Bob Pedatella remembers the severe drought in 1999 because the intense, dry summer forced a major business change at the company he had started just five years earlier. Plants were not thriving. Customers weren’t investing in landscape installations that would whither in the heat.
Pedatella met a friend through the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association who showed him how to work with pavers. Today, nearly all of the projects completed by Kodiak Landscape Design in Haskell, N.J., involve interlocking concrete pavers or stonework – some of the work quite advanced (the company installs displays for manufacturers). “We built up the business so well that people call us for pavers,” Pedatella says.
In fact, about 25 percent of Kodiak’s business today is serving as a subcontractor to other landscape firms and masonry companies that rely on Kodiak’s paver and stonework expertise. “In this economy, everyone is making changes – everyone is cutting back, and some (firms) can’t afford to have a fulltime paving crew, but they don’t want to turn down work,” he says. “So, they can hire us and it’s cheaper for them to get the pavers done that way.”
Plus, it’s profitable for Kodiak Landscape Design, which has grown its expertise in pavers over the years. The company has a dedicated paver crew and is certified by the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute (ICPI) and the National Concrete Masonry Association.
“Staying on top of the latest techniques and tools is how we are able to stay in business now,” Pedatella says of the niche business that has grown organically from his interest in pavers and focus on becoming an expert.
Honing a niche. Pedatella knew he wanted to be a landscaper when he was six years old. When people asked, “You want to cut lawns?” he replied, no. That was not the case at all. In fact, he adds that he hasn’t cut a lawn in a good 10 years and doesn’t even have a lawn on his home property. Pedatella was interested in trees, planting, landscapes, making the outdoors beautiful.
And so he started his business in high school and continued it as a student while earning a landscape management degree from a local community college. Pedatella incorporated Kodiak Landscape Design in 1995, and today the firm employs 10 workers.
Pedatella had early dreams of growing the business to 100 employees – being a big guy. “Before, I used to be proud of how big we were and how many trucks we had,” he says of times when his employee roster was longer. “Now, I’m proud to be in business.
“Bigger is not always better,” he continues. “I don’t need 100 trucks to make money. And I’d rather have 50 quality accounts than 100 that don’t pay me on time.”
This realization hit Pedatella before the recession, back in 2007 and 2008 when he was denied H2B workers. Accustomed to filling seasonal crews from this labor source, he was forced to turn down work. “We didn’t have all of those employees, so we had to downsize,” he says.
First, Pedatella began streamlining operations. “We had materials trucked to the jobs rather than us bringing them to the job,” he says of making the most of vendor services. That saved him a truck and a worker or two for drop-offs. “And we started focusing on quality work, not just quantity.”
Rather than taking just any patio job, Kodiak prefers to take work that showcases the company’s expertise. Sure, the company does paver driveways and less demanding paver jobs. But Pedatella prefers a challenge. “We are working on one project where we have to make 70 steps coming up from a lake using stones that are 350 pounds each,” he describes. “We have to use a crane just to get the stones into the back yard.”
Pedatella documents these projects step-by-step on the company’s Facebook page, which has more than 2,000 photos of the Kodiak’s work. “I like jobs that are challenging,” he says.
In 2009, Kodiak began working with a landscape designer so it could provide customers with the “full package,” and not just the paver/patio piece. Now, the company provides clients with comprehensive landscape designs that include irrigation, landscape installation, lighting – and, of course, pavers.
“By working with a designer, we can attract clients who are spending more money on bigger projects,” Pedatella says.
Pedatella relies on subcontractors to handle the irrigation and other parts of jobs that aren’t a specialty for his business. Some of the subs he has known for 10 to 15 years, so he has a reliable team of outside help. “I do some work for them, they do some work for me,” he says. “It’s all about having the right people.”
Meanwhile, operating on a smaller scale has helped Pedatella better manage projects. “Before, I had more crews and I couldn’t be on every job,” he says. “Now, I stay on these jobs and make sure that they are done how I want it. That is why we are getting more jobs.”
By working smaller and smarter, Kodiak is more profitable and raking in more revenues than five years ago when the firm was larger, closer to 15 employees. It is operating with one-third less manpower, and this is a good thing, Pedatella says. 2011 was the company’s best year, and while 2012 will fall slightly behind the previous year’s performance, 2013 looks promising if winter holds out, he says.
Beneficial associations. Pedatella says his company wouldn’t be where it is today without the networking and knowledge he has gained through membership in the NJLCA. Pedatella joined as a college student, and has been deeply involved for the last 17 years. He currently serves as president of the organization.
Through the association, he learned how to run a successful paver business, and how to manage a snow operation. Pedatella’s firm was working as a snowplow subcontractor for a larger landscape company – a contact through the NJLCA – for seven years. He learned the ins and outs, and how to sell the service. “After that, we started doing our own snow,” he says.
Pedatella has served the association in various capacities, including chairing the state Certified Landscape Technician (CLT) exam at Rutgers University. Meanwhile, he has invested the time and resources in getting certified by key industry associations, such as ICPI. Kodiak Landscape Design is also a certified installer for various manufacturers, including Unilock and EP Henry.
“You have to stay up-to-date on the new products,” he says, adding that many companies that do pavers aren’t profitable because of a lack of technique and understanding of this specialty. That’s why Pedatella says about 35 percent Kodiak’s jobs involve fixing improperly installed paver surfaces.
Meanwhile, the certifications are a selling tool for Kodiak. “We can explain to homeowners that we are the professionals, and our employees are professionals,” he says.
“The (economy) is changing, and you want to do better, you want to make more money, you want a better name for yourself, but to do all of this you have to keep learning,” Pedatella says. “By being certified and involved in these organizations, we are constantly talking to people to find out the latest techniques and tools, and that’s what gives us an edge.”
Pedatella admits that staying in business these days is not easy. “I think I work harder now than I did before,” he says. But he is running a more profitable, successful business by focusing on this niche and bringing in qualified subs to finish complete jobs for clients.
He hopes this is a tradition his 4- and 7-year old sons will be interested in carrying on. “They’re growing up in the company,” Pedatella says. “And I’m proud of my job. I like showing them, and others, our work.”