Features - 2012 Profit Boost Guide

This firm tackles lighting from all angles.

March 23, 2012
Carolyn LaWell

Pete Bryant wanted to distinguish his services from all the other contractors who just stuck fixtures in the ground and called it landscape lighting.

So, about five years ago, he started Southern Lights, a sister company to his landscape management firm, Southern Exposure.

By creating a company that solely offered lighting, he figured he could get customers from two companies and heighten what landscape lighting really should look like.

“Every landscaper says that they do lighting, but really most of them don’t know much more than putting in a couple of path lights,” Bryant says.

Bryant says his companies have been successful with lighting for two reasons.

First, they have dedicated time to training, experimenting and understanding what good lighting looks like. He’s active in Association of Outdoor Lighting Professionals and practices at home with different fixtures, wattages, angles and colored lenses.

Second, he goes after two different types of customers – ones just looking for landscape lighting and others looking for landscapes and hardscapes that can include lighting in the package.

Besides a website, e-marketing and social media, Southern Lights hasn’t done much marketing. A stronger marketing plan is scheduled for 2012, but because of its small exposure, Bryant still gets most of his lighting business through his landscape firm. And lighting makes up 15 percent of that business.

While Bryant wanted to separate himself from his competitors, lighting also made sense to spinoff because of the sheer cost associated with the service. “It takes very little overhead to run that portion,” he says. “You don’t have to have a $100,000 truck and a (loader) and everything to run it. … There’s better margin on it.”

The profit margin on a lighting job depends on how many fixtures are installed and whether or not their visible, Bryant says. What he typically takes away is a 40-60 percent profit on a lighting job.

The biggest selling point is his companies have an acre and a half design studio that allows prospective customers to see and touch materials. Bryant was able to work with vendors to install landscapes, outdoor kitchens, water features, lighting – real life examples of what projects can look like. “We’ve been able to create several different living spaces throughout our shop, so we do not have to send somebody to look at somebody’s backyard that we landscaped and installed lighting on,” he says.

While Bryant’s firm offers design/build services, he also works with a deck builder who does renovations, remodels and room additions. By teaming up with a company that doesn’t offer lighting, Bryant receives referrals without having to do much work.

Southern Exposure always includes lighting in landscape designs even if the client doesn’t ask for it. “It’s accounted for, people know that it’s an option up front and not a last minute thought,” he says. “Usually budgets dwindle down by the end of the project.”

When presenting the design to clients, Bryant stresses his team knows how to incorporate lighting with plant materials and hardscapes because they are landscapers. “We can account for all of this stuff upfront,” he says. “Where some of the lighting companies that only do lighting, they can’t do that because they can’t get in on a project or they weren’t involved on the project in the beginning.”

When trying to sell a lighting project, Bryant covers every aspect from wattages to amperages. “Sometimes you bore a customer with all the details. But at the end of the appointment, they’ll know what you’re talking about,” he says. “I think that makes the difference in a customer’s mind that you’re worth the money you’re asking for because you specialize in it.”

Finally, he uses a return-on-investment spreadsheet to show customers what they’re paying for and what they’re getting. “If you can show a homeowner ways they’re going to save money over time – using LED bulbs versus candescent or versus line voltage – that goes a long way,” he says.

“Selling a maintenance plan, too, that gets us in the door if you’re using a spreadsheet. If we install LEDs, it’s going to cost you $2,000 more now, but it’s going to save you $4,000 over the next eight years.”

The author is an associate editor at Lawn & Landscape. She can be reached at