There’s a look – a feel, a mood, something you can’t quite pin down when an outdoor space just does it for you. In a way, it’s like trying to describe how chocolate tastes. You know you love it, and when you want chocolate nothing else will do. But it’s tough to describe the flavor or sense of ahhh after the first bite. You’ll bypass every other selection on the dessert menu until you find that decadent, dark fix.
A similar emotion is what prompts a client to call to Reed Dillon & Associates in Lawrence, Kan. “People hire us because of the aesthetic we bring to the project, so they are not shopping it,” says Reed Dillon, who founded the business in 1996 after running a different Houston-based firm, Ruckle/Dillon, for 13 years.
The seasoned landscape architect is called on for unique high-end projects in the greater Kansas City area, and throughout the country. (One of his special projects was for a Mission Hills home on the Smithsonian Archive of Significant American Gardens.) “We are dealing with sophisticated clients who have generous budgets,” Dillon says. “That allows us to come up with some interesting concepts, which is fun for me.”
Dillon finds ways to integrate architectural antiques into projects, whether reclaimed gates, or the lid to an industrial autocatalyst used for curing concrete block – an 8-foot, 3,000-pound cast-iron piece that serves as a fountain element in the pool at Dillon’s own home.
His clients want to have fun with their projects. After all, the investment is one that demands an experience – customers are looking for more than a project that begins and ends. But Dillon says the fun ended for many of his target clientele in 2008. The phone just stopped ringing, and the firm’s volume dropped by 60 percent that year. By sticking with his vision and continuing to work his referral network, Dillon says business is back up to where it was before.
Lawn & Landscape spoke with Dillon about serving the highest end in good times and bad, and how sticking to your niche delivers rewards.
Committed to his niche. “The world that exists for people who are doing entry-level (design-build) work is a brutal one,” says Dillon, referring to bid wars and price-shopping residents who want a fast patio on the cheap. “It’s totally dependent on cost, and that’s not an option for us.”
Dillon’s firm has a higher overhead than some other firms, he says. And his bread-and-butter client is more like an artisan baguette with huile d’olive. Think: estate gardens and notable architecture-based projects. Nevertheless, when the economy hit rock bottom in 2008 and Dillon did less than half of the projected volume, he explored the commercial realm because he knew he couldn’t compete on price sensitive residential projects.
When Dillon began bidding on some commercial projects – particularly ones where contracts were sold for less than the wholesale cost of plant material required – he realized that he better stick to his niche. “We found out that commercial was not the way to go for us,” he says. “So, I kept working the high-end market and developing relationships with architects and builders. When you’re in that market, people need to have a comfort level with you, and its’ all referral-based.”
Dillon says clients don’t question the cost because they’re buying quality. “If you can give them the look they really want, they are willing to pay what it takes to get that,” Dillon says.
Though tempting to compromise his vision to fill the schedule, Dillon did not stray from his target high-end clientele even when times were tough. Instead, he took a good, hard look at operations and determined that the firm could run much leaner. “I had to make some painful decisions,” he says. “I had to lay off the two other designers and pare down staff, and do what we could do to keep overhead down.”
What Dillon learned during this exercise is that he can run a sophisticated business on a fine, leather shoestring. His business runs smoother today because of it. And, Dillon admits, the business side of running a landscape design firm was not necessarily his stronger suit. In his previous partnership, his associate managed the business and he headed up creative. When Dillon moved his family and business to the Kansas City area after purchasing property there, he struck out on his own and was forced to wear all hats.
So Dillon has learned to surround himself with talented people, and focus on referrals by building a strong network within the architecture community. “Because most architects really are focused primarily on the house, they don’t have the luxury or the time to devote t the outside,” Dillon says. “We develop a level of trust where they know what I’m going to design and install will complement what they have done (for the home).”
Cultivating a look. Reed Dillon & Associates has been called in to design luxury landscapes to for significant architectural projects. Dillon describes one property, a contemporary home in Greenwich, Conn., that exercised his landscape design skills. “Everything about the home was very clean, very structural, so we created a series of retaining walls and terraces – some walls started at 2 feet and ended up at 12 feet because of the sloped lot,” he says.
Dillon’s personal style – the aesthetic that draws high-end clients to his work – is both structured and lush. “I like to do a clean look with lots of evergreens for structure, but lots of exuberant perennials and blooming shrubs behind that,” he says.
The firm designs complex hardscapes and intricate gardens where Dillon plays with texture: from foliage to flagstone. His garden at home is a living example of his personal vision. It includes Adirondack-style pergola and an artificial stream that separates the landscape gardens from an expansive wildflower space. More than 15,000 daffodils planted in this area bloom in a sea of yellow in spring. Dillon and his wife travel often, visiting gardens wherever they go to collect ideas.
Success in this business takes an eye. That’s the “something” special clients are after. And Dillon is optimistic that his high-end niche is in the market for a fresh look this year. “I’m cautiously optimistic,” he says, adding that as of February, the firm already had sold half of the total volume it did in 2012. That’s good news. “I think there is a lot of pent-up demand. It seems like the money is loosening up.”