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ValleyCrest loses its head gardener

Features - Industry News

Six decades after starting what would become the world’s largest landscape company, Burt Sperber has passed away.

Chuck Bowen | November 2, 2011

The founder and leader of the world's largest landscape company has died. Burt Sperber, who founded ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., passed away in late September from complications from surgery. He was 82.

Sperber leaves behind a legacy in the green industry for having grown a small Southern California tree care and nursery company for six decades into a billion-dollar landscaping powerhouse with offices across the world. ValleyCrest crews have built entire mountains on the Las Vegas strip and zoos in the Middle East.

But despite all his worldly achievements, Sperber remained a humble, behind-the-scenes man who was quick to give credit to his executive team and thousands of employees as the real source of the company's success.

He insisted his title was "head gardener" and, in a 2009 interview, explained why. "I like the gardening business. I like building gardens. I like taking care of gardens. It's what I do for a living," he told a group of landscapers. "Anybody who looks down on it doesn't understand it – if you're not proud of the industry, go be a photographer, a banker, a lawyer."
 

History. Sperber was born May 14, 1929, in Los Angeles. In 1949, at age 19, he founded what would become ValleyCrest. He led the family of companies with vision and wisdom through decades of dynamic growth to become the nation's largest, privately-held landscape company.

A True Leader

When Burton S. Sperber started ValleyCrest in 1949, the company wasn't much more than a shed full of used hand tools, an aging pickup truck and a pegboard accounting system. Sixty years later, ValleyCrest is the nation's largest privately-held integrated landscaping services company with nearly a billion dollars in sales.

But by meeting Sperber and hearing him speak, you'd never know that he is the head of a true empire.

People tell Sperber that he is a lucky man to be so successful. "I tell them that it is not luck that made ValleyCrest the successful company that it is today – it's when hard work and good timing collide," he says.

As a high school gardener at his neighborhood nursery, Sperber learned what was important about his industry. He never attended college. Rather, he learned about business the hard way – by working hard.

Sperber's boss and first mentor was Mossimo Gianulli, the Italian owner of MG Nurseries who could hardly speak a word of English. "Mossimo taught me everything I needed to know about the industry at an early age," says Sperber. "He taught me how to serve customers and work hard."

Sperber takes pride in the fact that, although his company is large, it's still run like a family business. And, knowing how entrepreneurial industry leaders like to be, he recognizes and rewards the entrepreneurial spirit. "Our employee retention is unbelievable for a company of our size," says Sperber. "We have very little turnover. The biggest challenge for me is continuing to bring good people into our company."

And thanks to Sperber's steady leadership, ValleyCrest is well-positioned to survive the ups and downs of the economy.

"Over 60 years, we grew our business slowly, at no more than 15 percent a year. Prior to the onset of this current recession, some businesses doubled their revenues every year. We were careful not to subscribe to this. The main problem with growing your business too fast is the lack of ability to finance your growth. During the good times, companies in our industry had a tendency to take on bigger jobs than what they can really handle."

The excerpt above was taken from Sperber's 2009 Lawn & Landscape Leadership profile. To read more, visit www.lawnandlandscape.com and search "Sperber."

Sperber got his start in the landscape industry early. His father owned a retail nursery, and he was a member of the Future Farmers of America at North Hollywood High School. When he was a teenager, he worked after school at the MG Nursery in North Hollywood, Calif., and a Sears, Roebuck and Co. nursery in Los Angeles. In 1949, Sperber purchased the MG Nursery business with his father as a partner when the owner, Mossimo Giannulli passed away.

Sperber's hard work and dedication helped ValleyCrest take advantage of the country's economic boom after World War II, and he expanded the company to eventually include landscape development and maintenance, landscape architecture, tree care services, golf course maintenance, a tree company, residential services, as well as a commercial maintenance division, U.S. Lawns.

Now with more than 9,000 employees, operations in more than 150 locations around the world, it is listed at No. 2 on Lawn & Landscape's 2010 Top 100 list, with revenue of $835 million, and on the Forbes 500.

Whether they know it or not, millions of people have experienced the work off ValleyCrest. The company's book of business reads like a "Who's Who" of the world's landscapes: Walt Disney Concert Hall, the Getty Center, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Gardens in San Marino, Calif., Wynn Encore and Wynn Las Vegas, CityCenter, Caesar's Palace, and Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, Disney's Animal Kingdom in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., Boston's Central Artery (the Big Dig), venues for the 1996 and 1984 Olympic Games, and several professional sport stadiums.

Sperber was a founding member of several state and national landscape associations and was a fellow in the American Society of Landscape Architects (FASLA). He served as a director of Los Angeles Beautiful and was a former director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation.
 

Looking ahead. Today, the company is led by Sperber's son, president and CEO Richard A. Sperber.

"The unexpected passing of my dad came as a complete shock to me, the family and everyone who knew him," he says. "I had the great privilege of working with him side by side every day and saw how he loved nurturing people. Nothing made him happier than watching everyone at ValleyCrest grow and seeing people do great things both inside and outside the company. He always encouraged us to do the right thing and was an amazing family man. I'm taking on the personal responsibility to carry on his legacy and values he instilled in me as I lead the company forward."

In a 2009 profile of his father, Richard described the secrets to his success:

"There are so many factors that make my father a good leader, but three factors instantly come to mind. He is honest to a fault. He consistently does exactly what he says. That is one of the leading keys to his success. My father genuinely loves this industry. I can't believe how much time he spends helping others in the industry, always making time to return calls and even continue dialogues for a week or more with landscapers all over the country, many of whom he doesn't even know, who consistently ask him for advice.

"Third, he has a love for our employees. He constantly engages and mentors people within our organization. He is on the phone all day long – whether talking to field workers or managers."
 

