LEADERSHIP 2006: Frank Mariani

Features - Business Management

From his own garden to his clients' estate landscapes, Frank Mariani has a fervor for outdoor spaces that cannot be ignored.

November 7, 2006
Nicole Wisniewski

The perfect garden. To some it shouts with showy blooms and bellowing brights, while others prefer tiny whispers coming from blushing blossoms that twinkle and sway in the sun and wind. To some it means order – well-manicured rows that bring structure and cure chaos, while others stretch more comfortably amidst untamed tendrils. To some it’s sensible, practical and productive, feeding needs. To others, one must not touch, clip or pick plants, only reserve seats to witness their colorful, changing cabaret. 

So, which is right? All of them… and none of them, according to Frank Mariani, president, Mariani Landscape, Lake Bluff, Ill. The perfect garden, in his opinion, defies the seasons. It may lean one way or another but can never be defined by a single concept. 


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For instance, one client recently requested a white garden – simplistic, stylish, sedate. Something calm, something elegant – void of obnoxious carroty hues and cherry tints. White enough so as the sun sets on a summer evening and visual clarity fades, one would still be able to see masses of blooms as fluffy clouds or hills dusted with freshly fallen snow.
The idea was clear, and though Mariani appreciated the client’s definitive vision, he needed to crystallize the concept. From a garden library in his office, Mariani pulled out a book highlighting Gertrude Jekyll’s extensive designs. Jekyll is renowned for her more than 400 landscape creations in the United Kingdom, Europe and America. “I opened the book to a photo of Jekyll’s famous white garden and the client said, ‘Yeah, that’s a spectacular white garden,’” Mariani says. “Then I closed the book and asked her, ‘Did you notice all of the colors of the flowers?’”
In the picture, white shown dominant, but a closer look revealed sage, scarlet and sapphire. Strictly limiting the garden to flowers that bloom only white is too narrow a concept, but including other subdued hues like blush, robin’s egg, muted melon or soft jade keeps a white garden from being monotonous and produces contrast, bringing the space to life. “If it’s not purely white, you open up the palette you can use tenfold,” Mariani says.
Pleasing the client isn’t about being an order taker who proposes everything they ask for, Mariani insists. “The best designer or architect listens to the client’s needs,” he says. “But as professionals who are touching, feeling and designing the landscape on a daily basis, shouldn’t we also have ideas the client hasn’t thought of? If we simply take down exactly what the client asks for, are we really doing our jobs? I don’t think so. We need to listen and then challenge them with a multitude of ideas that meet the criteria, and exceed what they have planned.”

Frank Mariani

Taking clients’ ideas and showing them how they can translate in the garden is one of Mariani’s passions. A landscape company’s worst nightmare is growing stale, using the same proven design concept time after time and never experimenting out of fear. Keeping it fresh is what keeps it challenging. And it’s what’s taken Mariani Landscape from a $90,000, nine-employee, three-truck establishment in 1973 to the 380-employee, $30-million company it is today. “Every landscape needs to be unique,” Mariani says. “I think this is an industry where it’s easy to get burned out, but I don’t ride that horse. I am relentless in my belief of delivering unique landscapes and pushing the envelope every single day.”
PLANTING THE SEED. Since he was in first grade, Mariani helped at his grandfather’s nursery – John Fiore & Sons in Westlake Forest, Ill. “The school bus stopped at the garden center, so I would get off of the bus and work with my grandmother there.”
The Fiores, Mariani’s mother’s family, have been in the nursery business since the late 1800s. Mariani’s father, Vito Mariani Sr., worked there as well before spotting a niche in high-end residential landscape maintenance in 1958 and starting Mariani Landscape to care for homeowner properties and estates in the Lake Forest and Highland Park areas of Chicago. “The larger estates had full-time gardeners,” Mariani says. “My dad saw an opportunity to care for properties where the clients didn’t want to hire full-timers who lived and worked there everyday.”
As a high schooler, Mariani enjoyed football, hunting and riding motorcycles. “I was a wild child in high school – very competitive,” he says. He admits he knew how to work hard but wasn’t thinking at all about running a business at age 17. That was the year – 1973 – his father died from leukemia at the age of 45, leaving him to provide for his mother and younger siblings (five brothers and one sister). “I was the oldest son – it was a matter of survival,” he says. “We had to eat and live. I didn’t think about anything but making it work. I knew I had to do whatever it took. It was time to forget about high school and step up to the plate. 



