Stay the course

Before and after COVID-19 hit, contractors across the country were busy, but whether that continues is up for debate.

Illustration by Christina Chung

Gary Morische, owner, Gary’s Lawn & Snow Service, Osage, Iowa

Morische says despite all the uncertainty that plagued 2020, he’s been able to keep things consistent.

“It’s been real steady, and so far, so good,” he says.

Morische says 2019 was a good year overall, but a mild winter served as a bump in the road. He’s hoping for a better one this year.

“I had a slow winter, but summer was really good,” he says. “Like everybody else in this business, it all depends on the weather. We’ll finish up this year pretty good, but it depends on how the winter goes. We always look forward to a new year. We’re hoping COVID will slow down and exit the picture.”

While Morische was able to continue working throughout the coronavirus crisis, it did have an effect on his customers.

“The best thing for my business is word of mouth.”

“It’s affected some things… as far as people paying their bills it’s been slow, but they’re still coming through,” he says. “I understand it. It’s been hard for people.”

Morische says he’s always been understanding when it comes to a customer’s ability to pay.

“When I started this business, I started it to help people out. I didn’t do it to get rich. That wasn’t the goal for me,” he says.

Additionally, Morische says that the current economic climate has kept him from expanding his business or offering new services.

“We always look for advancements or different opportunities,” he says. “But this year we haven’t made many changes. Because of COVID, we’ve kept things pretty straight and narrow. It’s not really a good time to try something that’ll take more outgoing than incoming.

Morische’s been able to grow his business each year and hopes that’ll continue.

“We just take on work when I can,” he says. “It’s been a good, steady growth.”

Along with adding more commercial properties recently, Morische says having a good reputation is critical.

“The best thing for my business is word of mouth,” he says. “When you do good work, you get people to recommend you to somebody else. That’s a big value as far as I’m concerned.” – Kim Lux

Bill Bumgardner, principle, Bumgardner Landscape, Medford, Oregon

Bumgardner credits the company’s reputation for their growth and success in 2019 and early 2020, but a strategic shift in bidding for new work has also played a role.

“We’ve attempted to bid on more projects and have been a little more aggressive on projects,” he says. “We also added some qualified staff members to the irrigation side. That’s really made our jump. We’re over 120% more in revenue than last year in irrigation repair.”

Bumgardner Landscape finished 2019 up 14.5% from 2018 and was already up about 37% early on this year before the pandemic hit.

“We’re still cautiously optimistic,” he says. “I wish I had a crystal ball and could say either way. I don’t think anybody knows. We’ll stay positive and do the best we can. We’ve got quite a few projects on our books for the rest of the year, so I think we’ll be steady. I don’t think we’ll see too many significant dips.”

Like a lot of landscapers, Bumgardner says his clients that were hit hardest by COVID-19 were commercial shopping centers and retail establishments. However, revenue was up for several other services, so Bumgardner notes it all evened out.

“We made it up in different revenue streams,” he says. “Maintenance might have been down, but irrigation repair and landscape construction were up.”

Bumgardner says that despite the tough couple of months, he’s already getting some contract renewals from his commercial clients for next year.

“They did ask us not to raise rates, so we’re accommodating that and holding the line,” he says. “This current climate calls for that to maintain our customer base.”

Bumgardner’s also been busy keeping up with a trend that seems to be increasing in popularity across Oregon.

“We’re in the Pacific Northwest so we get a lot of people who are fairly progressive in wanting less emissions,” he says. “Electric equipment seems to be getting people’s attention. We jumped into it full speed ahead this year. We have a larger HOA we take care of, and they’re very progressive… so we bought all electric equipment for their site.”

Bumgardner says he doesn’t feel that trend will slow down anytime soon. – Kim Lux

Andrew Sebastian, president, Sebastian Design Build, Silver Spring, Maryland

2020 has been a banner year for Sebastian Design Build.

“We started off to a really good start,” he says. “COVID seemed to have a big impact, but surprisingly, it was a beneficial impact. We’re having our best year ever in 21 years now. It’s been a great year so far, and fall’s looking good, too.”

Sebastian says taking the time to focus on marketing for once has helped him have such a successful year.

“This is the first time I’ve ever had a structured marketing plan in the 20 years I’ve been doing business,” he says. “That, combined with COVID-19 and people being quarantined in their houses, have made it a good year for us so far.”

Having a better online presence has certainly helped Sebastian’s business.

“We’ve been targeting things online and really focusing on SEO,” he says. “I hired a company to pump up my SEO and have some online campaigns going.”

Sebastian says it’s a little embarrassing that it took him 21 years to figure it out, but he says he’s finally got it.

“I hired a company to pump up my SEO and have some online campaigns going.”

“This year I’ve been trying to get the systems going to increase efficiencies and increase our net profits,” he says. “We’ve really been working on systems in the field, and in pricing and in marketing.”

And all that hard work has paid off. Sebastian says his best year ever is still going.

“The fall is looking fantastic,” he says. “I’m hoping that’ll carry into early 2021. We’re anticipating a strong start to 2021. We’re up about 40-45% from last year. Our gross (income) is up and our net (income) is also up.”

