What started in a storage shed like many landscape company launches has grown into a nearly $3 million full-service firm with a satellite office, tree division and a portfolio of attractive commercial/industrial accounts — all in just three years.
Some might say this fast-lane growth approach breaks the limits. Others would wonder how a company could grow that quickly without going off the rails. Not to mention, the pandemic that squashed sectors of the economy didn’t cause a detour in Encore Landscape Management’s strategic plans.
The Phoenix-based Encore is also selective about which clients it will service, so growth doesn’t stem from a do-it-all approach — but rather, an all-in mentality.
“We want to partner with people who truly care about their properties,” says Mike DiFabbio, co-owner focused on business development with partner Juan Hernandez, who’s the operations guru. “You can tell pretty quickly after going on a property what their intentions are and what their vision is.”
From the beginning in 2019, the vision at Encore Landscape Management was to accelerate responsible growth and provide career opportunities. “For a standard landscape startup, we have grown faster than most, but we knew this would be the way we’d go with our networks and experience, so we planned for it,” says DiFabbio, who previously ran the Las Vegas branch of Integrated Landscape Management, which was acquired by Aspen Grove Landscape Group in 2016, while Hernandez oversaw operations at the Phoenix headquarters.
The two had met during training seminars and, eventually, both moved on to form Encore. Hernandez and a third partner, named Fernandez Torres, who runs a pest control business, realized they needed a business strategy arm to succeed. Torres hadn’t planned on being active with the landscape firm, and the startup was a perfect fit for DiFabbio. “I’ve always been more into growing businesses and sales, so it was a perfect marriage,” DiFabbio says.
All three had previous leadership experience with fast-growing companies. “We knew we’d have to deal with getting our culture built and implemented, and living and dying by our core values,” DiFabbio says, adding that the current front-burner initiative is to establish the Encore Standard to “McDonaldize” processes and procedures.
But as businesses small and large know, the fuel to growth is not just new accounts but also talented people who can service them. DiFabbio shares how to grow smart, recruit creatively and keep feeding a firm that tripled in revenues in its first three years.
The first year, Encore Landscape Management hoped to achieve the $1 million mark, and it nearly did, ending 2019 with about $900,000 in revenue. “The first half of that year, we had two crews and Juan was running one while I was working on one part-time,” DiFabbio says. “By summer of that first year, I focused on growth and bringing in some new business.”
It helped that they scored a big homeowners’ association (HOA) account that brought in about $14,000 a month right off the bat. Torres had a previous relationship with a board member, which they were able to leverage into a deal. “That was a great anchor account for us to get launched,” DiFabbio says. “With that came a decent amount of extra enhancement work and some tree work.”
Even though this job was vital in getting the company off the ground, only about 15% of Encore’s business comes from HOAs, though DiFabbio would like to expand that in the next couple of years. Most of Encore’s business is centered in the commercial sector, where DiFabbio and Torres had a network. Hernandez brought his HOA connections to the mix.
In April of 2020, the company brought on a certified arborist, Fitu Perry, who DiFabbio worked with in the past, to run a tree division — a move that took the business “to a whole new level,” DiFabbio says.
“That has helped us scale the company,” he says. “He wanted to come over and build something that was his own and be that lead man and grow it.”
DiFabbio says Perry runs the tree division like it’s his own company. “We meet with him regularly and chat,” DiFabbio says. “We want to give our people the opportunity and empowerment to make decisions based on their knowledge and expertise and we’ve definitely done that with him. It’s his baby.”
The other growth driver is Encore Landscape Management’s Las Vegas office, which opened at the end of year two. Currently, DiFabbio runs the branch with two on-location leads, Samantha Flaherty and Victor Herrera, and a pair of crews performing maintenance work. Today, the Phoenix headquarters runs nine crews.
Ultimately, relationships have pushed the company’s pace. By the end of 2021, the company expects to earn $6 million in revenue.
DiFabbio credits mentor and former boss/co-founder at ILM, John Garigen, who DiFabbio calls “the greatest networker and sales guy I’ve ever met.” He took DiFabbio under his wing at age 23, when they met at a golf course. He guided DiFabbio on how to build a commercial real estate network by joining organizations and committees, being reliable and staying active.
