Turf Magazine - September, 2013

NORTH FEATURES

Knockin' on Doors and Getting Ahead

Herb Georgiadis says the personal touch makes a difference
By J.F. Pirro


Alan, Herb, Angie and Matt Georgiadis.
Photos courtesy of Herb's Landscaping.

Herb Georgiadis had just bought a house. His wife Angie was pregnant, and he wanted to return to the landscape industry. With nine years experience in the industry he was confident that he could get another "job" with a landscape company. But didn't want just another job. Instead, he and Angie talked about starting their own landscape business.

Once they agreed, he hit the Route 309 business corridor through his hometown in Quakertown, Pa. He wasn't necessarily knocking on the doors of big-name companies, but ones whose landscapes "looked bad but shouldn't have." By luck or outside intervention, Georgiadis ended up knocking on the right doors.

Herb's Landscaping

Owner: Herb S. Georgiadis

Founded: 1992

Headquarters: Telford, Pa.

Markets: Bucks and Montgomery counties

Services: Mowing, mulching, maintenance, design, installation, pruning, fertilization programs, patios and snow removal.

Employees: 8 full-time, 4 to 7 seasonal

"Just about all of them then hooked me up with other people they knew," he recalls. One recommendation led to another, and he quickly took on 23 initial accounts. He serviced the accounts by himself. These days he has help to take care of the 300-plus accounts of his Herb's Landscaping, LLC in Telford, Pa.

Other than his faith in taking risks, it was his love for community and his people-personality that opened doors for him - literally.

"He's a people person," Angie says about her husband. "He loves what he does, likes helping people and has fun doing it. His personality has a lot to do with it, and his enthusiasm spreads to the others."

From the start, Georgiadis has been open to helping Franconia Township, even taking all the fill from a recent sewer line install that he wasn't otherwise involved with. He used it to help level the area for the new shop in 2009. He has a utility bucket truck that he lets the township use to change traffic light bulbs. "If you work with them, they'll work with you," he says. For National Night Out in August, he helps the township put tents out, "or whatever is necessary," he says.

For 15 years he ran his company out of a rented barn that's located 2 miles from its present headquarters. Georgiadis started operations in Souderton out of his two-car garage in 1992. Before that, he worked for nine years elsewhere in the industry. He took certification classes to qualify him to apply pesticides and to build his knowledge of turfgrass, trees and shrubs.



The best marketing ploy Herb's Landscaping has is its appearance and location of the shop he opened in 2009.

Market visibility

The biggest advantage, and best marketing ploy Herb's has is the appearance and location of the shop he opened in 2009. "We get calls like you can't imagine from just our sign out on the road (in front of the shop)," he says. It's also hard for prospects to miss the yellow florescent shirts that his employees wear or the company's distinctive trucks.

He believes that 99 percent of the callers who use a telephone book (or online search) have already called 15 other landscapers. But when they call from the number on the sign out front, it's a call that usually results in business.

"About 10 people a day pull in or call because of the sign," Georgiadis says. One reason is the appearance of the shop and yard, which he and his employees keep it neat and clean. "If it looked run down, they would not call at all or show up. There are no fenders falling off any equipment. We keep the place clear of trash and debris daily, not weekly, and that exposure is our biggest thing," he adds.

Herb's goes where the work is, but the family is looking to expand north into the Lehigh Valley, which includes the Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton. He has also chosen that area to develop a plant nursery within the next three to five years. Among his more immediate plans include the construction of two greenhouses at the company's current location. He's researching plant material that will best fit his customers' desires and his market's unique environmental factors. He's not interested in just growing the ornamentals that everyone else is growing. It won't necessarily be a retail operation, but it will be a convenience for people needing plants or a yard or two of mulch.

Sixty percent of Herb's business is commercial, and 40 percent residential. Georgiadis has mixed emotions about increasing commercial work. "A good residential customer never gets three bids. A commercial customer will," he says.

Half the work is mowing and half landscaping. There are two crews for each, and then five trucks in the snow where Herb's specifically doesn't over-extend with plowing services and is networked with others in case the company needs help. "There's plenty of work for all of us," he says. "It's the greedy ones who suffer."

