Turf Magazine - February, 2012

CENTRAL FEATURES

Planting a Seed for Success

Third-generation plantsman Mark Halla and his wife Kay returned to Minnesota to start a relationship-centered business
By Nancy Riggs

The Mustard Seed


Owners: Mark and Kay Halla
Founded: 2004
Headquarters: Chaska, Minn.
Service Area: Western Minneapolis surburban area
Employees: 25 (peak season)
Services: Landscape maintenance; seeding and sodding; design/build projects; tree and shrub services; and retail services
Website: www.themustardseedinc.com

The Mustard Seed Landscaping & Garden Center is a nine-year-old business just outside of Minneapolis. It's owned by Mark Halla, a third-generation horticultural industry pro, and his wife Kay, a licensed landscape architect. After working for several progressive horticultural businesses in Maryland, he returned to work in his family's landscaping and garden center business in 1999, remaining in the business for 14 years. In 2003, he resigned his position as president. Working from the basement of their home, the couple borrowed about $300,000 to purchase equipment and supplies to launch The Mustard Seed.

"Several employees of my former family business contacted us separately asking if we could find places for them. We made places for three, paying them about 30 percent less than they had been making, but that was all we could afford at the time," Halla says.

Eric Hagen, Kelly Lorenz and Cory Whitmer joined The Mustard Seed in the spring of 2004 and were made partners shortly afterward. "We gave each of them 10 percent interest in the company. The company had no real value on paper at the time, so there wasn't an actual cost," says Halla.


Water features, like this beauty by Mustard Seed Landscaping, are popular in the Minneapolis metro market. Minnesota, after all, is know as the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE MUSTARD SEED, INC.

Haven, Lorenz and Whitmer acquired a vested interest in the company, and while they had been contributing employees in their previous employment, their interest in the company became even more significant. At the time the three became partners, Halla rewrote the bylaws of the company.

"It was really important to have everything written down," he says. "Everybody is important and deserves respect. Most management is top down; ours is bottom up. Kay and I are at the bottom of the management chart. Our roles are to support others, giving them the skills and tools they need to do fulfill their responsibilities."

Defined roles

The Mustard Seed offers both landscaping services and retail sales through its garden center. Whitmer, drawing upon what he learned in earning a degree in environment biology and botany at Eastern Illinois University, manages design and sales services as a single unit. He possesses strong knowledge of design, especially as it relates to environmental considerations. He assigns leads to the commissioned design staff, works with estimates, and consults with the garden center manager on plant selections. He's a certified professional and an active member of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association (MNLA).

Landscape crews are the responsibility of Eric Hagen, who brought valuable experience in landscape installation and maintenance to the company. He and the crews he oversees deliver the company's carefully planned designs. Hagen is responsible for hiring crew members and crew foremen, overseeing equipment maintenance and suggesting equipment needs. He too is a certified landscape professional through MNLA.


Mark and Kay Halla accept the Environmental Innovation award.

Kelly Lorenz manages the garden center, and is involved in all aspects of the garden center from office administration and employee supervision to creating seasonal container arrangements. She's also re-sponsible for overseeing and scheduling tasks within the garden center.

"She sets people up for success," says Halla. "The supervisor's role is to provide positive reinforcement, encouragement and verify. We try to look for what's done right rather than what is done wrong."

In describing his role with the company, Halla describes himself as more of a steward than a boss. In addition to his administrative he's the primary face of the business to the community where he's very active.

The Mustard Seed is a complex operation now generating around $1 million in annual revenue and the recipient of numerous landscape industry and community awards. The Hallas base the operation of their business on their strong Christian faith and principles. In fact, the name The Mustard Seed is taken from a parable in the Gospels.

Halla says they put personal relationships first, but, nevertheless, attempt to run their company, with its many diverse services, with written descriptions of roles and responsibilities, and by carefully evaluating costs and production in both the landscaping and retail business segments.

