Eagerly focused on the diamond and its animated players – tracking their batting averages, RBIs, home runs – young Jim Hornung Jr. rarely missed a game at Sahlen Field. Among a crowd of more than 20,000 Buffalo Bison AAA baseball fans, the elementary-aged son of the ballpark’s head groundskeeper had a backstage pass in many ways. “I’d see 50, 60, 70 games a season and hang out on the field, watching batting practice and just being around the players,” says Hornung, president of the family business his parents, Jim Hornung Sr. and wife Beth Ann, purchased in 1980.
Elbers Landscape Service was a way of life – and it certainly had plenty of perks. Baseball; hanging out with crews on landscape jobs; helping families select Christmas trees; watering plants in the garden center; riding along while his dad plowed parking lots at night.
“My mother likes to tell me the story of how she would bundle me up in my snowsuit and dad would put me in the truck, which had vinyl seats,” Hornung says. “We’d hit a pile of snow and I’d slide to the floor.”
When remembering this, Hornung Sr. laughs. “He was working with me when he still had diapers on, and as he got older he moved on to landscaping, irrigation work and other things in the business.”
As a toddler, Hornung bumbled his way through the garden center in a wheelie with a tray on it. By the time he was in middle school, he began attending New York State Turfgrass Association (NYSTA) meetings with his dad. “He’d tag along on the trade show floor – and what surprised me early on was his maturity at a young age,” says Mike Maffei, a golf course superintendent, fellow NYSTA board member and mentor to Hornung. “He was way above his years, and that really jumped out to me.”
Hornung latched on to the business side of Elbers Landscape – a fit for his focused, organized and relationship-oriented character. “That is where he shines,” Hornung Sr. says, calling his son a logical, fast thinker who is decisive and process driven.
From advancing the company’s technology to elevating its snow division and carving a niche in the campus market, Hornung has grown the company wider and deeper during his tenure. Meanwhile, he acknowledges that everything about the business is different today in the wake of the pandemic. “I’ve been telling our staff, ‘Forget about that business, forget about what we used to do. What this is about now is what we are going to do. What do we want to build now?’” he says.
The market is different. The work environment has changed. The in-house design center Elbers Landscape had nearly completed has never been booked with a meeting, and there no immediate plans to usher clients into the modern space for meetings.
Hornung sees what could be described as an unprecedented upset as a real opportunity.
“Save for the coronavirus, I don’t know if we would have made a hard pivot to redefine our business,” he says. “What I’m most proud of is how we have grown and succeeded, signed up new customers and used this time as an opportunity to rethink where we are headed.”
COVID-19 has been the ultimate test of knowing your numbers, adapting to change and repositioning a business — but several milestone experiences leading up to the pandemic helped prepare Hornung and team.
There was the time following Superstorm Sandy, when Elbers Landscape was retained by the National Park Service to restore Miller Field on Staten Island. Following the hurricane, the space shifted from a hub of athletic activity with 15 soccer fields, cricket pitch courts and a beach into a Red Cross/FEMA emergency zone for locals. “In the process, the property was destroyed because it was wet, dirty and heavily damaged from trucks and trailers,” Hornung describes.
The massive, former airfield was completely rebuilt by Elbers Landscape. The project required several months of work, followed by a year of monitoring the land and another year of maintaining the fields. The company coordinated barges to cross the New York Harbor with equipment and materials. “It was tremendously challenging, logistically,” Hornung says.
At the time, his first child, Brooklyn, was a newborn and he stayed based at the Buffalo office to manage the business side of the project. His dad was in the field with crewmembers, stationed in New Jersey and on Staten Island. “There was the boat traffic, security demands, cost to cross the harbor and you had to deal with the time of day because if you missed the tide, you couldn’t dock,” Hornung explains. “One day, we got a bunch of equipment over there and we couldn’t get close enough to the dock to unload it because the tide went out.”
A year later, following the success of this project, the company was hired to restore the Statue of Liberty Arrival Mall, where Dutch elm trees were destroyed by salt water from the storm.
Another landmark project was prompted by a call two years ago from the Erie Seawolves, a minor league baseball team in Pennsylvania, a Double-A affiliate of the Detroit Tigers. Elbers Landscape had built the field twice previously, but it had fallen into disrepair. “We need you to come down to a meeting tomorrow, we have to redo the field,” the manager told Hornung.
