The beaten path

Features - Design/Build

When volume dropped by 60 percent, Reed Dillon stuck with his vision to help Reed Dillon & Associates rebound.

October 4, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

There’s a look – a feel, a mood, something you can’t quite pin down when an outdoor space just does it for you. In a way, it’s like trying to describe how chocolate tastes. You know you love it, and when you want chocolate, nothing else will do. A similar emotion is what prompts a client to call to Reed Dillon & Associates in Lawrence, Kan. “People hire us because of the aesthetic we bring to the project, so they are not shopping it,” says Reed Dillon, who founded the business in 1996 after running a different Houston-based firm, Ruckel/Dillon, for 13 years.

The seasoned landscape architect is called on for unique high-end projects in the greater Kansas City area, and throughout the country. (One of his special projects was for a Mission Hills home on the Smithsonian Archive of Significant American Gardens.)

“We are dealing with sophisticated clients who have generous budgets,” Dillon says. “That allows us to come up with some interesting concepts, which is fun for me.”

(Sub) talent search

Accomplishing the type of sophisticated landscape designs created by Reed Dillon & Associates requires a cast of talented tradespeople. Masons, carpenters, tile layers, sculptors – these players are subcontracted to fulfill niche skills for particular jobs.

Bringing on the best subcontractors takes some trial and error, says Reed Dillon, president of the Lawrence, Kan.-based firm. “You hire subcontractors to do a project, and if they do what they say they are going to do and listen to how you want it done, (you hire them again),” he says.

Dillon finds his craftspeople by asking vendors for referrals. And he retains top talent by respecting their skills. “You may disagree over a decision, but you always treat them with respect,” Dillon says. “People respond to the way in which they are treated.”

And as a small business owner, Dillon can appreciate the value of getting paid expeditiously, so he is careful to compensate subcontractors in a timely fashion. “I know what it is like to wait for a check, and these guys are working with much less cash flow than what we have,” Dillon says.

It’s worth pulling together subcontractors to form a team of top tradespeople so clients can rest assured that they’re getting a “package deal” when they hire Reed Dillon & Associates. Coordinating the moving parts of the project is why working with a design/build firm is beneficial to clients, and Dillon sells them on this aspect.

“Pulling together the different pieces of a project is a lot more work than most homeowners are prepared to do, and landscape design is a specialty niche,” he says. “We know the ins and outs … the codes. This experience is what we bring to the table.”

His clients want to have fun with their projects, too. After all, the investment is one that demands an experience – customers are looking for more than a project that begins and ends. But Dillon says the fun ended for many of his target clientele when the economy turned. The phone just stopped ringing, and the firm’s volume dropped by 60 percent. By sticking with his vision and continuing to work his referral network, Dillon says business is back up to where it was before, with sales improving 115 percent since 2009.

Lawn & Landscape spoke with Dillon about serving the highest end in good times and bad, and how sticking to your niche delivers rewards.

Committed to his niche. “The world that exists for people who are doing entry-level (design-build) work is a brutal one,” says Dillon, referring to bid wars and price-shopping residents who want a fast patio on the cheap. “It’s totally dependent on cost, and that’s not an option for us.”

Dillon’s firm has a higher overhead than some other firms, he says. And his bread-and-butter client is more like an artisan baguette with huile d’olive. Think: estate gardens and notable architecture-based projects. Nevertheless, when the economy hit rock bottom in 2008 and Dillon did less than half of the projected volume, he explored the commercial realm because he knew he couldn’t compete on price-sensitive residential projects.

When Dillon began bidding on some commercial projects – particularly ones where contracts were sold for less than the wholesale cost of plant material required – he realized that he better stick to his niche. “We found out that commercial was not the way to go for us,” he says. “So, I kept working the high-end market and developing relationships with architects and builders. When you’re in that market, people need to have a comfort level with you, and its’ all referral-based.”

Dillon says clients don’t question the cost because they’re buying quality. “If you can give them the look they really want, they are willing to pay what it takes to get that,” Dillon says.

Though tempting to compromise his vision to fill the schedule, Dillon did not stray from his target high-end clientele even when times were tough. Instead, he took a good, hard look at operations and determined that the firm could run much leaner. “I had to make some painful decisions,” he says. “I had to lay off the two other designers and pare down staff, and do what we could do to keep overhead down.”

What Dillon learned is that he can run a sophisticated business on a fine, leather shoestring. And, Dillon admits, the business side of running a landscape design firm was not necessarily always his stronger suit.

Dillon has learned to surround himself with talented people, and focus on referrals by building a strong network within the architecture community.

“Because most architects really are focused primarily on the house, they don’t have the luxury or the time to devote to the outside,” Dillon says. “We develop a level of trust where they know what I’m going to design and install will complement what they have done (for the home).”

Cultivating a look. Reed Dillon & Associates has been called in to design luxury landscapes for significant architectural projects. Dillon describes one property, a contemporary home in Greenwich, Conn., that exercised his landscape design skills. “Everything about the home was very clean, very structural, so we created a series of retaining walls and terraces – some walls started at 2 feet and ended up at 12 feet because of the sloped lot,” he says.

Dillon’s personal style – the aesthetic that draws high-end clients to his work – is both structured and lush. “I like to do a clean look with lots of evergreens for structure, but lots of exuberant perennials and blooming shrubs behind that,” he says. The firm designs complex hardscapes and intricate gardens where Dillon plays with texture: from foliage to flagstone. His garden at home is a living example of his personal vision. It includes an Adirondack-style pergola and an artificial stream that separates the landscape gardens from an expansive wildflower space. More than 15,000 daffodils planted in this area bloom in a sea of yellow in spring. Dillon and his wife travel often, visiting gardens wherever they go to collect ideas.

Success in this business takes an eye. That’s the “something” special clients are after. And Dillon is optimistic that his high-end niche is in the market for a fresh look this year. “I think there is a lot of pent-up demand,” he says. “It seems like the money is loosening up.”

Photo courtesy Reed & Dillon Associates