Desmond “Des” Rice, co-founder of one of the green industry’s largest companies, passed away April 14 of a sudden heart attack.
Few additions to real estate offer the tranquility, formality and opulence the way water features do.
Waterfalls, pondless streams, fountains, and other aquatic focal points add the element of running water to a property, anchor a successful landscaping plan and can literally transform residential and commercial landscapes into something truly extraordinary. But a lot goes into planning for – and successfully selling – these hardscape features, especially in the face of economic downturn and strict water restrictions unlikely to reverse any time soon.
“For years, I have been telling people that we need to get back to basics with water conservation in the context of water-feature planning. No one was listening until they started getting hit in their pocketbooks,” says Mike Garcia, president-principal of Enviroscape L.A. in Redondo Beach, Calif. “My hometown of Manhattan Beach just informed residents that they will be paying triple for water rates, which takes something beyond a concern to a full-blown crisis,” he says. “It’s not just a concern anymore. If that kind of price spike happened with gasoline, people would positively freak out.
“The great thing is that these technologies are getting more affordable and people are starting to open up to the possibilities of being green,” Garcia added. “It is the future for water in landscaping contexts.”
Several Southern states are keeping a keen eye on water usage and many contractors in those states are becoming experts with pondless systems and the like – water features with waterfalls or fountains which use gravel pits of sorts to reduce water usage and cycle existing standing water and collected rainfall.
Used in conjunction with rainwater harvesting, another green lawn, garden and landscape trend, these pondless systems are definitely growing in popularity – and not just for the cost savings and conservation possibilities.
“We’re into creating holistic, natural-looking water features, complete with rocks, gravel, aquatic plants, and (we) also do some decorative fountains made of stone as a part of a pondless system,” says Brian Dahle, owner of The Fishman in Birmingham, Ala.
“We’re finding people leaning more towards those designs, even though we haven’t had the kind of mandated water restrictions in Alabama that some states have had,” Dahle says. “They’re often just as beautiful as those with hard-lined plumbing. Our water prices do seem to go up and down like gas prices and if utility costs start to mirror costs at the pump more often, I think that people here will be even more open to thinking ahead in their ornamental designs than they already are.”
Not everyone has to contend with water restrictions. Jaak Harju of Atlantis Watergardens in Rockland, N.J. says that with nearby bodies of water and “more than enough rainfall,” residents there only have odd irrigation mandates in effect during summer months.
“Water restrictions haven’t had the kind of impact on our designs that others are dealing with, but we’re mostly OK for the moment,” Harju says. Those technologies are becoming more prevalent, though. We’re likely to see a bigger call for them in the near future, because they’re not going away.”
Dahle says he likes learning about sustainable features that are drought-tolerant and less tied to utility costs and the economic downturn. “I think it’s a matter of time before we get into that water cost usage and conservation model more seriously,” he says. “Being proactive and helping people entertaining those systems now will make that future easier in the long run.”
For the past several years, there has been a scaling back on size and scale of projects due to economic factors. Garcia, Dahle and Harju all see an easing in their respective markets. If there’s a trend taking place as it relates to hardscapes and water features, it’s that people are beginning to phase in bigger projects and opening their wallets to improve their homes in this new staycation era.
“We did see some of the smaller projects moving away when the recession hit,” Harju says. “People are starting to put money back into their properties – and we’re seeing what we call smaller, entry-level features being requested. We attribute that to the recovering economy. People are looking to spend now.”
Dahle says that a lot of his hardscape sales don’t come from direct marketing or advertising. “Word of mouth, in that grand sense, is 100 percent of the sales – people seeing and believing, or talking with our existing customer base,” he says. “We find, at least when it comes to hardscape water features, placement at home shows and display features in restaurants and public places also do a lot to break the ice. It has kept me from advertising in that more traditional print-and-television sense.”
Dahle says, in his market, their niche really didn’t see a lot of fluctuation in terms of sales or requests. He attributes this to the type and size of job they’ve been focused on.
“We have always aligned with medium sized projects – those jobs that can be done in three to four days,” Dahle says. “Once or twice a year, we get into more large scale projects that go longer than that, but we’re shooting towards small and medium projects.
“When the economy was slowing down, I think a lot of those larger projects were not in as much demand here, but our niche was aligned, profitable and affordable, and we never saw a downturn, call it dumb luck,” he added with a laugh. “With as busy as we have been lately, all indications suggest that people are ready to spend again and large scale features in our area might be making a comeback.”
For his part, Harju says that Atlantis doesn’t struggle with selling his slate of items – including newer water conserving products like a rainwater harvesting system that can be coupled with hardscape.
“Having a large basin to alleviate stormwater runoff, feeding lawns and gardens and use for a sustainable feature just makes sense. To all of us, it’s another way to alleviate stormwater runoff,” says Harju. “Because of the amount of development here in the area, we have a lot of impervious coverage and compacted soil, all of which can carry a lot of water. We figure if we can slow that water down and capture it, that slows the runoff and customers benefit in a number of ways. It’s a win-win situation.”
