Look up, way up, in downtown Louisville. Check out the rooftops of historic buildings that house local eateries and distilleries. If there’s greenery growing up there, you can bet Fransen Group is responsible.
The design/build firm Alex Fransen started in 2014, after growing an 18-year career in the green industry is pretty much the only game in town when it comes to installing green roofs. Those projects include vegetative rooftops, plazas and other types of gardens in the sky.
We do a lot of really boutique-y work that a typical landscape company doesn’t have the expertise to do,” Fransen says of the firm’s niche: high-end residential and commercial properties that are looking for detail-oriented design.
At ground level, this means installing fiberglass pools into carefully curated outdoor living spaces. (Fransen Group recently expanded into pool installation.)
With a landscape architect and a half-dozen trained staff on hand, Fransen Group takes pride in being a high-end, turnkey solution for its clients. “We have excelled by providing amenities that typical landscape companies don’t have the skillset or tradespeople to do,” he says.
A growing interest
Fransen grew up in the golf industry as a 13-year old working maintenance jobs at local courses. Before he could drive, his older brother would drop him off at Nevel Meade golf course. He spent a few seasons there, then moved on to Hurstbourne Country Club.
During that time, he saved for his first commercial mower and started mowing neighboring lawns after working on the greens. Fransen never wanted to compete with the rest when he started Fransen Group two years ago.
I thought I wanted to be a golf course superintendent,” he says. After high school, he went on to western Kentucky and studied turf and horticulture. While in college, he noticed that no other green industry companies in Bowling Green, Kentucky, were focused on irrigation and lawn care. “There were no national franchises in that area at the time,” he says. “There was just one or two guys who fertilized yards and no one was doing irrigation.”
Fransen saw a business opportunity and started two businesses while pursuing his degree. “I figured if we could keep a yard watered and keep the right nutrients on it, we’d look like kings – and we did,” he says. “It was that simple. We blew up a company very quickly and I had great employees because I would pull them directly from the turf and horticulture program at school.”
During this time in 2004, Fransen was juggling business and school. He managed to grow a $300,000 company. “That was pretty good for college students,” he says. “We were loving it. We weren’t mowing grass and it wasn’t like we were conquering the world, but we were doing a niche thing.”
The business captured attention from a few local landscapers who bought out Fransen’s operation in 2008. He went on to work for ValleyCrest in Louisville and later, another firm he stayed with for a decade until he hit a growth ceiling there. “It was a great company, but the owners were comfortable and didn’t want to take it any further,” he says. “I kept asking, What does the future hold for me? and I could never get an answer.”
In 2014, Fransen went out on his own with a mind to create the type of landscapes he admired in his parents’ old neighborhood in Louisville. “We have so much room to grow,” Fransen says, relating that the business was booked 270 days out as of early June.
Labor is his biggest pain – a perennial struggle in the industry. Fransen knows this from insight he gains during peer group meetings with other companies much larger than his. “They always say personnel will be your biggest problem, and to never stop accepting applications,” he says.
Fransen knows that hiring on more talent will be the only way to continue the growth his young firm has experienced in a short period of time. “But we don’t want guys to come in and mess it up for everyone else,” he says, so he makes sure there’s a cultural fit and that employees’ work ethics align with Fransen Group’s expectations.
Specializing in jobs that other landscapers either outsource or turn away has helped establish that boutique reputation Fransen is focused on delivering. In the green roof sphere, the firm is certified with most of the major green roof manufacturers, including the largest, American Hydrotech.
A national sales representative for this supplier lives in Louisville and has become a friend of Fransen’s. “We get a lot of work through them, and we do a lot of projects together,” he says.
The closest company that also does green roofs is based out of Murphysboro, Kentucky, and is a buddy, Fransen says. “But he stays down south and works everywhere from Texas to Alabama,” he says, adding, “This is a niche market.”
That’s what Fransen appreciates about the green roof business. It’s not for everyone. “It’s so technical,” he says. For instance, to transfer soil to a rooftop, you need a blower or a crane. “For buildings higher than 10 stories, we need a 200- to 300-ton crane that we hire out,” he says. “They lift our material on to the roof, and at that point, it’s a lot of hand labor.”
The specialty work does reel in a high profit margin. Ground-level installation work earns Fransen Group about a 30- to 35-percent profit margin. Rooftop landscapes fall in the 40- to 50-percent range. “We also sell a maintenance and warranty package on top of what manufacturers offer with their products,” Fransen says, noting that taking care of the green roofs the company install is critical.
“Engineered soil is designed to drain very quickly and if you don’t keep adequate moisture you can lose plant life quickly, within a day or two,” Fransen says.
Clients generally take advantage of the 24-month maintenance package that is sold along with installation. “So we know if we are done installing a job on Monday, we start maintaining it on Tuesday,” Fransen says.
Another niche market for Fransen Group is fiberglass pool installation. Until recently, Fransen Group would partner with two family-owned companies in the area that focus on pools only. (In fact, the owners are good friends of his.) When Fransen talked to them about their businesses, they said, “You can start installing pools and you’re not going to offend us because we can only put in so many a year.”
The pool companies can install an average 20 to 30 pools per season, and they were receiving several hundred calls with installation requests. So Fransen Group works closely with the partner now.
Fransen Group sets the elevations, excavates the area, brings in backfill and does all of the finishing work. “We are out there with him setting the pools,” Fransen says, adding that the expert has installed more than 900 of them.
Essentially, the pool pro is training Fransen’s team hands-on in the field. “It took a while for us to find a good pool manufacturer I’m comfortable with,” Fransen says, relating that he carefully vetted options before selecting a fiberglass provider. With the pool supplier and expertise in place, Fransen’s team is trained and the interest in the service is promising. “It has really blown up,” he says.
Eyes on opportunity.
The toughest part of business for Fransen now is controlling growth. The markets for pool installation and green roofs are unsaturated, and with Louisville’s downtown developing commercial districts, Fransen sees abundant potential.
"We have a lot of independent restaurants here that are putting work into their spaces, like patios and outdoor amenities,” Fransen says. “That’s right up our alley.”
Fransen hopes to beat the $1-million revenue mark in five years. “We are on track to do three times what we did last year.”
But, Fransen admits, “That can also be very scary because I watch our numbers weekly and monthly. I work with our CPA very closely. And I realize our people are working a little bit more hours, a little bit harder.”
He doesn’t want to burn out a great team. But he also realizes hiring decisions must be made with care, “because it only takes one bad egg to spoil the rest,” he says. Staying focused on the type of work Fransen is passionate about – the niche services that separate his firm from the bunch – is one way he is making sure that growth is purposeful and planned. Fransen is optimistic about the future. “The sky is the limit,” he says.