Dave Stracka launched a landscape center in a bad economy, and is ready to reap the benefits.
Sure, launching a landscape center in a tough economy is risky – betting the farm on the success of a startup when, in general, business is declining takes entrepreneurial guts. But Dave Stracka, owner of D.S. Enterprises Lawn & Landscaping in Rockford, Ill., figured last year was prime time to begin building a new operation.
“The price was right because of the economy,” he says of the 7-acre property he had been eyeing for a few years before purchasing it in December 2010. “People wonder, ‘Why would someone start a business in a bad economy’ and, well, things are cheaper, so that helps.”
And Stracka had a strong feeling that his landscape center would appeal to other contractors who spent significant windshield time driving from one supplier to the next to gather nursery stock, hardscape materials, equipment parts and everything else required for a design/build or maintenance firm. In fact, it was during one of Stracka’s materials runs that he got the idea for Cherry Valley Landscape Center, which opened its doors in spring 2011.
“After about a dozen stops at different places, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if there was one place to go to get all of our materials and equipment and service?’” says Stracka, who has run his design/build firm for 15 years.
“That’s when I came up with the idea to start a landscape center,” he continues, noting that his one-stop-shop business model is unique in the area. There’s really no place to go to pick up all of the supplies a landscaper needs. “There are places to go get plant material, and places to get stone and pavers and boulders – other landscape supplies – but there is not one place where you can go and get everything,” Stracka says.
Basically, Stracka’s business model for Cherry Valley Landscape Center is to be all things for landscapers and homeowners who are looking for an array of products and services but don’t want to spend the time sourcing products from multiple locations.
So Stracka built a business plan, remodeled the existing building on the property, added a service shop and began bringing in lines of equipment. He hired six more employees, adding to his staff of 12 that run the landscape design/build and maintenance crews. And since opening Cherry Valley, he has discovered that the two businesses feed each other and the visibility of Cherry Valley’s location puts D.S. Enterprises in the spotlight. Plus, with a collection of equipment for sale that takes the business through winter (thanks to snow removal lines), the operation is viable year-round. “People don’t forget about us over the winter,” Stracka says.
Filling a niche
Before Cherry Valley Landscape Center opened, Stracka had to drive about 40 to 50 miles to buy or service snow removal equipment. In the dead of winter – or any time, for that matter – this haul was a real time suck. “Most contractors had been going out of town previously to buy snow removal equipment,” Stracka says, identifying a market opportunity for his new landscape center.
Stracka stocks ice melt, salt and shovels, snow blowers, snow plows and parts. “That was a need in this area,” he says simply.
He followed the same supply-demand strategy when stocking equipment. Plus, having run a landscape design business for so long, he had definite opinions on how he would run a dealership differently. “The dealers that were here just weren’t representing the brand – we do demos and take equipment to contractors and try to get it into their hands,” he says of his main mower lines.
The same theory applies to service: “Contractors make their money with this equipment, so you have to get it fixed and back to them,” Stracka says. “There are a lot of (equipment dealers) where service takes too long, and so we really try to make the turnaround fast for them.”
As for choosing the lines, Stracka says he’s owned a mower in almost every color. “I know what’s good and what’s not,” he says, adding with the brands he sells, “I wouldn’t feel guilty selling anything to a contractor.”
As for the customer mix at the landscape center, Stracka says it’s 50/50 consumer and commercial clients. He carries mowers for homeowners and consumer lines, and bringing in a mix of contractors and homeowners has been important for diversifying the landscape center business and building Stracka’s design/build firm.
“We get a lot of customers coming into the garden center who are looking for design/build services and they don’t know where to go, so we end up getting work out of that,” Stracka says.
Supporting the core
Doing business from a rolling storefront just doesn’t substantiate higher prices for services, Stracka says. While D.S. Enterprises had been renting a location for its design/build and maintenance firm, the visibility just wasn’t there.
“Having a storefront or permanent location makes people feel more comfortable,” he says of his residential design/build and maintenance clients. “So, we can charge what we need to charge.”
Homeowners who visit Cherry Valley for plants or other products find out about D.S. Enterprises – the companies cross-market their services – and many like the idea that they can call a professional for help with their outdoor projects. So the businesses feed each other.
Plus, D.S. Enterprises buys all of its supplies and equipment from Cherry Valley, so the new landscape center had one very loyal customer from the beginning. And so far, Stracka is pleased with how the landscape center is performing. “We see new customers every day, and repeat customers,” he says. “The service department has been busy and plant sales are picking up.”
Stracka says branching into the supply side of the industry has opened doors for growth – though he’s not exactly sure yet how much. “Right now, I’m paying the bills and I’m happy,” he says, admitting to a strong entrepreneurial intuition.
“I’ve always been willing to take a risk,” Stracka says. “If you are in business, you have to. You either move forward or fall back, so I decided to take a jump and see what happened.”
This story is one of three that appeared in Lawn & Landscape’s Business Builder e-newsletter. To keep reading about D.S. Enterprises Lawn & Landscaping and Cherry Valley Landscape Center:
Starting up smart: Here are four tips for growing a business.
Staying small, growing big: D.S. Enterprises chooses quality work over quantity.