Dahle and Harju aim for a 50 percent profit margin on small to medium sized jobs and 35-40 percent on large installations and do a fair mixture of “big jobs” (where architects or builders bring them in) and a la carte work for individual residents and smaller businesses.
Both say they don’t aggressively chase jobs where they can’t meet those margins.
“When you get into commercial projects and you’re bidding on spec and against other contractors, your profits are lower and always expected to be – margins in commercial projects and sales are always lower and always expected to be,” says Harju.
“It’s all a numbers thing” agrees Dahle. “Some fountain features and Aquascape selections we’ve done have brought our margin up to around 60 percent, which can be better than those natural ponds we’re doing. Honestly, there aren’t a lot of industries that can claim that kind of profit.”
Harju and Dahle say that during certain times of the year, 65-75 percent of their work can come from contactors, landscape architects and designers and “the scope of work is far beyond what they’re doing or capable of. That’s when we get a piece of it,” Harju says.
“In those instances, word of mouth between architects and designers has led to new work,” he added. “Commercial deals are a more drawn out process, with drawings architects and red tape – and landing those jobs takes a lot of effort, a lot of work is involved.
“With home designs, it’s a one-on-one process, with no middle men.”
Dahle shared similar thoughts on larger commercial jobs, adding that “while we do have some packaged feature sizes, it can be hard to do those and still be creative in the process.
“With both residential and commercial jobs, sometimes your work has to be packaged in a way, to get people’s heads around what you’re doing,” he says. “And then you can get a little creative with the plan after getting them committed to it.”
If there are any tips for other contractors moving into hardscape water features – or thoughts for those looking to expand that area of their landscaping business – Dahle is pretty succinct about them.
“It’s equally important to know the craft, know your products as well as your numbers, and then lead with great customer service. Obviously, numbers, profit margins and costs are important. … It’s not enough to just know how to build a good pond,” Dahle said. “You need to be like a chef with the perfect ingredients, cultivate the passion you have for it and be prepared to live seasonally like a farmer. You live by the weather, dig in the earth, and in the case of ponds, you’re working with plants and livestock.
“It’s a good, hardworking career, a lot of fun and rewarding, but you have to be passionate about it to sustain your business and do it well.”
The author is a freelance writer based in Bay Village, Ohio.
Having worked with tens of thousands of contractors, I believe landscape contractors are one of the trades most trapped in the growth and diversity myth that bigger is better.
Landscaping is a very entrepreneurial, fast paced business. Landscaping businesses can take on many different forms and directions with the potential to do all types of work. Mowing lawns, chemical applications, irrigation, hardscape, plantings, decks, water features – the list is endless. Such entrepreneurial opportunities can lead landscape contractors to mistakenly think that growth is the answer to all of their problems. Rapid growth is not a friend of most small business owners.
Whatever business issues your company struggles with amplify with growth. Whether you need more employees, cash, leads, better sales skills or an improvement in your management systems, growth demands more in each of these areas.
I am a firm believer in the philosophy make money to grow; don’t try to make money with growth. What I mean by that is if you did not make money at $300,000 in sales, you probably won’t at $500,000 at $1 million or $10 million. Rather, make money in your business now and use that money to grow the business and develop new areas of strength.
If your business is unprofitable, rapid growth is just going to make it more unprofitable and put more pressure on your business weaknesses. Fix the problems first and then focus on going to the next level.
Let’s use some simple math to show how you can make that $100,000 a year income with just five or fewer field employees. Suppose the average field person works 50 weeks a year at 40 hours a week, this would equal 2,000 billable hours per person.
Five employees would equal 10,000 billable hours. Now I realize your business is seasonal, but many landscapers push snow, or work overtime in the summer, and this might be a seasonal average with eight employees in the summer and three in the winter.
Your income result really boils down to prices and efficiency. If we multiply $40 an hour (no material included), times our 10,000 hours, we have $400,000 in sales. We are going to leave material out of the equation because we see material as a necessary expense you merely pass through to the customer.
Suppose the average field wages with field labor burden comes to $16 and we add another $4 an hour for gas and maintenance, this comes to $20 an hour. On 10,000 hours, this comes to $200,000 leaving another $200,000 for overhead and profit.
Let’s suppose material was $100,000 in our sample business, the numbers would now look like this.
$200,000 Gross Profit
This leaves a $100,000 to run the business and $100,000 for the owner. I realize this is a simple example, but it’s feasible. The purpose of this article is not about math, but rather to run your business differently.
We actually have a customer who still works in the field and has fewer than two employees, including him, who made more than $140,000 salary and profit. He is successful because his business is under control, efficient and has a great brand.
Our profitable small contractors have some idea of their costs and what they have to do to improve.
They don’t think, “Well, if I just had one more truck or added another service, I would succeed.” They don’t shuffle a box of receipts off to their accountants and have to ask them how much money they made.
