Two brands are better than one

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Andy Kautz maximizes the collective strength of A&E Curbing and Landscaping and Sylvan Nursery & Landscaping.

March 16, 2015

For three years, Andy Kautz wore two hats: elementary school teacher by day and owner of a landscaping company during weekends and summers. About three years after committing his full schedule to A&E Curbing and Landscaping, Kautz began sporting two hats again: one with an A&E logo, and another bearing the name of Sylvan Nursery and Landscaping.

The Montana resident was teaching full-time when he founded A&E – named for the initials of Andy and his son Ethan – in the spring of 2006.

“I had built a new house and was looking into doing the landscaping, and thought, ‘I can do this,’” he says. “After getting some ideas and prices, I recognized there were decent profits within the industry. So I purchased a turnkey setup and started doing concrete landscape curbing on the weekends and summer months.”

In the early days of the business, Kautz’s father helped with concrete curbing, and other family and friends pitched in on larger projects.

By the second year, Kautz had to hire a couple of employees during the summer.

Through the late 2000s, the declining housing market meant fewer new construction curbing jobs for A&E. So, to sustain the company through changing markets, Kautz started mowing lawns and adding other lawn maintenance services. A&E soon became a full-service landscape installation and maintenance company.

The variety and volume of work continued to increase, prompting Kautz to leave his teaching position in 2009 to focus solely on A&E. Once he devoted his time to the business, the opportunities for growth and expansion abounded.

“We attempt to look at every job and consider how to improve the property with the allowed budget,” Kautz says. “We became extremely diversified, offering nearly every possible desire for someone’s yard.

“Some might say to stay focused on one or two objectives that you do well. We felt it was better to offer more services so the customer only had to make one phone call.”

Growth by acquisition.

Usually, adding a new service meant Kautz was actively involved in physically learning and completing the project. As the company grew, he began training employees, who practice landscaping techniques on A&E’s property before handling customers’ projects.

In 2012, Kautz saw an opportunity to diversify his services substantially. Sylvan Nursery & Landscaping – a local grower of annuals and perennials, trees and shrubs, vegetables and more – was for sale.

“I had always looked up to Sylvan as a (predominate) company in town,” Kautz says. “They have been known in Billings for nearly 40 years, and at the current location for over 20 years. I heard Sylvan was possibly for sale and briefly looked into it, but it seemed out of reach financially.” Kautz brushed off the thought of buying the business, as Sylvan Nursery closed in October 2012 and began liquidating its inventory while trying to sell the property.

In January 2013, Kautz stopped by Sylvan again to look at a truck that was for sale, and encountered the owner. When asked about the sale, he invited Kautz inside for a full, owner-guided tour around the facilities.

A few weeks later, Kautz was signing the papers with his wife, Lindsay, becoming the new owners of Sylvan Nursery.

“At the time of purchase, it didn’t leave us hardly any time to place orders for the upcoming season,” he says. “The entire first year was a complete race.”

Double vision.

Now, Kautz is still racing as he runs both businesses simultaneously – continuing to operate A&E Curbing separately from Sylvan Nursery. Combined, the array of services spanning both businesses offers a one-stop lawn and garden shop for residential customers – from year-round lawn maintenance, landscaping and snow removal services to seasonal retail perks, such as hanging baskets, vegetables, pumpkins and Christmas trees.

The spotlight’s on you

Every month we feature stories on a company that has succeeded in the industry. The owners can talk about lessons they’ve learned in the industry, what they’ve done well and areas where they needed improvement. Below are some stories you can learn a thing or two from:

Aaron Katerberg never considered branching out beyond his company’s longtime core business: irrigation. That said, Grapids Irrigation, located in Grand Rapids, Mich., has overhauled its business model and pumped up cash flow to keep the profitable ideas flowing.

Patrick Crais, CEO of Blue Watchdog in San Diego, looks at anyone with a lot of property as a “water agency.” While the company started out primarily working with one- or two-acre properties, the company now travels the region and works with properties as large as 120 acres.

As Andre Landscape Service has grown, the company has not lost sight of the understanding and ability to relate that has earned them valuable clients. When the company began branching into commercial 15 years ago, it applied the same approach in spite of the competitive market.

Though 70 percent of the companies’ customers are residential, the commercial customer base is on the rise and, during the winter, makes up most of their snow removal business.

The retail side of the business rests solely within Sylvan Nursery – and is, in fact, financially independent from the other services. But the separation between the two companies’ landscaping divisions is less clearly defined.

“The nursery is retail, yet you can walk in, purchase a tree and schedule to have it planted all in one transaction. The employees showing up to plant the tree may be driving a truck with a Sylvan logo and an A&E trailer,” says Kautz, who wears both hats – or logoed shirts, more accurately – in any given week. “In my eyes, it’s the same experienced people, same quality product and same excellent service.”

In fact, whether you call Sylvan Nursery or A&E Curbing, chances are the same person might answer the phone.

“Personnel are closely linked,” Kautz says, noting that several employees work for both companies and receive paychecks from both.

“One guy could mow yards two days a week, plant trees one, install irrigation the next,” Kautz says. “If employees are willing and quick to learn, we do try to cross-train them as much as possible. This helps if someone is sick or absent.”

During peak season, Sylvan Nursery employs about 12 people, while Sylvan Landscaping and A&E Curbing share about six. Kautz, who usually works in the field alongside employees, sees room for growth in these numbers – especially on the landscaping and maintenance side, which could “outpace the nursery with the right people in place,” he says.

By cross-training employees and sharing resources instead of remaining entirely separate, the two companies are optimizing their collective offerings, making their combination even greater than the sum of their parts.

Learning to manage personnel.

The biggest challenge of nearly any business is finding talented employees to perform the work. For Kautz, that challenge is doubled.

Kautz has to find talented employees who can perform a variety of landscaping services, often working seamlessly across both businesses.

“Personnel has probably been the most difficult aspect of running a business,” he says. “Finding and hiring experienced employees and/or training others in a semi-seasonal business is very difficult. Employees make or break how successful a business is any given day.”

The most valuable employees to Kautz are the most flexible ones, who can smoothly move from one landscaping service to another to efficiently fill needs for either company.

Learning how to find, hire and manage these people is a challenge, but absolutely crucial for the growth of both companies. Training and cross-training have become more important. Each year, the training manual grows a little thicker and the length of training period increases. It’s a much different approach from the early days when Kautz performed most of the work himself, with the help of a few friends and family.

“I had to realize I am no longer a one man show,” Kautz says. “I need to trust in other people that can complete tasks. It is difficult to let go with a monster cloud of responsibility overhead, but I am learning to communicate more effectively.

“I have high expectations of people, and I’m beginning to understand that expectations must be explained in detail rather than just assumed.”