Sebastian says another key to the company’s success is identifying jobs with the most net profit.

“We haven’t had any major, super high-dollar projects, but we’ve been consistently in $20,000-$40,000 projects,” he says. “I’ve been figuring out that that’s where we do the best.”

But there’s still more work to be done, according to Sebastian.

“Building packages is on my list of things to work on,” he says.

Sebastian says he’s also been working to fill middle-management positions. – Kim Lux

Deborah Wade, co-owner, Wade’s Lawn Service, Goodlettsville, Tennessee

Wade believes the old adage is true: Everyone wants a paycheck, but few want to work.

“Labor is something that we struggle with,” she says. “It didn’t necessarily start with the pandemic. It’s really interesting that these jobs are available, but it’s sometimes hard to find dependable people.”

Hovering around eight employees this summer, Wade clarifies that her current batch of employees are dependable and work well together. But in her two decades of business, she says she’s learned that the turnover rate is incredibly high.

At one point in time, she and her husband could have the client schedules mapped out in their heads, and though they wrote it out, they wouldn’t need to do so. But as they’ve grown, they’ve needed more labor – labor that just hasn’t come in a steady stream.

“We’ve always had enough people to get done what we need to get done,” she says, adding that it’s just more difficult than it needs to be with labor being in such short supply.

Even now, the work is there: Wade says the pandemic hasn’t been a blessing, but they’ve been blessed amidst it as they’ve received more jobs than before. She believes people have simply had more enhancement work than she anticipated because they’re sitting around, waiting for someone to come help them beautify their yards.

“We have been extremely busy since the pandemic. I don’t know if it’s the fact that people are sitting at home and they’re looking out the window and thinking, ‘You know, I need to get mulch,’” she says. “I think for the most part, the industry is doing good. Landscapers are still out working, so I think it’s a good industry to be in. I’m happy to be a part of it.” – Jimmy Miller

Francis Connerney, owner, Tampa Outdoor Solutions, Tampa Bay, Florida

Connerney has been a one-man show since 2012, and he couldn’t be happier.

He acknowledges the well-documented labor shortage in the industry, and at times, he had the same issues. But now he feels like he can make more money than before as he relies on himself, and he estimates he’s only in his truck for 25 minutes throughout the day.

“I owned a larger business 10 years ago, and it just became a nightmare trying to keep people motivated, keep them on board,” he says. “In my area, it’s a very transient workforce. It’s just me and I love it that way.”

With that in mind, he’s still got plenty of concerns, largely the economic fallout of a global pandemic. To this point, he’s only lost two clients directly due to COVID-19, but he knows more are going to drop over time.

“It’s not an ‘if,’ it’s a ‘when,’” Connerney says. “People are just not going to have that free income to do enhancements on their properties.”

To prepare, he’s invested heavily in new equipment and he paid for it all in cash, so when money gets tight later, he’s already got reliable equipment to get him through. He’s still doing the same maintenance work he’s done before, plus he’s seen an uptick in outdoor construction projects, general beautification, and with a bunch of recent rainfall, even some drainage installation.

For the time being, business is actually booming – he just doesn’t know if it’ll stay that way.

“Oddly enough for me, the pandemic has brought about people spending more money at their house,” he says. – Jimmy Miller

Drew Keenum, owner, Heritage Outdoors, Rainbow City, Alabama

Keenum was plenty busy in 2019, rebranding his business from Rainbow Lawn Care & Landscaping to Heritage Outdoors, but despite the rebranding, he says the company has continued to grow.

“We actually did a full rebrand last year,” Keenum says. “We changed the name, logo – everything.” He notes that the rebrand also included opening a landscape supply company.

Keenum says the new name highlights all the services they offer, which include full lawn maintenance, irrigation and design/build.

“People were only relating us to just cutting grass,” he says. “I felt we needed a name that encompassed everything we did and didn’t just lock us down to seem like we were serving just one portion of the green industry.”

The local community even got to weigh in during the process by helping to pick the new name.

“We did a survey and Heritage Outdoors won,” he says. “I also did a competition with one of the local schools for the design of the logos.”

He adds that getting his customers on board with the changes was a struggle at times.

“People were only relating us to just cutting grass. I felt we needed a name that encompassed everything we did and didn’t just lock us down to seem like we were serving just one portion of the green industry.”

“We didn’t lose anybody, but I had to do a lot of legwork in educating the customers and explaining what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and what it’ll look like,” he says.

Through it all, Keenum says that 2019 and 2020 have been great for business.

“We’ve had our best two years,” he says. “Year over year, we’ve done well. We just past last year a few weeks ago in terms of revenue.”

And Keenum is setting his sights even higher for 2021.

“The goal for 2021 is to expand further south and increase our accounts by 100%,” he says.

Keenum says he plans to target communities just north of Birmingham, where he notes a lot of people are moving to in order to escape city life. His business is about an hour north of Birmingham.

COVID-19 has kept Keenum from making any moves just yet, but he’s cautiously optimistic about the future.

“We’re still looking for expansion into different areas, but we aren’t making any big purchases right now,” he says. “We’re trying to be as conservative with our cash flow as possible.” – Kim Lux

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