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Time tested

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Phillips and Sons Landscaping shares some hard-won experiences that helped shape its success.

Kristen Hampshire | January 29, 2014

“The only thing that stays the same in life is change,” says Barry Phillips, reflecting on more than 35 years in business at Phillips and Sons Landscaping in Somerset, N.J. In 1978, the company started as a humble outfit – just Phillips and his father working nights and weekends. Phillips remembers fastening a flashlight to their mowers so they could work past sunset to finish jobs.

During those early days, Phillips was also working a full-time job in the chemical industry. But that future didn’t look so bright.

“The EPA started closing down a lot of the chemical plants, and I decided that it would be a good time to do something for myself,” says Phillips, who served in the military overseas for six years until 1972.

From the start, Phillips and Sons has been a family affair, and it officially became a full-time pursuit for Phillips in 1983. Then, once in elementary school, his three sons joined the business as young helpers, lending a hand on weekends or days off school. His daughter was involved, too.

Phillips laughs, remembering how he taught his daughter to drive a dump truck when she was 10. “She said, ‘Daddy, how do you drive this?’ So I said, ‘Get over here,’ and I showed her how. It cost me $1,200 for a new clutch, but she now can drive anything in the lot – a dump truck, a bulldozer, any of the equipment.”

Phillips’ children are grown now, and his son, Barry Jr., still works in the business and will take over the operation once Phillips decides to slow down.

Passing the baton

Barry Phillips’ children started doing “ride alongs” with dad before they were doing long division. Any opportunity to help in the field and behind the scenes was utilized as a fun tutorial in disguise. His three sons and daughter learned the ropes early when the business was maintenance-only.

Work ethic runs in the family – you could say it’s a core value for the family. “I had a full-time job when I was eight years old – my brother and myself, father and mother, we had a great work ethic, and my sons and daughter do, too,” Phillips says.

Phillips’ son, Barry Jr., 37, currently works in the operation. Since the passing of Phillips’ brother, Barry Jr. is tuning in more carefully to some of the business operations. He’s learning exactly what a “typical day” as owner of Phillips and Sons Landscaping means.

“I might be welding on a pickup truck or changing oil on the trucks,” Phillips says of the hands-on activities he participates in as owner. It’s not all admin., but the client service piece is the most important aspect of Phillips’ role as owner.

Phillips is giving his son a taste of some of the decisions he makes and will shift more responsibility to Barry Jr. in the next five or so years. Phillips says, he’s getting ready. Slowly.

“When I leave, it’s probably going to better than what I would have done if I was there.”

In the meantime, there’s a lot of knowledge stored in Phillips’ mental bank to pass down. Here are some of the experiences that have shaped Phillips and Sons during its 35-year history, along with Phillips’ time-tested tenets for running a successful landscape firm.
 

Communicate with care.

What does it take to stay in business for several decades – to persevere through economic ups and downs? “It takes someone to stay on top of phone calls – personalization with the customer,” Phillips says.

Particularly, homeowner associations and corporate accounts require “a lot of finesse on the phone” and in-person meetings.

“I like to deal with everyone face to face.”

Phillips might make the first few contacts by phone, and use e-mail to follow up and stay in touch with clients, but never as a sole form of communication. Personal contact with each client is how he assures customers are satisfied, and suggests enhancements.

“I always go out, walk the property, take notes – I go over that with the client and I produce a contract and I make sure they are satisfied,” he says. “I give the crews a copy of the contract so they know what they are supposed to accomplish.”

Keeping in touch with clients is critical, Phillips adds. Many times, you won’t know about a problem until you call. And if you aren’t reaching out, who knows how long a client could simmer over an issue that could be quickly solved.

“Clients appreciate when you stay in touch with them – when you treat them as more than a paycheck at the end of the month. They mean much more than that to your business.”
 

Nothing’s a sure thing.

Today, Phillips and Sons has nine employees and generates about $1.5 million in revenue. At its peak in the mid-1990s, the business had 16 people on staff and ran four to five crews. “It grew by word of mouth – we did a good job, we did an honest day’s work for an honest wage, and people appreciated that and I always backed everything up. If they lost a plant, I replaced it,” Phillips says.

The commercial side of the business took off during the firm’s boom time, and Phillips and Sons acquired corporate contracts that ultimately resulted in business expansion throughout New Jersey.

But project volume has decreased since the homeowner association/condo business has slowed, and since the economic recession is still not bouncing back in Phillips’ mind.

“It is not the money-making market it used to be,” he says.

“You could make a good buck on the associations and condos, but most of the large corporations have put on their own maintenance crews and it’s cheaper for them to do that,” he says.

There are plenty of low-priced contractors willing to work, he adds. “I don’t know how they carry their insurance policies and provide all of the services they say they do.”

Actually, Phillips does know how: by providing a lesser quality service. “You cannot provide excellent service and only break even,” he says. So Phillips took a hit by losing some condo and association work; but he gained an attractive corporate account, Darden Restaurants (Red Lobster, Longhorn Steakhouse and others).
 

Adapt and learn.

Flexibility helps a business weather 35 years of winning, and losing clients – expanding in robust times, and running lean in the recession. The ability to be nimble, to ramp up or tighten up, has served Phillips and Sons well in its time.

“It’s not easy,” Phillips says of running a business and staying in business.

Sometimes, it’s downright painful. Like two years ago, when a $350,000 client never paid in full.

“It came down to the last $75,000 payment – that was my payday – and the client went bankrupt,” he says.

“You have to push against the wind, and that’s exactly what I did. We cut back: no more frills and extras. No more two or three trucks going to a job. We squeezed into two or one truck. We scurried around to overcome that dilemma and, you know, we are still paying for that.”

But going back to his mantra about change, Phillips knows this will not be the last unexpected riff his business experiences. And because the company keeps its eye on what matters most (customers), Phillips is creating a rich legacy to pass on to family.

“I’m looking forward to the next five years as the economy starts to recover and my son is going to take on more responsibility.”

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