Sebert Landscape adjusts plans after acquisition

Departments - L&L Insider

When an unexpected death threw a wrench into Sebert Landscape’s acquisition plans, the company had to make some quick changes.

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October 31, 2017
Kate Spirgen
Photo courtesy of Sebert Landscape

When Sebert Landscape bought Wisconsin-based Kenosha Grounds Management in April of 2016, it was an ideal buy. The $4-million, 30-employee company is located midway between Chicago and Milwaukee near a major highway, and Sebert had been looking for a spot outside of Illinois due to friendlier government regulations.

“The Chicago market is a big market and if we’re going to continue to grow, we have to expand to other locations in order to create opportunities in our company,” says Jeff Sebert, owner of the Bartlett, Illinois-based company. “Nobody wants to stay the status quo, at least in my organization. We like to challenge; we like to be able to create opportunities and grow and create something different that the industry hasn’t quite caught up to yet.”

According to Sebert, not only are Wisconsin’s tax codes a little friendlier, the workers’ compensation laws are better for employers. Add onto that the fact that Illinois is considering a service tax and the move out of state looked promising for the company’s seventh location.

“We’re talking just about $1 million a year in costs that have to be passed on to the customer one way or another even though you’ll certainly have customers saying, ‘I’m not going to pay that. That wasn’t in our contract or that wasn’t in our proposal’ or whatever the case may be so you’re going to be fighting that issue, but we just have, unfortunately, a huge number of incompetent politicians … in this state that have proven the fact that it’s not a friendly state to do business in at all,” Sebert says.

By April 2016, the paperwork was signed, sealed and delivered, and Kenosha founder and owner Rich Oscarson was slated to stay on for three years to help keep everything running smoothly during the transition.

Then, two days after the deal was done, Oscarson sent Sebert a photo of himself doing some work with prairie grasses, one of the company’s signature services. “I called him up and chatted and I said, ‘That’s a great picture,” Sebert says.

About 30 minutes later, Sebert got another phone call from an employee saying that there was a problem. Oscarson was on the ground, surrounded by paramedics, police and firefighters.

“He had a massive heart attack and we lost the owner and founder of Kenosha Grounds two days after the deal was signed,” Sebert says.

The small, family-owned company’s employees were devastated and Sebert put its plans for changes on hold out of consideration for Oscarson.

The employees wanted to create a memorial, and so Kenosha installed the Richard Oscarson Memorial Prairie in a nearby park where Oscarson and his team had planted memorial trees in the past. Complete with a walking path, butterfly garden and memorial stone, Sebert felt it was a fitting tribute.

“Were just really supportive and worked with the employees to implement that memorial park area and I think that kind of helped everybody heal a little bit and understand that we were part of helping them get through that,” he said.

“We like to be able to create opportunities and grow and create something different that the industry hasn’t quite caught up to yet.” — Jeff Sebert, owner, Sebert Landscape

Kenosha is still operating under its original name and will for the next year or two before switching to the Sebert signature yellow.

In the meantime, a young former account manager is stepping up and taking the reins as branch manager. “He’s quickly being educated what it means to be a branch manager for us,” Sebert says.

As for more acquisitions, Sebert says there’s a company he’s looking at, and “hopefully something will come out of that,” but the process is still in the early stages.

Noteworthy transactions

Several large companies made sizable acquisitions this past month, including companies that are on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 list.

Monarch acquires Terracare

Monarch Landscapes acquired Terracare Associates, adding another name to the relatively new company’s portfolio.

Terracare is the sixth company under the Monarch umbrella, making it a more than $200-million company with 2,000 employees.

Terracare ranked 22nd on Lawn & Landscape’s 2017 Top 100 list with 2016 revenue of $62.4 million. The company is based in Littleton, Colorado.

“We share similar values and operations principles,” said Monarch CEO Brian Helgoe. “It adds scale and geographic breadth to Monarch. And we think Dean (Murphy) and his leadership team are fantastic. They have deep knowledge of the industry and they are great at integrating companies and building culture. We felt it was a natural fit.”

All companies bought by Monarch will keep their brands, but Helgoe said unifying under one brand will be under consideration next year.

“We plan on having a common brand at some point” he said. “Whether it’s called Monarch or not is to be determined.”

Terracare was previously backed by Progress Equity Partners, a private equity firm based in Dallas. All of Terracare’s employees and executives will be retained, and Murphy said they took the news in stride.

“I’ve told our people since the day I took over the organization, we were purchased with the intention of selling it down the road,” he said. “Don’t be surprised and it’s not a big deal. This is the way all these deals go. Private equity holds, then, at some point, equity sells. This is part of the cycle and it creates opportunity. This creates opportunities for our folks to move into different roles and bigger roles in the future.”

Monarch formed in May of 2015 and is backed by One Rock Capital Partners, LLC, a private equity firm based in New York. In March of this year, Monarch acquired Land Systems in San Diego and Hort Tech Landscape Management in Indio, California.

In April of 2016, Monarch acquired Jensen Landscape in San Jose, California, and Northwest Landscape Services in Woodinville, Washington. Monarch also owns Signature Landscape Services in Redmond, Washington.

As far as future acquisitions, Helgoe said the focus is filling in where Monarch currently has companies in the Western part of the United States.

“If there is a great company or companies that have a customer-service focus, a great field-first culture, experienced landscape leadership and good operations, we are interested,” Helgoe said. – Brian Horn

SavATree acquires Swingle

SavATree acquired Denver-based Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care. This merger is the company’s second in the Colorado market this year, and it aligns with SavATree’s strategic growth plan. In addition, SavATree retained all of Swingle’s 260 employees.

