Growing by reputation

Growing by reputation

KEI Landscaping’s branding helps it gain customers without advertising.

October 14, 2015
Kate Spirgen

 KEI Landscaping is picking and choosing the right customers thanks to an increase in sales over the last few years. Not including snow management, the Milwaukee-area company has grown 30 percent without doing any marketing.

“Our branding is our trucks and equipment parked out in front of prestigious clients,” says Chris Kujawa, executive vice president. “We don’t do any advertising; it’s all person to person.”
 
KEI’s signature orange trucks were the result of a good deal in the 1960s that stuck. The city of Escanaba, Michigan had bought four trucks from International Harvester but could only take two. The trucks were set up perfectly but the dealer said he couldn’t move them.
 
“I said, ‘Why?’ and he said ‘They’re orange,’ because they had been bought by a municipality,” Kujawa says. “And I said, ‘I don’t care. I’ll take them. It wasn’t that long thereafter that marketing and branding sort of came into its own. People started saying what color should we use in this ad and will it appeal more to women or to men and orange was the color of confidence and safety.”
 
So they decided to stick with it.
 
KEI got its start in 1964 as a landscape management company but they now do everything from design to installation, maintenance, holiday lighting and even interiorscapes and some construction. Nearly all of their clients are commercial properties with 5 to 10 percent of business coming from high-end single family residential customers.
 
The team of 100 to 120 staff members stays busy year-round moving from maintenance to lighting to snow plowing.
 
KEI has one central headquarters and three satellite locations that serve mostly as yards for parking and staging. A supervisor at each location handles their own accounts, with most construction jobs coming out of the headquarters in Oak Creek.
 
To keep track of proposals, estimates, jobs, billing and inventory, KEI uses Asset software and is transitioning to handheld devices to easily keep track of man hours. But finding the right people to complete the needed man hours has been a struggle.
 
“It has been difficult across the board. It’s just been tough,” Kujawa says. The company uses the traditional routes like job websites and job fairs, offering a $100 incentive if an employee refers someone who lasts more than two months. Kujawa says they’ve had some success with that program so far.
 
KEI doesn’t use the H-2B seasonal worker program due to its instability and its political nature. “We did it on a limited basis to sort of dip a toe in the water but we don’t want to be at political whims,” Kujawa says.
 
For Kujawa, it’s more about hiring the right personality than it is about hiring the right skills. “It’s more important to hire someone who understands the client culture,” he says. “At the end of the day, we’re a service industry. The important skills are communication, stick-to-it-ness and consistency. Everything else can be taught.”