Bruce Wilson started in the industry like most – he mowed lawns as a kid to make some extra money around his upstate New York home. One of his former clients, who’d hired Wilson to maintain his small greenhouse, recommended the budding horticulturist for a garden club scholarship. Wilson got it, and it led him to SUNY Farmingdale. He transferred to Cornell, where he graduated with a horticulture degree.
After graduating, he got a job at another tree company, climbing trees in the brutal Rye, N.Y. winters. His wife, Gail, thought that was a bit too dangerous. They decided that if his career would be in landscaping, it made sense to move somewhere where he could work full time. So Wilson answered a classified ad and was hired as a spray operator at Green Valley Landscaping in sunny San Jose, Calif.
It was 1971. He was 25 years old, and at the start of a career that would see him run the largest landscape company in the world, establish maintenance as the green industry’s dominant service, and hire, train and consult with dozens of people who would become standout leaders and successful business owners in their own right.
Wilson started his days early – afternoon winds in the Bay area made it hard to spray – so he had a few hours to kill each afternoon at the shop before his wife picked him up after work. So he asked his boss, Joe Marsh, if he could learn more about the other work Green Valley did.
“I got to see all the jobs we did, met all the foremen and managers and got to learn the operation pretty fast,” he says.
That same year, ValleyCrest, which at the time was mainly a construction company, acquired Green Valley to start a maintenance division. Burt Sperber asked Wilson to head to Colorado to open a branch office there, and acted as the branch manager, salesperson mower operator and mechanic.
Then began a series of promotions that would ultimately make Wilson the president of Environmental Care, ValleyCrest’s maintenance division, and put him in a position to lead and teach some of the industry’s greatest luminaries.
When Wilson became president, it had just four branches – in San Diego, Las Vegas, Denver and Phoenix – plus Green Valley, doing about $7 million. “That’s what we had, then we grew from there,” Wilson says.
“Grew it from there” is a bit of an understatement. By the time Wilson retired in 1999, ValleyCrest was doing $140 million a year and had grown to that level almost entirely organically. Wilson had made just one acquisition worth more than $5 million – the Oyler Brothers in Florida.
“We never planned to be a $100 million company. We just grew,” Wilson says. “We budgeted to grow every year, but we didn’t really realize the compounding effect of it. The only thing that was holding us back from growing even more was people.”
And it was with people where Wilson truly excelled. He spent most of his time out of the office, visiting with branch managers across the state and then country, listening to what their problems were and spreading knowledge of what was working elsewhere.
From manager to enabler
My most influential mentor is Joe Trickett, Ph.D., the Dean of the graduate school of business at Santa Clara University. He had a student that we hired do his thesis on our company, and an attitude survey of our field employees and why they stayed with us for years doing what was – and is – perceived as a menial job.
During the process of his verifying if this was a legitimate project, he met with me regularly and we developed a bond. He took a liking to me and we got into numerous philosophical conversations about management. His area of expertise was industrial psychology. One day when he came in he asked me how things were going. We had a problem where some in the company wanted to fire a guy and some did not.
To make this a short story, it came down to what I believed: Did I believe that people got a job to screw up and get fired, or did they want to succeed in some way? I chose succeed. He asked me if I liked being managed. I didn’t, but knew that was part of the deal.
He convinced me to think about instead of being a manager to be an enabler. From that point forward, I saw my role as enabling people to attain the success they wanted. It worked. I enabled many people to achieve more than their dreams. – Bruce Wilson
One of Wilson’s hires was Tom Fochtman, who would go on to run CoCal Landscape (and compete with his former boss) in the Denver market. As vice president of sales and marketing, where he would visit branches throughout California with Wilson.
“He gave me plenty of direction and a lot of autonomy,” Fochtman says. “We had a lot of quality time driving to Palm Desert. I’m confident and I have an ego – he was good at showing me how to keep that in check and how to empower people.”
After growing ValleyCrest to nine-digit revenue, Wilson could have retired. But he got a call from Rich Angelo, the founder of Stay Green in Santa Clarita, Calif. He had hired ValleyCrest to do the tree work on his own maintenance accounts, and after he’d heard that Wilson retired, asked him if he’d come consult with his company.
“I said, ‘I guess so, yeah,” Wilson says. “I hadn’t thought about it until Rich called.”
He teamed up with Tom Oyler, who had joined ValleyCrest after the acquisition, and the two formed the Wilson-Oyler group. It was then that Wilson got involved with peer groups, facilitating meetings among similar-sized but non-competing landscapers around the country.
Wilson didn’t invent peer groups, but he started the most successful ones in the industry. He now runs eight groups, and can count among his clients some of the largest companies and biggest names in landscaping.
One of those clients and friends is Frank Mariani, who was a member of Wilson’s first peer group, Next Level Network, and has hired him as a private consultant for Mariani Landscape. He says Wilson’s best skill is his ability to manage the sometimes-inflated egos of the owners who hire him.
“I think that too many of us believe our own bullshit, excuse my French. He’s not afraid to pop our bubbles. … He’ll call a spade a spade,” Mariani says. “He’s going to give you an answer – to me that is invaluable. You can’t put a price tag on that, because I trust him completely. That’s not to say he’s always right, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you a time he was wrong.”
As a consultant, Wilson helped Mariani improve how it ran its residential maintenance business. He analyzed everything from how crews rolled out in the morning to how the yard was organized to how job sites were set up.
“He was there as early as the earliest guy the next morning. He said, ‘I don’t want you to pick me up at the hotel. I want to see what’s going on,’” says Fred Wacker, Mariani’s president. “He was in our yard at a quarter of six, watching people. He just has an energy level that is inspiring and motivating.”
Bob Grover, president at Pacific Landscape Management in Oregon, is another member of Next Level Network, and says Wilson’s great skill is listening more than he talks.
“No disrespect to anybody else, but there are some very large personalities in our industry,” Grover says. “And I think he is smarter than any of those large personalities. The thing about Bruce that impresses me the most ... he listens. He is one of the best listeners I know because he’s not trying to command the conversation. He truly wants to know what other people are saying and thinking and process that in his mind, and come up with a thought-provoking nugget.”
Wilson, now 68, has found time to run another landscape company.
George Gonzalez hired Wilson in 2005 as a consultant for Sierra Landscape in Palm Springs. During the recession, he was forced to shut it down.
But with Wilson’s help, the two men relaunched the company as Conserve LandCare in 2011, with a stronger focus on maintenance and using technology to run more efficiently.
For years, Gonzalez had seen ValleyCrest grow and dominate the market, especially in California. Though he never met Wilson during his time there, he knew him by reputation.
“In our industry, there’s a bit of a disconnect if you’ve got an owner who doesn’t speak Spanish and all Hispanic field guys. I was born in Cuba, and my first language is Spanish, so I’ve been able to relate to the guys from day one,” Gonzalez says. “When I first met Bruce, knowing his background as president of Environmental Care and corporate structure, I thought ‘This guy is just management only.’”
But he learned quickly – as everyone who meets Wilson does – that he’s just as comfortable in the boardroom as he is in a box truck.
“When we stuck him out there in the middle of a foreman meeting, he did great. The guys really warmed up to him,” Gonzalez says. “And you can’t fake that. … The guys pick up on it. The guy is genuine with that.”