Outside the industry. Sperber often joked that he was more well-known in the world of magic than the green industry. Equally passionate and accomplished as a magician, Sperber was inducted as a member of the prestigious Inner Magic Circle of England, the highest degree a magician can earn, and was one of only a few Americans to achieve such elite ranking. He was also named Magician of the Year in 2011.

During his life, Sperber was active in many efforts to build and support the Jewish community in Los Angeles. He helped to build Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, Calif., where he was made a lifetime member. He was instrumental in the building of the University of Judaism, now American Jewish University. He was also involved in countless charitable and educational endeavors including USC's School of Architecture and Cal Poly Pomona's Horticulture program.

A decorated Army veteran who served as a master sergeant in the Korean War, Sperber is survived by his wife Charlene, and their three children, Ellice Sperber, Michelle Sperber and Richard A. Sperber, a sister Deanna Colton, and seven grandchildren. He was preceded in death by a daughter, Wendie Jo Sperber, and brother, Stuart J. Sperber.



In 2010, Burt sat down with Bill Hildebolt, then president of PLANET, at the association’s Executive Forum for a Q&A. He discussed the importance of strong financials, how he motivates his teams and why he still thinks of himself as a gardener. Visit www.lawnandlandscape.com and search “Sperber.”
 

Burt Sperber grew ValleyCrest Cos. into a billion-dollar landscaping firm with offices across the world. Sperber and ValleyCrest circa 1950s (left). Sperber with Lady Bird Johnson (right).

 

An Industry Mourns
Lawn & Landscape asked Sperber’s colleagues, competitors and clients what he meant to them, how he’d impacted their lives and what his loss means for the industry.


"PLANET is deeply saddened by the loss of an industry legend, Burt Sperber. Our association and industry are that much better for having known him and for having been able to have learned from his philosophies and innovations. He was truly an inspiration, visionary and an icon in the green industry. His spirit and legacy will continue to live on throughout the many professionals in our industry." – Sabeena Hickman, chief operating officer, PLANET


"When people ask me where I got my training to start my own company I tell them I worked for the Ford Motor Co. of the landscape industry. And clearly Burt was the 'Henry' of ValleyCrest.

"He was a perfect gentleman, extremely bright, aggressive and the epitome of a can-do attitude. At CoCal Landscape, we had a philosophy: 'Get the work and we'll figure out how to get it done.' That came from Burt Sperber.

"He had a knack for attracting very talented people to ValleyCrest and nurtured an environment that results in very little of that talent leaving the company. But I think his greatest attribute was his genuine love of his employees and in particular the guys that worked in the field. He knew it took the field operations to make ValleyCrest go, and he treated all of them with the utmost respect.

"He was quite a remarkable man, and I'm quite fortunate to have known him for most of my adult life. A truly great man who built a great company. He will be sorely missed." – Tom Fochtman


"I had the good fortune of working nearly 30 years with ValleyCrest Companies and Burt Sperber was indeed ValleyCrest. Burt was all about family, the people he worked with and excellence in everything he and the company performed.

"Burt was a strong family man and dearly loved his children and had an amazing marriage with his wife Charlene for over 60 years. He surrounded himself with the top talent in the industry and treated them with respect and allowed them the freedom to achieve at the highest levels.

"Burt clearly understood that great companies are built with the right people in place. There are no companies better at doing this and that was because of Burt. His passion for landscape was enormous and it was even greater for the people that he worked with from the top levels all the way through to the workers in the field.

"I had the great opportunity to work closely with Burt on several fronts and each time, even on some occasions with 'spirited dialogue,' we always ended with a mutual understanding and appreciation for each other. Thank you, Head Gardener Burt, for everything you taught me about this wonderful business. I promise to pass forward everything I learned from you." – Bill Arman, head harvester, The Harvest Group


"The first time we met, our company was tiny and yet he made me feel like the most important person in the room. That first meeting was very inspirational, and I believe it left a lasting impression that helped guide me for the past 38 years. One thing is for sure: He will never be replaced." – Frank Mariani, CEO, Mariani Landscape


"In early 1996 U.S. Lawns was acquired by ValleyCrest. While visiting the headquarters in Calabasas for the first time, Burt offered to take me on a tour of the building, as he does most guests. I expected to receive some detail on each of the company's divisions and possibly even an introduction to some of the company's leaders during the tour. Instead, what I received was a walk through the building from top to bottom where I was introduced, by name, to everyone from the receptionist to the mail room clerk. Every introduction was similar and always ended with Burt asking, 'How long have you been with the company?' Upon hearing the answer, he would smile and then move on. No discussion of the business; it was all about the people. That clearly communicated what his expectation was for the future." – Ken Hutcheson, president, U.S. Lawns, a division of ValleyCrest


"I have known Burt for over 30 years and have always admired and respected him. While we frequently competed against ValleyCrest, our respect for Burt and his organization has endured. He has been a true pioneer, visionary and leader in our profession and ValleyCrest was a model of a well-run company, which most of us in the industry emulated.

"He was always open and willing to share his approach and philosophy about his company and the industry, not only with Ruppert but with many others. He was passionate about his profession and dedicated his life and career to his company and his people. Because of his sincere interest in others, he influenced the lives and professions of many in our industry at all levels. In many ways, he paved the way for our company and others in our industry, legitimizing our profession and opening up opportunities for many talented landscape professionals.

"He leaves behind a strong legacy, company culture, and management team including his son, Richard. We send our condolences to the Sperber family and the ValleyCrest team." – Craig Ruppert, president and CEO, Ruppert Cos.


The author is editor and associate publisher at Lawn & Landscape. He can be reached at cbowen@gie.net.


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