Tom Fochtman is not your stereotypical contractor.
The 51-year-old co-owner of Denver-based CoCal Landscape would never enter a client meeting wearing a T-shirt, jeans and boots. Rather, Fochtman enjoys Italian wool slacks, button down shirts and the occasional tie.
“I prefer bold but not bright colors,” he says, adding the attire puts him on par with his customers and not on the same level as his competitors. “I’ve always fancied myself as one with a diverse business mind vs. just a landscape contractor.”
An opportunistic view on business is what Fochtman credits for enabling him to grow in his career. If an opportunity arises, he considers taking it, but not without looking over the details first. In this way, he is a perfectionist who believes the details keep a company from looking sloppy. In fact, Fochtman admits he would be disappointed in himself if he walked into a meeting and the customer asked a question he didn’t know the answer to.
As for the industry he loves, Fochtman sees landscape contracting as an area that will always be necessary because it’s a key component to a property’s image. People always need their lawns mowed, he says, and because of this reason CoCal will keep its place as a quality landscape company in the industry.
EMERGING LEADER. Fochtman inherited his entrepreneurial spirit from his father, a self-starter and self-made man who taught Fochtman at a young age growing up in Petoskey, Mich., that reward is wrought from sweat and toil, and that hard work brings success.
After graduating from Michigan State University in 1981 with a degree in landscape architecture, he spent a year with a Chicago-based contractor working in the field learning how to build landscapes. He remembers his first job with them was installing the landscape for Northern Illinois University.
From there Fochtman joined California-based Environmental Care Industries, which is now part of Calabasas, Calif.-based ValleyCrest Cos., to work as a sales representative. The ECI opportunity served as the catalyst for meeting his friend and future business partner, Jesus “Chuy” Medrano.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, man, here’s this kid fresh out of college and it’s my job to train this Gringo,’” Medrano says, adding the two quickly hit it off as friends and colleagues. As part of the sales team Fochtman knew nothing about landscape maintenance, and as the maintenance supervisor Medrano was able to teach him a thing or two. And, in return, Fochtman was able to teach Medrano a thing or two about handling customers.
During Fochtman’s tenure, ECI grew from a $14 million company to a $100 million company in annual sales. He also grew, and in 1988 was promoted to vice president of marketing and sales for the company’s Los Angeles office.
“At 31 years old, I was the youngest person at the time to be promoted to that position in the company,” he says. “It was a proud moment for me.”
But despite his professional success Fochtman was ready for new challenges and left ECI and the landscape industry in 1990 to work for a roofing company as vice president of marketing and sales.
This is the third article in a weekly series that recognizes six green industry leaders. Lawn & Landscape, along with Bayer Environmental Science, honored these professionals at a reception Oct. 26 at the Green Industry and Equipment Expo in Louisville, Ky.
Read the welcome letter from Bayer Environmental Science's U.S. Green Business Director Neil Cleveland.
However, in 1992 Fochtman returned to the industry to open his own business. He knew he couldn’t do this alone so he asked ECI buddy Medrano to join him. Medrano knew they worked well together, and the decision to become partners was a no-brainer.
Those close to Fochtman thought he was nuts to uproot his family and relocate from California to Colorado to start a landscape business. But Fochtman had a plan in mind, and with dogged determination he pursued it.
“The California economy was worsening and unemployment was high so my wife and I had to look at our options,” Fochtman says. “Option one was to follow her career, option two was to move back to Michigan and option three was to go back to Colorado and open a business and we choose to go with the third option.”
It took six months for Fochtman and Medrano to create CoCal Landscape’s business plan. They both were working full-time so they only had their nights and weekends free to put the plan together.
The time Fochtman devoted to the business plan didn’t surprise his wife, Pam, who describes her husband as having a get-out-there-and-get-it-done mentality.
“He is successful because he is aggressive in his growth plan,” Pam says.
Fochtman and Medrano have an ideal partnership that compliments one another. Fochtman finds the work and Medrano gets it done. Fochtman is the inside man working on projects and talking to clients while Medrano is out in the field leading work crews.
“He has a higher tolerance for our customers than I do,” Medrano says.
CoCal’s first five to six years demanded a lot of energy from Fochtman. His schedule was littered with 18-hour days and weekends to make the fledging company grow. As a result, it took him some time to find a balance between business and family.
“My wife has been more accessible for my children than I’ve been, and part of me regrets that,” he says. “I really respect fellow business owners who have done a better job of spending quality time with their families as they have built their businesses.”
But for Fochtman, the landscape business is not just a job; it’s a passion that motivates him to get up every day.
“I enjoy the unique “living” aspect of the green industry, allowing us to work in an outdoor environment that is ever changing in size, color, scale, etc., which makes our industry unlike any other,” Fochtman says. “Regarding the business itself, I am driven to have CoCal Landscape be a profitable, industry leading organization that provides a great service to our customers and a solid career path for our employees.”
This passion and dedication has rewarded CoCal with more than 30 awards since its inception. One accolade, though, still stands out – the Excellence in Landscape Award from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC) in 1993 for the company’s work on “The Breakers,” which was the largest luxury apartment complex in Denver at that time. It was CoCal’s first honor and the company had only been in business for less than a year.
He remembers sitting in a Fort Worth, Texas after they won the first ALCC honor. The award rested in its own chair as if it were a third partner.
“It was funny because when we won the award no one had heard of us since we were less than a year old,” Fochtman says. “At the bar we had no one to celebrate with or brag to so we toasted each other.”
