Xeriscapes Unlimited keeps looking for ways to improve.
Rod Pappas didn’t initially begin his landscape career with a desire to own a business. He got into the industry because he wanted to work outdoors.

Working for another commercial landscape business, he saw some of the inefficiencies of that operation. This lead him to creating Xeriscapes Unlimited, focusing on a process that emphasizes productivity and safety.

Organizing his business for maximum efficiency not only helps his company, but it also helps his clients. Pappas lists his greatest success as the hundreds and thousands of dollars he’s saved his clients by lowering their water bills with innovative landscape and irrigation solutions.

Xeriscapes Unlimited, Inc.

Founder and President: Rod Pappas

Founded: 1983

Headquarters: Phoenix, Arizona

Markets: Phoenix and surrounding communities

Services: Arbor care, lawn care, turf conversion, water stewardship, irrigation design, smart irrigation controllers, irrigation audits, hardscapes, installs, landscape design and renovations

Employees: 48

Website: xeriscapes.com

The early days

In the early 1980s, Pappas was training businesses on some of the entry-level computer systems that were available at the time. After five or six years he’d had enough. He decided he wanted to do something outdoors, and found a job with a commercial landscape maintenance operator.

It was then he realized there was money to be made in the industry.

“I also saw I could do the same job with less people because of all of the wasted time and effort,” Pappas says. “I made him an offer to sub out some of his smaller accounts to me since it would save him on equipment and trucks and gas.”

Xeriscapes Unlimited started with two apartment complexes and a couple of office buildings. The company continued in that way until 1985 when a couple of managers whose work Pappas was subbing asked him to bid their jobs himself.

Then he bid on some of the managers’ large apartment complexes and got them. “Instantly, I had a crew and payroll and everything else that goes with it,” he says. “I can’t say I was real prepared for it at the time.”

What really set him on the road to success was the realization that he needed to build a process for what he and his crews were doing. All too often, Pappas says, steps were being repeated because there was no particular order to what was being done.

“I condensed everything into what I call ‘The Seven Simple Steps,'” he explains. “It’s a program of basically doing everything in the proper sequence so you don’t have to go back and repeat jobs. It’s assembly line-type landscaping that doesn’t leave any debris in its path, and everything is going in the same direction.”

The process has proven to be so effective that back in the late 1990s, the company’s workers’ comp carrier produced a video about it in both English and Spanish. It lives on the Internet, and Xeriscapes Unlimited uses it for training today. However, Pappas says he’s willing to bet things can still be improved upon.

“We’re running a little contest right now for our employees who may want to improve on it,” he says. “If they can find ways to do things that are better, safer and more productive, we’re offering incentives for their ideas.”

While 65 percent of Xeriscapes Unlimited’s business is still commercial maintenance, Pappas has branched out over the years. Today, about 25 percent is renovation and construction and the other 10 percent is irrigation.

The renovation and construction work is a mix of new commercial and residential work, including single-family homes, where the company works with general contractors and designers, coupled with renovations and upgrades for its existing maintenance clients.

Incredible shrinking lawns

Despite its name, Pappas also says water restrictions weren’t really an issue when Xeriscapes Unlimited came on the scene. That’s vastly different from today, when turf reduction has become a big part of the renovation business, and the company has removed as much as 100,000 square feet of turf for some large clients.

He points to his own family home as an example. What once was 3,000 square feet of turf is now less than one-third that size of grass. And, while it does include a fireplace and a barbecue, he says it isn’t much different than what he’d do for a commercial job.

“We did a lot of pathways with desert plants, boulders and an outdoor seating area,” Pappas says. “And, it looks very tropical. I still have color from drought-tolerant plants, but no one would imagine they get watered once every eight days. It’s a nice feel, without the water and the maintenance. That’s what we’re all about.”

He adds, “I believe irrigation is the most-important aspect of landscaping, at least here in Arizona.”

A family affair

Xeriscapes Unlimited is a family-type operation. Pappas handles the outside part of the operation while his wife, Deanna, does most of the accounting and hiring. And, of the company’s approximately 48 employees, Pappas says at least a dozen have been with the company for 10 years or more.

“They’re very well trained, they know the system and they know our policies and procedures,” he says.

However, he says it’s hard to get good employees. The company must use the federal government’s e-Verify program to check on the residency of its applicants. Additionally, Xeriscapes Unlimited has been a drug-free workplace for the past 20 years, and requires that all new employees pass a drug test.

“We just try to get past the first couple stages,” he says. “Finding somebody who has some skills and can handle a vehicle is a plus. It’s been very challenging.”

Still, Pappas is pretty satisfied with what he has. The company operates from a single warehouse and office facility totaling approximately 10,000 square feet near downtown Phoenix.

Rock & Roll and Motorcycles, Too

People come to the landscape industry from all sorts of other industries. Generally, they’re drawn to the industry as a career, often as an owner, because they love being outdoors, and the work and challenges are so different than what they’ve experienced.

Take Rod Pappas, the founder and operator of Xeriscapes Unlimited, Inc., for example. On the website for Xeriscapes he shares that, since the age of 13, he’s played in various rock & roll bands. He even recorded an album in the early 1980s.

Even after settling down and raising a family he retains his rock & roll roots and sometimes dusts off his Fender Stratocaster to jam with his son, an equally ardent rock and roll musician.

Another of his loves is his Harley Deuce.

“Wouldn’t it be nice,” he speculates on his company website, “if there was a way to tool around on my motorcycle and play my guitar at the same time? Too bad I can’t do both.”

Recently, Pappas also hired a full-time marketing director who keeps the advertising, website and Facebook presence fresh and handles the relationships with maintenance clients including making sales calls and presenting proposals for maintenance clients.

His greatest satisfaction, though, comes from his 10-year relationship with the local Ronald McDonald House, where he volunteers as facilities manager, lining up his competitors to take a month’s turn maintaining the landscaping, as well as finding help for special projects such as asphalt or sidewalk repair.

Water restrictions weren’t always an issue for the company, but today turf reduction has become a big part of the renovation business.

“There’s always something going on there that keeps me busy,” he says. “It’s the most rewarding thing I’ve gotten involved in.”

Then, of course, there’s that 30-plus years of being in business.

“It’s just a great business to be in,” Pappas concludes. “I never thought I would love it and grow to be involved in it the way I have. I feel like I’m a steward of our environment, and that’s very rewarding. I can say I’ve saved some of our clients hundreds of thousands of dollars in water just by using some of our systems. It’s really good to come to work and know you’re doing something good for everybody.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner at Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, California. Comment on this article or contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.