“We saw this as an opportunity to add talented people to the team,” said Daniel van Starrenburg, SavATree CEO.

Swingle was founded in 1947 and featured three locations in Colorado. With this acquisition, SavATree now has five locations in Colorado.

“The geography with their footprint and ours was a perfect match,” Van Starrenburg said. “We’ll maintain all the offices. Given the legacy of the Swingle brand, we want to respect that and carry forward the legacy of the company. We plan to gradually merge brands over time, but will initially maintain the Swingle brand as ‘a SavATree company.’”

SavATree has been expanding in Colorado. Earlier this year, SavATree merged with Denver-based Mountain High Tree, Lawn and Landscape. Van Starrenburg said SavATree plans to continue to look for opportunities to increase its market share out West.

“As we considered the best opportunities to move the company forward, we wanted to entrust the business to a company with similar core values and high-quality standards. SavATree was without a doubt the best option,” said Tom Tolkacz, Swingle CEO. “By sharing similar philosophies as it relates to our customers, community and team members, I am confident our clients will continue to receive expert service and our employees will have even greater opportunities with this best-in-class employer.”

Pictured from left: Tom Tolkacz, CEO of Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care, and Daniel van Starrenburg, CEO of SavATree.
Photo courtesy of SavAtree

John Gibson, president of Swingle Lawn, Tree and Landscape Care, has also joined the SavATree executive team as the company’s executive vice president of the western region, Van Starrenburg said.

Both companies were listed on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 list in 2017. SavATree was 17th on the list with $89.7 million in revenue and Swingle was 81st on the list with about $23.9 million in revenue. SavATree has been caring for properties throughout the Western region, mid-Atlantic, Northeast and Midwest for more than 30 years.

“Our growth is largely a reflection of SavATree’s reputation in the communities we serve and within our industry. We are excited to welcome the Swingle team to the SavATree family,” van Starrenburg said.

“By unifying our similar cultures and building density in the Colorado marketplace, we see great benefits for both customer landscapes and employee opportunities.”

Investment firm acquisition

Chenmark Capital Management, a Maine-based family investment firm, acquired Massachusetts-based Maffei Landscape Contractors. Robert Maffei, company founder and CEO, plans to remain the company’s CEO through this partnership.

Chenmark Capital is an investment firm focused on acquiring and helping to support the operations of small businesses in North America. To date, Chenmark has four landscape companies in its portfolio.

Maffei Landscape has grown into a large commercial and residential landscape contractor that serves Cape Cod and southeastern Massachusetts. The company generated about $10 million in revenue last year.

Ask the Experts: Considering plant health

Some questions and answers on plant damage and problems.

Q: On some of our residential and commercial properties, we are seeing unusual growth on knock-out roses. The symptoms are abnormal reddish color of shoots and foliage, an abundance of new shoots and thorns. Is this herbicide damage?

A: Most likely this is rose rosette virus. While some of the symptoms you describe might mimic herbicide damage, we are seeing a prolific amount of rose rosette virus on knock-out rose plantings in both commercial and residential plantings. Those symptoms of abnormal reddish growth, increased and rapid elongation of new growth, a proliferation of new shoots (witches broom), increased thorns, and deformed buds and blooms are signs of rose rosette virus.

There is no cure for rose rosette and there is high risk of infection for other roses nearby. The removal and cleanup of all plants and leaves from the site as well as roots in the ground is essential. Do not compost the diseased plants. Bagging of debris is recommended.

Many properties have large plantings of knock-out roses, which allows for the quick spread of the disease. Recommend to your client to replace the roses with some other colorful plantings.

Q: My boxwoods on a residential property have circular tan leaf spots with a dark purple to brown border. Some stems are turning black. Leaves are dropping off. What is this problem?

A: While you didn’t indicate what species of boxwood you have, it sounds like boxwood blight. Boxwood blight is caused by the fungus Calonectria pseudonaviculatum. The blight has been confirmed in both residential and commercial plantings. Dwarf English boxwood and American boxwood are very susceptible. Cultivars of little leaf boxwood and Korean boxwood are less susceptible, but still become infected. Rapid defoliation of plants is common and what separates it from other boxwood disease. Boxwood blight can spread rapidly through a planting.

The disease is spread through the splashing of rain or irrigation water and by your pruning tools. The best control is exclusion of plants. If the disease is detected, infected plants and all fallen debris need to be removed and bagged on site. Transport in closed bags to the disposal site. Do not compost the debris. Fungicide sprays as a preventative may be effective. However, once infested, they cannot be controlled.

You might look for an alternative to boxwoods when replanting the area. This disease may also infect Pachysandra terminalis (ground spurge) and Sarcococca sp. (sweet box).

Q: Several of our Zoysia grass properties have small circular spots that are brown to straw colored. The leaves have small areas that are yellow-green to straw colored with a reddish-brown border. What is going on?

A: The symptoms you describe are classic symptoms of dollar spot. The small circular spots are often so prolific that the infected, diseased areas become much larger. Dollar spot outbreaks usually occur when temperatures are between 60-85 degrees Fahrenheit with a high humidity. This disease is particularly favored by warm days and cool nights with intense dew set. Also, low levels of nitrogen and drier soils tend to add to disease development. To manage this issue, use adequate nitrogen levels particularly in spring and summer, mow grass correctly and at proper intervals, reduce thatch and irrigate to avoid drought stress. If necessary apply fungicides for control.

Rex Bishop, NALP Technical Advisor

Ask the Experts is brought to you in partnership with NALP, the National Association of Landscape Professionals. Questions are fielded through NALP’s Trailblazers, the industry’s leading company mentoring program. For more questions, visit Landscapeprofessionals.org.