Over the past 20 years, Laurie Broccolo has built Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care in Rochester, N.Y., into a $3 million company that offers lawn care and maintenance, design/build, integrated pest management and environmental consulting services.
When she’s not growing her business, Broccolo can often be found leading trade associations, writing for newspapers, blogs and books and teaching at Cornell University – activities that have earned her a reputation as an industry leader.
The thread tying all of these activities together is Broccolo’s passion for bringing nature into people’s lives. Whether she is counseling her clients to add perennials to their lawns or consulting on stormwater-management issues with a local park authority, she’s become known for her concern for and knowledge of the environment.
“Whether we’re connecting someone’s backyard to nature or working on a large development project, we’re all about educating people so they have a better understanding of their habitat and greater respect for nature,” she says.
Of course, Broccolo hasn’t always known she would someday own a company. Where she grew up in Rochester, no one used a lawn care service; she just loved being outside. In fact, it all started with a little girl looking out the window of her third grade classroom.
“I couldn’t sit still,” says Broccolo with a laugh. “My teachers all thought that I didn’t have a good attention span. In high school, I began asking if there were careers where you could work outside, and they told me, ‘Not unless you want to be a forest ranger.’”
Both of Broccolo’s parents had grown up in rural New York, and when the family returned for visits, she loved learning about farming and sugaring from her relatives. Working outdoors was a stark contrast to her parents’ jobs, which were chiefly a means to an end. Her father was a department store salesman and her mom worked in an office.
“They’d always come home and complain about their jobs,” Broccolo says. “I said to myself, ‘I’m not going to work for money; I’m going to do something I enjoy.’”
As it turned out, that “something” was the lawn and landscape industry. Yet she didn’t even know it existed when she first enrolled in classes at Finger Lakes Community College in Canandaigua, N.Y., a school with a strong horticulture program.
“I stumbled on a cool class, and soon I was collecting bugs,” she says.
After pursuing a degree in ornamental horticulture, Broccolo went to work for a small company called Ted Collins Tree & Landscape. While working there, she learned “all of the business stuff you don’t learn in horticultural school,” she says.
When the owner of the company decided to sell the business, Broccolo knew it was time to strike out on her own. From there, Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care was born.
Setting herself apart
When Broccolo first got started in the lawn and landscape industry in the 1970s, pesticides were commonly used. In fact, most lawn and landscape companies sprayed their clients’ lawns regularly – whether they needed it or not, she says.
“From an environmental standpoint, that was just not the right thing to do,” says Broccolo. “I decided that I would try to change that within my company, so I began working with my clients to practice the integrated pest management approach.”
That doesn’t mean Broccolo is opposed to using pesticides in every instance, however. In fact, throughout her career she’s worked to educate herself, clients and employees on the latest science, so that she can unite facts and reason to create results.
“We’re constantly in educational mode,” she says. “We ask ourselves, ‘What are the newest technologies we need, so that we can treat with less offensive pesticides when we need to?’ We’ve reduced pesticide use for thousands of our clients.”
Such an integrated approach – which combines a concern for the environment with scientific rigor – is one hallmark of what she likes to call the “Broccolo Way.”
“We want people to have a better understanding of science and nature and how they work together,” she says.
Broccolo’s “bread and butter,” as she puts it, is lawn care fertilizing programs. Without that core aspect of her business, her other services simply wouldn’t be possible.
“We’re very competitive in that area, and we have a phenomenal group of very dedicated employees whose main focus is customer service,” she says.
Although Broccolo is a horticulturalist by training and practice, she is also a people person that understands what it takes to keep customers informed and happy. She’s found hiring people lovers over horticulturalists just makes good business sense.
“We can teach people horticulture and customer service if they have good attitudes,” she says. “I want them to keep educating themselves once they start working for us.”
Once a client signs on, Broccolo employees educate that person about the tree and shrub care program. If the individual proves receptive to services beyond the fertilizing programs, staff approaches them about adding perennial gardens, as well.
“One of my main objectives is to tell our clients, ‘If the grass isn’t growing well, maybe it shouldn’t be there,’” says Broccolo. “We can shrink the lawn and create low-maintenance perennial gardens; we can bring nature closer to them.”
Since delving into this area, Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care has become known for its perennial garden work. “We have phenomenal experts on staff,” she says. “Many of our clients have such a diversity of plants – someone else might cut down day lilies or poppies they think are dandelions or thistles. They trust us. It’s a nice niche.”
The current state of the economy also lends itself well to perennial gardens and low-maintenance plants, Broccolo says. Homeowners are staying at home a bit more often, and they’re concerned about the rising costs of water and maintenance.
“The trend is coming back to backyard gardening, and people want birds and butterflies,” she says. “We can show them that if we can reduce the amount of lawn in their yard, we can reduce the acreage they’re mowing and it’s a ‘win-win.’”
Broccolo is also adding new specialties by hiring qualified subcontractors to perform some of the work. For instance, if her company is hired to build an outdoor kitchen, then she will subcontract the work to a mason rather than trying to do it in house.
“It doesn’t make sense to do everything yourself,” she says. “Working with subcontractors, you’re working with owner-operators, the cream-of-the crop.”
In the past 20 years, Broccolo has bid on many large government contracts. However, she hasn’t been awarded many of them, because she hasn’t had the ability to compete with larger companies with access to cheaper plants, trees and materials.
Yet that may be about to change. Broccolo recently purchased a garden center from two colleagues that she’s worked with for years (they’ve agreed to stay on as managers). She is hoping that, in addition to running a successful retail business, she will be able to finally grow her own plants and trees at a lower price than in the past, fostering a vertically integrated business that will make her competitive.
The end goal, she says, is not only operating a profitable retail business, but also greater market saturation. “The garden center is located in an area that is expanding, and it will give our company more exposure to that part of town,” she says.
It’s easy being green
Since Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care’s roots lie in sustainable landscaping, its owner couldn’t be more excited about growing consumer interest in going green.
“It’s an exciting time because all of us tree huggers are now in style,” Broccolo says. “Green is very much being embraced, even if people don’t always understand it.”
This rising consumer demand is a huge opportunity for lawn and landscape companies, says Broccolo. Companies like hers can educate consumers about sustainable landscaping and provide services that help to improve the environment.
“Once we have our customers’ trust, it’s a pretty easy transition to get them to start thinking differently,” she says. “We’ll say to them, ‘Maybe you should stop mowing that big section out back. What would happen if it just turned into a meadow?’”
Companies like hers, Broccolo adds, have a unique ability to combine theory and practice to deliver results. The key to making a difference is combining science and experience with a passion for protecting and preserving the environment.
“What I bring to the table is experience with what works and doesn’t work, and that’s a huge opportunity,” she says. “We are fortunate to be on the leading edge.”
This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Growing Green e-newsletter. For more on Broccolo Tree & Lawn Care:
Staying active: Laurie Broccolo has grown her business by remaining involved in the industry and a step ahead of her competition.
Slow release: It’s never too early to start thinking about retirement.