Leading the way

Features - Cover Story

Yes, Bob Grover is from Portland. Yes, it’s different there. But interest in sustainability is spreading from his world of commercial landscape maintenance to your market.

March 11, 2011
Matt LaWell

Bob Grover and Elias Godinez took a risk when they took Pacific Landscape Management in a more sustainable direction in 2008. Three years later, installing rain gardens, bioswales and efficient irrigation systems makes up 10 percent of their $6.5 million in annual revenue. Mark Gamba Photography.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.

Pacific Landscape Management has taken on green initiatives by installing solar panels and a bioswale at its headquarters. Mark Gamba Photography.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.’”

So many people want to be green, but who can afford it? There are any number of other, cheaper options out there, so why not just go with one of those? Why bother investing so much green in green? That was the question that plenty of customers, new and old, asked Grover in 2008 and 2009, and even last year. And he had the perfect answer for them based on his own research and experience all around his building. If you invest, you can save money.

Not everything is ideal for every customer, of course, but many products make sense for the majority. Take new irrigation systems, for example. Even in Oregon, where rain falls in a perpetual seasonal shower, there are long dry spells that can drain the life out of any landscape. But the right irrigation system – one with a controller that bases its usage on the weather – can cut back historical water usage by as much as 25 or 30 percent. Do the math, and it can pay for itself in a year or two.

“We continue to promote that because we think it makes sense for everybody,” he says. “Eventually, we believe everybody ought to have a weather-based irrigation controller.”

Then there are things like ecological lawns, which allow for a reduction in maintenance and fertilizer costs, but also have a much longer and slower return on investment, normally from two to four years. Rain gardens, which more effectively process water on site, are harder to quantify since they don’t offset any specific costs. But still, the benefits and the advantages are there.

Mark Gamba Photography“Rain gardens and bioswales and greenwalls all really make more sense in landscape development,” Grover says. “We’ve done a few retrofits to put those in, but those are more expensive and less likely to get a good return, so we have a significantly lower percentage of our customers that have adopted those programs. But more are interested, and we believe that’s where more and more of our enhancement dollars will go over the years.”

About 10 percent of PLM’s revenue comes from sustainable services, such as irrigation, bioswales and rain gardens.

“We had the biggest bang regarding retrofit to weather-based irrigation controllers,” Grover says. “And that continues, but we had a big hit on that in 2009, and more so in 2010. As we sell those, less of our customer base needs them. That was our best sustainability enhancement project.”

Are more and more customers opting for more sustainable services? Grover says yes. More than a quarter of his have elected to install new water irrigation systems, some have made the jump to those more expensive rain gardens and bioswales, and more and more are asking about what Grover and PLM can do for them. Grover chalks that up to folks watching the news, reading the papers, thinking critically and coming to independent conclusions – not just because they all live in Oregon.

“I was chair of the Green Industry Conference for three years, and I suggested that we had not addressed sustainability in our conference program each year,” Grover says. “I started promoting that we should, that it was becoming part of our industry and that we needed to help our member companies learn so they could address it with their customer base. In the early years, I heard, ‘Oh, you guys are from Oregon, that’s Oregon stuff.’ But over the years, I kept pushing it and it’s gone from an Oregon thing to ‘Oh, we’re starting to hear that in our market, too.’

“So I don’t think we’re unique. I think we’re just leading the curve a little bit.”

Because Oregon, PLM and Grover are perhaps ahead of the curve, he has had time to consider his position on how to present all this to customers, how to get them to buy in just as much as he did. With years of sustainability behind him, he has developed two thoughts more important than any others: Make sure your effort is real, and don’t think this is all a fad.

“It’s coming, and in this challenging environment, it’s one thing that sets us apart from our competitors,” Grover says. “Not only are we a more sustainable company and offer more sustainable options than others, but we’ve been doing it for a while. So when people ask me a question, I have a specific answer and I have a lot of things in my toolbox.

“A company does itself an incredible disservice if it tries to put on a little bit of lipstick and say it’s green or sustainable. You really have to be committed and, to make it real. You have to have it be pervasive throughout your organization. You can’t just do one thing.

“You have to ask yourself: Do I recycle more? Do I reduce my consumption? Have I evaluated the products that I’m using? Have I made a significant investment in these programs? Have I encouraged my employees that they need to think that way, too? It’s not just me in this organization that thinks this way – it’s our entire organization. We ask those questions about everything we do every day.”

Matt LaWell is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.