For 28 years, it was good.
With his father, Juan Carlos Vila started and grew one of the biggest companies in the industry, one that gave back to its community and one that was held up as an example for quality work and quality management.
For 28 years, it was good.
Every year, hundreds of employees – managers, receptionists and mower operators – would come to Juan’s expansive property to play in a soccer tournament he hosted every year. At its height, Vila & Son boasted 1,000 employees and $70 million in annual revenue.
Fleets of trucks and trailers and skid-steers and cranes with the blue and gold Vila & Son logo filled yards across nine locations throughout Florida.
For 28 years, it was good. Until it wasn’t.
Revenues started slipping, and the recession, which had hit the construction market hard in 2008, had finally trickled down to Vila’s accounts. People weren’t paying him, clients were going bankrupt and a new maintenance division wasn’t throwing off the cash he needed to make up the difference.
Besides that, Vila had other problems. He was buying work, losing money on too many contracts and too many jobs. He had offices all over the state and his overhead was out of control. He’d extended credit to clients that would never pay him back. His accounts receivable was eight figures and growing. Lawsuits were starting to show up in the mail.
Right up until the end, Vila thought he could pull it off, thought he could make it work. But he waited too long to make admittedly very difficult decisions and paid the price.
In March of last year, Vila went to his bank and asked for help. Before his meeting, Vila, acting on the advice of his lawyer, hired a chief restructuring officer – someone from outside the company to help him cut overhead, rein in spending and right the sinking ship.
“I couldn’t sign anything. I couldn’t sign anything or I couldn’t even say anything that was not cleared through him. So at that time, I didn’t have much hope,” Vila says.
But after a month of working with the CRO, Vila says, it wasn’t working. The company was still losing contracts, clients still weren’t paying and the company was bleeding cash.
Vila wrote off the bad construction work and maintenance contracts that were sold below cost. At the beginning of 2011, Vila had $22 million in maintenance work on the books. By August, it was $8 million.
Vila couldn’t pay the bills. What little cash he had from his mortgaged home and anemic income went to payroll. “I want to emphasize, a lot of people the last couple years did not pay me. They did not pay me. There’s a lot of money that was owed to me, and I overextend credit to a lot of big companies,” Vila says. “And still today, I don’t know how much money is out there that we couldn’t collect. But I’m talking about a substantial amount of money.”
Vila and the bank are still haggling over the official number, but he puts it at more than $10 million – nearly a quarter of his 2010 revenue.
So the bank stepped in. Along with the CRO, it forced Vila to cut people, something he admits he should have done years ago.
“The CRO told me, ‘You have to cut this and this and this.’ They told me I have 72 hours reduce $3 million of overhead. If you do not do it, we will do it.”
And he did. Vila visited each of his company’s offices – Miami, West Palm Beach, Orlando, Fort Meyers, Tampa, Jacksonville, Port St. Lucie, Naples and Fort Lauderdale. He cut salaries, fired executives and office staff. At the end, as much as 40 percent of his employees were gone. People he’d known for 10, 15, 20 years – even the president of the company – all gone.
“I created this company. I did not want to do that,” Vila says. “It was very hard for me, to the point that I never did it. That was the wrong thing to do as the CEO of the company.”
With his everything he owned either liquidated or mortgaged, Vila’s only hope was to secure an outside investor. “I couldn’t do without an investor,” he says.
A few private equity firms expressed interest, as did some other landscape companies and investors, but, ultimately, no one stepped in with the cash Vila needed to keep the company afloat.
In August, after months of trying to fix his company’s many problems, he wrote a letter to his customers, employees and creditors announcing the end of Vila & Son.
“I hoped at the last minute somebody would bring the money and invest in the company. I went to the bank. The reaction of the bank, too, at the time, they didn’t have much hope that the company was going to continue.
“It was not something real, you know?” Vila says.
Vila & Son was founded by Juan and his father nearly thirty years ago, and grew from nothing to one of the biggest companies in the industry. And that, Vila says, was the problem. The company got too big.
“Before, I was hands-on, I know exactly what’s going on. And I got through without any problem. But it was a more difficult time than it was before. This one, it’s not a quick recession, it’s a long recession. It’s still hard,” he says. “That’s the difference between this recession and before. It really got me in a big company, a big infrastructure, a big organization, with big overhead.”
Last summer, the equipment was auctioned off to a few competing companies. They picked up the trucks and the mowers and the trailers and painted over the blue and gold logos.
Vila’s former employees – the ones that weren’t laid off – were forced to find work elsewhere.
The accounts – the ones that paid their bills – hired different companies to cut the grass.
|Juan Carlos Vila, left, and his son, Ivan, at the headquarters of Ivan’s new company, VisualScape in Miami.|
“I still believe, and I always said it, and I keep saying it that this is a land of opportunity and I wanted to keep going. I want it to keep going, and I have two choices,” Vila says. “Move forward and help my son to build a nice company and keep moving forward, or just look at what I did, look at what I lost.
“The windshield of a truck has a very small mirror to look backwards. That’s the way that I see it,” Vila says. “It went wrong at the end. I don’t blame anybody for what happened. I’m a leader, and I blame myself.”
Vila says there’s not much he would do differently if given the chance to start again, not the big things. He made bad decisions on pricing and waited too long to cut expenses, sure. But the work, the people he hired, what he and his family accomplished through those three decades? He wouldn’t change a thing.
“I think I created a wonderful company,” he says.
Juan’s son, Ivan, who at one time ran the Tampa branch of Vila & Son, started VisualScape late last year. The company and its 15 employees do mostly maintenance in the Miami market.
Vila now works with his son, though technically, he’s not even an employee of the company.
“My son is a lot more conservative than I am. We’re very small. I want to keep it like that,” Vila says. “I’m 51 years old. I’m not an old person. I’m full of energy. I have the will to do it and I have a great family, and I have a wonderful son by my side.”
The author is editor and associate publisher of Lawn & Landscape. Email him at email@example.com.
Photos by Jeffery Salter