When other parts of the country were slogging through the recession and clients who typically spent dollars on landscape enhancements were gripping their wallets, Mullin Landscape Associates was a small upstart in post-Katrina New Orleans –small enough, nimble enough and connected enough to become part of The Big Easy’s rehabilitation.
Chase Mullin, who grew up working summers for a family friend's homebuilding business, was looking to carve a niche for himself and grow a career of some kind. “I didn’t want to be a home builder,” he says. “I didn’t want to be a subcontractor.”
During the summer of 2006, after Hurricane Katrina hit his hometown, Mullin began helping a family friend install landscapes. At the same time, a friend of his mother’s had returned from Harvard University with a degree in landscape architecture. “She helped rebuild the city mostly via residential landscape, so she recruited me and a couple of friends and we helped do different installations for her,” Mullin says.
Following that summer, Mullin began taking on side jobs, too. Family and friends began calling him for projects from mowing to installing landscape beds. Then one Saturday, he was perusing the aisles of a local garden center, reading plant labels. “I literally looked up at the sky and a light bulb went off,” he says. “I realized, Wait. It’s Saturday. And I’m at the garden center. And I’m not getting paid. Maybe I really like this.”
Mullin “found himself” while getting his hands dirty at the ground level of helping residents rebuild properties that had been washed away, and learning that he could take his building foundation from years of construction work and apply it to a landscaping career.
In February 2007, Mullin went off on his own and started Mullin Landscape Associates in Harahan, La. “I realized that I had 12 weeks of side work built up while I was trying to work fulltime for the landscaper, and so I asked him, ‘What do you think about me going off on my own?’” Mullin remembers. “He said, ‘Chase it as much as you want. And if you ever don’t have enough work, you will always have a job here.’”
That generous cushion was just the push Mullin needed to start a company. And while he never went back to work for that landscaper, he did continue to seek his advice.
Growing his own.
Being young in the business when the economy took a monumental hit from Katrina and the rest of the country was on the cusp of the Great Recession might seem like a recipe for business failure. But not for Mullin.
“While the rest of the country was suffering, we still had hurricane money coming in to help,” Mullin says of the initial economic downturn and the eight years that followed.
For example, a few years ago, Mullin Landscape Associates installed hundreds of thousands of dollars in temporary irrigation systems and sod armoring on a flood gate levee built with hurricane recovery money. “The temporary irrigation system was run on the surface [rather than being trenched] so it could be removed once the grass was established,” he says.
Earlier on in the business, when things were really bad in the rest of the country, Mullin says his outfit was small and lean. “We didn’t have multiple trucks and crews,” he says. “We didn’t have to lay off employees and liquidate equipment to keep the doors open. At that time, I had a low overhead so that made it easy to ride through the recession.”
Actually, Mullin Landscape Associates grew faster than its founder ever imagined possible. In his first year in business, 2007, Mullin partnered with a local landscape architect who referred all of his installation business to Mullin. And three years into the business, Mullin was prepared to hire an operations manager, realizing that he needed more time to dedicate to sales. “I try to forecast ahead and make sure we have the right people in the right positions to manage growth,” Mullin says.
After hiring that operations manager in the third year, Mullin reeled in $2 million in revenue. At the time, he was running two maintenance crews and two installation crews. He began to systemize operations, too. “We adopted check-out sheets for every job so we could make sure no matter what crew was there, they ‘checked out’ with the same quality,” he says.
Checkpoints on the sheet include things like ensuring that hard surfaces are blown off after maintenance work, irrigation nozzles are intact and not spraying water on sidewalks, the mulch is patted down and looks neat.
Sales procedures are reviewed every Monday afternoon with staff. “We remind our sales people about what we want to accomplish and make sure every client is getting the same service,” Mullin says.
And in the last year, Mullin Landscape Associates has implemented industry-specific software that merges customer relationship management (CRM), estimating, accounting and scheduling. “As the company grew, there were too many different moving parts under one umbrella,” Mullin says. “I feel like the software glues everything together.”
