In flux

Features - Maintenance

Josh Martie navigated a transition of ownership with clear communication and a focus on quality.

September 6, 2013
Kristen Hampshire

Sliding into the driver’s seat as new owner of a business that has been cranking successfully for 19 years calls for some smooth shifting.

But Josh Martie didn’t want to stall the business mid-season – the transition happened just after the Fourth of July last year – so the company kept the news under wraps until winter.

If a client called to ask for the owner, Martie would explain that he was the guy in charge. Since he had been working at Scott’s Landscaping, Garden Center & Exterior Lighting since 2001, clients knew and trusted him, and so did staff.

“We have a lot of customers who have been with Scott’s since the company first started, so because of that relationship and how long I have been with the company, that really helped us retain and win the trust of our long-term customers,” says Martie, who just celebrated his one-year anniversary as president of the Fairview Heights, Ill.-based business.

His goals: To grow the garden center business and give the facility a face-lift, continue expansion with services like fencing and lighting and be that one-stop shop for clients so they don’t have to look elsewhere for a provider.

All this falls under job No. 1: Make a profit.

“We are growing the business and hopefully in the next five to 10 years, we can open up a second location,” Martie says. “But our primary focus is to make a good profit where we are now.”

True service

Military families make up at least half of Scott’s Landscaping’s clientele.

Location has a strong influence on the customer mix at Scott’s Landscaping, Garden Center & Exterior Lighting. The Fairview Heights, Ill., firm is about a 10-minute drive from Scott Air Force Base. About 50 percent of the company’s clients are military families, says president Josh Martie. That means lots of transition, communication and new faces on properties all the time. “We have one house we have serviced for the last 15 years that has had four different owners,” Martie says.

Mostly, Scott’s performs maintenance services for these families. “A lot of times, the man of the house leaves to go overseas and the wife needs help taking care of the property,” Martie says. But there is landscape installation work to be had.

“We may put in a landscape and two years later, the next owner doesn’t like it so we rip that out and start fresh,” he says. Referrals keep this military business rolling in. “A lot of times, if a military family lives in that house, nine times out of 10, a military family will move in after the other leaves,” Martie says. Those families generally pass on the names of their service providers.

“They are sometimes difficult to get in touch with.” But the work is extremely gratifying, he says, and steady.

That will mean positioning the garden center to compete against the big boxes, examining the company’s multiple service lines and continuing to focus on serving loyal clients.

Sustaining the following.
“We have a really good reputation in this area, so I didn’t want to change a lot,” says Martie of his aspirations as new owner. That said, Martie recognizes that the garden center needs some enhancements inside and out. For one, he is focused on building up outdoor displays to catch the eyes of drivers. Also on the list: modernizing the interior and technology by adding a new computer system and checkout counter.

But the past year, the focus has been on maintaining a smooth transition from former owner Scott Hesse to Martie, who started talking about a partnership shortly after joining the company.

“Scott always knew years ago that I was going to be a partner with him or run my own landscaping company eventually,” Martie says. Four years ago, the two talked about becoming partners.

Then two winters ago, Hesse said he was ready to sell. “It came to me as a surprise,” Martie says. “We went from talking about me being a partner to buying the business from him.”

Martie was excited about the opportunity to run the business, which has 25 employees and a customer base that is 95 percent residential. “I’m a young guy who is just starting my family – I have an 18-month-old at home – and the idea of doing well and providing financial security for my family is exciting for me,” he says. And, he sees growth on the horizon.

Martie’s father-in-law owns a pharmacy a few towns over and is a partner in the business. One bit of advice he offered Martie: Don’t overreact or under-respond to customers’ needs.

“Any time a customer has a problem, the quick answer is, ‘How can we fix that?’ instead of overreacting,” Martie says. “That has helped out a lot. We don’t deal with a lot of problems, but when we do, the situation is minimized because we take care of it fast.”

Scott’s has enjoyed solid reputation and strong customer following for 20 years. So Martie didn’t want to cause any disruptions to the flow of business by making a big announcement concerning the change of ownership. “We didn’t want anyone to panic and say, ‘Hey, I have a contract with the pervious owner, how will this affect my contract with you?’ So we kept it as quiet as we could for the first six months.”

When a contract was up, Martie sent the client a letter that mentioned the ownership change. Martie and Hess brought in an attorney and accountant, and the entire sale took eight months.

Selling value.
Martie sees promise in the garden center business, but competing in his market won’t be easy, he admits. Scott’s is surrounded by a Lowe’s, Home Depot, Wal-Mart and Menard’s. “Having those competitors within a 5-mile radius of us has been tough to overcome,” Martie relates. “We try to sell based on quality because we are naturally going to be more expensive. We try to sell our customer service and knowledge.”

Martie says this value selling is working. “A lot of our clients are repeat customers so they come back to us knowing what we have to offer,” he says. “They come back because they realize the plants they are getting at the box stores are not the top-quality plants they can get from us.”

The quality is there, but Martie wants to focus on enhancing the shopping experience. Now is the time, Martie thinks. “People are spending less on vacations and more money on their houses, and these days people are more do-it-yourself. We want to carry as much product in our store as possible to help those do-it-yourselfers get things done.”

The garden center represents just 15 to 20 percent of the overall business today. “The landscaping division is our bread and butter,” Martie says.

To ramp up the garden center, Martie sees expanding the outdoor kitchen offerings and drawing more customers in with exterior displays.

The two sides of the business play off of each other – people visiting the garden center who need a hand can hire Scott’s Landscaping, and installation clients may go to the garden center to pick out a perfect pot or find other garden essentials, a hanging plant or tools.

Meanwhile, landscaping is 80 percent of the firm’s revenue. That includes hardscape, water features, lighting, sprinkler systems and maintenance. The firm also offers fencing by working through subcontractors. Scott’s added sprinkler system services about five years ago, and has long offered patios, retaining walls and low-voltage lighting. But Martie realizes he must keep expansion under control. Deciding whether adding a service is worthwhile “is a gamble sometimes,” he says.

“I think we are risk-takers, so we want to take the risk to see if the service will help our business down the road.”

Martie wants to continue the company’s legacy of success and open additional locations. He says, “I am excited about the possibility for this business to grow.”