially down to a solid core group of 12 year-round employees.

River Valley’s new marketing tactics include an upgraded website, seasonal postings on a landscaping blog and an active Facebook page. “We recently landed a client who saw our ad on Facebook and clicked on it,” says Groff. “We expect many more. It’s a very cost-effective way to advertise.” Another key marketing tactic for River Valley is to organize and participate in a local professional landscaper’s showcase. “Landscapers don’t do a very good job of showing off what they do,” says Groff. “Rarely do they have a venue to demonstrate to customers their best work unlike the other trades.” So, River Valley created the Lancaster Garden Tour involving 12 professional landscapers working together in a joint promotion allowing prospective clients to see a well-designed installed mature landscape. Not only did the tour bring new customers to River Valley, it also raised $7,000 for Daniel’s Den playground, Groff’s favorite charitable organization that provides an all-abilities play area for children in Lancaster.

As River Valley looks to the future, the company is learning how to work through increasing government regulations on the industry. “This year has been the most difficult,” says Groff. “Currently, we have close to half a million dollars worth of work on hold because we can’t get the government to accept what we want to do.”

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.