Tobi Ulemek ("just call me Tobi") has built a tight, full-service operation based in Santa Ana, Calif.
Photos courtesy of TRU Landscape Services.
Like most men, Tobi Robert Ulemek remembers his first love. In his case, the object of his desire was a Toro lawnmower, and he had to fight his four much-older brothers for its use.
Fast-forward more than 30 years, and he still enjoys the sight of a well-mown lawn. However, the president of TRU Landscape Services, Santa Ana, Calif., admits things have gotten more difficult since the days he pulled that Toro around the neighborhood.
His biggest complaint: unlicensed and uninsured vendors who are willing to slash prices to unreasonable and unsustainable levels. Their activities make it harder for established companies to charge rates in line with the quality of the services that they provide.
TRU Landscape Services
Founder & President: Tobi Robert Ulemek
Founded: "More than 20 years ago."
Headquarters: Santa Ana, Calif.
Markets: Orange County, Calif.
Services: Landscape construction, hardscapes, pavers, outdoor living areas, Synthetic Turf Orange County, low-voltage lighting, ponds & waterfals, commercial maintenance, irrigation systems, drain systems, putting greens, tree services and ET-satellite timers
Although the current iteration of TRU Landscape Services is "more than 20 years old," says its founder, the business - under the same name, his initials - actually goes back 31 years, when as a 12-year-old, he battled his brothers to use that new mower.
"I finally asked my father if I could use it at the neighbor's house," Tobi explains. (He likes to be referred by Tobi rather than his last name.) "He said I could, so one of the neighbors gave me $5 for mowing his lawn. It wasn't too long before I took some skateboard wheels and put them on a piece of plywood, put my machines on that little trailer and towed it around the neighborhood."
Still, landscaping wasn't his career choice out of high school. Instead, he enrolled in junior college with the plan of going into firefighting. However, he was advised that because of back surgery he'd had at 16, it was unlikely he'd ever be hired as a firefighter.
Fortunately, he hadn't given up on landscaping. A neighbor who owned a landscape company hired him to help do installations on weekends, and it wasn't too long before he took the knowledge he had gained, hired a couple helpers and began doing jobs himself.
"My father didn't know I dropped out of school to do one large job. But when he saw the paycheck - it was more than he made that week - he said, 'Great. Keep on doing what you're doing,'" Tobi says. "So I kept adding to my business."
Growing step by step
First out of the box was the purchase of a maintenance company with enough contracts to keep TRU Landscape busy six days a week. And, later, the neighbor who had taught Tobi to do installs sold his company to the young entrepreneur, as well.
"By that time, I had a second maintenance route started," he says. "So we had two maintenance trucks going out, and with all the extras we had a third truck doing repairs and installs."
Today, the company is still split much the same way, with two maintenance crews and two install trucks, and Tobi says installation has really become TRU Landscape's primary business, although not necessarily because he's given up on the idea of offering people a neat yard.
"We're always trying to improve our maintenance and line up more commercial accounts," he says. "The residential accounts in Orange County have basically been eaten up by low-ball competitors who are willing to do these jobs for $50 or $60 a month. We can't complete in that market."
The company's two maintenance crews and two installation crews focus on residential installations and maintenance.
Instead, Tobi focuses on residential installations and some smaller commercial ones, along with maintenance. And, while he's no longer pushing the lawnmower, he's still actively involved in every phase of the operation.
"Generally, I check on the crews in the mornings to make sure they're set up and they have what they need," he says. "Then, in the afternoons, I go out and do estimates. In the late afternoons I come back and type up the estimates for the customers. I still do all the estimating and sales."
Just as Tobi covers all the management bases himself, he says the style of TRU Landscape is to offer one-stop service to its customers.
TRU Landscape's well-trained employees have the knowledge and skills to deliver the full gamut of professional landscape services.
"They usually hire us because we can do all aspects of what they're looking for and they don't have to hire separate contractors," he says. "We can put in the patio cover, and install the grass and the plants at the same time. And, we've gotten involved in just about all aspects of outdoor living, from fire pits to barbecues to seating walls."
About the only things the company won't handle itself are jobs requiring special equipment, such as concrete cuts, when he turns to trusted subcontractors.
While TRU Landscape Services specializes in residential installations, owner Tobi Ulemek is intent upon building up its maintenance footprint and gaining a stronger presence in the commercial landscape market.
"We tell them they aren't going to be talking to a foreman or a salesman; you're going to be talking to the owner," he says.
One big niche for TRU Landscape is water management, and Tobi would like to think Californians are becoming more knowledgeable about their precious water.
"We try to educate our customers on not running the sprinklers too long or using parts from Home Depot that just spray the street," he says. "We try to get them on satellite timers, and when we do weekly maintenance we check those to help them save water."
The installation work often leads to maintenance jobs for the firm, although often without the regularity he would like.
"Some of our clients will call us for a quarterly cleanup or to come in after we'd done the installation and give them a six-month evaluation on how their current guy is taking care of it," he says. "They'll hire the cheapest guy they can find, and then they're willing to pay me to come in and tell them what's wrong with what he's doing and give them a fix."
The need to beef up his sales in both areas is something that's weighing on Tobi. TRU Landscape experienced record sales when it went online four years ago, and he recently hired a full time person to manage its web presence.
Still, one of his goals is to get at least one salesperson on board, mainly to focus on signing more commercial maintenance clients. However, that offers potentially new challenges.
Currently, the company operates out of an office built onto Tobi's home (the crews work out of a yard in Orange, Calif.) and he shares the space with his computer person and an office manager.
"The next person who comes to work here, we're going to have to move to an outside space," he says. "That can be a lot of money and we're trying to keep overhead low so we're not losing jobs."
Regardless of what happens next with TRU Landscape, Tobi says he's proud that the company provides its customers with the highest quality products and services possible.
"I know which sprinklers work and which lighting company to use," he says. "After so many years, I have my preferred vendors to provide me with quality materials. And, if for some reason, a product fails, it gets fixed or repaired right away. That's quality."
Clients also greatly appreciate the long history of his business under the same name and phone number.
"If someone says, 'I'm worried that in six months this tree isn't going to be alive,' we tell them to pick up the phone and call us," Tobi concludes. "We're still going to be here for them."
K. Schipper is an experienced business writer who lives and works in Palm Springs, Calif. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.