Down to earth

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Located outside of Dallas, Earthtones Design is a $33-million company with a steady path for growth.

August 29, 2019

Why does Earthtones have a fire truck? To get the answer and to learn about the nursery it’s parked at, visit to watch video interviews with the Earthtones team.
Photo courtesy of Brian Horn

With husband and wife duo Justin and Christina Crocker leading the charge, the company has grown from a one-man-show to a business operating with over 150 employees. We spent some time with the Earthtones team to get some tips on what’s helped them grow – and how they make it work as married business owners.

1. Curate your culture

“We’re willing to invest in more than one way in our employees,” Justin Crocker, owner, says. In the beginning of the business, he didn’t realize the importance of hiring those who fit in with your culture. Some of the employees Crocker has hired came from backgrounds that were outside the realm of landscaping.

“If the culture is right, and the personality is right, we can teach them our business,” he says. To keep communication open, Crocker sometimes asks employees to write down something that the company could be doing to help enhance the culture. Plus, writing things down often fosters more honest responses rather than having to speak up.

2. Practical purchases

For its vehicle and equipment fleet, Earthtones goes the used route. “It kills me to pay sticker price,” Crocker says. “I can find a low mileage (used vehicle) that someone already took the hit on.” And, the company has mechanics on site to handle any issues that may come along with buying used vehicles and equipment. Keeping up with the trend of good relationships, Crocker says they keep in touch with a dealer that is able to source vehicles for him at auctions. He’s able to call him up, explain what he needs, and the dealer goes out and finds it.

When it comes to equipment, Crocker hates to see a rental invoice. “It wears me out when (rental invoices) come in,” he says. “We own all of our equipment, and we’re growing, so we know we need to keep up on buying it.”

With two mechanics and a fleet manager, Earthtones operates 155 pieces of equipment with engines – 42 trucks, 34 compact track loaders, 23 trenchers and five tractors with backhoe attachments, just to name a few.

3. Strategic bidding

As a growing company, the team at Earthtones works to only bid on projects that will fit in with the way they’d like to operate. They use a spreadsheet to keep track of opportunities and decide it the job would be a good fit to bid on.

Location is a factor in the jobs they take on, too, Jake Elrod, vice president, says. “It might take an hour to get to a job in Dallas, but that’s still a local job.”

Turnaround on bids is about a week, and the process begins as soon as the invitation is accepted. Bids use unite pricing, which gives the contractor a line by line breakdown of what their money is actually going to.

For maintenance contracts, the company is looking at a 75 percent close rate. They operate on a four-day work week, with the fifth day built in for billable overtime or extra work like enhancements. “Basically, we’re bidding work with a certain amount of overtime built in,” Elrod says.

4. Foster partnerships

The onboarding process at Earthtones is centered around learning. “There’s always someone there to help you,” Crocker says. “We paired two new project managers together with current project managers.” Within a year, the new project managers were running their own projects. Crocker says working alongside someone allows the employees to build partnerships. For maintenance, the company uses training videos for basic skills. On the flipside, commercial onboarding is more hands-on.

5. The customer service difference

“You can only charge so much for a product or a service,” Elrod says. “It’s the way you handle yourselves and communicate with your customer service. If we mess up we will take care of it. We’ll eat the cost if we have to.” He says it’s key to communicate to clients. It’s as simple as picking up the phone and letting the customer know if there are any issues on the job or even just to give a progress update. “As long as you pick up the phone, you’re going to be fine,” he says. And, leveraging relationships with suppliers has proven to give Earthtones a leg up. They’ve organized a program for the future that will allow them to essentially pay an upfront dollar amount to vendors (hopefully with some price negotiations built in) for future supplies they may need down the road. For example, letting a tree supplier know they’d like to purchase an entire section of tree when they’re ready, and securing that deal with some sort of financial deposit.

6. Don’t let the business run you

Justin says running a business and raising a family forced him to step back and prioritize things. When his son was born, he stopped working all seven days of the week in order to dedicate more time to family. And, it forced him to hire more people to get the jobs done.

7. Married to the job

Christina and Justin say they’ve found success in making sure each of them is respected in their own individual roles in the company. “It’s important to let each other have the ability to run their own parts of the business,” Justin says. “And, for me, I’m not an office guy.”