Roaring in the Rockies

Three companies from the Denver area debuted on the Top 100 list. Executives of each company give their perspectives on the rapidly growing region.

© Jeannie Phan

If you need proof that Colorado is thriving economically, just ask Phil Steinhauer.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen a backlog like we’ve seen this year,” says Steinhauer, owner of DesignScapes Colorado based in Centennial, Colo. “People are calling us earlier and we’re going in earlier to design jobs with builders and contractors so that when these projects are ready to landscape, they’re on the schedule.”

Similarly, at Environmental Designs in Henderson, Colorado, President Shawn Ryan says contracts are already signed and have increased over 2018.

“Now we’ve got to perform,” he says. “It should be a great year.”

And over in Aurora, Colorado, Larry Overley, president and CEO of LandTech Contractors, plans on continuing to grow his company in a steady fashion.

“We are very controlled in the way we grow, very strategic,” Overley says. “We also have plans to open up some more branch offices, profit centers and we are working on that as we speak.”

The landscaping market.

According to the U.S. Census, Colorado's population grew 1.4 percent in the one-year time span from July 1, 2017, to the same date in 2018, landing the state's growth rate at No. 7 in the country.

“We have had a lot of growth,” Ryan says. “I think the benefit Colorado had is that we didn’t see a lot of recession in 2008. A lot of people continued to move to the state, and I don’t think it got hit as hard.”

Real estate values weren’t as bad as other areas and the state rebounded quickly, Ryan says, adding that the state’s legalization of cannabis contributed to a booming economy.

“It brought a ton of money to the state,” he said.

Steinhauer, whose company ranked 75 on the Top 100 list with $27.5 million in 2018 revenue, points out changes in the population, including East coast transplants, also have contribute to the growth.

“I think there’s a lure to head west,” Steinhauer says. “I think that’s always been part of the American dream. There’s a little bit of a frontier feeling still here in Colorado.”

The climate is also appealing.

“People are finding out Colorado’s actually got the perfect weather, where you get four seasons but it’s not extremely cold all winter long,” he adds.

The practically year-round pleasant weather has helped with sales, according to Steinhauer.

“That whole outdoor living – that’s kind of a big part of being in Colorado,” he says. “With outdoor living comes fire pits, outdoor fireplaces, extensions of living rooms into the outside.”

Nearly every residential job performed by DesignScapes Colorado today includes some type of outdoor living space, he says.

“Landscape contractors are doing a ton of construction now, not just trees and shrubs and irrigation,” Steinhauer says. “A lot of these spaces have patios and pergolas and outdoor TVs and kitchens and everything imaginable.”

For Environmental Designs, a blend of high-end residential customers combined with commercial maintenance accounts has helped keep the company’s book of business diversified, Ryan says.

“They have fed off of each other really well and the economy is going strong. Construction is booming,” he says. “We’ve been really lucky with snow. We’ve been lucky with commercial maintenance, floral install. We do a ton of floral (seasonal color) too.”

His company employs around 300 workers during peak season, of which anywhere from 50 to 100 can be seasonal workers. Environmental Designs landed at number 92 on the Top 100 list with $23 million in 2018 revenue.

Ryan predicts growth for the industry will continue.

“I see Colorado as being a great marketplace as far as continued growth for the next few years,” he says.

Colorado’s population grew 1.4% in the one-year time span from July 1, 2017, to the same date in 2018, according to the U.S. Census, landing the state’s growth rate at No. 7 in the country.

Current challenges.

While jobs in the state may be plentiful, and landscape projects in demand – labor is an issue just like it is across the country.

“The negative is there’s no labor. I mean none,” Ryan says. “The limit to your growth is people, not ability. I got jobs I can’t do because I can’t find more people.”

Both Ryan’s workforce and workers in the landscape industry in general in Colorado are aging, he says.

“The ’90s were phenomenal. I could go to my guys and say I need 20 workers and I could have 20 new guys shows up to work within a week,” he says. “Today, in Colorado, I can run ads, do flyers, we have one person dedicated to recruitment, and it’s unbelievably painful to find people.”

Part of the issue is education that there are more opportunities in the industry than simply mowing a lawn or only working for a season, Ryan says. Part is also the reality that there are other opportunities and industries to work in that may seem more appealing.

“It’s hard work, long hours, it’s just really demanding for the pay,” he says. “And due to the fact that we do snow removal, it becomes a full year-round job. You don’t really ever get a good break. You’re always working.”

While jobs in the state may be plentiful, finding labor remains a struggle in Colorado – just like the rest of the country.

Combatting workforce issues.

In order to get around the labor issue, many companies are using H-2B workers, alongside other tactics. DesignScapes Colorado has used H-2B workers for about 14 years.

“There’s not a lot of people beating down the door and that’s why we rely so heavily on H-2B,” Steinhauer says.

“Obviously that program is very challenging; to operate a business not knowing if it’s going to be around next year or how it’s going to be managed.”

At Environmental Designs, similarly, H-2B workers have been used for about 12 years now.

At LandTech, Overley sees some positives to the program, despite the unpredictable nature of using a temporary workforce.

“It fills the void when you need more labor,” Overley says. “The beauty of it is, it is temporary. We have been using that program now for 19 years.”

His company employs more than 300 workers during peak season and landed at 64 on the list with revenue of $30 million.

Overley says his company utilizes both internal and external recruiters to seek out talent.

“Our HR is very good at vetting people. We are very aware of the need, and perhaps the challenges, that go along with personnel and how you really have to vet them,” Overley says.

In addition to using the temporary legal VISA workers, these Colorado landscape contractors are thinking hard about how to bring in more full-time, permanent workers.

“We’re networking with job fairs now. Getting associated with high schools and junior colleges and trade schools to spread the word that you can make a career in the landscape industry,” Steinhauer says.

“It doesn’t have to be behind a shovel but there’s estimators, there’s designers, there’s project managers, there’s accountants, there’s administrators.”

Likewise, Ryan says his team has been working with schools to look for young talent. He has also been working on company culture.

“We do a lot of things for culture. We have a scholarship program that we do,” he says. “We do a lot of recruitment events, community development.”

The author is a freelancer based in Ohio.

May 2019
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