Richard Poynter says that landscape upgrades featuring outdoor living areas remain one of the hottest trends in landscaping.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF POYNTER LANDSCAPE ARCHITECTURE & CONSTRUCTION
I started in the industry when I was 13 years old when a friend and I owned a garden service," says Richard Poynter, 53, president of Poynter Landscape Architecture & Construction, St. Louis, Mo. He continued working in lawn care through school and spent a decade working primarily for one landscape company. "I started a design-build segment while with the firm," he says.
Following what amounted to a lengthy apprenticeship, Poynter launched his company in 1992. He says that a key element in the success of his company has been effective management with appropriate goals. Over the past few years, important factors have been targeting the desired business market, increasing use of subcontractors and focusing on operating costs and margins.
Poynter always knew where he wanted to focus his company. "You've got to know who you want to be. If we're going to provide excellent design-build service, then we may not always be the lowest on cost," he says.
Poynter Landscape has earned six national PLANET Environmental Improvement and Design awards and it was named "Readers' Pick for Best Landscape Designer" in St. Louis AT HOME Magazine.
Poynter staff members, left to right, John Shultz, Bob Wilhelm and Richard Poynter discuss a new project.
The City of St. Louis separated itself from the rural St. Louis County in 1877, and while the city remains a viable city in many ways, much of St. Louis development over the years has been in the surrounding county. The 2010 U.S. Census put the population of St. Louis County at around 998,000, while the population of the City of St. Louis is 319,000. Along with the rest of the nation, St. Louis enjoyed a relatively stable economy for many years until the 2008-09 Recession. Even so, Poynter's firm came out the other end in pretty good shape. "Actually, we were doing quite well in 2008-09, despite the declining economy. We had some really monster projects running about 18 months.
"We were finding that a number of the big projects required greater expertise, a broad range of skills," he explains, including developing win-win relationships with skilled subcontractors. "We were in a position to use subcontractors and provide the type of close supervision required to assure the quality needed." In the end, he emphasizes, his company is still responsible for the quality of work.
Poynter Landscape Architecture & Construction
: Richard Poynter
Headquarters: Ballwin, Mo., St. Louis County
: St. Louis County
: Residential landscape architecture design and construction; landscape installation; outdoor living construction; drainage and erosion; landscape maintenance; lawn mowing and fertilizing; tree and shrub trimming and maintenance; and snow plowing
: 25 to 30; extensive number of supervised subcontractors
Landscape upgrades have been trending higher in his company's book of business, too, especially on residential properties of $500,000 or higher. Most upgrades consist of outdoor living areas, some with pools.
Poynter also provides irrigation and drainage services.
While St. Louis, along with the rest of the Midwest experienced a drought last year, irrigation water availability has not been a major concern. St. Louis lies on the Mississippi River. Heavy rains and flooding are equally common in the region. Poynter Landscape manages these issues using appropriate engineering-based techniques. Although major snowfalls and blizzards are not usual in St. Louis, Poynter does provide snowplowing services.
Sharper focus on management
Competition in the landscape business, especially on the low end, traditionally increases during hard times or high employment. Even established companies sometimes chase the market lower with risky bids. Poynter admits it's a concern when chasing smaller jobs but rarely a factor on larger complex projects. In many cases, he says Poynter Landscape is the choice for a project because it's competent in a broad range of capabilities and has developed a well-earned reputation for high-quality work.
"Margins used to be about the same on all work," Poynter says, noting that the margins between simple projects and the more complex projects are now very uneven.
He keeps his employees in the know and what's going on in terms of the company's goals and what's acceptable in terms of revenue and profit. "We've been able to keep the volume up and maintain revenue. We developed charts to actually show employees the margins on projects. They could readily see the operating costs, gross margins and revenue," he says.
A crew lowers a granite slab onto the lower terrace area during construction of this design/build project.
In recent years Poynter has increased his emphasis on equipment value. "We've looked at our equipment costs and tried to be sure that we get the full value from our equipment. Sometimes we may repair equipment rather than replace," he says.
Poynter Landscape uses an innovative strategy in working with vendors to obtain discounts, a major emphasis throughout the landscape industry. "We negotiate with vendors for discounts," he said. "We have negotiated agreements in which we prepay vendors a set amount of money toward purchases we will make during a year. With that prepayment, the vendors agree to give us a specific discount on equipment purchased."
"We're actively working to increase our landscape maintenance contracts," Poynter said. "It's a small department, but we are working to increase its volume."
Poynter says that projecting just where a landscape business may be in the next few years is highly unpredictable, particularly given the economic unknowns. The firm will continue to make decisions to generate revenue and keep the company growing by relying upon the broad scope of its property services.
Although increasing maintenance contracts and continually obtaining complex projects are major goals for the firm, Poynter says that he does not do sales directly. "I step in to help any of our landscape architects with client meetings whenever necessary or helpful," he says. "I did design/sales for most of my career, but I've stepped away from it the last few years as I move staff to function without my being a full-time employee."
While Poynter has traditionally been an operations person, he's heavily involved in the decision-making in the firm. "I spend more time guiding the ship," he says of his current role in the company. His goal has been to put a management structure in place that will allow him more opportunities to be away from the business on occasion.
Poynter Landscape is a member of Professional Lawncare Network (PLANET), American Nursery & Landscape Association (ANLA) and American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA). He believes in the power of education and networking benefits of professional organizations for his company, and cites the benefits of his participation in Vistage, a organization brings together company owners and CEOs from diverse benefits providing a forum for exchanges of ideas on issues that have impacts on local businesses.
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.