Rob Estes gives back even after he's gone

Features - Cover Story

After a terminal cancer diagnosis, Rob Estes focused on the future of his company and worked with his wife, Christi, to help those in need even after his death.

March 2, 2018
Megan Smalley
Photography by Lisa Morris

Rob Estes’ landscaping business boomed in 2013. Not only had Estes Landscape scheduled a lot of landscape installation jobs and became a landscape designer for a majority of the landscape at Pinewood Atlanta Studios, a film studio south of Atlanta, but Estes hoped to add a nursery to his Georgia-based company that year. He was also busy managing his father’s Big Red Oak hunting plantation and a local tree farm.

But as 2013 progressed, Estes began to get headaches frequently. Family and co-workers say he seemed a little more irritable and forgetful. Estes thought he might be stressed, so he went to his doctor to get medications for his migraines.

His conditions worsened, though, and on Aug. 16, 2013, he was rushed to an urgent care for a CT scan. “That’s when we heard the words, ‘there’s a mass,’” says Christi Estes, his wife.

It was then that Estes learned he had grade 4 glioblastoma, a type of brain cancer. Doctors at Piedmont Healthcare’s Atlanta Hospital removed parts of the tumor in an emergency surgery not long after diagnosis. However, doctors didn’t think the cancer would go away, as glioblastoma moves quickly and is an aggressive form of brain cancer.

“When he was diagnosed, Rob’s first response was, ‘How can I beat it?’” she says. “Their response was, ‘You can’t. You need to get your affairs in order. You probably have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 months.’”

Estes wasn’t one to let his diagnosis dissuade him from living his everyday life. Many colleagues and friends say he remained optimistic. “I don’t think he felt as if he was going to die,” Christi says. “He thought he could beat it. That’s the attitude it takes sometimes to battle this type of cancer.”

Estes continued to run the three businesses he was involved with as much as he could, but those close to him say his priorities changed. Martha Ann Parks, Estes’ mother, says money and the notoriety of owning a successful landscaping business didn’t matter as much to her son anymore. “He realized that family and home and God and all those things were much more important than money,” she says.

Estes wanted to use his last few years of life to give back to others, Christi says. He and Christi teamed in 2013 to start a nonprofit called Can’t Never Could as a way to help people facing adversity. “I remember the day I said I wanted to start a foundation,” Estes said in a short documentary about Can’t Never Could. “It was the first time in my life I thought about something without thinking of myself.”

Even with his for-profit businesses, Estes focused on the people after his diagnosis. When he decided to sell Estes Landscape to North Carolina-based Yard-Nique in 2015, his main concern was that the acquiring company would look out for his employees’ best interest.

“It wasn’t about the money. He was really looking for a company that valued what he built and valued his team,” says Brian DuMont, president and CEO at Yard-Nique.

Estes died on Dec. 17, 2017. Although brain cancer took a toll on him his last four years of life, he used that time to make an impact on others.

“Rob would tell you that he would not change his diagnosis if he had a second chance at life,” Christi says. “He said it made him a better person, a better friend, a better father, a better husband. Everyone who receives the diagnosis Rob did is considered ‘terminal,’ but I do not think he accepted that until the last few months of his life. He lived as if each day could be his last and tried to make the best of every situation.”

The Estes family with Aimee Copeland, keynote speaker at Can’t Never Could’s Grey Matters event in March 2017.
Photo courtesy of the Estes family
Cultivating passion and optimism

Many describe Estes as having an optimistic demeanor, a trait his mother instilled in him when he was a child. Estes had dyslexia, and Parks, his mother, says that often discouraged him when he was a child.

“It caused him difficulty with his schoolwork, but he overcame that,” Parks says. “There were two things I wouldn’t tolerate (as a mother), and those were him saying, ‘I’m bored’ and ‘I can’t.’ I would tell him, yes you can. You just gotta keep trying – you can’t never could.”

To Parks’ surprise, she says her ‘can’t never could’ motto stuck with Estes throughout his childhood. When he was on his high school football team, Christi says he clung to that motto and a Bible verse that says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” to help him stay optimistic during games when he was benched or through his team’s losses. It also helped Estes gain confidence to pursue his passions as he got older.

