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A husband-and-wife duo drives success with a strong marketing program and goal setting.

Lindsey Getz | January 15, 2012

Marty DeNinno grew up in the landscaping industry. Following in the footsteps of his father, he became part of his Dad’s family-owned business. But there came a point where DeNinno and his wife Liz, who also became involved in the DeNinno family business, started recognizing things they’d do differently if the company was their own. Those ideas ultimately prompted the husband-and-wife team to go out on their own and start something brand new. Four years ago this month, the DeNinnos launched Pinnacle Irrigation & Nightlighting and in that short amount of time have grown it to more than a half-million-dollar business. They say their success has a lot to do with a strong focus on marketing and their partnership as a husband-and-wife team.

After deciding to leave the family business, the couple had some very specific ideas about how they wanted to run their own company. Liz, who now serves as vice president of the Haddonfield, N.J.-based company (with Marty serving as president), says they believe strongly that you cannot work on your business if you’re in it, and that was something that wasn’t previously happening. “Marty was constantly in the truck and on the job with everyone else,” Liz says. “We’ve built our business in a much different way. We’re basically a marketing company that sells irrigation and night lighting. We really put a lot of focus on marketing and promoting our business and to do that, you have to spend time in the office. Marty goes out to the job site when he has to, but he also recognizes the importance of building the business and driving new sales.”

Still, it’s not always easy being the “new guy.” Even though Marty had 25 years of industry experience, Pinnacle was a brand new name to customers. But Marty and Liz were unwilling to come in as lowballers just to get jobs. “We have always had a high service standard, and we didn’t want to be the cheapest guy out there, even though we were a new business,” Marty says. “We wanted to focus on high quality service as a company philosophy. We decided to keep our service standards high and not try to compete with everyone out there. Our goal was to establish a strong reputation in the industry. I’ll admit we saw some jobs slipping by us simply because we hadn’t built a long-term relationship with customers or didn’t have a well-known name, but we still saw growth as word began to pick up that we did a high quality job.”

As the company saw slow but steady growth, Marty and Liz set goals for themselves and for the business. “We’re very goal-oriented people,” Liz says. “Our first goal was to get 100 customers. We even had a bet going – whoever reached 100 customers first had to take the other to dinner. Those goals – both small and large – really helped drive us forward.”

A little bit of friendly competition helps inspire their hard work even today, as does working together as a team. “Marty comes with 25 years of industry experience, and I have a business background with 10 years of experience in the corporate world,” Liz says. “Combined, we make the complete package. Marty basically deals with all the contact with the customers, the sales, and manages the employees, while I handle the financial, marketing and customer service sides of the business. That has been a key to our success.”

The couple admits that being in business together isn’t always simple, but they say they wouldn’t have it any other way. “Raising a business is like raising kids – you’re going to have growing pains,” says Marty, who has two sons with Liz. “Of course, as husband and wife, we don’t always agree on everything, but we agree on the major issues and we both know when to step back.”

Liz says that the rewards of working together also far make up for any hardships that arise. “There’s nothing like sharing the success when we do reach a goal with the person that you’re the most close with,” she says. “We’re both living it and breathing the business together and that lends itself to success because we’re both invested. It’s our livelihood – 100 percent of our income comes from this work, for both of us. It provides for our family. So we’re committed. Something like that can bring you closer together.”

But that also meant the couple has had to set some boundaries. “We don’t talk about business after 10 p.m. or on Sundays,” Liz says. “We also recently moved our offices out of our home. We bought an office, a shop and a place for the trucks and equipment. Now that we physically leave for work and come home at the end of the day, it helps even more with a physical separation from the job. You have to make an effort to separate work from home life and that’s not always easy when you’re in business with your spouse. I would say that having clearly defined individual responsibilities is also really important.”

And employees need to know and respect those roles, too, adds Marty. “Our employees know that if they come to me about a paycheck, that it’s not my job, and if they go to Liz about how to install a sprinkler, that it’s not her job,” he says. “It’s important that roles are clear to everyone. Since Liz came from the corporate world, she was wonderful about putting together a policies and procedures manual that helps define things even more clearly.”

Another plus is that being a husband-and-wife team has helped them create a positive image and reputation in the community. Liz says it’s something that customers like. “When people call us and find out that we’re a husband and wife working together it gives us that mom-and-pop feel – even as we grow,” she says.

“We want our customers to always feel like we’re a smaller company, even when we’re big,” adds Marty. “We always want it to have that personal feeling. Being a family business helps with that.”

As the couple looks ahead to the future, their next goal going forward is to reach more than a million in sales and to have more than 2,000 customers. With approximately 1,200 active customers currently, as well as having brought in $650,000 in sales for the past year, they are on their way. “We definitely analyze things a lot,” Liz says. “We analyze our growth, our sales, and we look at where our profits are coming from. One of the ideas that Marty had was to buy smaller irrigation companies to work into our fold and increase our customer base naturally. We were able to do that last year. We bought a small irrigation company that helped us achieve the goals we already set. We were able to expand our customer base, get a third truck on the road full-time and hire another employee.”

One thing they don’t plan to do, however, is to expand their services too much. The company has built a name for itself by specializing in irrigation, night lighting and residential gutter cleaning, and both Marty and Liz feel strongly that you can’t be “everything to everyone” or the company risks losing its focus. If they do acquire other small irrigation companies, they may consider the services it will allow them to add, but they’re currently quite focused on their existing offerings. “We really want to grow by focusing and specializing in the services we already provide,” says Liz. “We may venture into commercial snow removal if we expand into anything else. But we’re definitely more focused on our current services right now.”

Both Liz and Marty say that continuing to set goals will also help them as they move ahead. “We know what we have to do to meet the goals we set,” Marty says. “We don’t think a genie will just grant us one million in sales. We recognize the importance of continuing to keep the word of mouth going and continuing to drive the marketing portion of our business. We know it takes hard work but we love what we do.”

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