Wide awake

Columns - Industry Voices

November 1, 2012
Jim Huston

Jim Huston

Zech Strauser showed up late to an estimating class I was teaching in January of 2003 at the Cook College Campus, part of Rutgers University in New Jersey. Zech was late because his office was 90 minutes from campus, and he was pretty spent from plowing snow all night after a big storm. But to his credit, he made it – physically. Mentally was another story as I had to help keep Zech (and many of the other students) awake during the day.

Zech, an admitted workaholic, founded Strauser Nature’s Helpers in 1998 at the age of 20. As a kid growing up in northeastern Pennsylvania, he was home-schooled and loved being outdoors. He played in the woods and helped his parents in the garden. He started landscaping in 1991 at the age 13 mowing fairways and greens at a local golf course. His working in the landscape industry was a natural extension of his love for the things green and natural. He says, “I started this company with a $25 push mower. I learned that if you get help from the correct people, good things can happen.”

The company. After taking my class at Cook College and sleeping through much of the second day, Zech thought it a good idea for the two of us to meet one-on-one. A couple of days before our meeting, Zech called me to tell me that his entire field crew – all three guys – had abandoned him. In Zech’s customary entrepreneurial style, he decided that we needed to meet and plan a new future for him and his company – a resurrection of sorts. We met, created a strategic plan and a detailed budget for the upcoming year, calculated all of his pricing and thought through some of the key hurdles that Zech was facing. At this point, the only person in the company was Zech. To his credit, Zech saw what most would see as a serious setback as an opportunity to reshuffle the deck and start over.

And it worked. He hired new employees, rebuilt his team and pressed ahead. By the end of the year, he was well on his way. A solid foundation was in place upon which to plan for future growth.

Today, just nine years later, Strauser Nature’s Helper, is the dominant full-service landscape company in its market. Strauser Nature’s Helper has a staff of 20-22 at the season’s peek and five full-timers.


As for product/service mix: 60 percent of revenue comes from commercial maintenance and snow, 15 percent from residential maintenance and snow, 22 percent from commercial and residential installation and 3 percent from Christmas decorations.

Robin Petras is a landscape designer and in charge of horticulture services and sales. Duane Walck is the maintenance services supervisor and account manager. Stephanie Stashluk is in the office manager and in charge of accounting and human resources.

What makes Strauser Nature’s Helper unique? Per Zech, “In our market, we are the largest and most service-focused company. We can meet the needs of any kind of client for all phases of landscape and snow work.”

Why should you do business with Strauser Nature’s Helper? Zech adds, “We offer a full service option for clients and are great at meeting client’s goals. We offer more services … than other companies while being price-point competitive.”

The future. The future looks bright at Strauser Nature’s Helper. This is, in no small part, due to Zech getting married in September 2011 to his longtime sweetheart, Mary. He’s still a workaholic but is exercising more, working on his diet and generally working smarter. The two biggest challenges for SNH are operating efficiently and profitably in a more competitive market, and finding and training future field staff. The biggest opportunity for SNH is to continue growing by maintaining its 90 percent renewal rate. If they keep their renewal rate high, growth is inevitable.

The main goals for the next five years are: to grow sales by taking advantage of their reputation and broad product/service mix, and to improve the bottom line through training current staff to work more efficiently and take advantage of technology.

Zech is committed to improving his technological base. Strauser Nature’s Helper is currently implementing a new computer system that totally integrates accounting, estimating, work orders, scheduling, job costing, etc. Full implementation will take some time but the new system should provide many of the tools necessary for Strauser Nature’s Helper to grow more quickly and profitably.


JIM HUSTON runs J.R. Huston Consulting, a green industry consulting firm. See www.jrhuston.biz; mail jhuston@giemedia.com.