Matt Caruso, president and founder of Michigan-based Decra-Scape, calls COVID-19 a blessing and a curse. On one hand, people were staying home and spending more money on their yards than ever before, but it also caused an already tight labor market to wither further.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, the company was on in uphill swing.
“For us, the second quarter is always where the rubber meets the road,” he says. “We came out of the gate strong, and everything was great. We had the biggest backlog in company history and then COVID completely shut us down. We were left scrambling and trying to find ways to get it all done.”
Being shut down for so long was unfathomable to Caruso, who says he spent the time actively trying to lobby for the state’s reopening.
“We work outside in the elements and were able to safely distance ourselves, but through state mandates and the governor’s orders, we were down for six weeks,” Caruso says.
Without much income coming in, the company was forced to make a difficult decision, but they ultimately bounced back.
“For a short period, we had to lay everybody off and we don’t like to do that ever,” Caruso says. “Once we came back, we were rocking and rolling and had plenty of work.”
Despite the tough time, Caruso says his team never stopped selling and was able to regain momentum quickly and carry it through the winter, where normally things slow down. However, this created another issue.
“It was kind of a blessing and a curse,” he says. “We couldn’t get everything in the ground because we lost so much time, which screwed our schedule up, but also it allowed us to roll that work into the coming season. Which felt good at the time because if something else happened we had work on the books. But next thing you know, we had so much work coming in we didn’t know how we’d get it all done.”
All this new work was met with a few to see it through. And a year after the pandemic started, Caruso says he’s still having difficulties filling positions. “You’ve got all these stimulus packages and unemployment benefits and everything else, and it’s very difficult to get people to come to work,” he says. “We’re having no problem selling work, and we have a tremendous influx of leads…so we’re really trying to get creative with hiring.”
Caruso says he’s started doing apprenticeship and mentorship programs with area schools as a way to reach a new audience.
“We’ve always been proactive about hiring, but never to a point to prepare for something like this,” he says. “I think it really opened our eyes to how important that is.”
Another strategy of Decra-scape’s is to start utilizing H-2B workers again.
“We’re hopeful we can get into the H-2B mix,” Caruso says. “We used it years and years ago and used it for quite a long time…but are team became almost solely reliant on H-2B and then they capped it and we didn’t get them, so we had to start all over.”
Now, with President Biden allowing for 22,000 additional season workers, Caruso is optimistic.
“Our number’s never been called,” he says. “With the increase of 22,000, I’m hopeful.”
Even through all the challenges, Caruso says his company is prospering and he expects the growth to continue. Thanks in large part to more people staying at home.
“People are creating outdoor oases right now in their backyards,” he says. “Since they’re working at home, they want to create a nice, quaint space they can work at outside. People are really just opening up their pocketbooks.”
Caruso says he expects this trend to continue for the time being.
“From what I see I don’t see it ending too soon,” he says. “I think there’s still a lot of fear to travel. I could see it lasting a little longer. When people are comfortable and confident in what’s happening things will go back to normal.”
Decra-scape also does a lot of commercial hardscape work – specifically specialized paver work. And they’ve got a fun project on the horizon at Champion Motor Speedway in Pontiac, Michigan.
“This year we are doing the M1 Concourse,” Caruso says. “It’s a racetrack and instead of calling them condominiums they have these garage-ominiums. It’s a really cool place…we’re doing a 46,000-square foot paver application. We’re weaving patterns, colors and things along those lines… It’ll be over an acre of pavers.”
The raceway will be hosting An International Auto Show event in September. Caruso says he expects the project to begin in June and wrap up by mid-August.
Caruso says these kinds of projects, where his team gets to be creative, are his favorite. “We try to push toward the specialty applications, and we don’t really like the cookie-cutter applications,” he says.