Eyes on a million

Turnaround Tour - Cover Story: Turnaround Tour

A career change after 9/11 has Gabe Lobato going from a struggling landscaper to one who wants to get past the $1-million mark.

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February 9, 2018
Brian Horn
Photos by Jon Arman

Goals.

They can be very helpful if a business owner should have them and works to achieve them. But Gabe Lobato admits he has a fear of setting goals, so he’s never set them at his company.

“I’ve gone for so long not knowing how to set goals and, as things came and progressed, setting those goals and realizing those goals has not been the most natural thing,” he says. “The most natural thing is to push and do, and whatever comes, comes.”

Yet, lack of goal-setting hasn’t stopped Lobato from running a successful landscaping company in Tucson, Arizona. He started the company in 2004 after his lucrative career as an aviation instructor ended when layoffs in the industry occurred after 9/11.

After working on his own backyard landscaping project resulted in numerous trips to Home Depot where workers instructed him on what to do, he started to think about all the other people who were making the same trips.

With a daughter on the way, he and his wife began to think about starting a landscaping company that could help support their expanding family and allow his wife to stay home and raise their daughter. In late 2004, he opened La Cholla Landscaping and 14 years later has a company with 12 employees and $750,000 in revenue.

But now Lobato has pushed past his fear of goal-setting and set a few – delegating some of his responsibilities, breaking $1 million in revenue and eventually selling the company in five to seven years.

“I’ve gone for so long not knowing how to set goals and, as things came and progressed, setting those goals and realizing those goals has not been the most natural thing.” Gabe Lobato, owner

Taking off.

Lobato can still remember his first year in the industry with “the piece of garbage trailer that I created for myself with my Chevy Blazer and tools in the back,” he says. “I remember spray painting our business name on the side of the trailer. I had no clue where it was eventually going to get me.”

Slowly but surely, and even without setting goals, he built his client base up and after a decade he was able to pay himself a dividend and still keep the bank accounts at a level that made him comfortable. He’s also stopped working in the field to focus on estimating for design/build work and some administration duties.

Lobato was able to train someone from within to become a field manager and an estimator for maintenance work, and was also able to purchase a facility after owning the company for 11 years. Another major accomplishment for Lobato was hiring an office administrator to answer calls, opening opportunities for more business.

“It was a huge milestone for me to be relieved and not have to take every single phone call,” he says. “I knew I was missing 40-60 percent of the calls that were coming in because I couldn’t take them while I was driving or meeting with a customer.”

Now, he has hit a ceiling and need helps getting through it.

He wants to grow his maintenance division, which he can do by selling a maintenance package to his one-time jobs. He’ll also need to add more commercial maintenance work, which will be the job of his brother, Rick, who was brought on recently. Rick was a door-to-door salesman for a pest control company so he has some knowledge of the industry.

Lobato also has trouble collecting payments, so either he’ll have to focus on accounts receivable, delegate that task or hire someone to do it.

He’ll also need to work on how he shows customer appreciation after a job is done. La Cholla customers do receive a survey after a job is done, and if the survey shows anything less than a four out of five rating, Lobato follows up to find out what went wrong. But other than that, customers don’t receive anything to show that their business is appreciated.

Sharing Knowledge.

Since starting his company, Lobato began to notice there were employees in the industry who had personal issues and needed some mentoring.

Sometimes it plays out with explosions in the field, or with a customer or at the office. He also saw employees who felt they would always be at the bottom of the totem pole. That’s when he started sharing his own story to illustrate they can start with nothing and turn it into something – whether that’s rising the ranks at La Cholla, another company or starting their own business.

“That’s where we try and create or reshape or mold to become better, so they can start making improvements or stepping up in life and progressing forward or advancing,” he says. “Because sometimes they feel stuck in just being a laborer for the rest of their life or being stuck in these dead-end hourly jobs.”

While he wants to grow the financial side of the business, he also wants to become more of teacher to his employees, and someone they can look to as a positive example.

He would eventually like to become a SCORE advisor, but that can’t happen until he makes grows revenue at La Cholla.

“There are certain cases with guys where I am inspired and where I have unique words for the struggles they encountered,” he says. “I feel something rise up inside.”

Lobato, left, with his maintenance manager, Michael Guerrero, center, will work to grow his company to $1 million in revenue.

Harvester’s take:

First impression: The yard and building are very organized and the operation seems to be under control. Gabe seems to have it together.

What they are doing well: The branding of the company is great. There is good delegation of duties among staff. Gabe is very organized and works systematically to accomplish each task.

Immediate areas for improvement: The company has limited reoccurring revenue of only 20 percent, which limits the value of the company and considerable work must be done to see all of the one-time jobs. Gabe will need to explore more commercial work because residential work is very small sales per month and considerable drive time. The company needs a business developer. While they have weekly safety meetings, there needs to be an official program on record.