SOUTH FEATURES


All or Nothing

E.J. Gardner Enterprises aims to do it all and do it well
By Carol Brzozowski




E.J. Gardner Enterprises takes the full-service approach to properties in SW Florida.
Photos courtesy of E.J. Gardner Enterprises.

Meticulously-manicured properties are a common sight in many Florida communities. It takes skill and experience to design, build and maintain such landscapes. For Jerome Gardner, owner of E.J. Gardner Enterprises in Bonita Springs, Fla., it also takes passion.

What Gardner enjoys most is transforming a parcel of green into an awe-inspiring landscape and maintaining and improving it from year to year.

E.J. Gardner Enterprises provides services to residential, commercial and homeowners associations in Lee, Collier and Charlotte Counties in Southwest Florida. The company provides design/build and maintenance services, with a focus on the latter. Maintenance services include mowing, fertilization and pest control.

Gardner holds licenses and certifications in commercial and residential landscaping, installation, design, hardscaping, pavers, irrigation and horticulture. The company carries $1 million in liability coverage as well as complete workers' compensation insurance.

E.J. Gardner Enterprises

Owner: E. J. Gardner

Founded: 1983

Headquarters: Bonita Springs, Fla.

Markets: Lee, Collier and Charlotte counties

Services: Full-service maintenance and design

Employees: 52

Website: http://www.ejgardner.com

"We got into all of these things to become a sole provider of services for our customers," notes Gardner. "We do everything from a high-end manicure to a keeping an area look natural, but we've done a lot of work to make it look that way."

Gardner is engaged in ongoing education efforts. In the 1990s, he took at course at Walt Disney World's EPCOT, where he learned to carve a dolphin shape from a shrub.

During the summers, when many of his clients travel north, Gardner spends a lot of time working and training his crews, as well as building camaraderie.

Each employee has taken a state-mandated best management practices course where they learned not to apply fertilizers in the rainy season and to keep fertilizer runoff from going into nearby water bodies.

Gardner describes himself as a "big believer" in integrated pest management.

"The longer I've lived in Florida, the more I realize how important it is," he adds. His brother, Phillip Snead, handles the IPM for Gardner as a subcontractor.

Gardner's father, Eldon, started the company in 1983. At the time, Gardner was doing landscaping and irrigation for another company. After three years, he joined his father's company. He took it over in 1987 and bought out another company, Case. Gardner-Case is now the name on the company's trucks.

E.J. Gardner Enterprises has 52 employees. Gardner looks for people with one to three years of experience, but also for dedication, attitude, a sense of responsibility, punctuality and cleanliness.

"I'm real big about them keeping a clean truck and having an eye for detail," Gardner adds. He prefers employees to focus on specific skills, but will pull them to help out employees on other tasks as needed.



Gardner is proud of his crews. Many of them are lead by females and more than half of the firm's employees have been with the company for more than 10 years. Well-trained loyal employees drive the firm's success.

Gardner notes that he is proud of his diversified crew: many of the field leaders are females and more than half of the employees have been with the company for more than 10 years, with some reaching 20 years of service.

"My speech to them is generally there's the right way, the wrong way and my way," Gardner says, adding that on the other hand, he likes to empower his employees. "I always hear them out. I like my employees to be able to make decisions. To me, the only wrong decision is the one not made."

Satisfied clients

Gardner has different management approaches for the various onsite crews he has at some of the communities his company services. For example, he maintains a crew of five at The Dunes of Naples residential community. It's situated on nearly 100 acres and features a pro tennis facility, a restaurant, guest cottages and a view of the Gulf of Mexico, among other amenities.

"It's really a beautiful place," says Gardner. His company has maintained the property ever since it was constructed 16 years ago.



E.J. Gardner Enterprises only takes clients that accept all of its services.

He says that maintaining that site requires "a totally different mentality" than the typical crew running a route where you're dealing with a single property owner. The Dunes of Naples, by contrast, has about 500 residents - and as many different opinions on the property's care. The biggest challenge is educating property owners about what's possible given their budgets. Because his company has been proactive in upgrading the property from year to year, it has maintained a very strong relationship with the community.

His crew, under E.J. Gardner Enterprises Supervisor Guadalupe Cruz, works in concert with the residents and the association management. "She's the boss there. She works for me, and she hires and fires who she wants working for her. She has made that her baby," says Gardner.

Gardner is most proud of adding color to what was an all-green environment and creating walkways and paths laden with unexpected focal points as people walk or drive through the community. He has created a number of flowerbeds to showcase color. Each year, more than $100,000 is spent on annuals.

"They love us there. I've been able to shape and grow everything the way it should be," he says. "I didn't have to go in behind somebody and fix something that was done wrong or improperly. We have a two-year strategy with a 10-year goal for changing plant material out because Florida plant or shrub life is eight to 10 years."

