High risk, high expectations

High risk, high expectations

Features - Design/Build

HighGrove doubles down on the Atlanta construction sector with its land services program.

June 28, 2012
Matt McClellan

For many landscape companies, construction and development were two of the first business segments to disappear when the economy tanked.

But one Atlanta company set out to buck the trend, offering a full range of land services along with the more typical landscape maintenance and water management services.

The focus on a new segment has buoyed the company through a rocky economy, and now makes up about one-third of its $15 million annual revenue.

A new perspective
. Craig Morris started working for HighGrove in 1997, worked his way up to vice president before leaving in 2003 to become a developer. Today, he’s back as the director of HighGrove’s Land Services program. Erik Jarkins started in 2002 after a long career with an Atlanta-based design-only firm. He is now HighGrove’s director of design and landscape architecture.

“I felt my career would benefit from understanding the build side and budgeting aspects of design from a construction side, to help me better situate myself with developers and owners,” Jarkins said.

One of the first things Morris noticed as he developed mixed-use and residential projects was the disjointed involvement for landscapers on a typical construction project.

HighGrove had always been involved with the early stages of a project, offering input on master plans. But then the landowner would take those concepts and hire a civil engineer to design them, set up the infrastructure and go through the process of acquiring permits.

Then, the owner would hire a general contractor and start pricing site work. That project would then enter the construction phase. HighGrove and most typical landscape companies would not be brought back until the end of the job, when the site is ready to be landscaped.

After he became a developer, Morris figured that with his design and landscape architecture background, he could eliminate those gaps by controlling the entire process from start to finish.

“I understood the initial vision and concept,” Morris said. “I was partly involved with creating it. Typically, if you hire an engineer, they like to do straight lines with roads or utility lines. That may be the first step of pulling away from the original design concepts. By being able to control that, I oversaw the engineers, I hired the grading contractors. If issues came up in permitting and zoning, I was involved.”

He found that when one person or group knew everything about that project, the project itself ran smoother and the same concept was carried from planning stages to the end of the project.

Cost management. Typically, when a landscape design goes over the amount budgeted for it, large components are stripped out of the project. Jarkins saw a better way.

“What I felt would be a better, seamless process for my design abilities was to understand the real world costs of materials, and design better toward budgets and expectations,” he said.

With the downturn in the economy in 2008, a lot of landscape companies let their development teams go. They no longer had the capacity to manage and oversee projects. Morris and Jarkins saw an opportunity and presented it to HighGrove’s CEO, Jim McCutcheon.

“Most developers are more financial guys,” Morris said. “They don’t know field work; they don’t understand it. So it was our idea to act as adjunct staff for them, to help evaluate the site. What condition is it currently in? Is it foreclosed on? Is it partially constructed? We can take a step back, look at the zonings, the plans, rework as needed and act as adjunct staff to help carry that through the process. And when the economy picks back up, they may wind up hiring their teams back or wind up staying with us.

“We want to be and we are now a true one-stop shop for our clients. They can put their hands up and say, anything outside the building envelope, HighGrove’s going to handle,” Morris explained. “That has been one of the main reasons that over the last three years as companies are struggling to stay afloat, we have grown significantly.”

A new story. But how do you rework your company’s 23-year-old brand to include property development and local high-end landscaping?

“Building confidence with potential clients is the biggest challenge,” Jarkins said. “When most people think of HighGrove, they think of a landscape company. We needed to put a new face on what HighGrove is.”

So HighGrove redesigned its website and then hit the road, explaining the concept in face-to-face meetings.

“Every time we hit an existing client or potential client, we are going to sell land services and explain what it is, how it can benefit them,” Morris said.

Through their eyes

Get inside the mind of a property manager.

Lawn & Landscape
asked Jarkins and Morris what developers look for in a landscaper, and how landscapers can become indispensible to their clients. Here are their top three tips.

Be on time. The key to building a solid relationship with a developer is timing. They are looking for landscape companies with the ability to react quickly, turn jobs around quickly, and understand budgets and costs.

Be on budget. Developers want to do business with someone with the design background and vision to make decisions that can improve the design without increasing cost. “There are a lot of landscape companies out there that can wow you with fantastic designs, but if they don’t have the understanding of actually building it within a budget with certain constraints, it’s a waste of time,” Morris said.

Be proactive. Developers and property managers appreciate landscapers who take a proactive approach to dealing with their problems. “We don’t wait for them to ask us for a proposal,” Jarkins said. “We’re not afraid to say ‘your water is dirty. Your pond is shallow. Do you need services? Here is the pricing; can you fit it into this year’s capital expenditures?’”


The author is managing editor for Nursery Management magazine.