Sustainable by design

July 19, 2011

Timing is everything. Burt DeMarche’s entry into the family business occurred when his father, Dickson DeMarche, decided to revamp and expand the Westport, Conn., design firm he had nurtured for 18 years. Rather than fitting into the mold of the way business had always been, Burt DeMarche essentially got to stage a start-up and run his own company – adding installation and maintenance crews to what had been exclusively a design firm for most of Burt’s life.

“From my perspective, as a son going into his dad’s business, I never felt like I went into his design firm – we started a new company together, which he was kind enough to allow me to run my part of the business while he grew his,” says DeMarche, president of The LaurelRock Co. “We grew parallel, together, and our skills complemented each other.”

It’s important for the son or daughter entering a parent’s business to see where he or she can grow in the business, Burt DeMarche says – “not (feel) like they went in and took over dad’s company.”

Version 2.0 of Dickson DeMarche’s business became The LaurelRock Co. in 1993, and the firm was run like two businesses with Burt DeMarche steering production for the installation and maintenance divisions, and Dickson managing the design studio and selling services. 

In the following 18 years, the DeMarches grew the firm from a three-man team – the father-son duo plus a landscape architect – to its peak in 2009 with 35 employees and more than 1,000 designs completed for high-end residential clients in New England, mostly within a short drive from their office. “Fairfield County is a great pocket of residential accounts in the country,” DeMarche says. “It’s a great market to be in.”

With steady 10-20 percent growth in the years leading up to 2008 – when a bear economy set in and LaurelRock lost its entire H-2B workforce – the DeMarches have continued to produce award-winning work, and they rebuilt the company after a wipeout of its employee roster. Now the firm has positioned itself as a leader in sustainability and a mentor for complementary industries (architects) as it seeks ways to continue finding the type of work that produces grand awards.

“We always look at the positive here, and then business keeps getting better and better,” DeMarche says. “There have been a lot of positives for us over the past few years and it has made a real difference in how we enjoy our lives and work.”

Rebuilding the roster

The Federal Express package arrived at the U.S. Department of Labor 12 hours too late. That’s what DeMarche learned in early February 2008. There would be no H-2B workers for LaurelRock. That meant that practically no one would be coming to work that spring.

The company lost 26 valuable workers – crewmembers, crew leaders, everyone on the company’s installation and maintenance production teams. “We didn’t realize how great H-2B was until we lost them all,” DeMarche says. Their H-2B workforce was experienced, trained and they returned year after year. LaurelRock had to start building a team from scratch with six weeks before the season would kick into high gear.

The company hired two and a half times the number of people it needed to get the right workers. “We wouldn’t take anyone who was illegal,” DeMarche says. “That is why we did H-2B to begin with.”

LaurelRock went through 60 hires in 2008 and ended the season with 24 workers. “We tried someone for two to three weeks and realized, ‘Nope. That’s not going to work.’ Then we’d hire someone else,” DeMarche says.

The company attracted new hires by posting a sign in front of the office, which is situated on a main thoroughfare. It said: “Hiring Legal Landscape Labor and Crew Leaders. Apply Within.” The firm held a job fair in its garage that attracted about 60 or so candidates. “We advertised that fair around different towns and cities where our (H-2B) workforce had lived previously,” DeMarche says.

DeMarche called his former H-2B workers living in Brazil and Guatemala and asked if they had family in the United States who were legal citizens. “We hired a couple of guys who were brothers and cousins of our H-2B workers,” DeMarche says.

That year, LaurelRock sold $500,000 above its budgeted goal. “We basically outsold our problem,” DeMarche says of the stress of hiring a new workforce and the quality struggles that resulted. “Quality control became a huge issue because we had no one at the company that had an understanding of our level of quality,” DeMarche says.

For the most part, the new workforce came from other industries – they were painters, carpenters. “Other trades [besides landscaping] had started to get less work so there was some influx of labor into the workforce,” DeMarche says of hiring in 2008. “But we were out there training people how to use mowers.”