“I did not want to be a grass cutter,” Mullin says of maintenance and his concerted effort to stay out of that side of the green industry in the first couple of years. But with the company’s growth, that perspective has changed. Maintenance has been responsible for helping sustain the operation and keep it stable. “It’s recurring revenue,” Mullin says.
Still, Mullin had decided when he started out that his focus would be installation, especially after exposure to the large-scale rehabilitation projects he had the opportunity to work as a crewmember under his mother’s friend.
But then, clients started asking. Will you? Can you mow our property now that the design/build project is complete? “I figured it would be a good idea,” Mullin says, recognizing that maintenance was a way to stay in contact with customers.
Pretty soon afterward, Mullin Landscape Associates was dedicating two days a week to maintenance and the rest of the time was focused on landscaping, irrigation, lighting and drainage work.
Today, 25 percent of Mullin’s business is maintenance, and that work is divided between commercial and residential clients.
“Maintenance is a way to give customers the best experience you can,” Mullin says, noting that turning a newly planted landscape over to the client or third party for care can result in a deterioration of the quality. “By maintaining the properties, you can make sure the landscapes grow and turn into what you intended them to be.”
Of course, growing a division – and a business – means recruiting reliable, skilled staff that can deliver that quality. And that’s not easy, Mullin admits, especially now that the unemployment rate is so low. “We used to have some way overqualified people coming through the door looking for jobs,” he says.
To help, Mullin offers his staff offers referral bonuses. “One of the best ways to bring in people is through referrals from our current employees, and we also advertise on social media,” he says.
Craigslist advertisements sometimes work for field positions, he says, and LinkedIn has been a valuable resource for finding landscape architects and other office staff. “And if we are out and about and we meet people who might be interested in a job, we tell them that we have jobs available. Anything we can do to bring in good people is worth a shot,” he says, adding that he has talked to others in service industries who are experiencing the same hiring challenges today.
Next year, Mullin says he may consider using the H-2B program.
Meanwhile, because of a hiring and training process in place at Mullin Landscape Associates, prospective employees do not need landscaping experience. “We have a buddy system in place where they work alongside an experienced team member before they go out on their own,” Mullin says.
Sticking with the core.
Mullin Landscape Associates owned the equipment and employed the people to manage an erosion control project that a client requested. “We had been trying to sell the client maintenance, and [the property manager] said, ‘Our maintenance contract [with the other company] ip, but we’re bidding out this erosion control job,’” Mullin says.
Mullin took on the job and learned an important lesson: Identify your customer sweet spot and stick to it. “The job turned out really well but it probably took us twice as long to do the work because we do not specialize in erosion control and we had never actually done it before.”
Earlier on in the business, a similar scenario played out with a concrete driveway project. It was Mullin’s first year in business and a client with a large driveway wanted Mullin to take on the project. Eager to continue the relationship, Mullin agreed. “It came out fine,” he says, again. “But we now have a great subcontractor working for us who does all of our concrete. We do a great job of selling and designing concrete projects, but we don’t pour it.”
Mullin Landscape Associates’ ideal client values quality work. “We don’t want to work for someone who only wants the low cost leader,” Mullin says. “It’s too hard for us to compete that way.”
Meanwhile, he sees opportunity to grow the firm’s commercial business in the installation and maintenance divisions. Right now, installation is 70 percent residential. “There is a lot of building now, and a lot of federal dollars still coming in for commercial construction,” he says. New neighborhoods are cropping up in the area, too.
With eight years of growth and a solid reputation to present to prospects, Mullin says the company now is better positioned to earn commercial business. So rather than opening a new branch and expanding the service area, Mullin’s growth strategy is to get more business close to home. “We have a good reputation and we are visible,” he says. “So some commercial accounts that might not have given us a second look before, now when we go after them, they know who we are.”