    Company: Mariani Landscape Location: Lake Bluff, Ill.

    Career Highlights:

  • Became president of Mariani Landscape in 1973
  • Became a partner in Hampshire Farms in 1998, and a majority owner in 2005
  • Purchased property in Garden Prairie, Ill. in 2002 to establish a 120-acre container/propagation facility
  • Established the Mariani Commercial Landscape Co. in 2002 to take on public projects, such as state government-funded work in the commercial arena
  • Past president of the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association and the association’s Man of the Year in 1994
  • President and board member of the Mid-American Horticultural Trade Show for more than 10 years
  • Member of the Chicago Chapter of Young Presidents Organization and is currently a member of the World Presidents Organization
  • Mariani Landscape has been recognized by the Professional Landcare Network, the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association with numerous awards for the design, installation and maintenance of their landscape projects
  • Past president of the Children’s Brittle Bone Foundation and current member of the Board of Directors

“Situations like this can really shape and form your life,” Mariani continues, sharing that his father spent his last year of life teaching him about the business. “We knew dad had the disease. It was pretty evident early that year that he wasn’t going to make it. In early spring, the doctors told him it was only going to be a matter of months, but he held on the entire year. He died two days after the company closed down for the year. A priest who was a friend of the family told me that he stuck around all summer to make sure I would be OK.”
Yet each winter during those first 10 years as the business shut down for the season, Mariani says he thought it would be his last. “I thought our customers would drop me over the winter and I’d be penniless,” he says. “That drove me like you can’t believe. I never got comfortable thinking I’d made it. I always thought the next winter would be my last and that I had to fight to make it. My wife, Sherri, tells me I still act that way today.”
Though Mariani is a big fan of formal education, in his own experience he had to “learn by the seat of my pants,” he says. “At the end of the day, you have to get up and go to work and have a can-do attitude – that’s the key to success. This business is not rocket science. It’s putting trees in straight, selecting the right plant material and proper pruning. You also have to be part psychiatrist to be able to manage your people and your clients.”
Family members – including grandparents, uncles and cousins who were also in the business – were supportive of Mariani’s venture to learn the business quickly. “They were the roots of the industry as I knew it,” he says. “They showed me that without a good work ethic, honesty and commitment to doing my best, I was just spinning my wheels.”
After 10 years of focusing on maintenance, Mariani added design/build to the company. There were many models of success in the area, which was well-populated with landscape firms. Mariani looked to them for guidance. “I didn’t want to reinvent the wheel – I looked at what they did well and emulated them,” he says. “I was amazed at these people I admired and how they would share everything and anything with you. I got to hear their war stories. I benchmark our company against them all of the time.”
Through his membership with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America – now the Professional Landcare Network – the American Society of Landscape Architects and the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association, Mariani gathered a wealth of knowledge from his peers. He’s not only grateful for all of that wisdom, but insists on giving back so younger companies can benefit. For the past four years, Mariani has been a member of PLANET’s Trailblazers, an in-depth, networking and mentoring program for both emerging and established companies to gain insight on how to develop and grow their businesses.
When it comes to landscape design, “we don’t do design to feed our construction division – we do design because we want to do fabulous design,” Mariani says, adding that a good design, in his opinion, blends in with the existing environment, is cohesive with the home architecture and lay of the land and meets the client’s expectations – maybe even some expectations they didn’t realize they had. “Every landscape needs to be unique. We really push to be cutting edge – not trendy but cutting edge. We have 14 landscape architects on staff and we work in teams to challenge each other.
“What makes good design is listening, keeping your eyes open and challenging every aspect of the project,” he continues. “It’s about being creative and not just settling for something easy. We’ll go through a whole design process and scrap it and start over at the last minute even if our client is happy because we feel we can do something better.”


    Q. What does the term “giving back” mean to you?

    A. “Giving back is part of our company’s mission statement. We have an extensive budget for giving back to charities and community events. There are a million ways to give back – sure, you can write a check, but I think it’s important to participate.”

    Q. Describe a situation where you feel you gave back to the industry or your community due to a cause or effort you believed in and how this impacted you in your career.

