Leading the way

Interest in sustainability is spreading from Bob Grover's world of commercial landscape maintenance to your market.

October 1, 2011
Matt LaWell
Industry News

At the end of each year, Bob Grover surveys his customers. He asks them if they are happy with the services he and his employees at Pacific Landscape Management have provided during the course of the last 12 months, asks them what they might like to see improved, what they might like to see change and what they want.

All simple questions, yes, and all important questions.

But perhaps no question on any recent survey was more important than the one Grover asked about whether his customers would be interested in sustainable services. Grover had no idea what to expect. He works and lives in Oregon, a destination for green life for as long as green has described more than just grass and money. But even then, would anybody really want to make that sort of commitment?

Almost half his customers said yes.

That sparked Grover to make some big changes.

Gone now are some of the chemicals he used for years and years. So are the old fertilizer blends, replaced by ones that check in around half organic and half synthetic. A fleet of new equipment in his shop spits out 80 percent lower emissions than anything used previously and it saves the company 30 percent on fuel usage. All his managers drive Toyota Priuses, a move that has more than doubled fuel economy over their old trucks. Grover and his employees also installed ecological turf that cuts down on water consumption, a bioswale out front designed to remove pollution from surface runoff water and, up on the roof, a quilt of solar panels cuts his energy bills by 20 percent.

“Our landscape,” he says, “is kind of an experimental ground.”

The grounds and the equipment and the personal philosophy were not always like this, of course. Grover has worked in the landscape industry for more than a quarter of a century and, back then in the 1980s, even up in Oregon, the environment was not quite the conversation topic it is now.

But a few years back, Grover watched An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 documentary about former Vice President Al Gore and his crusade to educate the masses about global warming. It hit a nerve. Grover started to think about his own environmental contributions – both positive and negative – and decided to lay the groundwork for change.

Here’s how he took the lead on sustsainable practices and why what’s happening in Oregon is important for companies across the country.

“Oregon is kind of a green hub,” Grover says, his voice quiet, his words measured. He is precise and careful even in the course of conversation. “There has been a green building craze, and this has historically been an environmentally conscious community, but we hadn’t seen that in the commercial landscape world.”

But after that hour and a half in front of the screen watching and digesting and considering the documentary that has split so many people and started so many debates, Grover started to act. So did some of his customers. “We started having customers asking us about our position, about what we were doing to help them become more sustainable,” he says. “We determined we better have a plan and a policy.”

Grover spent much of 2007 in conversation with his business partner, PLM Vice President Elias Godinez, his staff and others around the industry to figure out just what to do. Founded in 2001, PLM is located in Hillsboro, about 20 miles west of Portland, and does about $6.5 million worth of work on about 350 properties every year with 100 employees on board. The decisions Grover and his staff made would likely steer the course of the business and could make or break them in the eyes of some customers. They needed to proceed with caution.

After almost a year of preparation, Grover and PLM rolled out the first of the modifications to their program, which they called Sustainable Landscape Solutions. The program included a lower volume application of non-traditional chemicals, and the more organic fertilizer – provided to all customers as the new standard – and featured the new fleet of lower-emission, small-engine equipment. But that was just the start. Grover recommended some customers consider lawn alternatives like new turf that cut down on maintenance and actually fertilized the soil, new water irrigation systems, even bioswales and rain gardens. “We need to process our rainwater and we need to have a clean storm system, but we can do all that and still have everything be attractive,” Grover says. “We’re looking at landscapes now as workhorses, as opposed to just being pieces of beauty.”

The kicker to all this environmental change – all the new products, all the retrofits that will be needed across so many old landscapes, all the hours and dollars and change – is that it is actually less expensive, according to the research Grover, Godinez and the rest of the PLM team churned out. Yes, there are the initial costs, but get past those, and monthly bills and expenses decrease, which can allow for bigger profits and higher profit margins, more money in the coffers and more upgrades down the road. Is it instantaneous? Of course not, but when Grover upgraded his own building, most of the new installations provided a full return on their investment within a year.

“The harder we looked, the more we found a number of sustainable practices that actually had the opportunity to reduce our operating costs and reduce the costs of maintaining commercial properties,” Grover says. “As we got to that point, it became really exciting, because not only were our customers asking for it, but we had a way to take it to them and say, ‘We can help you do this greener and more sustainably – and I think we can save you some money.’”

Click here for the rest of the story.