Moving into maintenance

Moving into maintenance

Thornton Landscape celebrates 50 years in business and shares how the firm has evolved to meet market demands.

September 22, 2011
Kristen Hampshire
Industry News

When Rick Doesburg was taking notes during a GIE+EXPO seminar about selling one’s business, the 30-year veteran of Thornton Landscape in Cincinnati never figured he’d be on the buy side. But in the seat next to him, owner Gary Thornton was taking careful notes.

Rick, who had been with the company since 1969, ended up purchasing the design/build division of Thornton’s business in 1999. The maintenance portion was purchased by another outfit, and Doesburg signed a non-compete and dedicated the next eight years to growing a profitable firm that focused mostly on residential development.

Now, that type of construction business is virtually gone.

“We have redefined what we do today and who we are because of how things have changed,” he says, noting how the $3.5 million operation in the early 2000s was about two-thirds residential development – new housing, gated communities, etc. “That almost doesn’t exist, at least right at the moment, so we had to refine our business – and we actually started to think about that in 2007.”

By then, Rick’s non-compete had expired, and his son Andy Doesburg, who entered the business with Rick in 1999, was interested in diving into maintenance. “We had been talking about it for a long time but just couldn’t do it,” Rick says.

Now on the company’s 50th anniversary, Thornton Landscape’s maintenance division accounts for half of the company’s $2 million revenue and its landscape design/build division is going strong. The company continues a tradition of winning national awards, and the staff of 25 – several of whom have worked for Thornton Landscape since day one – show their loyalty by delivering the best quality and customer service possible (their competitive advantage in maintenance, according to Rick).

While growing a new business within a longtime firm, the Doesburgs focus on ways to give back to the industry and learn from peers to keep the business growing strong.

The transition

People make a business. That’s why in 2007 the Doesburgs purchased a small maintenance firm and brought on its energetic leader. “He gave us the foundation of what we have today,” Rick says. “We weren’t buying the (business) portfolio as much as his expertise.”

Timing couldn’t have been better for starting a maintenance division, though Rick doesn’t take credit for that. “We didn’t know in 2007 what was going to happen in 2008, 2009 and 2010,” he says. “We like to think we (started this division) because we saw the economic downturn coming, but that would be a lie. We made the right decision at the right time.”

Transitioning the design/build firm into a full-service company that offers maintenance went smoothly because of the company’s processes, which had been passed down from the Thornton family – and because of the dedicated staff members, who take ownership in the business. The company added one full-time manager, and over time, 10 crewmembers were hired.

But running a maintenance business wasn’t all that easy. It’s quite a different animal to tame than operating a design/build firm, the Doesburgs learned. “It’s down and dirty competition in commercial maintenance,” Rick says bluntly. “A lot of times, it’s about price.”

Thornton Landscape leverages its ability to deliver a customer experience to win new maintenance contracts. Crews do more than get in, get out. “We have been successful by doing a cut above what others might be doing, using our expertise in design as needed and treating customers like we want to be treated ourselves,” Rick says.

The maintenance division is relatively humble in size: three crews in a small market, Rick says. But those crews produce $1 million in revenue for Thornton Landscape, and the landscape design crews stay busier during slower winter times because of extra maintenance jobs like spring cleanup and mulching.

Maintenance provides Thornton Landscape with a service cushion for times when design/build business is lean. Though today, the company’s design work is focused on high-end residential projects, “the fun stuff” that Rick enjoys.

Meanwhile, the company continues to focus on fine-tuning maintenance processes and benchmarking to keep the division profitable. Andy worked with industry veteran, Rod Bailey, a PLANET Trailblazer who works with company owners to improve best practices, on tracking maintenance data. (Rick serves as a Trailblazer, too, but his focus is on marketing, sales and design/build.)

“We had the basics down of watching our hours, but Rob Bailey helped us learn what is acceptable – is it OK to be 2 percent off? If we are 5 percent off, should I start freaking out?” Andy says. “He helped us understand where we need to be, and at what point we are in trouble.”   

With that said, the maintenance business is going strong. “We are positioned for some aggressive growing,” Andy says, adding that a chunk of maintenance business is multi-year contracts. “We do not have to create the wheel there, except for constantly making sure that our clients are happy.”
People matters

There’s no doubt that employees are happy at Thornton Landscape, and their tenure is evidence. Two employees recently retired after serving the company for 45 and 42 years. Over the years, the company has had 60 employees. More than 20 have been with the company for more than 10 years. And 12 staff members have celebrated at least 20 birthdays with the company.

In fact, Andy admits that he’s “young,” with 12 years in the business, compared to many of the staff who have worked there since the beginning.

That’s some serious retention for the green industry. What’s the secret?

“I’ve often thought, ‘What is the golden nugget to keeping here for 30 to 40 years when they don’t own the business?’” Rick muses. “But I can’t tell you. I think it’s just that we treat people fairly.”

Specifically, the Doesburgs, and the Thorntons before them, treat employees like family. “If someone needs personal time, we give them the personal time,” Rick says. “At the same time, everyone recognizes we have a job to do and that is what our customers expect and want. The bottom line is, there are a lot of people here who take pride in what they do, and what we do as a company.”

Rick isn’t sure if you can train this sort of pride. But you can certainly return the loyalty with favors. Little things are big. Like lending an employee a machine to use on his or her own property. Or showing staff educational opportunities so they can learn and grow.

In turn, employees pass on the word when they’re happy. “If we need help, we put a sign up and people walk in the door,” Rick says of recruiting. The company has never used H-2B.

The benefit of cultivating a team that sticks with you through change is continuity – no matter what, clients see the same, experienced faces on their properties. But the tough part is finding opportunities for employees to grow within the business, Rick admits. “There are a good number of crew members that want to move up,” he says. “And obviously, we have to get some growth in this economy to make that happen, and it’s not easy.”

At the same time, Rick knows it is important to keep the team fresh, and that means at some point “having a youth movement in here.” That will come with growth, perhaps. And the company is setting optimistic goals for coming years. “The past two years have frankly allowed us to slow down and concentrate on the business to the point where we can now focus on growing the business,” Andy says. “I am certainly excited to see what the future brings.”


This story is one of three that appeared in Lawn & Landscape’s Business Builder e-newsletter. To continue reading about Thornton Landscape:

Maintenance pointers: Andy Doesburg offers three tips for adding the service.

Giving back to the green industry: How to get involved and reap the benefits of associations.