CHICAGO – More than 20, years ago, Jon Carloftis had the chance to spend the summer in New York, leaving his hometown of Lexington Ky. He needed a job and had a background in working with plants, so he made up business cards advertising his garden rooftop work.
There was just one problem: He had never worked on a rooftop garden. Never. Not once.
Through trial and error, Jon Carloftis Fine Gardens has been in business 24 years and has offices in both New York and Louisville. He’s done work for Google’s headquarters, flim and TV producer Jerry Bruckheimer, actress Julianne Moore and actor Edward Norton. He’s never advertised his services, and has gotten his business through word-of-mouth referrals.
He gained his first job the same way he’s gained his most recent – by being nice to people.
“I did what I had to do to get my stuff on top of that building,” he said. That meant, when he first started in New York, being nice to the elevator man, so the elevator man would pass his business cards to potential customers. Maybe he’d he bring a plant to the elevator worker or to the landlord of a building to get in their good graces.
It’s no different today, he says. He still has to do everything to make his customer happy.
“It should be a pleasure when you spend money with someone,” Carloftis said.
Carloftis, joined on stage by general manager Dale Fisher, was one of a handful of speakers on day one of the two-day PLANET Design/Build Installation Symposium in Chicago. The first day of the symposium took place at the Chicago Botanic Garden. On top of a number of educational sessions, participants had the chance to roam the garden.
Here are a few highlights from Day 1. Look for a complete rundown of the event in our September issue.
Since Carloftis works a lot with high-end clients, he said one way to attract clients or improve your current relationship is to use your own home as a selling tool. If you are a contractor and have an impressive landscape around on your property, invite clients over for dinner and let them see what you can offer. But don’t try to make every job look like your house, unless that’s what the client wants.
“You talk to (clients),” Carloftis said. “If left to your own devices, you’d do what you have at your house. Grow through your client and then put your own touch on it.”
As far as breaking into the garden rooftop business, if you have high-end clients, you will most likely have to deal with HOA-type boards to get your worked approved. Since the boards like to say no to something, put something in the plans you know they will not approve, which will take their minds off the other aspects of the job.
You should also show potential clients a past job during different stages of completion. “That’s what sells gardens,” Fisher said.
Ian Cooke focused on how to better understand plants. He said one way to save time and money is to limit your plant palette, starting at approximately 100. “Then, every winter, drop 10 percent of them and add 15 percent” he said.
Cooke also said advised to have at least five fragrance plants to a design plan, especially near a backdoor or a pool area.
“It will be the secret elixir that will keep people coming back to you,” he said. “It’s the secret elixir.”