The biggest companies in the industry didn’t reach their ranking overnight. For some, it’s taken decades. Others, generations. During those years – some good, some bad – their dedication to the industry allowed them to grow and now claim a spot among the Lawn & Landscape Top 100, sponsored by Exmark.
It isn’t an easy climb. This year, Lawn & Landscape spoke to five leaders about what they’ve learned during their years in the industry. How did they get to the top of their industry, and who helped them get there? What mistakes have they made, what lessons have they learned and what are the secrets behind the success that got their companies on our Top 100 list? A running theme is close families, tremendous focus, energetic employees and a fervent devotion to customer service.
So, read on. Examine and take from what others have learned to build one of the best, and perhaps one of the biggest, companies in the landscaping industry.
As always, we make every attempt to identify and contact companies via email and phone to gather the data needed to compile our annual Top 100 list. If you know of a company we missed on the list this year, please contact Editor and Associate Publisher Chuck Bowen at email@example.com or 330-523-5330.
CLICK HERE for the full Top 100 List in PDF format.
CLICK HERE for the digital edition version of our Top 100 list.
Jon Georgio, Gothic Landscape, president
Gothic was the street we grew up on in the San Fernando Valley.
When it came time to incorporate one day, my brothers and I looked outside the garage, saw the Gothic Avenue sign and that became the name of our company. We tried to change it a couple of times – corporate ID experts said we had to change it, that it had horrible connotations – and both times, the experts came back and said, “You can’t change it. There’s too much goodwill associated with your name.”
My brother Mike and I took over the company as very young men. We were in our mid-20s, and we had some clients and some older guys we knew who were successful, and we met with them at least four times a year. We sought out their advice. One became a mentor of mine. These last 25 years, I’ve been meeting with him at least four to six times a year, to bounce everything off of him. That has been a huge advantage for us, to have that informal advisory board.
Take advice. The best part of advice is actually taking it. People have been there and done that. You just don’t have to make those same mistakes if you take a few minutes to incorporate what they say.
One of the best pieces of advice was from my brother Mike, who passed a couple of years ago. He told me to always leave the job with your head held high. His point was that you should never leave a project having made money but not having made the client happy. That really stuck with us. It’s part of our culture.
The other really good piece of advice I received was from a professor in business school who taught me about a mission statement. What he told me was a company needs to stand for something. People don’t get inspired, they don’t wake up every day and say, “I really want to go out and make a bunch of money for this company today. I’m really motivated by that.” So our mission statement is to create true partnerships through extraordinary service. It’s something people can wake up and get excited about. I really think that’s the glue that binds our 1,100 employees together – when they wake up, they think, “How can I create a partnership with my client?” And profits follow.
It was Day 1. Mike and I sat down, very informally, at a coffee shop, and decided what this company with only 20 employees would stand for.
Mike was the most active guy you’ve ever seen. We have a customer survey we do monthly, where somebody from our corporate office calls on all these active jobs. If we have a superintendent who answered less than eight on a scale of 10, my brother Mike would personally call you and meet with you and find out why we’re not a 10. He really lived his life making sure our clients were happy. He was ready to get out of the office and get to a job site. He would jump on a tractor in $300 shoes.
You ask who I admire. My brother Ron was the president of a window and door manufacturer for 14 years in the Southeast. He came back and joined the company in 1998, ’99, and he’s the absolute smartest guy I know. You don’t want to play poker with him. He’s grown our maintenance business. He took us from $2 million to $30 million. Just an amazing leader.
Our company is run, on a day-to-day basis, by amazing non-family managers. One of the favorite parts of my day is watching these employees who have been with us for 15 to 20 years blossom into industry-leading executives.
What we’re going to take away from this recession is the continual reinvention of our company. In Las Vegas, which is the worst market we’re in on the construction side, our management team created a situation where 85 percent of our revenue in 2010 was in product lines that we didn’t have three years ago. Talk about a management team that reinvented its business. We didn’t do public work three years ago. We didn’t do general contracting. They’re doing native restoration, public works projects, transportation projects, and they just reinvented themselves to keep our staff employed.
The fact that the name of our company is the street we grew up on keeps us pretty rooted.
