Oregon’s DeSantis Landscape hitches its future on the continued growth of its employees

DeSantis Landscapes, Inc.

Owner: Dean DeSantis

Founded: 1974

Headquarters: Salem, Ore.

Markets: Salem and surrounding communities from Corvallis to Portland

Services: Residential services include design/build, maintenance and plant health care; Commercially the company “builds, renews and maintains commercial property landscapes of all types,” including a range of sustainable services for both residential and commercial

Employees: About 80

Dean DeSantis likes to see things grow. However, the president of DeSantis Landscapes, headquartered in Salem, Ore., isn’t necessarily talking just about the plants his crews put in the ground.

Before taking over the reins of the company from his father, his first career was in corporate training. Today, he says his greatest pleasure is in applying what he knows about personal professional development and seeing his employees succeed and be excited about what they’re doing.

It’s a philosophy that’s contributed to the success of DeSantis Landscapes, too. As with so many other companies, the recent recession wasn’t kind, but DeSantis was able to maintain, and even grow parts of the business.

Landscaping was definitely not on DeSantis’ radar when he finished college, although growing up he had spent school vacations working in the industry. His father, Tony, began the business from the family home in 1974 with just a truck and a wheelbarrow. Initially, he focused his efforts on design/build operation, but eventually expanded into maintenance.

As Dean DeSantis started his family, he began to think about what he really wanted from his own career, and he realized he didn’t want to spend days away from home putting on conferences. “We were sitting around one Father’s Day, and my dad started talking about how he needed to figure out an exit strategy,” says Dean “That’s when the conversation began for me to come back to the business. It was about 10 years ago that I came back.”

DeSantis Landscaping developed the180-foot-long Entry Water Wall at theOregon Garden, a public botanicalgarden and resort. It's part of aninnovative wastewater treatmentfacility for the city of Silverton, Ore.
Click photo to enlarge.

DeSantis Landscaping developed the 180-foot-long Entry Water Wall at the Oregon Garden, a public botanical garden and resort. It’s part of an innovative wastewater treatment facility for the city of Silverton, Ore.

In 1995, after the company had outgrown its family-home headquarters, the business was transplanted into the current facility, an 11,000-square-foot shop and office space on 3 acres when it grew too large for the family’s home.

“He built out the office space, and we have a small nursery holding yard, fuel tanks, and we have our bulk materials such as our rock and our aggregates,” DeSantis says. “It’s a nice, professional facility.”

The business built by his father had a heavy residential component, and probably the biggest thing that the son has done since taking over the business is moving it more toward the commercial market.

“On the maintenance side, we’re about 60 percent commercial,” DeSantis says. “And, it’s the same on the construction side of things. We’ve gotten much more into commercial bid/build work.”

Also, DeSantis is enlarging the scope of the company’s sustainable landscape services. He explains that while landscaping is the original “green” industry, and landscapers are stewards of the environment on a daily basis, there are many things in the industry that take away from those environmental benefits.

“There’s the equipment we use, the emissions from the fuel, the chemical use, all those things,” he says. “And, there are evolving infrastructure opportunities. Stormwater has been a huge thing in the Portland area. Managing storm runoff, green roofs, living walls and all those sorts of things are really ecosystem services that we’ve been able to educate ourselves on and offer as part of our sustainable landscape services for people.”

Tony DeSantis started the company in 1974 by providing residential landscape services. The company, now run by his son, Dean, continues to excell in residentialprojects, but has long since expanded to become a leader in providing environmentally sensitive commercial landscaping from Portland to Corvallis, Ore.
Click photo to enlarge.

Tony DeSantis started the company in 1974 by providing residential landscape services. The company, now run by his son, Dean, continues to excell in residential projects, but has long since expanded to become a leader in providing environmentally sensitive commercial landscaping from Portland to Corvallis, Ore.

Click photo to enlarge.

