John Denison built a legacy in the landscaping industry. He started Denison Landscaping as a simple mowing business out of a truck in 1973 and that gradually evolved into one of the largest landscaping and nursery businesses in the horticulture industry. The company ranked 23rd on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 list this spring, achieving more than $60 million in revenue with nearly 600 employees.
In May, news of Denison’s death came as a surprise to many – including his own family. He was 61 years old. His son, Josh, says his father had some health problems in 2016 but that he had recovered from those problems. “In the grand scheme of things, (his death) was a surprise,” he says.
John impacted many people in his lifetime. The evidence for that was clear at his funeral, as more than 2,000 people attended. Josh estimates the funeral procession stretched 6.5 miles long.
“They even shut down I-495,” he says. “It was a grand celebration of life for someone who deserved it.”
Many in the industry knew John as a man who could drive hard bargains and build a successful business.
“He was a really shrewd business person,” says John Clark, secretary treasurer and owner of Manor View Farm in Monkton, Maryland. “John knew how to make money, even at low prices.”
Yet not everyone in the landscaping industry knew that John had another side to him.
“He had a dichotomy,” Clark adds. “He was a hard-driving business person, yet also a soft-hearted guy who would do anything for anybody. The side of John that people in our industry didn’t know was what a big heart he had.”
John always knew he wanted to work outdoors. Duane Denison, his older brother and president at Denison Landscaping, says John would spend his summers helping his sister and her family work on a farm.
His dream of working outdoors persisted even when he went to college in the 1970s, as he opted to study horticulture at the University of Maryland. From there, he received a degree in applied horticulture and his IA certificate.
While he was still studying at the university, he had already started what is today known as Denison Landscaping. All he had was a truck, a mower and a weed trimmer.
Duane says John started small, asking the owners of local tire shops or gas stations if he could mow their lawns. His initial goal was to make enough money to pay his bills.
The company continued to add more employees and divisions, including a nursery, an irrigation division and a hardscaping division.
“(My mom) told me that my dad always said, ‘When we hit $1 million, I’ll retire,’” Josh says. “Then it was, ‘When we hit $5 million, I’ll retire.’ And then, ‘When we hit $10 million, I’ll retire.’” John never retired, though.
As his company grew, John pushed the bar higher instead of retiring. Duane says that was likely because he loved the business and his employees.
“I asked him several times, ‘John, when you started here, could you have had the vision that it would get this big?’” Duane says. “The answer was no. His basic vision was to supply for his family and to supply for his employees.”
A mentor to many.
John served as a mentor to those within the industry. Kevin McHale, owner of McHale Landscape Design in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, got his start in the industry by working with John back in the early 1980s.
“I met him a month before I graduated college,” McHale says. “I told him I was going to start my own landscape business, but I wanted to work for someone first. After the meeting, he said, ‘I never hired a college graduate before, so maybe you can learn from me and I can learn from you.’”
McHale only worked at Denison Landscaping for about three months, but he maintained a relationship with John until his death. McHale says the two of them made a few trips to nurseries together over the years. One particular nursery trip from the 1990s has always stuck out in McHale’s mind.
“I remember being with him on a nursery trip where he bought 600 3-inch Cal Bradford pear trees for $29,” McHale says. “At the time, the going rate was $100 a tree. When we got back to the car, I said, ‘You are going to see the devil for that deal.’ He laughed and said, ‘No I’m not. Those trees were grown too close together. I just saved that guy a huge bulldozer fee!’
“An hour later, John bought 400 more Bradford pear trees from another nursery and paid $150 each. He didn’t attempt to negotiate. When we got back in the car, I asked, ‘What’s up? You didn’t even try to get a discount.’ He looked at me and said, ‘That guy’s wife has cancer.’ That was John: intuitive, relentless and compassionate.”
Since John’s death in May, operations at Denison Landscaping remain busy and profitable. Duane even estimates 2017 will be a more profitable year than 2016. But for family and friends who were close to him at the company, things at work seem strange without him there.
“There’s a different feel to coming to work every day,” Josh says. “I’m not sure if that will ever change back to normal.”
Since John’s death, Donna Denison, John’s wife, became the CEO and sole owner of the company and the land they owned. Although she hadn’t been involved in the company on a day-to-day basis before John died, Duane says she has been phenomenal with the transition.
“I was absolutely amazed at how much Donna knew about the company,” he says. “John was aware she was a 50 percent owner in the business and that she needed to know what was going on. For Donna to step in has been an easy and rewarding transition.”
The company also promoted Elbert Monroe, a 33-year veteran at the company, to serve as its COO. In addition, John’s son Josh remained the company’s vice president of labor and human resources; his son James Denison remained vice president of the residential division; and his daughter Katelyn Denison remained corporate counsel for the company.
At the end of this year, Duane says the company plans to evaluate each of its divisions to decide where to invest most of its time.
“The family is committed to continuing John’s legacy,” he adds. “We’ll never replace (John), but we’ll continue to keep the name prominent in the industry.”