    A. “I am the past president of the Children’s Brittle Bone Foundation, a charity that over the past 12 years has raised more than $10 million to fund extensive research with the goal of finding a cure for Osteogenesis Imperfecta. I started the foundation with a friend of mine, whose daughter had brittle bone disease. We’ve granted funds for research of the disease and identified the gene that causes the problem. We’ve made incredible progress.”

    Q. Who is one person you admire most for giving back and why?

    A. “I admire the team at Mariani Landscape. Our mission statement highlights community service as one key driver of our company. And it wasn’t written by me – it was written by our entire team. Our team decided they wanted giving back to the community to be part of our mission and I think that is a powerful thing.”

    Q. What is one thing you do to teach your employees the value of giving back?

    A. “I encourage them to participate and support them when they do. We share our stories of giving back with each other and that regular communication inspires others to get involved as well.”

    Q. In your opinion, what are the top three things a lawn care operator or landscape contractor can do today to establish a trend of giving back and experience the benefits?

    A. “1. Identify your passions and choose a cause you are passionate about. 2. If your passion is landscaping, remember that there are organizations that need landscape work done or could use the money from a showcase of home gardens tour or something similar to help a good cause. 3. Remember there is a limit to what you can do. If you feel a responsibility to one group or cause, follow that. For instance, I feel a responsibility to my clients – the people who are paying me – so I feel we should participate in their charities and causes. They pay me and give me profit so why shouldn’t I make a contribution to them and their interests?”

When it comes to seeking out new jobs and growing his business, Mariani has been accused of wanting every job. To that, he replies, “Yeah, I do. But I would modify that and say I want every project where I know we could add value and that is challenging. I’m going to make sure we blow the socks off of people with the jobs we pick. I can’t tell you every project we do is something I want to show my peers. I think we’ll be the best when I feel that way about every project. I don’t think we’re there yet, but I believe we can get there.”
The competitors Mariani emulates are also the ones who help him strive for this goal because he believes they help elevate industry professionalism. His other drivers are his employees and his children, Frank V., 27, and Alexandra Lynn, 23, who also work in the business – Frank V. is a design/build project manager and Alexandra Lynn is in marketing and the first point of contact for clients. “As long as my children and my employees enjoy this business as much as I do, I feel I have a responsibility to help them grow,” he says, pointing out that he has 380 employees, not including the nursery workers – all of whom he calls “associates.” “I feel I have a responsibility to each and every one of them. It’s humbling to know that I’m helping these people support their families – it’s a huge responsibility that I don’t take lightly. I depend on them so I want them to be able to depend on me.”
As such, Mariani believes in being just like everybody else. This means he doesn’t have a grand office with mahogany furniture and a rich view of a lake or park. He arrives at work at 7 a.m. most mornings to a 10-by-8, windowless workspace. “I lead by example and I assemble people around me who I feel are better than me,” he says, pointing out that he spends a lot of his day communicating with and entertaining clients and visiting job sites. “I’m a regular guy trying to do a good job. I believe if you don’t promote your people so they can do your job you’re never going to make it and if you are afraid of talent because that means someone might be better than you, you have no chance.”
Since the company focuses on maintaining outdoor spaces, Mariani makes it a point to keep his looking well. “If I pull into my facility and there’s a Coke can or paper on the ground, I’m going to pick it up and throw it away – same if there’s a weed in a bed, a cigarette butt on the sidewalk or a leftover paper bag in the lunchroom,” he says. “Our facility represents us and so it has to look great. If I want our group to keep it up, I can’t be afraid to help as well.”
Of the two key services Mariani Landscape provides – maintenance and design/build, Mariani doesn’t have a favorite – he insists both are vital for each to thrive. “Maintenance has a rhythm, while design/build is a little more spontaneous – it’s fun to do both,” he says. “A good maintenance contractor can take a crumby design and installation and make it better. A poor designer or installer can gain a lot from understanding how a project matures over time. You need both and should be immersed in both to get the best benefits.”
In addition to Mariani Landscape, Mariani runs three nurseries – Mariani Nursery, a 550-plus acre wholesale nursery on the Illinois-Wisconsin border; Hampshire Farms, a 50-acre perennial farm in Hampshire, Ill.; and a 120-acre container/propagation facility in Garden Prairie, Ill.

