Bob Pedatella remembers the severe drought in 1999. The intense, dry summer forced a major business change at the company he had started just five years earlier. Plants were not thriving. Customers weren’t investing in landscape installations that would whither in the heat.
Pedatella met a friend through the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association who showed him how to work with pavers. Today, nearly all of the projects completed by Kodiak Landscape Design in Haskell, N.J., involve interlocking concrete pavers or stonework. “We built up the business so well that people call us for pavers,” Pedatella says.
In fact, about 25 percent of Kodiak’s business today is serving as a subcontractor to other landscape firms and masonry companies that rely on Kodiak’s paver and stonework expertise. “In this economy, everyone is making changes – everyone is cutting back, and some (firms) can’t afford to have a fulltime paving crew, but they don’t want to turn down work,” he says. “So, they can hire us and it’s cheaper for them to get the pavers done that way.”
Plus, it’s profitable for Kodiak Landscape Design, which has grown its expertise in pavers over the years. The company has a dedicated paver crew and is certified by the Interlocking Concrete Paver Institute (ICPI) and the National Concrete Masonry Association. “Staying on top of the latest techniques and tools is how we are able to stay in business now,” Pedatella says of the niche business that has grown organically from his interest in pavers and focus on becoming an expert.
Honing a niche. Pedatella had early dreams of growing the business to 100 employees. “Before, I used to be proud of how big we were and how many trucks we had,” he says. “Now, I’m proud to be in business. I don’t need 100 trucks to make money. And I’d rather have 50 quality accounts than 100 that don’t pay me on time.”
Bob Pedatella gives safety talks early in the day to remind employees about proper techniques.
Bob Pedatella is constantly reminding employees to wear safety glasses and use equipment with caution. He dedicates time in the morning to quick safety talks so safety is always top of mind.
This vigilance has paid off. For two years in a row, there have been zero workplace injuries at Kodiak Landscape Design in Haskell, N.J. This earned the company a two-time PLANET National Safety Award. And Pedatella’s insurance company is pretty pleased with the clean record, so the firm pays less for premiums. “You can lose a lot of money if you’re not safe,” Pedatella says.
Employees go through Certified Landscape Technician training, which emphasizes safety, and Pedatella makes an effort to keep safety at the forefront of daily operations. “It’s kind of casual,” he says of the tailgate talks. “If we get a new piece of equipment or tool – even one the employees already know – we always go over that and explain how to properly use it.”
And Pedatella is a stickler for wearing safety glasses and other appropriate dress like boots. Though, like any owner, he struggles to get the message across to more stubborn workers. “What is the best way to get (workers) to put their safety glasses on? Keep harping on it, I guess,” he says.
One worker was pretty glad Pedatella kept up that harping when a string trimmer kicked up a rock that hit the employee right in the eyeglasses. “There was a chip, and that could have been my eye,” he told Pedatella. “He thanked me for always telling him to put his glasses on, and now he realizes how important that is,” Pedatella says.
This realization hit Pedatella before the recession, when he was denied H2B workers. Accustomed to filling seasonal crews from this labor source, he was forced to turn down work. “We didn’t have all of those employees, so we had to downsize,” he says.
First, Pedatella began streamlining operations. “We had materials trucked to the jobs rather than us bringing them to the job,” he says of making the most of vendor services. That saved him a truck and a worker or two for drop-offs. “And we started focusing on quality work, not just quantity.”
Rather than taking just any patio job, Kodiak prefers to take work that showcases the company’s expertise. Sure, the company does paver driveways and less-demanding paver jobs, but Pedatella prefers a challenge.
He documents these projects in a step-by-step process on the company’s Facebook page, which has more than 2,000 photos of the Kodiak’s work.
“I like jobs that are challenging,” he says. In 2009, Kodiak began working with a landscape designer so it could handle more complex projects.
Now, the company provides clients with comprehensive landscape designs that include irrigation, landscape installation, lighting – and, of course, pavers.
“By working with a designer, we can attract clients who are spending more money on bigger projects,” Pedatella says.
Pedatella relies on subcontractors to handle the irrigation and other parts of jobs that aren’t a specialty for his business. Some of the subs he has known for 10 to 15 years, so he has a reliable team of outside help.
“I do some work for them, they do some work for me,” he says. “It’s all about having the right people.”
By working smaller and smarter, Kodiak has trimmed his employee count from 15 to 11 and grown revenue by 40 percent since 2008.
Beneficial associations. Pedatella says his company wouldn’t be where it is today without the networking and knowledge he has gained through membership in the NJLCA.
Pedatella joined as a college student, and has been involved for the last 17 years. He currently serves as president of the organization. Through the association, he learned how to run a successful paver business, and how to manage a snow operation.
Pedatella’s firm was working as a snowplow subcontractor for a larger landscape company – a contact through the NJLCA – for seven years. He learned the ins and outs, and how to sell the service. “After that, we started doing our own snow,” he says.
Pedatella has served the association in various capacities, including leading the state Certified Landscape Technician exam at Rutgers University.
Meanwhile, he has invested the time and resources in getting certified by key industry associations, such as ICPI. Kodiak Landscape Design is also a certified installer for some paver manufacturers. “You have to stay up-to-date on the new products,” he says, adding that many companies that do pavers aren’t profitable because of a lack of technique and understanding of this specialty.
Pedatella says about 35 percent Kodiak’s jobs involve fixing improperly installed paver surfaces. Meanwhile, the certifications are a selling tool for Kodiak. “We can explain to homeowners that we are the professionals, and our employees are professionals,” he says.
“The (economy) is changing, and you want to do better, you want to make more money, you want a better name for yourself, but to do all of this you have to keep learning,” Pedatella says.
Photo courtesy of Kodiak Landscape Design