It’s also an approach that’s led to some exciting partnerships with general contractors to build numerous LEED-certified (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) projects, as well as the company’s involvement in a pilot study for the Sustainable Sites Initiative.

Workable formula

The work of the company in the Portland area also points out another way in which things have changed. Over the past 10 years, DeSantis Landscapes has also effectively doubled in size, to 80 employees, by opening a second office about an hour away in the Portland suburb of Sherwood.

DeSantis explains that the Portland-area office is leased from a construction contractor and is a relatively simple space. With its continued growth, though, the company is remodeling a rented house into a more professional office space and yard.

One of the improvements is the addition of a big screen monitor used for video-conferencing between the two facilities, which makes meetings more efficient and cost-effective because the staff doesn’t have to travel.

However, DeSantis and some of the other senior managers will continue to divide their time between the two locations. DeSantis spends at least two days a week in the Sherwood office.

Each location has six dedicated maintenance crews, and what he calls “construction generalists” who work exclusively out of one shop or the other. Other, more specialized crew members – those skilled in building stone walls, water features and in installing and servicing irrigation, etc. – move between the two locations as the work demands.

Sales are handled in multiple ways. The company’s new business development manager is essentially an outsides sales person who focuses on selling new contract maintenance services. Each location has its own account managers.

DeSantis Landscaping offers its customers several Plant Health Care optionsunder the guidance of an experienced staff horticulturist.
Click photo to enlarge.

DeSantis Landscaping offers its customers several Plant Health Care options under the guidance of an experienced staff horticulturist.

“Their main job is account retention and client retention,” says DeSantis. “Their second job is selling enhancements, encouraging people to upgrade their properties and selling additional services to our existing clients.” He adds that if someone calls with a new residential project, one of the on-staff designers is sent out to develop an idea and sell it.

Getting through the recession

DeSantis does not sugarcoat the effects of the 2008-2009 Recession. The economic downturn caused company management to take a sharp look at expenses and, in some cases, change the way it was thinking. For example, the company added some services, including an in-house spray service.

“We put a renewed focus on customer service and taking care of the people we had right in front of us that were providing us business,” he says. “We said, ‘Let’s make sure our clients are so happy they won’t go out to bid.'”

Commercial clients always have a vested interest in keeping their properties in tip-top condition to try and maintain their own tenants, but during the recession, to cut expenses, many were putting their work out to bid.

“So, in addition to having good retention, we were able pick up some new accounts because we had new opportunities to bid on other properties,” he says.

The company’s maintenance revenues grew 15 percent during the Recession. DeSantis says that certainly wouldn’t have happened without his great team of employees.

Great people make great companies

He acknowledges that his greatest challenge is to find good people. However, he adds that his greatest success has been finding them and melding them into a team.

“We take our recruiting and our interviewing very seriously,” he says. “We do a profile process with our new hires that’s proven very effective in identifying good candidates for our positions.”

And, that’s key, DeSantis adds, because while some of his competitors may be good in one area, as a full-service landscape company he wants to have a great team in all the different areas DeSantis Landscapes offers.

His greatest pleasure: seeing those same employees succeed.

“I like them to see them set goals and meet the goals, to learn something new and be excited about that learning,” he says. “I want my people to be happy in their workplace, because that’s the only way I’m going to succeed and this company is going to succeed. And, if I have people who are happy doing what they’re doing, that’s going to translate over to our clients. They’re going to provide good service if they’re passionate and happy with what they’re doing.”

The company's property maintenance program focusing on soil health featuresthe use of organic-based fertilizers, compost tea and mycorrihizal amendments.
Click photo to enlarge.

The company’s property maintenance program focusing on soil health features the use of organic-based fertilizers, compost tea and mycorrihizal amendments.

It’s a formula that has certainly worked for the guy at the top. DeSantis says he has no regrets about taking over the business.

“I’ve been very happy,” he concludes. “Here I’m able to be a part of something, be a part of people’s professional development, and it feels good.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at <45 Light Oblique>[email protected].