Fierce Forward-Thinker

2021 Leadership Awards - 2021 Leadership Awards

Plants Creative owner Pam Dooley pours passion and creativity into her work, growing a business that makes a positive impact.

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November 29, 2021

© Courtney Potter

“Crazy ideas” is embossed on the cover of several journals on Pam Dooley’s home office desk in the lakefront community of Blue Ridge, Ga. The pages are filled with notes-to-self, reflections, remarks related to books she’s read and — of course — crazy ideas. Also on the desk is a stuffed lion slightly larger than the size of a coffee cup.

“I’m a Leo,” explains Dooley, owner of Plants Creative Landscapes, a residential design, build and maintenance firm based in Decatur, now with a branch in Blue Ridge since Dooley and her partner, Michelle Nelson, made a fulltime move to their weekend retreat.

“Lions symbolize courage, determination, pride, strength, wisdom and loyalty — six significant traits in my life in leadership,” Dooley explains of the gift from Nelson. “When I’m at my best, I’m a fierce lioness.”

Perhaps Dooley’s competitive spirit is rooted in her growing up years as a competitive volleyball player where she grew up in Gas City, Ind. She worked summers at a local garden center — and eventually accepted a college scholarship from the University of Georgia that brought her south. Her nickname on the court: Plants.

When the Olympics came to Atlanta in 1996, Dooley helped install and maintain the interiorscaping at the athlete’s welcome center. “I was always pulled back to horticulture,” says Dooley, sharing how working at the garden center felt “authentic.” Out of college, she accepted a position at a South Carolina nursery, Happy Plants, in Easley.

“I love creating, I love life,” she says. “I love flowers and helping people design their spaces. I’m creative and visual, and I love being able to help people see what they don’t see — helping them envision a space and getting to know what really matters the most to them.”

She also likes to push boundaries, whether it’s shifting maintenance to robotic-mowers-only or opening a new branch during the pandemic.

Christy Geiger, executive leadership coach at Synergy Strategies, says Dooley is always “learning and upgrading,” and their first call together when Dooley reached out about coaching revealed a mission-driven personality. “Yet, she is very human-centric and compassionate, real and approachable,” Geiger says, remarking that the journals she keeps — and usually writes in well before the sun rises — are evidence of a thinking, introverted side that might surprise those who know her in the industry. “It might seem like she is gregarious as such a strong leader, but she needs her time to think, process and fuel,” Geiger says.

Plants is her name, and creative is how Dooley makes a marked impact on her team, clients’ properties and the industry as a whole. Geiger says, “She develops community wherever she goes.”

Planting a Seed

Dooley opened Plants Creative in 2005 after spending time working at a commercial landscape maintenance firm in Tucker, Ga. There, she was responsible for overseeing homeowner’s associations accounts that included spaces like entrances and common areas, and large spans of turf on industrial properties.

Her favorite part was working with the customers. “I had a very strong knowledge of plants, but knew nothing about turf or irrigation,” she says, sharing how the learning experience showed her that her passion simply wasn’t commercial maintenance. “Spaces for people are intimate and unique,” she says.

Plants Creative is purely residential for this reason. The early days were centered on maintenance, as Dooley built the business one account at a time. “I called our Realtor and asked if he’d let me mow his lawn, and would he pay me $35 to do it,” Dooley says. He’d overpay Dooley and self-fund cleanup certificates for closing packets that allowed Dooley to get her foot in the door with new homeowners.

In 2008, he called Dooley and said, “I found your next location. Bring your checkbook and meet me.”

Dooley’s reply? “I’m not looking.”

But she did anyway, trusting his instinct on a commercial property. She went under contract that day and moved on to build the Plants Creative headquarters from scratch from 2008 to 2011. It’s a proud career milestone for Dooley. “And it was during a time when banks were collapsing, so I had to go through the [financing] process three times because the first two banks went out of business during the recession,” she says.