It was August, nearing the end of the season at UPMC Park. “The Tigers were not happy with the condition of the field, and the Seawolves were concerned about losing their affiliation with the team if they didn’t improve it,” Hornung says.
The Elbers Landscape management team immediately drove to the site. It needed to be torn up and completely rebuilt in time for baseball the following spring 2018.
Basically, the Seawolves told Hornung, “design it, install it, make it happen,” he says.
Two weeks after the season closed, the crews bulldozed the field, laid new drainage and irrigation, brought in materials and oversaw the construction. The entire project was completed in less than 12 weeks, and the entire Elbers Landscape team, including office staff, was recruited to assist. Crews worked seven days a week, finishing late under the field’s lights. “We knew we would push through to get it done,” Hornung says. “Now, it is recognized as an award-winning field, and that spoke to the quality of our team.”
The company has attracted more campus clients, including Hornung’s alma mater, Canisius College in Buffalo. The same goes for corporate accounts with expansive properties. “Because of Jim’s efforts, we have grown tremendously,” says Hornung Sr. “I took the business to a different level on the sports side, and Jim has taken it to a different level on the snow and campus side, and between the two of us, the landscaping has increased equally as much. We are not afraid to try something new.”
“He was working with me when he still had diapers on, and as he got older he moved on to landscaping, irrigation work and other things in the business.” Jim Hornung Sr., owner of Elbers Landscape
The father-son duo is an ideal partnership if you ask either of them. “My dad is my No. 1 mentor and best friend,” Hornung Jr. says. “He is more detail oriented, and I’m more big picture. He is more easy-going than I am – I tend to be more intense. He is extremely methodical and has a unique way of planting the seed, so if I’m trying to plow forward, he might say, ‘Hang on. Let’s talk about this.’ I’m lucky to have him.”
Hornung Sr. says his son is a natural at building relationships, which has advanced the corporate and college campus side of the business.
“He turns his relationships into friendships,” he says.
When Hornung Jr. joined the company in 2004 after completing his business degree, he focused on sales and finance and noticed an opportunity when reviewing the company’s books.
“Historically, we landscaped all season and plowed a little bit of snow to keep key employees and the lights on, but when I started to look at that, I thought, ‘This doesn’t make a ton of sense,’” he says.
So, Hornung focused on growing snow. Now, it’s the largest division of Elbers Landscape. Not to mention, the company has increased revenues consistently since he joined and there were about 10 full-time employees. Today, there are 40 team members on staff.
While serving on the NYSTA board, Hornung initiated a comprehensive strategic planning process. “He pushed to the board to think forward, and not just lay back and let the world go by,” Maffei says of the experience. “It was an eye-opener and the first time I had gone through the process. It was pretty much Jim’s idea from the start.”
Hornung explains how the board gathered feedback from vendors and members. “We wanted a diversity of thoughts and ideas,” he says. Ultimately, the planning was essential to position NYSTA in an evolving technological world of online learning and meeting. “It will help NYSTA sustain and guide future decision making.”
Aside from working on the business, Hornung is also involved in Hasek’s Heroes, which provides western New York children in need a hockey experience. “We give 1,000 kids per year an opportunity to play ice hockey, and it’s completely free,” he says.
Business does leak into home life — impossible not to when your wife and parents are involved. Hornung is married to Karen, and together they have three children: Brooklyn, 10; Reagan, 8; and Summer, 5. “You can’t do all of this without a good support system at home, and my wife is the best at that,” Hornung says.
The family lives a few blocks up the street from the Elbers Landscape office, and a couple blocks away from Beth Ann and Jim Hornung Sr. Hornung’s sister, her husband and three daughters also live in town. “When the six grandchildren get together, they’re pretty wild,” Hornung says.
Then again, business can be pretty wild, too. Though in spite of not knowing exactly what the future holds amid COVID-19, Hornung has the framework in place to adapt and continue growing.
“The way we used to do business is no longer a thing,” he says. Reverting to his business sense, he adds, “We are nimble and accurate because we know our numbers.”