Pruning was the real quality checkup. There’s technique involved beyond revving up a piece of equipment. “That was our largest challenge,” DeMarche says of the maintenance production department. Installation crews were also built from scratch and taught LaurelRock standards for quality.

During 2008, LaurelRock had seven crews. Of those, six employees today serve as crew leaders and a few of the leaders who joined that year are now part of management staff. Meanwhile, in 2009, there was another round of “culling through” and DeMarche shares how the labor market at the time provided plenty of options. “The economy had really taken a dive so there were more qualified workers to pick from, and we tried to get people who were more experienced with a better attitude,” he says.

Rebuilding the production team has taken the company a few years after focusing on retention and training in 2009 and 2010. “This year, we are seeing the results of that and unity being developed by crew leaders,” DeMarche says.
Winning business

The one constant at LaurelRock is the firm’s track record for turning out award-winning landscape designs – the type of projects that pique the question, “Who lives there?” These are projects that go beyond outdoor kitchen and backyard escape. For instance, one property that earned the company a PLANET Grand Award was a 125-acre ski house residence in Westport, Conn. “It was fun because it was somewhere different and it required planning because it was a challenge to have materials shipped there,” DeMarche says of the mountain community.

This client also has a beach house, and LaurelRock had created a rooftop garden at their New York City penthouse. “We have done three totally different projects for one client,” DeMarche says of the value of client relationships.

In the past few years, creating this level of a “wow” project has been more difficult because of the economy, DeMarche says. A design firm can have all the ideas in the world – but it needs clients who want to implement those concepts (and pay for them). “Award programs are built a lot around the challenges you face and how you overcome them,” DeMarche explains. “So, it has been a challenge in the last few years to find projects that are unique in the sense that they are worth an award – and we tend to go for the Grand Award,” he says. “We want to go for the best there is.”

Despite the American public’s general tightening of purse strings in the past couple of years, LaurelRock did close 2010 by winning a PLANET Grand Award for a project that was located right next door to another one of the firm’s award winners. “The site was on a steep slope and we had to bank things out to use the river, and it was a pool environment with natural boulders and rocks,” he describes, noting access difficulties while getting materials on the property.

But developing award-winning landscape designs is the beating heart at LaurelRock – it is how the company started. “It was easier for us to maintain our growth on the design/build side because my father’s reputation in the area is very strong, so people would come to us for the first seven to 10 years [of LaurelRock’s existence],” DeMarche says. “People were looking for a designer, then we would educate them that we also do installation, and that was a time when there was growth of design/build firms and that idea was really coming into fruition,” he says, reflecting on the 1990s and early 2000s.

LaurelRock forayed into the maintenance arena in the 1990s when Burt joined so the firm could complete the circle of service when clients requested design/build. Currently, the company is 55 percent design/build and 45 percent maintenance. “My goal was to add crews and start the production end of the business through installation and adding landscape management,” DeMarche says. His father’s continued focus has been on attracting design clients and overseeing construction management.

Meanwhile, as DeMarche senior begins to gradually move away from the 24/7 of owning a business – he dropped to four days a week for two years, and has maintained a three-day schedule since 2009 – he focuses time acting as a mentor and coach to the young landscape architects at LaurelRock. And the company is positioning itself as an educator to the community, enlightening other landscape architects and designers in all disciplines about sustainable design. The effort is part marketing, part lead generation, part community stewardship.

“It’s the idea of what you put out there, you will bring back – the law of attraction, I guess,” DeMarche says.

Additionally, the company has rolled out a suite of complementary services to entice existing and prospective clients to work with LaurelRock. Those include ventures in holiday decorating and fine gardening, which is “like having your own gardener on your property,” DeMarche compares.

Meanwhile, as the company continues to steadily grow and expand into these new arenas, DeMarche dedicates much of his energy on building a strong team to lead the company into the future. “I am really passionate about bringing people into the company and watching those people grow,” he says. “And giving them opportunities to learn and grow as individuals and as employees.”