SPROUTING SUCCESS. When Mariani talks about designing and maintaining landscapes, tending vegetables in his garden or growing unique plants in his nurseries, his vigor is intoxicating. Immediately, the listener wants to run outside with a pruner and tend his shrubs, sit on his patio and think up a new landscape bed or shop for a new plant color or texture to add to his palette.  
As a child growing up in the Mariani household with mom, Joanna, and dad, Vito, Frank didn’t have a choice – after church on Sunday, you worked in the garden before anything else, like it or not. “My parents grew vegetables and boxwoods and Texas yews on a ¾-acre lot,” he says. “As kids, we thought we could make a baseball field out of it. My dad said, ‘Sure, if you can find a way to eat it.’ He tilled the entire thing – we didn’t have a lot of lawn at all – just garden. We had to work on the landscape equipment and cultivate the garden and weed every Sunday – it was torture. Then we’d have a nice Italian meal and, finally, it was time to go out and play.”
Mariani chuckles remembering this story: “Recently, we were out in the garden on Sunday and I started laughing to myself, and my wife asked me what was so funny. I said, ‘If my dad could see that I was out here working in the garden on a Sunday and it was my decision to be out here, he’d turn over in his grave.’”
Today, Mariani and his wife, Sherri, own a 10-acre estate in Lake Forest, Ill., highlighted by a 1929 Tudor-style house surrounded by an ornamental kitchen garden, an English perennial border, a prairie, an orchard, a woodland garden, an elegant allee of crabapples, and a unique collection of native and exotic trees (see photos, above and on page 52). Mariani’s home gardens also serve as laboratories where Mariani Landscape staff can experiment with designs and learn proper maintenance techniques.
One of Mariani’s favorite spots in the garden is the 30-by-80-foot potager, an elegant French style kitchen garden the combines herbs, flowers and vegetables. Some of the plants he has growing in this space are eggplant, Italian plum tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers, Mexican tomatoes, habanero and cerano peppers and tomatillos. Mariani, who not only loves to cook Italian meals, but Mexican, Chinese and Tai food as well, finds the task relaxing. “I get a lot of pleasure out of it,” he says. “I think being around my family and the way they migrated around meals is why I love it so much. We always had a Sunday meal. I still try to do that today with my kids even though they are older. We share food and good discussion.”
Though Mariani admits his dedication to reaching perfection at work may have taken him away from home more than he liked, his wife, Sherri, kept him grounded. “I am very fortunate – we had a pretty traditional family,” he says. “Sherri supported me and made sure we took a family vacation every year and that I didn’t miss games or other school activities.
“I think for my own health and well being, I probably take my job and what we do a little bit too seriously,” he admits, adding that he feels over the years he’s grown to understand his shortcomings fairly well. “I expect perfection of myself, and if a client is unhappy it really knocks me down more so than is probably healthy.”
Sensing the approach of burnout after more than 30 years of running the company, Mariani decided that he needed to hire a president five years ago – Fred Wacker, an old friend of Mariani’s who is a Princeton graduate and ran a manufacturing business outside of the industry. The two were members of the Young Presidents Organization together. Wacker sold his business and shortly after Mariani asked him if he wanted to apply for the position. “The decision, though it was challenging to make, completely reinvigorated me,” Mariani says. “As polished and educated as Fred is and as unpolished and uneducated I am, we make a hell of a team. I believe you need both book smarts and street smarts to be in this business.”
Wacker calls Mariani an inspiration. “He lives the mission of the company and the mission of the green industry – to make the country a more beautiful place,” Wacker says. “He cares about people – not things, dollars or tools. He cares about entry-level laborers and the young intern who’s just starting out. He gives the same amount of attention to the client who doesn’t have a lot to spend and the client who is spending $1 million. He focuses on people and that’s why he’s successful.”
Moving forward with the business and feeling less stressed now that he let go of some of his owner responsibilities, Mariani says he will never cease striving for absolute excellence. He walks outdoors for one hour each day to stay healthy, clear his head and reflect on what the company is doing right and what it can do better. “I really am in search of perfection,” he says. “I understand I’ll never reach it, but I’ll never stop that pursuit – it’s what drives me.”