Scott Jamieson, Bartlett Tree Experts, vice president
Stay close to your clients because they are going through the same thing. Relationships, even in a recession can carry the day.
A lot of our clients, who we were doing larger programs with for many years – they had to cut back. Instead of us reacting a certain way, our primary response was let’s stay close to our clients. Let’s do what we need to do to help them through this but also keep them as clients. So it might be reducing their program a little or doing a little less. But more than anything, it was stopping in and checking in with them. Not just to ask for the sale, but to see how they’re doing.
There was one of those forks in the road for me when I went to school. It was the naval academy or Purdue forestry. They were two very divergent paths. I often do wonder if I had gone to the naval academy and chosen a career in the Navy – I probably wouldn’t be working in tree care.
Interacting with clients is always my touchstone. If the day is going bad, if I can interact with a client somewhere, it always brings it back to what I’m doing in business. But then I also enjoy interacting with employees and helping them get where they want to be both personally and professionally.
We’re optimistic. The cautiously optimistic thing, the cautiously part has gone out a bit and we’re feeling good about where are clients are and where we’re headed. We’ve done a couple acquisitions. We’re feeling good about growth and expansion. I think it is a little different though. It’s not like, hey let’s go hog wild. It’s a little more constrained. A little more thoughtful. But we’re pretty optimistic. And we’ve controlled costs from early on and I think we’re watching those and investing a little smarter.
There’s no question the company is going to continue to grow and expand, both within its market. I’ll use Chicago as an example, where I’m at. That’s a market the company’s been in for years but has a tremendous upside potential to grab more market share especially, as we’ve seen some consolidation of other companies in this market. And there’s Atlanta, San Francisco, some markets where we’re at, I think we could see tremendous growth in those markets. There may be new ones we enter, but when I look at Bartlett’s foot print, it’s pretty good. It just probably needs some bolstering in some of these major metro areas, like the three I just mentioned that we could be doing significantly more.
I’m really concerned for the nurseries, really concerned like never have been concerned before. Then after that the commercial landscape maintenance companies I’m concerned for. And we do some of that work through some of those folks. But I’ve watched the competiveness and I’d call it the commoditization of commercial landscape maintenance has really gotten me concerned for the industry. Can it ever come back? Or have the prices and the competition and the amount of players pushed it so low that the property managers now go, “Now we know what this stuff is really worth. We’re only going to pay this.” I’m concerned about that.
I love doing sports photography for my son who plays hockey. He’s a goalie for the high school team. So I’m always the official photographer for the team it seems like.
Trying not to be trite, but the first person that comes to mind who I look up to is my wife.
It’s because she was a career person, always was, came out of school and was in a career and then raised our family while I was out on the road helping to grow a business. I’ve always admired her ability to do all those things in my absence and juggle a ton of things. She’s also a ferocious volunteer and a great friend to people when they need someone.
Harvey Massey, Massey Services, chairmain and CEO
Carol and I will have been married 48 years on August 24. We’ve been married a long time. If I had married the wrong person, it detracts the mind and the heart from the things you’re trying to build and create in business.
I think she’s going to keep me. I’m not sure.
One of the things that I think has kept us together as a family over the years is the fact that my wife has always insisted, even when I was at Orkin and Terminix many years ago, we would take two weeks off every July and our family would get together. We went to Hilton Head for 15 years. In the winter time, we would go to Colorado, mostly, and we would spend a week skiing. My wife has always been the one who has kept all that together. If you keep the family together, it provides everybody an opportunity to try to enhance the quality of the time together. We are still, as a family, very close.
Middleton happened to be one of the things that I was extremely familiar with. I had a great deal of respect for, and a 44-year relationship with, Chuck Steinmetz, and Greg Clendenin is a damn good operator. I became a shareholder because I knew Chuck and Clendenin. But here was a situation with a private company, built on the principles of being private, that became public. The people involved in some of those things became more interested in ROI than sustainability, quality growth and employee retention. Business wasn’t doing well, and the stock continued to plummet. You start to protect your own investments. I met with our CFO and I met with my son Tony. We talked and talked and talked, and Tony probably put it best. He said, “Dad, you’ve always told me, don’t look back and say, What if? If we don’t pursue this, I’m afraid we’re going to look back and say, What if? Because that company fits with us and we could be a great company together. We could be a stronger company together.” I said, “Let’s go for it.”
