The Tide is Turning
Chicago-area landscape pro says value, not price, will win out
Contour Landscaping earns 20 percent of its revenue from commercial clients, says owner Scott Schoeller.
Photos courtesy of Contour Landscaping.
Scott Schoeller never rests on his laurels. He's been in business long enough to know that economic cycles, among other factors, will challenge the best of landscaping companies. He realizes to meet these challenges he must continually educate himself, modify his approaches to the market, network with peers, support industry associations and stay abreast of best management practices.
His business, Contour Landscaping in Skokie, Ill., provides landscape maintenance, design/build, landscape contracting and commercial/industrial snow and ice management to the Chicagoland area, encompassing Chicago's north side, north shore and northwest suburban communities.
His clientele is 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial while the snow and ice removal service is 100 percent commercial.
Contour Landscaping has more than 200 clients, many of whom have contracted services with the company for more than 12 years.
Schoeller looks for employees who have pride in their work. "When they do something, it's as if their signature is on it, so you expect that individual to step back and say, 'Look what I did; that's my work,'" he says. "Along with that comes dependability. If an employee can't be dependable, jeopardizing our reliability to our customers, that doesn't work either."
Schoeller measures the quality of his employees' performance by onsite visits in conjunction with client surveys through which he says he gets excellent feedback and a return rate of about 35 percent. Although clients can opt to be anonymous, no one chooses to, he adds.
President: Scott Schoeller
Headquarters: Skokie, Ill.
Markets: The Chicagoland area, encompassing Chicago's north side, north shore and northwest suburban communities
Services: Landscape maintenance, design/build, landscape contracting, and commercial/industrial snow and ice management
"If there's a glitch or somewhere where we're not crossing our T's or dotting our I's on somebody's property, we find out what it is and we know what to do to improve it," he says. "If it's something we don't have control over, at least we can have a conversation about it."
Schoeller says he likes "Managing Up".
"Let's say I have a project. I'm the owner and I have a manager and we come to an agreement on what we're going to take on. We're very specific about what we want done and along with that, we create a timeline.
"It's the manager's responsibility to manage that project and if there are things that come up and he chooses to have a conversation with me, the owner, about it, he is to tell me what he would do if it was his company."
Schoeller says that results in "keeping the hot potato from being thrown" back up to upper management.
Another management technique Schoeller favors is Kaizen, a Japanese term that defines constant improvement.
"We don't want to get old and crusty, and we always consider possibilities," he says. "Even if we think we have it down perfect, we try to do 10 percent better in all aspects of production or do things in a different way so that we can be more productive and get the same desired result. We're strong believers in that we never know everything. No matter how long we've been around, we can always improve."
Contour Landscaping projects a positive image through clean trucks, each with the company logo reflecting company colors and all employees in uniforms.
Schoeller started his business in 1976 and within a few years joined the Illinois Landscape Contractors Association to learn more about the industry. He is a certified arborist through the International Society of Arboriculture and is the past president of the Illinois Professional Lawn Care Association. He's also a member of several local chambers of commerce.
The best value of association involvement is networking, says Schoeller.
"You're not reinventing the wheel," he says. "You can have conversations about anything from finance to what success you're having or not having with what products and some of today's challenges," he says. "The education is great."
Networking and referrals also are critical, Schoeller points out. His company has partnered with other companies to provide services that his company doesn't do. In turn, they return projects that they can't do to his company.
Schoeller works with local vendor Russo Power Equipment, which allows him to demo equipment prior to making a purchase.
"We like our Toro riders. We may switch now and then on some of the smaller machines, but we like the idea that we can try it and see what works and take it from there."
Schoeller notes two challenges: a changing market and cash flow.
"There used to be a time if you did good work, people saw it and it was passed around through word-of-mouth," he notes. "With the economy changing like it did, it seems like potential clients are more commodity price-based rather than value-based. We've always been a value-based company. Just doing good work and having people see it didn't cut it anymore."
Easy to reach
That necessitated a more assertive marketing approach to ensure people knew about his company, Schoeller says.
"All of a sudden, we've got a big overhead here and I've got to track this because otherwise even when you have the work, you may not have the cash in hand, so that becomes a problem," he points out. "Our biggest problem wasn't losing clients, but clients doing less extra work, which resulted in lost revenue."
Rather than becoming yet another casualty of the recession, Schoeller focused on what sets his company apart from others: being value-based.
"If you take a look at all landscape and snow removal companies, many of them do a great job," he points out. "What we hang our hat on is we're impeccable around communications. We're easy to reach. We put out an informative monthly newsletter since my managers can't talk to every individual client all of the time. We take pride in our work."
In selling a job, Schoeller's company focuses on what a potential client is seeking in a landscape company and where the previous one may have failed. "We get a good handle on what their needs are and fulfill them," he says.
Schoeller notes that the public is becoming more environmentally conscious and in response, so is his company. In landscape maintenance, he chooses traditional approaches which he'll modify as new information emerges.
"Even before organics, I'd constantly looked at what's new and what's best regarding environmental responsibility," he says. "We put down a hybrid product that is 35 percent organic-based. We're not anti-organic by any means, but we are not 100 percent organic either.
"We believe in having turf fertilized properly with proper amounts. When it comes to herbicides, fungicides and pesticides, we believe in integrated pest management and handling the problem when it arrives. If it's weed control, we will handle the problem where it exists instead of doing what was done years ago when they used the broadcast approach or the one-size-fits-all approach."
Looking back, Schoeller says if he were to do anything differently, he would have worked for another landscape company for a few years before starting his own business.
"I could have learned about the industry first," he says. "It wouldn't have taken us as much time to grow."
Five years from now, Schoeller envisions moderate growth and self-sufficiency for his company.
"We don't have any desire to be the biggest on the block," he says. "When you have a company where ordinary people can succeed and create extraordinary results and the company is running itself profitably, it doesn't get any better than that."
As for the industry, says he believes the tide is turning. "I feel like the tide is coming back in where people are once again concerned about value and quality, not just price, price, price," he says.
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.