“We want to give our people the opportunity and empowerment to make decisions based on their knowledge and expertise.” Mike DiFabbio, co-owner of Encore Landscape Management
“What I learned from him was the relationship is more important than the sale,” he says. “I never saw him ask for the business. Build your network. Build true relationships with people. People wanted to work with John because they liked him so much. He was just a good guy. You wanted to be around him so they couldn’t help but give him their business.”
The other lesson DiFabbio learned was to be obsessed with the client’s experience. “Really, serving your client to another level as far as how you communicate and respond to your clients and the speed in which you do that,” he says.
By speed, DiFabbio doesn’t mean give an answer immediately when it’s not entirely correct.
“But when someone sends you an email and needs something, and maybe you don’t have the answer right now, don’t wait until you have the answer to get back to them,” he says. “‘Let me work on it and I’ll get back to you by this time,’ instead of waiting two or three days and then replying back with the answer.”
A company is only as strong as its team. But recruiting is a perennial industry challenge, and DiFabbio thinks younger people’s perception of landscaping could be preventing students from entering the field. So, he and the team emphasize to younger people that landscape is a “real-life business.”
“We’ve got sales, operations, management, finance and accounting,” DiFabbio says. “It’s just like other businesses except our product is landscaping. There are a ton of opportunities.”
Usually, he shares his story with classrooms and during career days. “I fell into it, luckily, and I think that’s how a lot of people end up doing what they do,” he says. “One of our younger account managers graduated from Grand Canyon University in Phoenix, and it’s the same thing.”
At the beginning of last year, the company had made plans with a couple of area high schools to make presentations to students about the company and the industry. The plan is to get to students who don’t want to go to college, or pursue other post-college opportunities, and explain what they can achieve at Encore. That’s been tabled temporarily because of COVID-19 restrictions, but recruitment is still a daily effort.
“It’s no secret — we post ads every day and we have a network of people we know here that we pull from,” DiFabbio says, referencing their involvement in local organizations, relationships with HOAs and other construction and realty professionals.
“But if we want to get to the next level, we have to get to the young people out there and get the message out to them that this career can be long-term.”
Another message DiFabbio shares — one that resonates given the recent pandemic and how jobs were considered essential — is how landscaping is sustainable during extremely difficult economic times.
“I tell people that I started landscaping in 2009 in Las Vegas, when the world seemed like it was falling apart,” he says. “Everyone was telling me, ‘You’re taking a job with a new company in Vegas?’ and, ‘You’ll be looking for another job soon.’ We grew our company through that financial crisis. There were ups and downs, but a few years later, (ILM)was one of the largest landscape companies in the area.”
Property managers realize their commercial sites still need to look good during tough times. And during COVID-19, “whether people are officially in buildings or not, owners still need to invest in their properties,” he says, adding that the company exceeded its budget by 10% in 2020. “It’s a reliable industry.”
Back to intention and vision, DiFabbio says some red flags that a prospect is probably not a fit are if the property is pristine.
“If we go to bid it and it looks phenomenal, we think, ‘O.K, it could be a relationships issue, or maybe something is going on with the budget,’” he says. “We have to figure out what is going on. Why are they getting rid of the current company? That is a process we go through with new bidding to make sure we are getting into a relationship that will be a long-term partnership.”
Along those lines, another warning sign is if Encore Landscape Management asks the prospect how many landscape companies have serviced the property in the last five years and there is significant turnover. “Maybe they just had bad luck, but usually if you are cycling though companies in a short time span, that tells us there may be some other issue from an expectations standpoint,” DiFabbio says.
The sweet-spot client for Encore Landscape Management ranges from large HOAs to industrial properties and boutique management companies.
“We work with owners of these properties hand-in-hand to improve their landscapes, which is super fun for us,” he says. “They are obsessed with providing value for their clients, and we get to play a part in helping to achieve that vision.”
Some landscape professionals might find the revenue opportunity in industrial landscaping a surprise. But not DiFabbio and the Encore team.
“The way they are designing buildings now, there is a ton of landscaping and they have budgets for improvements and a tremendous amount of extra work,” he says of his Arizona and Nevada markets.
Scaling up is what Encore Landscape Management will continue to do because it allows the company to give back what’s most important — a meaningful career.
“The only way we can provide opportunities is to grow the company responsibly,” DiFabbio says. “We are focused on growing in other markets, and what we are most looking forward to is keeping this thing going so we can give people a good home.”