It wasn’t a detailed strategy where we had to be the biggest. I didn’t even know at the time that, if we did it, we would be the fifth-largest business in the industry. I didn’t know we would be the largest, privately-owned family business in the industry. Had nothing at all to do with it. We never had those discussions.
I don’t know how big we’re going to be, I don’t know where we’re going to wind up, but it won’t be where we are. We’re going to be bigger, and we’re going to be better.
If you go online and read our mission statement, we call it our guiding philosophy, I wrote that. Toughest damn thing I ever did in my life. Once you write it and publish it, then you have to walk the talk.
I don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I sometimes go back to Louisiana and ponder some of my childhood. I have to rack my brain, from one side to the other, to remember that stuff. I just don’t spend a lot of time looking back. I’m always looking up and looking forward.
When something doesn’t go right, I tell people, “You’re going to make mistakes, but you’re not going to make one we can’t correct.”
I don’t know what my biggest mistakes are. I’ve tried to learn from every one of them. What I do know is that I’ve spent my life teaching and trying to project a management style that says you have to learn from every mistake you make. Maybe the greatest mistake becomes when you identify a mistake and don’t do what needs to be done to correct it.
I have a ranch called Journey. Many people have often asked, “Why Journey?” Well, I did an interview a while back and the lady asked me, “When did you know you had arrived?” I said I didn’t understand the question. She said, “Well, when did you know you had made it?” I chuckled and said, I still don’t understand your question. She said, “When did you know you were successful?” I said, “You make this sound like you start at A get to B, or C, or D, or E, or F. I don’t look upon my life as a destination. It’s a journey.”
I was doing an interview and one of the questions was, “Who has most influenced you in your career?” I said, “Well, Fats Domino.” They said, “Why would Fats Domino influence you?” I said, “He taught me the lyrics to Blueberry Hill.” I’ve been known to sing that. I had a band when I was 15, 16, 17. Great fun as a kid.
Frank Mariani, Mariani Landscape, CEO
Might as well start with the family. That’s what it’s all about.
My grandfather on my mother’s side had a nursery, John Fiore. He started that nursery in 1915. I actually grew up at that nursery. My dad, when he came from Italy and married my mom, he worked for my grandfather and eventually started a little landscape maintenance business in 1958. Unfortunately, he passed away in 1973, at the age of 45. I was just finishing high school and, being the oldest of five boys, I took over the range. I didn’t go to college. I took some courses at night, never got a degree, but took business courses, court courses. I just knew I had a responsibility to my family, I had a responsibility to my associates and I had a responsibility to our clients. I didn’t want to let my father down.
I was a little bit of a wild child in high school, and I think most people thought I was going to fail. That gave me a tremendous amount of drive. There was no way I was going to let those guys be right.
When you get up about 4:30 in the morning and go to work, and you put in a long, long day, I wasn’t happy to have nine employees and a couple of trucks. I said, “You know, if I’m going to work this hard, I’m going to build something that’s better than anybody else.” I really thought we could be best in class. And the only way I knew to attract good people was to continue to grow.
I didn’t want to grow just to grow. I wanted to grow so my team would have the opportunity to grow with me. That’s always been my motivation. We’ve got employees that have been with the company longer than me. I’m very proud of that. I think it makes my job easier, it makes our company better, it gives our clients more expertise. I’m one of the luckiest guys in the world. I’m 57, I’ve been running a company going on almost 40 years and I still like going to work almost every day. How many people can say that?
They call me relentless. This might not be a good thing, but I’m never satisfied. I don’t mean that in a negative way, but no matter how well we do, I think we can do a little bit better. I hope it drives our team. I have a lot of associates here who have the same sort of passion.
The down time is the best time to invest in your company. We added people who may never have looked at working for a landscape company. They came from construction or business backgrounds, and we were able to pick ’em up. Real gems. We built a nursery during one recession, we built a new office during another recession, we added property during another recession. We invest during bad times because we know that after bad times come good times, and we want to be prepared.
