Photo courtesy of Buhler Landscape & Design
“You’ve got to do the work, but do it right, no matter what. No cutting corners. And, stay up on the latest plants so your designs look fresh.”
This is advice that Landon Buhler’s father has given him since he was a young boy working alongside his dad at Lagoon theme park in northern Utah, where Brent Buhler is head of the landscaping department. On the side, Buhler helped his father do residential projects in their Ogden, Utah, community. Brent, a trained botanist and plant perfectionist, set a high bar for transforming properties into stunning spaces with interesting plants and unique designs. No two are alike.
But Landon Buhler wasn’t so sure about going into landscaping as a career until a few years ago. Buhler started pursuing a medical degree, then had an honest conversation with his wife and co-owner, Mallory. The economy was perking up and Buhler knew he had the landscaping knowledge to give a business a go.
We felt like we had a good product and with the knowledge I got from my dad, we decided to sit down and start a business plan,” Buhler says.
He connected with business development groups, and he switched his major to marketing and sales – a degree he’s still working to complete during slower times in winter. “I want to get the sales and marketing background down that will help me run my business and grow it,” Buhler says.
In spring 2014, Buhler Landscape & Design was born.
After two seasons, the design/build firm has garnered two consecutive Best of Houzz Service awards, and Buhler was named a “40 Under 40” business leader in the local paper. Last year, the firm more than doubled its first year’s revenues and the company is on pace to do the same in 2016.
“I’ve thought about doing this my whole life. I love the green industry and get excited about going to work every day and meeting with clients, doing designs,” Buhler says, adding that a dynamic web presence and customer referrals are driving clients to the door.
Start with a plan.
Buhler had been warming up for his business debut since childhood, really. He grew up around the nursery sales representatives and watched his father select interesting plants for projects. He did the dirty work on jobs too like excavating and trenching for irrigation systems. And he did the fun stuff like installing plants and talking to his father about the designs.
“Plant design is what drew me in,” Buhler says.
He knew that all of this work up to his eventual business launch was not enough to ensure success. He absolutely needed a solid business plan, so that was step one preceding the launch. Also, Landon and Mallory Buhler saved up money so they could pay for equipment to start out: a pickup truck, a couple of trailers, a skid-steer loader.
“Getting a business plan together was our biggest thing – not just going into business blind,” Buhler says.
Mallory brings strong marketing and web skills to the table. “Her dad is a contractor, so she grew up in a self-employed family,” Buhler says. So, she had an idea about what the couple would be getting into as entrepreneurs.
The Buhlers connected with some business development groups in their area and focused on creating a solid plan to start out. That included a goal of reaching $100,000 in revenue the first year, and keeping projects relatively modest. “We were busy that first year and we did smaller jobs,” Buhler says. “I didn’t feel quite ready to do huge projects that first year, so we did new homes and other renovations.”
Meanwhile, an upswing in the local economy and increase in new home construction in Utah along the Salt Lake Valley worked in Buhler Landscape & Design’s favor.
The business hit its first-year goal and began building a loyal customer following. For now, Buhler Landscape & Design does not do maintenance, but Buhler wants to create a division for that once the firm grows. “I don’t want to get too big too fast,” he says.
Meanwhile, in 2015 (year two), Buhler set a revenue goal of $200,000. “I feel like I could get crazy and we’ve got the work and demand to really boom up, but I’ve been told too many times that we need to make a nice, steady growth and be able to handle that and be prepared if there is a downswing in the economy,” he says.
Buhler took that conservative approach, launching a modest flyer campaign to drum up more business in 2015 and continuing to focus on web search engine optimization (SEO), customer referrals and online reviews. (More on that later.)
Buhler learned the importance of direct, frequent communication with clients. “I like to call them every day to explain what we are going to do on the project, where we’re at,” he says. E-mails are too impersonal, he says.
He also figured out that his service area needs to stay relatively tight when he took on a job that was nearly a two-hour commute one way. Buhler Landscape & Design’s sweet spot is the three-county region in northern Utah along mountain range where Salt Lake City is located.
“I’ve had a few people call who are outside of that area, and I give them referrals to someone closer to them,” he says. Relationships through his father and by getting involved in green industry events have introduced him to companies he’d refer others to.
Year two for Buhler Landscape resulted in beating the revenue goal by a bit. And now the firm is focused on a repeat of this growth in 2016. In February, the company was just completing some plant installation work on a final job. “This is actually one of the best times for that because plants are dormant and they don’t get stressed out from the transplant,” Buhler says.
A strong web presence from day one has positioned Buhler Landscape & Design as a big player in northern Utah, even before it had a substantial client base. It helped that Buhler had a portfolio of work with mature plants that he could display from jobs he completed while working with his father.
It’s also beneficial that Mallory is a marketing guru who has focused on making sure the Buhler Landscape &Design site is current and generating leads. Anyone can quickly link to the company’s social media pages via the site’s buttons. A gallery showcases the firm’s work and capabilities. Links to newspaper and other publicity back up the promises made on the site. And customer testimonials are the icing on the cake.
“Our online presence is big,” Buhler says.
Google “landscape design in northern Utah” and Buhler Landscape is first. (Of course, keeping it that way takes dedication.) Buhler has had some help from his sister-in-law, who is well versed in SEO. “We put key words into the website, we’ve done some blogs, that kind of thing,” Buhler says.
A big part of driving business online is securing positive reviews on Houzz, Yelp, Facebook and Google+. The Buhlers focus on those outlets because that’s where their customers go to find landscaping services. (They ask their clients this question.) “Just getting clients to give us reviews, and asking for those reviews, is what got us the Houzz Best in Service award,” Buhler says.
The Houzz logo and recognition certainly qualifies a company as a top player in the home and garden field. Buhler encourages customers to write reviews by offering incentives, including gift cards to restaurants.
“Having clients say nice things about us was a big milestone for us this year,” Buhler says. The company won a local business award that earned them press that they could include on their site. “We got a few calls from that.”
While Buhler Landscape & Design has technically been in business two years, a lifetime of learning and doing in the field gives the firm a leg up. “We are being recognized in the industry and a lot of people in our area already know us and what kind of work we do,” Buhler says.
Buhler Landscape & Design will continue its steady growth path and its mission to be the company that presents different designs with interesting plants. Meanwhile, Buhler continues to elevate his industry knowledge and relationships.
“My dad was already really tied in with the industry. He has over 30 years of experience,” Buhler says. “We went to a green conference a couple weeks ago and it’s just funny, we can hardly get anywhere because so many people want to stop and talk to my dad.
“It’s good for me because it has been an easy transition to develop a business in this industry,” he says. “My dad has been a big part of that.”
Buhler consults with his dad as he grows his business. Brent Buhler’s love of plants pushes Landon to seek out interesting options for clients. “My dad always says, ‘You have to be up on the new stuff,’” Buhler says.
And, again, you have to do the job right. Going into the third successful year of business, Buhler can say he’s following that good advice and making his own mark in the green industry.
“We have a good product and we stay on the cutting edge of plants, and that’s what sets us apart from the others.”