Brian Labrie doesn't quite know why he had such a strong gut feeling, but he could sense a recession coming well before it was even in the cards. When Lawn & Landscape first interviewed the president of Hollis, N.H.-based B.H. Labrie Landscaping back in 2002, he saw enough folks cutting back that he began to fear the loss of some residential clients
That's when he made the decision to add commercial work to his line-up. Making that switch almost 10 years ago has paid dividends. When the residential market took a hard fall, Labrie was already well-established in the commercial sector. That's one of many reasons the company has more than quadrupled in size since we last caught up with them.
Labrie credits running lean – not only in bad times, but also in good ones – as a key to success.
"As a small business, we have always tried to run as lean as possible and not overextend ourselves," he says. "We bought equipment as we got the jobs instead of the other way around. We didn't have equipment sitting around collecting dust while we tried to get jobs. Only if we landed a job would we acquire the equipment we needed for it. We didn't use a lot of loans but instead grew slowly in these past 10 years."
While it might be considered an act of vandalism to chuck a pumpkin off your neighbor's porch, it's wholeheartedly encouraged at the WCPCA – that is, the World Championship Punkin Chunkin Association. This nonprofit association has been encouraging chunkin' pumpkins since 1986 and has been picked up as a special show on the Science Channel garnering even more attention for the annual sport of pumpkin hurling. Participants use mechanical devices which have included slingshots, catapults, centrifugals, trebuchets and pneumatic air cannons to hurl a pumpkin as far as they can. When Brian Labrie, president of Hollis, N.H.-based B.H. Labrie Landscaping, first saw it on TV, he had to check it out for himself.
"For as serious as we are in business and as much work as we put into our jobs, it has been nice to have a little bit of fun and levity by getting involved in this," says Labrie, who took fourth place last year, his first time competing.
As someone who deals with agriculture every day, Labrie thinks that pumpkin hurling is an appropriate tie-in with his work. But it's also helped business by giving him a bit of local fame. "It's definitely added credibility to a name that already has credibility," he says. "And people recognize me from the show, which I'll admit has lead to some good jobs. I'm not sure I can say it's paid for itself as this has been an expensive hobby, but it's also something I really enjoy doing and has been rewarding in that way."
One of the things that Labrie has also found rewarding has been the competition. "I'm a landscaper by training but about 99 percent of the people participating are engineers," he says. "It's cool to have blue collar against white collar. But in all honesty, it's been one of the most fun groups of people to work with and a great experience."
Watch Labrie launch pumpkins at our blog: blog.lawnandlandscape.com/wordpress.
Slow and steady growth has helped the company go from $564,000 and eight employees in 2002 to just less than $2.5 million and pushing 25 employees today. The company's fleet of vehicles and equipment has also doubled in size including 14 service vehicles. In years past, the company had rented a shop. But last April they took the huge step of purchasing a new shop of their own.
"Having our own shop has really lent us our independence," says Labrie. "It allows us to get more done and extends our operational hours. We've found it to be a huge benefit in many ways. Our location also gives us major visibility from the street. It's been nothing but a positive experience."
While the company has grown in many ways, perhaps the biggest change has been its shift over to the commercial world. After all, it was the change that has not only allowed the company to weather the recession but to also see growth during it.
"When you did that article on my company in 2002, I really didn't know what was in store for us," says Labrie. "I felt like there might be a wave coming but I didn't really know how bad it would be. Back then we were mostly residential. Today, we do very little residential. Making that switch to commercial work was one of the best business decisions I've made. I see a lot of companies jumping into maintenance today but we've already had our name established in that industry and that's helped us a lot. People don't like to take a gamble on a new company or service so I am grateful that we've already established ourselves in this market – before times got tough."
A legacy of hard work. In 2002, Labrie told us it was his father who always pushed hard work. Growing up in a family full of business owners, Labrie says he saw what it took to run a business and a lot of it came back to persistence. Today, Labrie credits both his father and grandfather for not only his strong work ethic but also his ability to grow steadily and not get ahead of himself.
"My father and grandfather have always told me to be weary of what's coming and that was one of the reasons I've been cautious about my business decisions," he says. "A good year didn't mean running out and spending a lot of money or buying a bunch of equipment. We stuck with our slow and steady growth plan. We minimized debt whenever possible. When we purchase equipment, we try to put down as much cash as we can in order to keep payments in check for dry times."
Labrie says it has been sticking with these types of philosophies, even when the company began seeing growth that has allowed him continued success. But in the end, he says there's no big secret to success.
"There's really no magic formula," he says. "We just hired the right people at the right time and made good decisions. It comes down to a lot of hard work and being smart with every penny."
And certainly all of that has paid off. Since we last spoke with Labrie, his grandfather has passed and his father has retired. Labrie says it's made him realize the value of hard work even more.
"It's interesting watching someone like my dad try to be idle when he's someone that has always worked so hard," he says. "I've always taken that work ethic to heart. There are smarter guys out there and there are guys that are more affluent, but one thing I can say with certainty is that they'll never outwork us. We have a strong work ethic and we live it every day. That's really been the key to our success."
The author is a frequent contributor to Lawn & Landscape.