COMPANY MOTIVATOR. Fochtman sees himself as a motivator for those around him. He learned early on that a company and its people are only as efficient as their leader. If the leader has a pessimistic attitude toward work and performs his tasks half-heartedly, then his employees will mirror this work ethic. His job is to push himself to inspire others to do the same.
Fochtman attributes most of his skills and leadership ability to Bruce Wilson, the former ECI president and mentor to many landscape business owners. Wilson, along with ECI’s management team, he says, taught him not only about the business, but the importance in becoming a leader.
“They helped create me,” Fochtman says. “Bruce taught me patience, how to read people, how to size up a situation and a lot of the nuts and bolts of the industry.”
As a leader, Fochtman is not a hand holder, but rather a ball hander. He delegates responsibility and points employees in the right direction. His management style separates the strong from the weak. CoCal’s fast-paced environment is meant for those who share Fochtman’s traits – confident, aggressive and risk taking.
“We have a Git-R-Done work environment,” he says. “Self starters thrive here.”
By design, Fochtman gives future leaders plenty of room to grow. He recognizes that while employees are an organization’s foundation, great people are the foundation of a successful business. “Your goal is to get enough good people on board so you can focus on going after business opportunities,” he says.
The value he places on relationships with those around him, especially with his employees, makes him an effective leader. “He has a genuine interest in everyone’s lives and this makes him unique,” Medrano says. “He is a natural born leader.”
Fochtman is open, personable and not intimidating – all traits CoCal’s employees respect. If someone has a question or a problem, Fochtman’s door is always open, says Susan Beno, his executive assistant.
When asked about his attention to employees, Fochtman says years ago he realized how the company impacted the lives of not only its workers, but their immediate families as well. Likewise, the majority of CoCal’s employees are Hispanic and come from very family-driven cultures. By providing sustainable jobs CoCal impacts the families of its employees, both locally and in their home countries. In turn, Fochtman feels a deep responsibility to his people to help them provide for their families.
“We have a lot of great people we love, are very fond of and go to war with us everyday,” he says. “These are true friends we will have for the rest of our lives.”
He attributes a lot of CoCal’s success to the core values he has lived by his entire life. The basic tenants to this include working hard, being honest and ethical with customers and treating employees fairly. From there, good things will happen and profits will follow.
INDUSTRY ROLE MODEL. Fochtman views his company as a role model for others in the landscape industry. He has helped build a company that has impacted the lives of its employees, as well as the landscaping industry.
“We have a great passion for our business, industry and people,” Fochtman says. “Our people are the life-blood and the foundation of our company.”
Fochtman’s involvement in local and national events defines him as an industry leader in Medrano’s eyes. Fochtman takes time to attend the Professional Landcare Network’s (PLANET) Career Days every year and has participated in events for both ALCC and the Professional Grounds Management Society (PGMS). He has also spoken at events including the Landscape Contractors Association (LCA) conference and GIE Breakfast of Champions.
Involving himself in industry events has given him the opportunity learn more about the industry and build relationships with his peers. “I attend events for educational and networking purposes,” he says
He doesn’t attend these events out of obligation. He wants to converse and become a role model to those just starting out in the business. He is the perfect example of what contractors strive to be – successful, business savvy and relationship oriented. With all this experience under his belt he has been asked a couple of times to speak at these events. His reactions to these requests are always the same. He is flattered and honored to share his stories with others in his community.
“I want others to gain a better understanding of whatever it is I am talking about,” Fochtman says. “I also want to get them on a comfort level where they will call me for some one-on-one time.”
Spending time with his peers allows him to exercise his talent of networking, Beno says. Fochtman has a knack for making connections and nurturing those connections into relationships.
“He knows how to sell the company,” Medrano says. “We don’t let him do a lot of the employee interviews anymore because he dominates the conversation talking about the company and doesn’t learn much about the candidate.”
Industry events have inspired Fochtman to give back to his community. In 2006, CoCal became a Academic Excellence Foundation (AEF) Ambassador after making a donation of $25,000 to the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA, now PLANET) Educational Foundation scholarship fund.
This was a memorable moment for Fochtman, who strongly supports the education of young landscape professionals. He believes the future of the landscape industry lies in the hands of the young professionals coming out of school.
“With all of the labor and immigration reforms going on we may need to become a lot less dependant on the Hispanic workforce,” Fochtman says.
Fochtman also believes recruiting should take place in high schools. It seems the industry is more focused on acquiring student’s right out of college, he says, but what about those kids in high school who have no interest in going to college? “We need to do a better job of letting these 18-year-olds know that there are viable careers in the green industry,” he says.
His mission to help educate young landscape professionals begins within CoCal. In August 2007, he and fellow contractors participating in a peer group called Next Level Network retained recruiting consultant Jennifer Buck to coordinate career days, internships and employee placement for their companies.
As a leader Fochtman stretches his generosity beyond the industry and into his own community in Denver and the state of Colorado. He has recently become a sponsor for Brokers Benefiting Kids, has made donations to charities such as the United Way and participated in a program for homeless kids in the Denver public school system.
Fochtman’s love and enthusiasm for the industry can be seen in everything he does from hiring employees and participating in industry events to speaking with students and helping out in his local community. He is a true leader who uses his experiences and successes to give back to the industry and the people around him. He believes his success comes from the core philosophy he and Medrano built their organization upon: “If we work hard and treat our employees and customers well and with respect, then we will be successful,” Fochtman says. “So if you do those things, good things will happen and profits will follow. We believe that, and that is the driving force behind our success.”