Wearing Many Hats
Horticultural Impression's Aaron Jung loves solving problems
Aaron Jung spent a decade learning from others before founding Horticultural Impressions in 2008.
Photos courtesy of Horticultural Impressions.
Aaron Jung, 39, says that his decision to become a landscape company owner is all about the people, the plants and doing what he loves to do.
"You need to figure out who you are, and what fulfills you and makes you happy," he says. What makes him happy is running his small business and meeting the many challenges that entails.
"The innovation and problem solving are the fun parts for me. I'd rather build and perfect systems than follow the dots on a daily basis. I decided that if I was going to deal with the headaches I wanted to steer the ship, too," says Jung, who launched Horticultural Impressions in 2008, starting with a truck, a trailer and two employees.
He tried on a lot of hats getting to that point. It started with mowing lawns for his neighbors at 14. In high school, he worked for a sprinkler system and landscape installation company until it went out of business. So, on his own, he added more mowing accounts and part-time, industry-related jobs to finance his college education. After earning his bachelor's degree in horticulture from Northwest Missouri State University in 1997, he explored his options.
"I had the opportunity to pursue a master's degree," he says. "I went back to school for one semester. That helped me decide I didn't want to become a Vo-Ag instructor. I also considered a master's in fruit production, but citrus was my area of interest at that point. It was not a good fit for this region."
A friend encouraged him to apply for a position with Earl May Nursery & Garden Center in garden center operations. He became the associate manager at an Earl May store in Leawood, Kan. Next, he accepted a landscape design position at one of the company's Missouri stores.
Horticultural Impressions, LLC
Founder/Owner: Aaron Jung
Headquarters: Platte City, Mo.
Markets: Kansas City and St. Joseph, Mo., and surrounding areas
Services: Commercial grounds care, landscape enhancement, landscape lighting, irrigation system installation and maintenance, and commercial snow removal
Employees:10 to 12 peak season
"That gave me the opportunity to further develop my creativity in design while sharpening my sales skills," Jung says. "It was commission-based, with no limitations on earnings, so I also learned to manage my time more effectively to produce the results I wanted and reach the goals I set for myself."
Next, he went to work for the Brickman Group in St. Louis. "I picked up more personnel management experience there, overseeing multi-cultural crews. I even got the chance to go to Mexico to process visas for some of the company's Hispanic workforce," he says.
Running his own show
Wanting to get closer to home, he worked for a few grounds maintenance companies in Kansas City before he determined that he wanted to start his own operation in Platte City, Mo., a town of approximately 5,000 about halfway between St. Joseph, Mo., and the Kansas City metro area.
"Working for others gave me a wide range of experiences, and challenge me in different ways. Each position helped me improve my horticultural and business management expertise. And I got paid, too," he says.
Initially, his new company, Horticultural Impressions, concentrated on commercial site installations. Then Jung tackled some new home landscape design and installation projects. Eventually, he expanded into full-service grounds maintenance, with the client breakdown being about 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential. The commercial accounts include industrial sites, business parks, shopping centers and several HOAs. His company also handles a small amount of municipal work, mainly flowerbeds and planters.
It never hurts to ask a happy client if you can post a nice sign.
"Many of our residential clients are owners of commercial properties we also serve," says Jung. Maintenance now makes up approximately 55 percent of the business, with design and installation making up 45 percent
"When I started in the industry, most design work was extensive, involving blueprints and formal presentations. Now most of our design is small area enhancement. I'll meet with the client at their site for an hour or so. Then I tell them what fits with what they've told me they wanted. It may involve a quick sketch, but seldom anything more structured than that."
In 2010, Dean Owens, Jung's former fraternity brother, roommate and fellow horticulture student, joined the company.
"We work well together. His title is general superintendent, but he also acts as production manager, directing the scheduling for our office manager to set up, meeting with the crew leaders, and helping monitor job sites," explains Jung.
As the owner, Jung wears a lot of hats, overseeing the overall business, meeting with clients, hiring and training personnel, as well as regular hands-on tasks.
"As a small company, we need to focus on what we do best and learn to maximize that to get the best results," he says. "Typically, Dean or I will handle emergency irrigation calls and do the system checks and minor repairs. We work with a subcontractor on the more extensive irrigation projects."
Snow removal for commercial accounts helps Jung keep more people on staff, longer. He brings in local subcontractors to assist when conditions warrant it.
At this point, no one is dedicated to full-time sales. Requests for estimates generated from the website come into the office via email or phone. Jung handles most of the follow-up contact.
Adjusting the workload
Referrals fuel the company's growth. "That's a degree of trust that we stress with our staff," says Jung. "If a client feels highly enough about us to share their positive experience with someone else, we have a double obligation to make sure that person receives the same level of service when they contact us."
Jung runs dedicated, two-person crews for general maintenance, detail work and installation and enhancement. The two mowing crews generally have three employees each. One crew is dedicated to mowing full time; the second crew spends half its time mowing, half on other tasks. Jung says, "If we run into rain issues, the secondary crew takes on more mowing to get us through the week."
This selection of attractive low-maintenance plants softens the hardscape on this residential property.
Jung monitors the workload and staff hours to avoid overtime. "I'll not compromise the quality of our work," he says. "But overtime is a huge expense. I'm focused on controlled growth. It's better to purchase more equipment and hire more people as the workload increases, rather than stressing our staff and my budget with overtime."
Communication is key to his style of management. "I listen to our clients and I listen to our employees," he says. "Both need to be happy with the way things are going for us to function most effectively. We work for the client, so it's up to us to learn what they like, what scheduling works best for them, and what method of communication they prefer we use."
Internally, the key players talk every workday. The most commonly discussed topics include weather conditions, project schedules and client emergencies.
While Jung does hold staff meetings, most interaction with employees is less formal.
Mechanization reduces a company's reliance on labor. This mini track loader does a lot of the heavy lifting for these uniformed company employees.
"We look over the vehicles with the employees and encourage them. We stop in at their job sites and encourage them. I believe positive reinforcement produces the best results," he says.
Strong community involvement
"I don't think it matters if you have one truck or 20. If you want to be treated as a professional, you need to demonstrate that you are one," says Jung. "Obviously, it's reflected in the way you run your business, the quality of the services you provide, and how you interact with your employees and clients. But you need to be proactive in other ways, too."
One of those avenues is certification. Jung is a PLANET certified landscape manager (CPL) and a Missouri certified nurseryman (MCN) through the Missouri Landscape & Nursery Association (MLNA).
Another is giving back to the industry and the community. Jung is treasurer for MLNA, and is on track to the presidency. He also has served on the extension council. He was on the Platte City Chamber of Commerce board for two terms, was chairman of a wastewater district, and also served as a city councilman for Platte City.
Container plantings add color to this attractive patio, a nice place to relax.
"Serving within the community is a great opportunity to interact with other community leaders on a professional level, whether it's in a leadership role or pitching in on a committee. Of course there are networking advantages, as it brings greater visibility to you and your company. But it's even more important to demonstrate your commitment to, and pride in, the community," says Jung.
"Serving to the best of your ability also increases recognition of the professionalism of our industry. It's just like providing good customer service and good follow up - operating the way a business should be run."
Suz Trusty is a partner with her husband, Steve, in Trusty & Associates, Council Bluffs, Iowa. She has been involved in the green industry for over 40 years. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.