Lupfer Landscaping earned a Gold Award for its maintenance at Chicago's Shedd Aquarium.
PHOTO COURTESY OF LINDA OYAMA BRYAN.
Lupfer Landscaping of Lyons, Ill., a west suburb of Chicago, is developing a niche that its founder and owner Tom Lupfer is counting on to grow its profitability and also its presence in the Chicago regional market. That niche is sustainable landscape services.
Lupfer launched the firm in 1994 as regional development rapidly gobbled up farmland west of Chicago and landscaping enjoyed booming times. Lupfer, a native of suburban Western Springs, Ill., an affluent suburb of about 12,000 people in Cook County, just west of Chicago, earned a liberal arts degree at Northwestern University and entered the political arena for a time before starting his landscape company.
Chicago's western suburbs
Landscape design, install and
maintenance; lawn renovation, annual fertilizing
and weed control; mulch installation;
annual flower rotations; perennial, vegetable
and rain garden installation; dormant pruning;
snow removal and seasonal décor
"I grew up mowing yards. I went back into something I loved," says Lupfer, 45, after leaving the political arena and returning to small business.
Residential landscape maintenance represents about 55 percent of the firm's business with multi-home, or HOAs, representing about 25 percent, and commercial sites, around 20 percent.
Lupfer Landscaping earned the 2013 Illinois Landscape Contractors (ILCA) Gold Award in sustainable commercial maintenance for its work at the Shedd Aquarium, a major Chicago attraction on Lake Michigan. The award further solidified the firm's reputation in sustainable commercial landscaping, complementing a number of previous residential awards in sustainable landscape maintenance and construction.
The company offers landscape design, installation and maintenance throughout Chicago's western suburbs. While new development has offered extensive landscaping opportunities, Lupfer initially focused much of his work on landscape maintenance. Identifying and focusing on a sustainable landscaping niche also helped assure his success by making his firm more efficient in the competitive environment that evolved since the economy plummeted a few years ago. Redeveloping existing landscapes is also a major focus of the firm's sustainable landscape approach.
Finding a niche
Competition has increased dramatically as low bidding became a major issue with fewer landscape jobs available. Low bidding has traditionally been a problem in slow economies primarily among entry-level landscapers.
"I was not just bidding against one person in a pickup where I could point to my staff and experience," Lupfer says. "I was bidding against larger companies that could offer the same things I had to offer." As the bidding became more competitive, many landscapers began bidding jobs below cost. A lot of those companies are no longer around, says Lupfer.
"With the downturned economy and halted development, I began to extensively research sustainable landscapes, using the research skills I learned in college. I found that if homeowners and commercial site owners understood that the long-term cost of maintenance of sustainable landscapes would be less, I could sell the sustainable landscapes," Lupfer says. "With money tight, people might not spend $40,000 to put in that outdoor kitchen they didn't really have to have, but they still needed to manage water."
Efficient operation is a major element in his success, and Lupfer says it is important to build in travel time and avoid waste to be successful. "I looked at growing margins, more efficient operation and charging what I needed to charge," he says. He has sought out seminars and other resources as he researched the approach to sustainable landscape practices.
With the business already focused to a large degree on landscape maintenance, incorporating more extensive sustainable practices was a natural move. He emphasizes that sustainable landscape is a mindset that helps improve the health of the landscape. "When the three landscape components of soil, water and vegetable work together, the landscaper has done his best to make a particular piece of property sustainable," he notes.
Focusing on what works
PHOTO COURTESY OF LUPFER LANDSCAPING.
Water management is a major issue in residential, multi-home and commercial landscapes. With both irrigation and stormwater significant concerns in landscapes that work well, water management requires individualized approaches.
"The site tells us what to do," Lupfer says. Rain gardens, for example, have gained extensive popularity. While Lupfer installs rain gardens when appropriate, he is more concerned that the rain garden contributes to the sustainability of the landscape than for the current trend of placing rain gardens. "Rain gardens are another tool in the toolbox," he notes. Water management is a major issue that must be addressed in new or redeveloped landscapes, and water management that enhances natural water cycles can reduce irrigation costs.
He says that the right plant in the right place and dormant pruning are major issues in assuring a sustainable landscape. With the primary features that assure a sustainable landscape, homeowners are assured of a lower cost for maintenance over a 20-year period, a feature that appeals to homeowners and commercial property owners.
"Government agencies have taken a lead role," Lupfer says, citing the high number of green roofs in Chicago and sustainable approaches throughout DuPage County and other areas. Lupfer says that professional organizations are increasingly offering sustainable landscape practices training and that interest is increasing among landscapers in sustainable landscape installation and maintenance.
"Giving back to the community is important to sustainability," Lupfer says. Lupfer Landscaping was part of an effort of the Midwest Ecological Landscaping Association to install a garden in a crime-ridden area in Chicago. "We installed a vegetable garden with individual plots, a perennial garden and a sitting space. It was planned and installed using sustainable methods, the most visible of which is a 2,500-gallon cistern that collects rainwater from the adjacent buildings roof," Lupfer says.
Personalized service and niche landscaping
Lupfer says personalized service is a major component in the success of his business. He knows his customers personally and visits properties regularly. In 2007, Lupfer earned a PLANET Certified Landscape Technician's certificate, a nationally recognized standard of excellence. He also participates in the training of each employee assuring that the employee is aware of the importance of delivering quality services.
Lupfer Landscaping has won multiple ILCA Gold Awards in both sustainable landscape construction and maintenance. Lupfer serves as chairman for the ILCA Sustainable Landscaping Committee, sits on the Sustainable Landscape Resources for Community Associations Advisory Board (SLRCA) at the Morton Arboretum, and is a Pilot Project Recipient for the Sustainable Sites Initiative.
Lupfer looks toward a successful 2013 year by continuing a focus on sustainable landscape maintenance and the redevelopment of existing landscapes. Increased competition and low bidding as landscapers compete for a limited number of jobs will continue to be major concerns among landscapers, but Lupfer views his focus on his niche and efficient operation of the firm as significant tools for success.
With lifelong experience in lawn and landscape work, Lupfer enjoys what he does. "I enjoy seeing a job that looks good and seeing the design as a reality," he said. "I also enjoy beating the competition in the downturned economy and finding solutions that work."
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Turf. She resides in Mount Zion, Ill.