The older I get, the more I recognize I don’t know much. There’s still a world out there I don’t know and don’t understand. I have to work to educate myself, and we have to educate ourselves as a team. I live with my BlackBerry, my emails, my texts. The company is on Facebook. We use blogs on our website. The future is not going to be emails, and the future is not going to be websites. The future is probably something you and I don’t even know about yet.
I’m old. I’m like a dinosaur. You’re lucky I’m using the computer.
I feel like I’m 8.
We are aggressively going out and seeking the right types of jobs, figuring out sales strategies, figuring out how to get in front of people and win their confidence and win their business. There’s still a lot of work out there, it’s just harder to get it. Fine. I’m in. I’m game. It’s us against everybody else and, you know, may the best man win.
My dad gave me a great little business when times were better for growing a business. You could make mistakes and you weren’t under a magnifying glass. I feel for my son and some of the younger people in the company I know will be future leaders. It’s so much harder now. It’s so much harder. That drives me. I want to be there, I want to mentor them, I want to help them. The greatest thing that could happen to me is my son and some of the younger people in this company take it to another level and people say, “Vito Mariani did a great job, Frank Mariani did an OK job, but these guys, you should see what they’ve done to the company now.” That would be the best thing of my life.
Larry Ryan, Ryan Lawn & Tree, president
The right people have made all the difference in the world. We hired our first fulltime employee two years in, and he’s been here since then. Probably the thing I’ve done wrong is the opposite of that, keeping some people in our organization too long, thinking that I can change them the way I want to change them.
At the end of the year, we evaluate people by asking two questions: Did you help pull us up? Or did you pull us down? If you pulled us down, why are you still here? But if you pulled us up, then we have something to talk about, and we can talk about how you can become even better. That’s sort of an overview of philosophy. I think a large part of running a company is philosophy.
We have a meeting every year where we bring all the branches together. It’s a very positive thing, where everyone states their goals for the previous year and whether they hit them or not, then they state their goals for the coming year and why they think they can do better. If you do that in front of all your peers, you have to put a little thought into it. Some of the people really think it through. They look at it as part of their commitment to each other.
You absolutely have to learn from mistakes and leave them behind you. My father had a saying. He said, “Show me the man who doesn’t make a mistake, and I’ll show you the man who doesn’t do anything.”
We don’t want to make every mistake, so we’ve learned from other people’s mistakes, too. If I was picking one mistake, it would be keeping someone who just had a bad attitude. I don’t care how talented someone is, it’s not worth working with them if it makes life miserable.
You read a lot, you pick up an idea here and there.
What do I read? I read ’em all. Peter Drucker, Les Schwab, all the Tom Peters, Good to Great, Behind the Golden Arches, Tipping Point.
We grew up on a farm in central Kansas, near Abilene, Eisenhower’s hometown, about 150 miles west of Kansas City. I was fourth of 10, so I’m in the middle. Sometimes I say I’m the youngest of four and the oldest of seven.
We learned the value of quantity and speed. We had to finish each job as fast as we could and get on to the next one. It wasn’t until I watched In Search of Excellence on PBS – I used to play that over and over again – that I realized how valuable it was to do the job right every time. That was critical.
Oh, my gosh, I was fulltime on a tractor at 9, I was working a full day in the field at 9. We milked cows, we fed pigs and cattle and chickens, we harvested. It was about survival.
Every night, we had prayer. My father was a World War II veteran who married mom at the end of the war and had 10 kids over the next 18 years. He was afraid he wouldn’t survive and would leave mom with a bunch of little kids to feed. So our focus in prayer was that all of his sons get through college. Back then, you didn’t think about your daughters, because they would get married. Later, he said he never meant to slight his daughters. Well, all of his daughters became registered nurses and all of his sons are driven professionals. He taught us how to work. He taught us the power of persistence, perseverance. He was very successful.
We’re all still married to the same spouse, and any of us could have tossed the towel in a time or two. I don’t know how you measure that.
My father died in 1990. He was 85. Mom was 14 years younger than him. She died a couple of years ago. She was 89. She taught us to live. Her funeral, for me, wasn’t even sad. She had purpose.
I can run a chainsaw all day long. It’s very quick, from one job to the next, trimming trees, cutting trees. I still love it. I don’t do it much any more.