Landscaping and retail mix

During the recent economic downturn spawned by the housing collapse, do-it-yourself landscape work boosted the garden center's sales. However, 2011 brought a reversal of that, with landscape work again slightly outperforming garden center sales. Minnesota experiences long, harsh winters with extended periods of sub-zero temperatures, and Halla is convinced that the long periods of being indoors causes people to think about what they would like to see in their yards once the grass starts greening again.

"I think people are tired of not spending money on landscaping, and if they've decided they're not moving, they want to upgrade their landscaping," he says.

Most of the company's business is within a radius of about 20 miles in the western Minneapolis suburbs. It's a favorable location. "We have national manufacturing companies, but not heavy industry that has been so much affected in the downturned economy."

Halla says the customers that visit the retail location or buy his company's services are generally knowledgeable about plants and landscaping trends. "We have to be sure that we are well-educated on those things when they come in so that we can answer questions they have on the newest landscaping ideas," he says.

The Mustard Seed does mostly residential landscape work. "We don't do bid work, and any commercial is usually through a relationship we have in the residential work," says Halla. "We were about 70 percent new construction with the remainder refurbishing landscaping. That's changed with the economy with most of our work in refurbishing landscaping."

While The Mustard Seed designs and installs almost every landscape feature, water features are particularly popular in his market "Minnesota is called the Land of 10,000 Lakes, and people here have an affinity with water. We're used to hearing the sounds of water, and it's important in landscape settings."

Prioritizing relationships

"The first time I had seen the Four Rs of management principles was at a seminar at my church," says Halla. "With relationships in the center of a circle, and roles, responsibilities and results in outer circles, it was the reverse order from my previous business experience." Halla emphasizes the importance of relationships not only within the company but also with vendors and customers.

"Maintaining relationships is important with our vendors, customers and everybody," he says. "That may mean sacrificing something to keep relationships, but I believe it comes back to us even if it means losing something on a job. "We may re-sod or re-seed a yard through no fault of ours to keep a relationship, but with that, we're building other relationships."

He says positive, cooperative relationships are equally important in purchasing plants, equipment and supplies. The Mustard Seed purchases primarily from Minnesota suppliers to help support the state's economy and to obtain plants best-suited to the cold Minnesota climate.

He buys perennial plants primarily from Read Perennials and annuals from Malmborg Greenhouses. He also uses other established suppliers, such as Bailey Nursery and Monrovia Growers, both with facilities in Minnesota.

"If we find a lower price, we may ask our supplier to match it, but we sometimes make a decision to pay a higher price to maintain a relationship," says Halla.


Mustard Seed partners (from left) Eric Hagen, Cory Whitmer and Kelly Lorenz with Mark and Kay Hallas share responsibilities in running the landscape operation and garden center.

Keys to success

The landscaping segment includes complete design and build projects, as well as work including seeding, sodding and installing retaining walls and patios. Planting annuals and perennials are also services in this segment, as well as extensive planting of trees and shrubs. In outlining key elements in the business administering the diverse business, says Halla, "I am able to break things down into small steps then put them together to create an action plan. We track and analyze nearly everything and compare it to prior years. I have my daily calendars detailing every year from 2003. I know what I did, when I did it, and how it worked out. I do an analysis on every single project detailing the actual dollars per hour we produced which helps me set labor pricing, make employee decisions and evaluate productivity of equipment."

He realizes the vital importance of tracking his company's costs, and after looking hard and long at its marketing expenditures, he made the decision this winter to move some of those expenditures into other areas. "This year alone I detailed our marketing budget based upon actual return on investment and reduced it by $45,000 with no expected decrease to our traffic flow," he says.

Halla and his team are finding themselves measuring more and more within their company, including critical numbers such as leads per designer and sales closure rates. By closely tracking results they can more quickly and efficiently adjust to changing trends and market conditions, says Halla.


The landscaping segment includes design/build projects and also seeding, sodding, and the construction of patios and retaining walls.

In the end though, it's the relationships that the company builds with customers, vendors and the communities that it serves that matter the most, says Halla. These relationships are built upon delivering quality products and services, and by remaining active within the community.

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at NFRIGGS@aol.com.