Tips from the Top: James Reeve, Chapel Valley Landscape

James Reeve, Chapel Valley Landscape

February 14, 2013

Award-winning Chapel Valley Landscape has long made a name for itself with stellar designs for an ultra-rich East Coast clientele. Second-generation CEO James Reeve says an unwavering focus on customer satisfaction – and profitable work – has kept the company steady through the recession.

I remember sitting at a roundtable at an event some years ago and this guy and his wife came in, and they were sitting at the table, and they were talking about growing their business. They were doing, I think, around $2.5 million a year making a 30 percent net profit.

And they said, “Well, we want to grow to $5 million.” And we all kind of, with consensus, said, “If you grow to $5 million, there’s a good chance you won’t be making 15 percent. That may drop to 10. You may actually make less money.”

And I said, “Are you happy with what you’re making?”

They said, “Oh, yeah. We’re ecstatic. It’s fantastic.” And we said, “Well, just be glad. Be happy. Do what you’re doing. Don’t focus on growth. Focus on being 30 percent profit.” And I’ve never seen them on the top 100 list. They’re probably retired.

That’s funny. I couldn’t even tell you right now what our ranking is. I couldn’t tell you what the other rankings are of my competitors around me.

I mean, to me, a high renewal rate is way more important in my head than where I am on the top 100 list. Being on the list is an honor to some degree, but it’s never been the goal. It’s never been my focus, and I couldn’t even tell you where we are on it. Does that sound bad?

My advice would be I wouldn’t worry about being on the list. Make customers ecstatic. They’ll tell their friends, family, colleagues, and you’ll grow as big as your talent allows you to. And that may put you on the Top 100 list. It may not.

We had the business in the backyard growing up, so it was kind of a natural progression. When I was six or seven, my sister and I got this bright idea we’d plant pine trees. So we went and dug a bunch up out of the woods and planted them, and that, of course, turned into a flop. I think I actually transplanted several poison ivy plants as well. What did I know? I was seven. Industrious.

My parents had always told me and my sister, "You guys can have as much or as little involvement as you want."

My first task as a manager, I was given a branch that wasn’t performing at a high enough level of both quality and profit. I get great enjoyment from turning that around, because it’s relatively easy if you understand what brings customer back, which is good service and good quality.

In 2008, you could just watch the market falling away to nothing probably three times as fast as it took to build it. I mean people that didn’t need to stop spending, stopped spending. Some of our customers, who I would consider extraordinarily high-end in terms of net worth, they had no impact on their life financially, but they still made big cuts.

And the mood in the marketplace was, “Well, all my neighbors are cutting back, so I would feel bad if I were still spending a fortune.” And it was like, “What? Did I just hear that?”

What’s changed the most really is customer expectations on speed of service, on ability to get in touch with you. We have some customers whose expectations are that when they call, you answer the phone, period. Not I leave a message and I call you back within a half an hour.

Probably something in construction. I like building stuff.