From a young age, Estes’ passion revolved around the outdoors: trees, flowers, plant material and hands-on work. Parks says he enjoyed helping his grandmother with her garden as well as drawing pictures of landscapes. “It’s hard to know how a child develops their passion and love for certain things, but I do know he definitely had a passion for being outdoors,” she says.

Estes studied landscape architecture at the University of Georgia in the early 1990s, and he had his first experiences in the landscaping industry when he interned for Georgia-based Landers Landscape in college. He went on to work for Ray Landers when he graduated in 1995.

Ray Landers focused primarily on maintenance, but one of Estes’ passions was design/build and plant installation. “Ray never really took off with the design/build and install portion of the business, whereas that was Rob’s forte,” Christi says.

So, not long after graduation, he asked Landers if he could manage the company’s design/build and installation division to help it grow and Landers said yes. Shortly after, Landers sold the whole business to Estes, passing ownership into his hands. Estes changed the name to Estes Landscape and set a goal to turn the business into a “one-stop-shop” for landscaping in central Georgia.

“He incorporated a lighting department and a mulch-stone company on the property,” Christi says. “He was in the process before he was sick to incorporate a nursery on the property and an irrigation company. He was trying to provide a complete service with personal attention to all customers.”

Clay Culpepper, former CFO at Estes Landscape, says the business grew most around 2010 when Estes started to participate in a local CEO peer group called Vistage. She says the group prompted him to implement more efficient strategies. “The business wasn’t always profitable but he grew a lot and learned a lot from peers after joining Vistage,” Culpepper says. “I felt like he really took the business to the next level.”

And he did. The company began servicing larger commercial accounts in the early 2010s, including the Chick-fil-A headquarters near Atlanta. Estes developed a friendship with Chick-fil-A owner Dan Cathy, who eventually asked Estes to manage the design/build and install project of Pinewood Atlanta Studios, a movie studio Cathy co-owned and was building.

“Pinewood Studios was probably his last hurrah as a business man,” Christi says. “It was a huge landscape installation that allowed him to really use some creativity and a lot of his skills. And it was a joy for him to be able to see that job through.”

Estes focused more on his family after his diagnosis. Pictured from left: Arthur Estes III (father), Sara Ashley Estes (daughter), Christi Estes (wife), Robert Estes (son) and Martha Ann Parks (mother).
Tough decisions

Not long after starting work on Pinewood Atlanta Studios in 2013, Estes found out about his cancer. He didn’t hesitate to inform family and friends. Culpepper recalls receiving a text from Estes the day he was diagnosed.

“As soon as he knew, we knew,” she says. “It was obviously a concern that our boss would not be as involved in the business. I think there was more concern (among employees) for he and his family.”

Estes continued to work after his diagnosis, but he scaled back his hands-on involvement. Culpepper says he left the first few months of 2014 to receive medical treatment and he hired a COO temporarily to manage operations.

While Estes was passionate about his work, Christi says he knew he had to sell the business since he could no longer work on a regular basis. She says selling the business took a lot of her husband’s time, as he didn’t want just any business to acquire Estes Landscape. The culture had to be the perfect fit.

“It’s my hope that my life and that what we’re doing will not be about all the landscape projects I’ve done. I want it to be about the footprint I’ve made on this earth.” – Rob Estes

“He went through a lot of interviews looking for the right company to buy it,” she says. “He wanted someone who could carry on not just the quality his business offered, but also the same Christian values his business was known for in the industry. He was looking for a team that people were going to trust to carry on the business.”

Estes’ broker thought North Carolina-based Yard-Nique might be the best fit for the deal. DuMont of Yard-Nique says he received a call from this broker during the 2014 GIE+EXPO trade show in October. At the time, DuMont was hoping to expand into South Carolina or Florida. When the broker told him the deal was for a company in Newnan, Georgia, DuMont says he was hesitant at first. However, the broker convinced DuMont it was a great fit, and he explained Estes had some health issues.

“He said to me, ‘From what I know about you, Brian, and what I know about Rob Estes, I think you two are very much alike,’” he says. So, DuMont scheduled a two-day trip for himself and his COO to travel to Newnan to meet with Estes and some of his management team.

Close friends and family members wrote encouraging words and Bible verses on stones for Estes after his diagnosis.

Upon DuMont’s trip, Estes had already received a sizable offer from a local company, but it was clear the company that made the offer wouldn’t promise to keep Estes’ employees, DuMont says.