Herb's does not oversell its services, which customers appreciate. "You don't need 20 applications of fertilizer," Georgiadis says. "You can mow once a week and not twice, but we'll do it twice for those who want it, but it's our job to educate the customer."

Even with commercial customers, Georgiadis asks them to keep him honest with what he's charging. "I look at a job and say, 'What would I pull out of my pocket for this?'" he says. "Others say I'm nuts, that I'm losing money, but I say I could lose a client. Our customers trust us. They know I'm fair from the start."

Once Georgiadis gets a customer, he keeps a customer. His company boasts a 98.5 percent customer retention rate. He's had customers for 20 years and employees for 18.

"We don't run help wanted ads," Herb says. "We get a lot of walk-ins. Once we hire, we also give the benefit of the doubt. Everyone gets a 90-day probation period, so we won't get rid of you right away unless it's for obvious reasons. We're getting people who want to make careers of this."

He also takes them to the New Jersey shore on fishing trips, provides a 401K plan, benefits and overtime. A typical workweek is 40 to 52 hours, and maybe 55 hours in the spring, but shorter in the summer when there's extra help. Most days the crews go in different directions, but if one should finish earlier it join ups with the other so everyone gets back to the shop - and home - at a better hour. "That way we also don't leave anything undone," Herb says.

The longest tenured employee is Ray Coffey. A close second is Brian Yaw. Together, they're largely the reason Herb's is able to handle 90 percent of its own equipment maintenance issues. "We're not afraid to try (to fix their own equipment)," Georgiadis says. "I'm willing to eat some money before sending it out if we truly can't figure it out."



Thanks to Ray Coffey and Brian Yaw, Herb's Landscaping is able to handle 90 percent of its equipment maintenance issues.

The icebreaker, of sorts

Together with Coffey, they tamed a 33-inch snow blizzard in 1996 that, in part, helped put Herb's on the map. The two worked 101 hours that week to remove two snowfalls. On what they thought was their last property, one plow snapped it's a-frame, but the next day it snowed another 10 inches. They fixed the plow and became local heroes.

"It was a great revenue enhancer for us," Georgiadis recalls. "It allowed us to buy more equipment. We handled 33 inches of snow, but I loved it. It got our name out. It was a good way to meet people."

But snow, in general, can be ugly, he says, or at least it brings out the ugly side of people more than any other landscaping service does. "If they can't get out of their driveway on time, forget it," he says. Herb's keeps one truck idle in the winter for emergencies. If one truck breaks down, the idle one shifts into action.

Keep on truckin'

Georgiadis has taken an especially keen interest in Pennsylvania Department of Transportation (PennDOT) regulations so that he and his employees travel and transport safely and legally. "You can't just get a truck and trailer and drive down the road," he says. "Our industry is an easy target with all the equipment and vehicles. We have to make sure that we're stowing properly because if not there are hefty fines (anywhere from $1,000 to $12,000). If we educate ourselves, we're fine."



Forty percent of the company's business is in residential services, half of which is mowing and half in landscaping.

One big fine could put a smaller operation out of commission. Georgiadis realizes the importance of safe vehicle operation and meeting all DOT regulations. Two years ago Herb's Landscaping hosted a PennDOT seminar that attracted 40 landscape professionals.

"We saw the need," Georgiadis says. "We like to partner with other landscapers and to try to work together. We can help each other." PennDOT offers many educational programs, but few are geared to the landscape industry. Most are targeted for tractor-trailer and tri-axle drivers. PennDOT will give you a telephone book size manual, but you're only going to find 25 pages that apply to landscapers, says Georgiadis.

If he had to do anything differently, Georgiadis says he would have started on his own sooner. He'd be further ahead than he already is. "I wanted to advance," he says. "I was driven. A lot of people said I'd be out of business in five months, that I'd be flat on my back, but that was the torch that kept me going."

And he hasn't stopped knocking on doors, either. "We're looking for diamonds in the rough, for golden eggs, for 12-month a year contracts," he says. "Those are you best customers."

And what about the future of Herb's Landscaping?

His two sons, who he describes as his legacy plan, are in college. Matt studies landscape contracting and management at Delaware Valley College, and Alan studies accounting at DeSales University, and could one day take on the books and office responsibilities that his mother Angie handles.

The author is a reporter and writer who lives in Quakertown, Pa. Contact him at jfpirro@enter.net.