Making $100,000 in a small contracting business does not require you to spend a lot of time in the office or become a desk jockey. It does require you to determine costs as best you can and establish target budgets and a breakeven point. All you have to do is remember that two plus two is four, not three. L&L
The author is president of PROOF Management Consultants and PROSULT Networking Groups. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Let’s start with a word of caution. If you’ve never offered this service, then by all means start small. On one hand, a fire pit or fireplace is a fantastic add-on, loaded with opportunities for higher margins and profits. On the other hand, however, there’s potential for an inexperienced contractor to lose money if not designed correctly. A properly designed and installed fire feature should offer the client years of trouble-free function.
There are nearly limitless design possibilities, materials and sizes, so let’s begin by comparing the two main feature types: Fire pits versus fireplaces.
Fire pits are smaller fire features that generally cost less, take up less space, require less maintenance and can be constructed very easily. Fireplaces offer more elegant design options for what is often a much higher cost and can require an advanced set of skills to design and install. There are now a number of manufacturers offering kits that can, at the very least, allow you to build the foundation of your fire pit quickly and easily.
Your goal as a designer is to offer the feature that meets the need or desire of your client. In our market in Atlanta, there are more than 5,000 registered landscape companies and countless more coming into the industry, yet there are only a handful of companies that can truly provide elegant, full-sized, built-from-scratch fireplaces. And you can bet that they charge a premium in exchange for offering such beauty, as they should.
Many of us could argue that we’ve been building fire pits since we were Cub Scouts. But, believe it or not, making the leap from a circle of stones to a beautiful fire pit is not that hard once you’ve mastered a few basic masonry skills. Below is a list of the basic skills you need to build a great fire pit.
1. Common sense. You actually need this for everything you do, but if it looks ugly when you’re done, than it probably is ugly. So let your eye be the judge. You know what looks great and so does your client. This is a great excuse to build one for your family and get some practice.
2. Materials knowhow. Go to your local stone supply center and ask them to walk you around the yard and explain the different materials available for fire pits and fireplaces. Many stone centers also offer courses on how to construct these features.
3. Desire greatness. Remember, design options are only limited by your imagination. Get creative, offer something that no one has ever seen before. Everyone has stacked stone or precast designs. Try wrapping the exterior in colorful mosaic or glass tiles. Offering your client something unique will very quickly set you apart from your completion. Offer something plain-Jane and you might find yourself haggling over the price. Remember, people will pay more when they believe you can deliver something no one else can.
The same skill set is required to build beautiful fireplaces but with the caveat that fireplaces are not nearly as easy to jump into. On larger designs, you’ll often find a number of components such as flues and chimneys that require careful design. Improperly designed fireplaces can leave smoke billowing out of it rather than colorful fire and plenty of heat.
Don’t be shy about asking questions – lots of them. Ask your stone supplier, ask product manufacturers, take a class to learn proper construction and, by all means, take a bidding and estimating course so you know how to price them. Seek out a qualified stone mason, as this is key in delivering beautifully finished masonry work.
Don’t forget to thank your client when the job is complete. We have a local welding shop that can create rustic branding irons with the homeowner’s initials. We pay about $75 for these and small gestures of thanks like this one keep referrals coming through our door.
Again, starting slow is key and experimenting with friends and family is a great way to get some practice. Whether designing a fire pit or a fireplace, using fire brick and fire clay mortar is nearly guaranteed to create a problem free feature. Many experienced masons use custom mixes to create joints that stand up to the heat generated but regular fire clay mortar is a proven winner. We purchase this mortar through our local brick supplier, as many stone centers don’t carry this product.
Also, to answer the number one question I receive, it is not necessary to drain a fire pit. Sure, we’ve installed drains, but more often than not, we instruct the client to clean out the pit periodically and simply build fires above the water level. The first fire after a rain will evaporate the water to steam. We do install small holes for air flow, but we do not put weep holes at ground level because we don’t want dirty water to stain the surrounding patio. Most of our fire pit designs are built from a basic layout of a 5 foot outside diameter with a 3 foot inside diameter. The basic patio design is built on a minimum of a 16 feet diameter circle which will allow eight Adirondack style chairs to very comfortably be placed around the perimeter with room for people to walk around.
So if you’re ready to add fire features to your service offerings, than approach the challenge as a student of the industry. There are many resources available through the Internet as well as local installers and suppliers, so gaining the proper knowledge is easier than ever.
I recommend starting with kits and moving up to your own unique custom designs. Take proper time to bid the job correctly and don’t get in over your head by taking on a project you might not be ready to handle. It’s OK to subcontract a large, complex job and work alongside the subcontractor to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to take these projects on yourself.
The author is president of Sarros Landscaping in Cummin, Ga. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Benton Foret sat down at a table in a conference room in Houma, La., just south of New Orleans. He’d just been given a job he wasn’t sure he could handle.
This is big.