Clients affiliated with HOA's necessitate Gardner attending board meetings, conferring with the president and association members and dealing with a greater amount of paperwork. The associations have their own set of rules that may be stricter than the codes of the communities where they are located. Turn-around time can be slower in getting approval for a project.

Nonetheless, Gardner enjoys the work and especially enjoys educating his clients on landscape best practices.

"You may have a beautiful plant that will stay beautiful, but if you put it in the wrong place, it's not going to perform well, which makes it hard to maintain," he adds.

Gardner is working toward creating a property that will win a maintenance award despite the setbacks over the years. Eight years ago, Hurricane Wilma punched the area, creating a huge setback in adding more color.



With noise becoming an issue with maintanence clients, the company is evaluating future equipment purchases based, at least in part, on how quiet they are.

More than 100 trees were lost and replaced. Privacy shrubs 8 to 10 feet tall were laying all over the ground and were staked back up and recovered. Last summer's setback was ongoing rain that washed out fertilizers and created a problem with fungus.

Hurricane season

Hurricane season, June 1 through Nov. 30, presents special challenges in the landscape maintenance industry. Gardner has learned lessons from the hurricanes and has improved maintenance service accordingly.

"It is certainly an income fluctuation because of the cleanup, but at the same time, it's disappointing to see everything you worked for over the summer get knocked down and you have to start all over again," he notes.

In an effort to instill order in the ensuing "chaos" following hurricane damage, Gardner has written a list of procedures for each community his company services, such as irrigation systems being shut off to prevent water lines from breaking and flooding and picking off coconuts that may fly off of trees.

"We do everything we can to give the landscaping the best opportunity to survive the storm," Gardner says.

Wind damage can blow trees and leaves around, so after a hurricane, E.J. Gardner Enterprises first cleans up the driveways, roadways and doorways.

His company prefers to re-stake trees rather than cut them down.

"At the Dunes of Naples during Hurricane Wilma, we lost almost 100 trees because they broke in half," Gardner says. "Of the ones that blew over, we were able to get more than 90 percent to stand up, renourish them and get them back on track."

Recovery measures are to a landscape what they are when a human being is stricken by an illness: there is a critical need for nutrition and water.

When the Dunes of Naples nearly lost 99 royal palm trees, each worth about $7,500 in today's prices, E.J. Gardner's crews went to work on applying nutrients and fungicides to help recovery. Not a tree was lost.

All or nothing

Gardner will only take on clients that utilize all of the company's services. "Our approach is we do all or nothing," he says. "We do the landscape, the irrigation, the maintenance, the pest control. Everything is in our hands. It's difficult to start a separate entity like a tree company and you have people you're paying on one scale and put them on a job that pays less to its laborers. It's hard to bid in that area.

"Also, when people see our truck in an area, we are going to get full credit whether a property is good or bad. If you're only mowing, it's hard to go out there and tell people we only mow and that we're not responsible for the trees or fertilizing. That's one of the reasons why we shy away from that."

To ensure quality, Gardner trains all of the crew leaders. "We also have supervisors who go out and review the routes on a weekly basis and I try to personally get to each place on a monthly basis," he says. "I do all of the troubleshooting for the company. The guys have me as a resource, so when we run into an issue, they contact the supervisor and if the supervisor can't handle it, they contact me."

As important as employees are to his business, Gardner also carefully selects what equipment will enable them to best to their job. He is switching to STIHL hand-helds and particularly favors the company's backpack blowers.

"Noise is one of our biggest complaints," he says. "I'm trying to get the equipment with the greatest noise reduction. I'm doing it for the customer, which is in turn doing it for the environment."

Even with all of the latest equipment, Gardner says there's room for doing landscaping the "old school" way with hand pruners. "I love that look," he says.

The company's umbrella services help differentiate it from competitors, Gardner says. "We have all of these abilities to do these different things," he says. "I'm the one person they can rely on to do their complete exterior. It eliminates a lot of finger pointing. I do the landscape design. Having that experience and the education to do these things sets us apart."

Gardner is also able to help clients set long-term budgets. "Because I have 30 years of experience, I can take a customer through their project and tell them what they need to expect a year from now or five years from now; what needs to be changed, what needs to be replaced," he says.

It also helps accommodate unanticipated problems, such as the recent challenge of the spiraling whitefly that has put a dent in landscaping budgets as contractors work to control its effects. "With an association, we can create an annual budget to help them prepare for these things. It's a forecast of what's going to happen in the next five to 10 years so they don't get hit with it all at once," Gardner says.

While the company has enjoyed success for three decades, it also has returned the favor to the community: E.J. Gardner Enterprises is involved in community and civic affairs and supports the efforts of community and church organizations.

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at brzozowski.carol@gmail.com.