Knock, knock

There are profitable opportunities behind doors you may have never thought about approaching.

Ready to crack a new market and attract a fresh batch of customers – or sell a new offering to the clients you already have? Aside from traditional landscape maintenance and design/build, there is a wide range of specialized services that suit green industry businesses. Lawn & Landscape spoke with owners who operate interiorscape, house watching and estate gardening divisions. Here’s what they said about how they have grown these services over the years to fulfill a market demand.

Great estate
Proactive care. That’s the ticket to satisfying clients who own estates of lushly landscaped properties in the San Carlos, Calif., area where The Village Gardener operates. The firm started more than 25 years ago as a commercial maintenance business, but during the last 15 years the founder, Frank Niccoli, has gradually expanded the estate gardening business. Now it consumes about 15 percent of the business.

The market is ripe for this service, says Michelle Chu, operations manager who is transitioning into ownership this year. “We are located halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, so we are in an area where some cities have minimum standard lots of 1 acre,” she says. The complexity of the landscaping and desire of property owners to maintain and be very involved in the care of their properties also factor into whether an account is considered an “estate.”

“This service is very specialized because we work with clients who want their properties maintained perfectly, and we have to listen to the client and meet their needs,” Chu says.

Estate gardening is all about hands-on customer service, and it demands solid communications skills on behalf of the account manager and entire crew. The Village Gardener frequently uses email to keep in touch with estate clients during the week, but on-site conversations with homeowners are a given. And staff must know how to act, respond and deliver results – as of yesterday. “When our clients want things done, you have to jump,” Chu says.

Catering to these clients involves a dedicated crew of seasoned landscape technicians who pay great attention to detail. “We have an account manager who is passionate about plants and likes to educate clients,” Chu says – and clients want the information. “We have a crew that primarily services just these accounts because they have the best pruning skills.”

Chu says attrition will eventually take crewmembers away from this team, so the firm constantly watches the performance of its people to identify exceptional workers who could manage the rigor of estate gardening. Generally, the crew is on an estate property twice each week – or once for an extended period of several hours.

One visit might be dedicated to just mowing, and another to cleanup, deadheading and other detail work. Or, The Village Gardener might send out a “super crew” (adding an additional staffer to the typical 3-man crew).

Chu says sees a lot of promise in growing the estate gardening business. “That’s what’s going on in our area,” she says of the opportunity. And as for budgets, estate property owners expect to pay for the services and work the expense into their household budgets. “They want what they want, and they have the means to do it.”

Interior interests
Occasionally, a longtime employee of Rolling Acres in Clinton, Md., will decide to break off from the business and start their own interiorscape outfit. Motivated by a passion for plants and people, and a desire to strike it out on his or her own, the horticultural technician will launch a smalltime operation, and sometimes do quite well.

But interiorscape clients expect the highest quality plants and immediate service. Stock plants from a mass merchant generally do not meet the standards of this customer base, which is largely commercial. And those plants just don’t last, so there is risk of the client noticing a sick or deteriorating plant before the greenery can be replaced with a healthy substitute.

“While I applaud the entrepreneurial spirit, starting an interiorscape business takes a lots of work – you need a good support mechanism and team in place to respond to clients needs, and that is where I feel most people make a mistake when they decide to make a break and start their own firm,” says William Fensterer, president.

Interiorscape is a capital-heavy and labor-intensive business. A business must keep in stock or have fast access to a selection of vibrant, tropical plants. And service calls must be expedited efficiently. “It’s an involved business to operate,” Fensterer says, adding that Rolling Acres has its own 30,000 square foot greenhouse stocked with a selection of plants. Plant quality is critical to the success of this business.

But success does find those who do it right. In fact, Rolling Acres was started 38 years ago out of the back of an old, beat-up green van. In 1975, founders Paul Levy and his wife, Teddy, began selling tropical foliage on the streets of Washington, D.C. The idea is that they would come up with enough money so they could afford to move to California.

But the business took off. “It evolved when someone asked them, ‘Can you take care of my plants for me?’” Fensterer says. “They thought, ‘What a great idea.’ So they started selling to residences and then tapped into people of power who were making decisions about plants that went into their offices spaces.”

Rolling Acres grew from that van into the $5 million operation it is today. About $2.6 million is interiorscape (with a dedicated staff of 22), and nearly all of that business is commercial. The remainder of the business mix is urban exterior landscaping – containers, rooftop terraces, street plantings – along with holiday design and a florist operation.

Interiorscape is Rolling Acres’ core business. “There is a need to beautify a building’s interior and have it be aesthetically pleasing for people on the inside,” he says.

Lately, architectural trends lean toward positioning works of art as visual focal points rather than using lush plantings. This has been somewhat of a challenge for interiorscapers, who must advocate the value of their service. “Plants provide an aesthetically pleasing environment for employees to help motivate them, and they provide cleaner air,” Fensterer says of their selling points.

By serving a client’s interior and exterior planting needs, Rolling Acres can maintain a captive customer base that won’t search elsewhere for services. “One of the big selling points for us now is that we want to be the one-stop shop for all of our commercial customers’ horticultural needs, whether interior, exterior or holiday decorating,” he says.

House rules
Mike Wulff is an extra pair of eyes for clients who trust his firm, Grounds Guys of Michiana, to watch their second homes. Michiana Shores is about an hour outside of Chicago, across Lake Michigan from its skyline. About 60 percent of the homes in the community – and there are no more than a few thousand – are only occupied during fair weather months.

Wulff, who has been living and working in the area for most of his life, also serves on the fire department and is considered a go-to guy in the community. He maintains many of residents’ landscapes and plows snow in the winter. “After years of trusting us, we inch up the proverbial ladder until (clients) give us the keys and ask us to keep an eye on the house in the winter,” he says.

The area is heavily forested, so Wulff keeps an eye out for tree damage and issues that can crop up after storms. He makes sure the pipes don’t burst and that nothing has been tampered with on the property. (If he’s plowing snow, he will notice if there are suspicious tracks on site.)

“Now, people are putting us on their alarm system call lists, so if their alarm goes off we are notified so we can meet the police at the house to go inside and see if there is anything wrong,” Wulff says.

Second-home house watching services are a boon to Wulff’s business during the off-season, when snowplowing is the only income. Perhaps more important is the client service component: Wulff grows deeper relationships with those who ask him to care for their properties because he treats each as if it were his own. And if something happens, he’s there to triage the problem.

For example, if a tree falls and damages the home, he has contacts to reputable roofers and other trades – plumbers, electricians, etc. He will take pictures of the site to submit to the insurance company. “You have to think on your feet and fix problems quickly,” Wulff says.

Wulff tends to get business from clients who know someone who had an incident in their home. They want to prevent the unexpected from occurring while they are not at home. Wulff’s credentials and track record in the community make him an ideal candidate for the house-watching job.

“We can save people a lot of hassle in the long run,” Wulff says. “If a pipe freezes upstairs and it runs and no one catches it, before you know it you’ve got an out-of-control water bill and your ceiling’s shot.”

Besides, since Wulff is on the property regularly for maintenance, he knows the property.

The second-home house watching portion of Wulff’s business has grown steadily over the years, and it continues to do so as clients trust Wulff and ask him to keep an eye out on their properties. “It’s a rewarding business because clients know they can call you, and in turn you feel like you’re part of their family,” he says.

Also, when the time comes to bid on a project, the trust Wulff has built with clients through this service tends to put him in a leading position. “They enjoy the relationship and so they aren’t going to be looking around for other people to do their landscaping work,” he says. L&L

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