Leading through teamwork

2021 Leadership Awards - 2021 Leadership Awards

Dean DeSantis finds success by embracing a collaborative approach.

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November 18, 2021

Dean DeSantis

As owner and president of DeSantis Landscapes, headquartered in Salem, Oregon, Dean DeSantis believes his company’s success is fueled by teamwork.

“I am not a horticulturalist by training — my dad was that guy,” says DeSantis, who took over the family business in 2006 after earning degrees in business from the University of Oregon and intercultural relations from Lesley University.

“I really come at it from more of a business standpoint. And because I’m not the subject matter expert, I have to rely on others around me. So, our emphasis on team building — building a community of professionals here — has helped us thrive.”

Embracing His Family Calling

As a young boy, DeSantis would often ride along to jobsites with his father, Tony DeSantis, who founded the company in 1974. In high school and college, he spent summers working routes in the landscape maintenance division.

Even so, it wasn’t always clear that the younger DeSantis would eventually take over the business.

After college, Dean DeSantis traveled to Japan, where he taught English to students in Tokyo. After that, he backpacked around the world for a year. Then, in 1992, he joined the Peace Corps, where his volunteer experience — helping construct an irrigation system to give three small Ecuadorian villages their first access to running water — deeply impacted him and helped forge his views on the power of teamwork.

“It was really hard work. We were out there digging ditches and laying pipe with members of these communities,” he says. “But getting to help bring a life-changing resource, running water, to those villages felt really good.”

Inspired by another key takeaway from his Peace Corps years — that, in his words, “there's a lot of commonality in what makes us all tick” — DeSantis pursued a graduate degree in intercultural relations and worked for the U.S. Department of Education training young AmeriCorps volunteers across the country for several years.

But, shortly after, he and his wife had twins in 2000 — a boy and a girl. He began to look for a career that could offer less time on the road and a better work-life balance. In 2002, with encouragement from his father, DeSantis returned to work at the family business before purchasing it from his dad in 2006.

His path to leadership in the landscape industry may be different than most, but DeSantis wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I think one of the unique things that I bring to the industry now is my education background and training,” he says.

Charting a New Path

Since taking the helm of DeSantis Landscapes, Dean DeSantis has helped the company increase its revenue by 500%, growing its service sector beyond Salem to include the entire Salem-Portland-Vancouver corridor.

While Tony DeSantis began the company with a focus on residential design/build projects, Dean DeSantis has focused on developing a commercial client base.

“We do far less residential work today than ever before, and we are also more heavily involved in commercial bid build work on the construction side, as well as commercial maintenance,” he says.

Ever since his days in the Peace Corps, sustainability has been important to DeSantis, who now enjoys spending time outside with his family.

As president, DeSantis makes it a point to rotate between his company’s three offices — the headquarters in Salem plus branch offices in Sherwood and Portland — to encourage close communication among his leadership teams and to maintain face-to-face relationships with the company’s key commercial clients.

DeSantis’s commitment to maintaining a client-focused service approach is evident to those who work with him.

“In a world where many of the services we receive have become largely transactional, DeSantis Landscapes and their team absolutely stand out as people that want to do more than just landscape. They want to build relationships, they want to build beauty, and they want to build sustainably,” says Paul Schulz of Portland-based Pence Construction, a frequent DeSantis client.

As he’s taken the company in new directions, DeSantis has repeatedly found inspiration and assistance through his active involvement in executive peer groups. Some of the groups are made up of fellow lawn and landscape executives and others that draw on a diverse community of Oregon business leaders from other sectors.

“It’s maybe a little surprising — or perhaps not surprising — to discover that the challenges that a software company has to face are not all that different from the challenges that a landscape company faces. Business is business,” DeSantis says. “To just be able to sit down and share challenges and successes with other business leaders — both in our industry and outside our industry — has been invaluable to me over the years.”

A Team-Centered Approach

At DeSantis Landscapes, employees feel free to share their opinions and ideas openly. When DeSantis says he values a team-centered approach to decision making, he really means it.

“I’m more of a listener than a talker,” he says. “I want to get opinions from people and be more collaborative in the decision-making process. I'm not particularly driven by my vision or my goal, but rather what can we do or where can we go as a group.”

“We have a very collaborative atmosphere here,” says Laura House, the company’s Portland regional manager. “Dean engages with team members actively, and every employee in the company feels they can approach him with questions or suggestions at any time, if they need to.”

The fundamentals of DeSantis Landscapes includes instilling a collaborative culture, as well as prioritizing workplace training and upward mobility.
Photos courtesy of Dean DeSantis

In addition to this culture of teamwork and open dialogue, DeSantis is also committed to prioritizing workplace training and internal upward mobility within the company. As a result, DeSantis Landscapes has had tremendous success in elevating young, talented employees to leadership positions across its divisions.

In particular, the company is known for having a workplace where female employees feel valued and welcomed. The company’s two regional managers — who oversee the company’s entire revenue-driving maintenance portfolio — are women. Its plant procurement and quality control officers are women, too. Key operations in the company’s residential design group, human resources and accounting departments are also led by women.

“I would say my biggest success has been in bringing in people that are smarter than me and more talented than me in different areas who work well together,” says DeSantis.

“Historically, we’ve been a very male-dominated industry,” he adds. “So, it’s been important for us to promote women and minorities to positions of leadership within our company. They have so much to contribute to our industry.”

Steward for the Environment

DeSantis Landscapes has also been a leader in environmental stewardship since its founding.

DeSantis, himself an avid outdoorsman and environmentalist, says, “Sustainability is something that has been near and dear to our hearts as a company since day one.”

The company works with its clients to prioritize and adopt key environmental innovations, including stormwater management techniques. They also take steps to reduce excessive reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers.

“Our goal is always to be as effective and responsible as possible in our designs, using the most earth-friendly products possible,” DeSantis says.

Water management, too, has long been a focus for DeSantis and his team, from promoting native and drought-tolerant plants to embracing smart technology.

“We’re always looking for ways to reduce the amount of water that we use on properties,” he says. “We’re always asking, ‘How can we reduce water waste with irrigation systems using smart controllers and just better technology?’”

For the immediate future, DeSantis plans to keep fostering a team-centered approach that prioritizes client satisfaction and environmental sustainability.

“One of the objectives of our mission statement is just to continually improve ourselves and our company,” he says. “So, that will remain our focus — to continue to fine tune what we do best.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Kentucky.