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60 Years Strong: Burton Sperber

Features - Leadership Winners

After six decades in the industry, Burton Sperber has learned that the secret to success isn't a secret. It's just hard work.

Tom Crain | November 19, 2009

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. In fact, he insists that his real title at ValleyCrest is really “head gardener.”

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.”

Sperber is also pleased that ValleyCrest is considered one of the safest companies in the industry.

“Although we have 10,000 employees, all of our top managers know about every single accident that occurs within our company,” he says. “Both Richard (his son, who is president and co-CEO) and I know exactly who and what was involved in each accident, as well as all of our top managers. We get daily reports, and look at every one of them.”

Sperber believes it’s crucial to lead by example. To illustrate, he points to the sustainability measures that ValleyCrest has undertaken. “When we talk to our customers about sustainability, it’s important that we already have sound sustainability practices within our company,” he explains. “Our vehicle fleets and company buildings are well above the industry standard in energy-efficiency.” 

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.”

When Sperber looks into his crystal ball, he sees the industry coming back, due mainly to peoples’  desire for beautiful scenery. And you can see examples in the high-profile landscaping projects that ValleyCrest has done, including several of the glitziest Las Vegas strip hotels, Millennium Park on the waterfront in downtown Chicago, and the Disney parks in California and Florida.

“It will grow again,” Sperber says of the industry. “People will always love beautiful plants even though it costs them money. Businesses and municipalities need to understand that beautiful plantings result in economic development. When you spend your money on making landscapes beautiful, it draws people in.” 

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