During that time, after joining a peer group, she dove head-first into budgeting and forecasting, benchmarking and accountability. “Just to show up prepared for that group, there were a lot of lessons learned,” she says, adding that a valuable side benefit was the travel. “I love the blend of working and playing. And that’s what I enjoy about the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP) trips and Leadership Forum. It’s time to connect to the industry — and I love experiences and to get into the culture and find non-chain places to hang out.”

Pam Dooley and her partner, Michelle Nelson, recently made the move to Blue Ridge, Georgia, where Dooley is opening a second branch of Plants Creative.
Photos courtesy of Pam Dooley

As a current board member of NALP, serving the industry organization is about “what I can learn and what I can give, what I can continue,” Dooley says. “I’m just so passionate about the professionalism and opportunities in our industry.”

Opportunities are what Dooley intuitively seeks. So, in 2017 when a property became available two miles from Plants Creative’s main shop, she jumped on it as a way to expand. She sold “her baby”— the original headquarters she constructed from scratch — which showed her people that she was serious about growing and changing.

“I’m creative and visual, and I love being able to help people see what they don’t see — helping them envision a space and getting to know what really matters the most to them.” Pam Dooley, owner of Plants Creative

In fall 2020, she executed on another key business decision — the last during a recession, and this one during a pandemic. “We found two acres of commercial property in Blue Ridge, which we built up as a branch because we want to continue expanding across Georgia,” Dooley says.

Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director, Georgia Urban Agriculture Council, calls Dooley a visionary. “She is always thinking a year or two or five ahead of where we are in the lifecycle as an industry,” Woodworth says.

Always Innovating

A prime example of Dooley’s trailblazing nature is her move toward robotic mowers. Woodworth happened to be one of first clients to have autonomous mowing. “As an industry, we have huge labor issues and she was one of the first in our market to introduce auto-mowers,” Woodworth relates. “She shared her vision of what she was thinking and how they would help homeowners with their lawns.”

Dooley says, “I’ve always looked outside of the box in how I want Plants to be, how we want to serve customers, and I have always challenged the boundaries — and it’s not even intentional, it’s just how I’m wired.”

However, her moves are focused and strategic. With the robotic mowers, Dooley recognized that they would be attractive to the next generation of employees who are tech-savvy. Plus, they are more sustainable.

But when rolling out the service, there was no model for how to price robotic mowing. Plants Creative structured robotic mowing as a “must” for maintenance clients who want less than a weekly service.

Dooley recognizes that auto mowers don’t work on every property, mainly those with obstructions or terraces. “Then, we sell a weekly visit, and we will support that with battery-powered push mowers and offer a bit more than the auto mowers there,” she says. “But we are now getting to the point where we are not buying gas-powered mowers.”

Dooley surrounds herself with people who are just as interested in leveling up, Geiger says. “Pam does not get stale or stagnant, and she holds herself and her team to a high standard,” she says. “She pushes them to their highest potential, but she is real and personable with them.”

Dooley says, “It’s really about the people. And it’s about impact. I am passionate about helping people accomplish their goals, and a way for them to do that is how I lead them and help them grow.”

In fact, Dooley’s ongoing evolution is now centered in her new hometown at Blue Ridge, where she says she’s back in startup mode with the Plants Creative branch. She’s selling, managing production, scheduling, handling business development. It’s like when she started the company. But it’s different because she’s coming at it after 16 years of innovating the Plants Creative brand.

She’s keeping it simple. “We offer three options in our property care division — that’s it, and we are reminded to stay focused and provide the services we know we will grow into the future.

Clarity comes with experience.

“I’m growing myself along the way,” Dooley says. She’s anticipating a wedding next year when she and Nelson, her partner of 19 years, will get married. And she looks forward to weekends on the lake boating, spending time with friends and family. “I like to float, swim and listen to music,” she says, revealing the work-hard-play-hard mentality that her coach, Geiger, appreciates about her.

Ultimately, Dooley just wants to make dreams come true. She says, “That’s what inspires me.”