When he was 13 years old, Dan Kindergan caught the entrepreneurial bug. He rode his bike around his hometown of Bergenfield, N.J., a mower trailing behind him, and serviced locals’ lawns. He was too young to drive, so he often had a high-school friend help out, and his business steadily grew. At 18, he incorporated the business and has worked on growing the firm for the last 25 years. “I used to cut school to mow lawns,” he says.
Today, Kindergan Landscaping is a significant player in the competitive New Jersey market, and the firm has continued to expand in spite of tough economic times. During the recession, Kindergan added staff each year, growing his team to 34 members. He purchased equipment – even real estate, recently shifting the headquarters office in Bergenfield to a 2,500 square-foot office space to accommodate growth. “It has been a tough battle, but the good guys will always survive, and I consider myself one of the good companies because we have never changed our focus,” says Kindergan, relating the importance of client contact, nurturing relationships and hiring the best people.
With Kindergan, there are no compromises on quality and service – and he won’t risk margins on a job just to keep on working. “We stick to our guns, and we won’t undersell ourselves,” he says. Sure, it’s tempting. “One side of your brain is saying, ‘Go get the next job,’ and the other side of your brain is saying, ‘If you take that job, we still have risk and if something doesn’t go right we are working for nothing.’”
Kindergan has always chosen the higher road. “I’m proud that during these really rough times, we have maintained an expansion mindset and survived through all of this,” he says, adding that he’s watched smaller competitors who used to bid for the same work go out of business.
But staying on the map and winning jobs in cutthroat New Jersey has required investing resources into the business. Kindergan has answered the call, in part, by opening a design center in Wyckoff, about 20 miles from Bergenfield and where Kindergan has lived for the last 13 years.
So far, the design center is building brand awareness and will eventually lead to closing more referrals in this area of town, Kindergan says. “I live in the town, I’m active in the town, I volunteer a lot – we really needed to have a larger presence,” he says.
Stage presence. The lot is 50 by 120 feet in size – no larger than the yard of an average home in the area. But every bit of that space has been transformed into a live show for Kindergan Landscaping. It contains displays as simple as perennial gardens and pergolas, and as complex as intricate brick and paver work and a decked-out outdoor kitchen and dining area. Low-voltage landscape lighting shoots high up into the trees, and at night the property is aglow.
In the middle of the property is a building the size of a pool house, and that’s the new design headquarters for Kindergan Landscaping. “It’s a small space, but it has a lot of punch,” Kindergan says. The company restored what was essentially an oversized shed into a little boutique retreat. This is where the firm holds client meetings.
“We designed it to make people feel as if they were actually in a back yard,” Kindergan says. “The office doesn’t overpower what we are trying to show off outside, which is our work.”
The company completed final touches on the outdoor space several months ago, and already the design center is grabbing attention. “We are hearing, ‘Oh, you’re the guy with the little design studio over there,’” Kindergan says. “They’ll say, ‘You’re there next to Wyckoff Florist (which has been there for 30 years) and we walked around there after going to Dairy Queen.’
“People just want to know you are for real and not Johnny-bought-a-truck and you’re in business one week and the next you’re doing something else,” Kindergan says of the value his company will gain from the design center’s visibility.
And the reality is, people in the area have certainly heard of Kindergan Landscaping because of the owner’s roots and the company’s reputation. Kindergan was getting referrals in the area, but the competition had a stronger appearance. “We needed to have more of a home base in this area because we have less of the market share here and the larger competitors we are up against had put in design or display centers,” Kindergan says. “We needed to put Kindergan Landscaping on the map here.”
Wyckoff and surrounding towns are home to an affluent client base suitable for Kindergan’s high-end residential design/build work. (This service encompasses about 60 percent of the business, while maintenance is 40 percent.) “In a semi-recession market and especially during an election year when consume confidence is probably not where it should be, it helps for us to grow in an area where people are a little more well off,” he says.
And besides, the Wyckoff expansion was a natural way to grow because of Kindergan’s allegiance to his town. With the headquarters still based in nearby Bergenfield, the company is grabbing a larger radius of business now. “We are in the process of hiring more employees, buying more equipment and building additional services,” Kindergan reports.
Entrepreneurial people. Steady growth has been possible because of a strong team that Kindergan continues to hone. Interestingly more than half of the staff once owned a business. For some owners, bringing on personnel with entrepreneurial stripes could cause friction. But Kindergan sees great benefit in hiring enterprising folks.
“I allow people to bring their expertise to the table,” Kindergan says.
“Rather than saying, ‘Here is your rule book,’ we give people guidelines and we let them be themselves a little bit. I have found in some cases you still need to train them, but in some cases you find people who have a lot of good qualities that they develop on their own, so I let them blossom and give them a chance to really show their expertise.”
For example, in the field, a worker (and former owner) might have better ideas about how to improve efficiency. Kindergan is all ears. “You are only as good as your people,” he says. “I can be the greatest landscape designer and salesman in the world, but if I don’t have good people to support what we’re doing, we won’t survive.”
Kindergan says he is often approached by people from the industry who are interested in what he’s doing and eventually apply for a job. “Word of mouth travels,” he says. “People find out you are a guy who pays his bills, pays his people…”
Kindergan’s reputation is what drew in the lead designer. “I was approached by a designer who worked for a competitor, and after several interviews, we got together and now we have our design department,” he says.
And Kindergan is comfortable with hiring from outside the industry. In fact, he finds great benefit in this, too. He recently brought on an office assistant who worked in the food and high-end catering business. She had a lot of experience creating advertising collateral, so he turned her loose to create some marketing materials for the company’s fall services.
“I say to you, within about four total hours, she had a one-page, full-color sheet that went out in every one of the maintenance invoices at the end of September,” Kindergan relates. “The phone is ringing with people calling about firewood and seeding. And she did this, honestly, as if she just finished a bagel and had a cup of coffee.”
Partly because of the sense of ownership and some autonomy employees enjoy, attrition is low. Kindergan says the average employee has a 10- to 12-year tenure at the firm. And he’s in the trenches right along with them. “Whatever task I’m asking them to perform, they know that if they need a hand, even though I’m an owner and I might have a clean shirt on, I’ll get in there and get the job done when its’ necessary,” he says. “That’s one reason I believe we’ve been able to find a sweet spot of good people.”
Meanwhile, Kindergan says recruiting is an evolving process, as is the expansion of the firm with its new design center and larger headquarters. Kindergan is proud of how the company is positioned for future growth. “I’m excited about today and that we have been able to accomplish all of this, but I’m even more excited about tomorrow and the direction the company is going.”