While DuMont offered less than the other offer, Estes sold to Yard-Nique because of the similar business culture.

“(Rob) didn’t hold out for the highest bidder,” DuMont says. “That wasn’t what he cared about. What he cared about was that his people were taken care of and that leadership had the same faith.”

By mid-February 2015, Yard-Nique officially acquired Estes Landscape, along with the 17 acres the company owned where the business operated. DuMont says this was the largest acquisition he made at that point – Estes Landscape made $3.5 million in revenue with about 50 employees its final year in business.

Not much changed at the Newnan location after the acquisition, as DuMont wanted to preserve what Estes built. DuMont kept the same team of employees at the location, and he allowed Estes to continue selling jobs.

Estes sold work for Yard-Nique for one to two years after selling the business, always letting DuMont know if he was planning to work and sell for the week or if he needed to step out. “If he wanted to sell, he would. If he wasn’t feeling well and wanted to spend time with family, he would do so. We were always OK with that. It was a mutual understanding.”

Rob spent his last year working to transform a “barren stretch of land” he owned into a beautiful property. Upon his death, family members buried him at the Ebenezer Stone Farm property.
Focus on what matters

Over time, Estes gradually decreased his involvement at Yard-Nique. Philip Shell, a Georgia-based landscape designer whom Estes mentored, says Estes’ focus shifted after his diagnosis.

“It was more of an emphasis on the things that mattered,” he says. “(Work) was still important, but there was this reality check for him – work’s not as important as family.”

By mid- to late-2016, DuMont says Estes stopped working for Yard-Nique, aside from communicating with DuMont and other people on the team. However, he refocused to work on advancing Can’t Never Could.

“(Can’t Never Could) was truly an amazing thing he did,” DuMont says. “And that’s what he wants to be remembered for. He might have started a landscape business, but his true legacy is in what he did through Can’t Never Could.”

Pinewood Atlanta Studios
Photo courtesy of © 2018 Pinewood Atlanta LLC.

The nonprofit received donations, which Christi and Estes then gave back as grants to people who are facing adversity. To date, it has helped provide a few scholarships to students involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It has also provided grant money to the Piedmont Brain Tumor Center where Estes was diagnosed as well as individuals facing brain cancer or other illnesses. The nonprofit raises money through donations and through a dinner each March called Grey Matters. “Gray is the color for brain cancer on the cancer ribbon,” Christi says.

Estes also took time his last year to build Ebenezer Stone Farm, a dream cabin for his family in Gay, Georgia, a very small town in Meriwether County. He spent his last year working to transform a “barren stretch of land” he owned into a beautiful property. Christi says he wanted to turn it into a “garden of Eden on earth” for the family to enjoy.

“We named it Ebenezer Stone Farm after a place in the Book of Samuel, which means, ‘the place where God helps us,’” she says.

And the space was just that for Estes – friends and colleagues say he often retreated to that space when he needed time to think toward the end of his life.

“I never saw Rob ‘down’ except for one time in this whole ordeal,” says Parks, his mother. “He and I went down to the farm, the two of us, and it was the only time I saw him sad and feeling like he might not be able to make it. And on that day, he showed me where he wanted to be buried. I didn’t want to talk about it, but I guess in his mind’s eye, he knew that’s where he wanted to be.”

“Rob would tell you that he would not change his diagnosis if he had a second chance at life. He said it made him a better person, a better friend, a better father, a better husband.” – Christi Estes

Estes had a seizure in mid-December 2017 that took away most of his physical capabilities. He died about one week after and was buried at Ebenezer Stone Farm, which was near completion. Friends and family close to him say his death came suddenly.

“I saw him two weeks before he died,” Shell says. “We spent some time together, caught up on life and work at (Ebenezer Stone Farm). He was incredibly optimistic, trusting God was in control and he’d get through it. I asked him how he was feeling, and he said, ‘My voice is gone, but other than that I’m feeling good.’ It was soon after his conversation he died. He was doing really well, but the reality is he had a serious illness.”

While Estes was known to have incredible landscape design, he wanted to be remembered for how he helped others.

“It’s my hope that my life and that what we’re doing will not be about all the landscape projects I’ve done,” he said in a short documentary posted on the Can’t Never Could website. “I want it to be about the footprint I’ve made on this earth.”