Learning Landscaping Florida Style
Former Hoosier rises to the challenge of running a top South Florida landscaping firm
Some of Power Plant Lawn Care's clients only visit their second homes in South Florida a few weeks each year, but John Amber's company keeps them immaculate year-round.
Photos courtesy of Power Plant Lawn Care.
The general public may never see the inside of high-end residences that line the shore of the Atlantic Ocean or the Intracoastal Waterway of South Florida but they certainly see the landscapes that frame these beautiful homes and condominiums. John Amber, 56, is keenly aware of this since he bought Power Plant Lawn Care, Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 2008, 22 years after its founding. Seventy percent of is firm's clients are residential and 30 percent commercial, with 75 percent in gated communities or condominiums in these prime locations in northern Palm Beach County.
Power Plant Lawn Care
President: John Amber
Founded: 1986; purchased by Amber in 2008
Headquarters: Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Markets: Northern Palm Beach County
Services: Lawn care services include mowing, trimming, edging, weeding, shrub and hedge pruning, tree and palm trimming, fertilizing, power washing, mulching, insect and weed control, disease mitigation, topdressing, verticutting, irrigation checks and cutbacks; landscaping services include design, site preparation, plant and tree installation, tree relocation, annuals and flowers, irrigation installation and repair, stump removal, Bobcat services, sod installation, lighting, pavers, grading, hardscaping, stone walls, waterfalls and mulch, rock and stone.
Some of his clients visit their second homes for only a few weeks each year, and regard them as being even more inviting than a luxury hotel, Amber says. It's his company's job to reinforce that feeling.
"When you go to a hotel, you don't have to call the landscaper and tell him what you want the hotel to look like when you get there. That's what they expect in their homes," he says.
From his youth, Amber loved working outside. That love led, naturally enough, to employment at Potato Creek State Park, about 12 miles south of South Bend (Notre Dame University) in north central Indiana. From there he accepted a position with the Indiana State Park System, moving from park to park. He mowed grass, he shoveled snow and, eventually, he became foreman of a heavy equipment crew. After he married and had a child, his father suggested that working for the state park system may not be his best career choice.
"Even though it (grounds work) was pretty much my dream, he talked me into working in a machine shop and learning how to program something that was very new at the time, Computer Numerical Control metalworking machines," Amber says. A native Hoosier, Amber lived and worked there until 1997 when a transfer took him to Europe. Returning to the states, he settled in Florida in 2001. Eventually, the company he worked for was bought by another company, so Amber left, took some time to consider his career options and decided to buy a company.
"I selected Power Plant Lawn Care because it was a high-end landscaping company," says Amber.
He was attracted to the company because many of its clients owned homes and property on the waterfront in well-heeled private enclaves. The company had good numbers, had been well managed and showed positive owner benefit and good possibilities.
"You buy a smaller company and you can only generate so much income off of so much business," Amber says. "This one had enough top-line income that I could generate the kind of bottom line income I sought."
Learning on the job
Amber spent months learning landscaping Florida style. He learned how grass is mowed, which ornamentals do well in the South Florida climate, how to maintain the equipment and much more.
Chris Deal, who had been with the landscape company, stayed on as general manager. He oversees the crews and is in the field 100 percent of the time.
"I worked in the field for two years straight, mowing grass, weeding, edging and spraying, and did everything I could to learn first-hand how to do landscaping and plant maintenance in Florida," Amber says. "I wanted to be a hands-on operator with knowledge about what I was doing."
Many of the properties that Power Plant Lawn Care maintains have golf-quality turf that takes extra loving care to maintain.
Then he tackled the tough part of being a business owner - learning to be a businessman as well as being a landscaper.
"I made sure I was getting the best insurance and employee leasing rates, making sure the company was healthy and financially sound, and if I needed to invest in new equipment I had the money and that the people were paid right," he says. "I worked on employee retention. I put on a maintenance guy to take care of the equipment."
Then he concentrated extra efforts of differentiating his company from other landscape service providers.
"There is a difference between quality landscaping and mow-and-blow and I made sure my clients were all people who wanted quality service," Amber says. "My tagline is 'Big Enough to Earn Your Business, Small Enough to Keep It'."
Employees easy to find
Power Plant Lawn Care has 15 employees. Amber uses an employee leasing company, Progressive Employer Services, to ensure the employees either have green cards or permanent resident alien status.
"I have no problem finding employees," he says. "They have a network, and if one of the guys decides he's going to move or go to a restaurant job, typically the day after he quits, there's a friend or relative of one of the other workers who is here. Sometimes two or three of them lined up. They know there's an opening and they're standing there ready to work that day."
Power Plant Lawn Care has four crews, each headed by an English-speaking foreman. "I don't speak Spanish unfortunately and they need to communicate with me," says Amber. "It makes it a lot easier for me to give clear instructions when I have English-speaking foremen, but the biggest part of it is communicating with the customers.
Amber tailors his client relationships to one of two styles.
"There are the high-end clients who just want their place taken care of and they don't want me to call them and ask them if they want flowers or mulch. They expect me to know and they just want it done," he says.
For those clients, he keeps in touch with the property manager and ensures well ahead of time that the property looks pristine for their arrival every time.
Other customers prefer to be more involved in making decisions. "I have to present them with the right options and have the right answers. There's a lot of interaction on a personal level," he says. That's evident given the appearance of their beautiful lawns.
"A lot of the owners of the higher-end homes want that tight golf course look on their turf," says Amber. "It takes a different skill set to maintain it. It takes a different set of equipment. Instead of using rotary mowers, you use reel mowers. There are a lot of seasonal things you need to do such as use different cutting heights different times of the year."
Fifteen of Power Plant Lawn Care's clients have golf turf, such as zoysiagrass, bermudagrass and seashore paspalum on their properties.
"You have to de-thatch it, topdress it, level it, verticut it to get the thatch out - it's a lot of detailed things. You use a different kind of fertilizer. There are different watering requirements," he explains.
Amber's lawn care program uses organics as well as traditional fertilizers. "I tried going straight organic for fertilization, but there were some instances where it didn't work well," he explains. "I do use organics on certain properties where it's requested and in some places where I think it works better. When it comes to weed control and pest control, I always try to make the plants healthy first; I do a lot of the traditional chemical weed and pest control applications."
The firm has had good success in using an employment service to find and process reliable, legal employees to serve its clients.
True to his mission
As with every landscape contractor, the recent Recession presented challenges to Amber and the successful business he was striving to maintain.
He found himself having to modify his pricing structure to keep business.
He continues to market, staying true to his focus on high-end clients who want quality services.
"Typically, when someone is looking for a new landscaper, they are not happy with their existing one," Amber says. "All of my business is generated word-of-mouth. I do some networking, but typically a property manager who knows a property manager or perhaps a board of directors from another condo that they're somehow associated with will ask them who they use."
Solid relationships with vendors help Amber provide the high level of service he promises clients, so he's loyal to vendors who partner with him in that mission.
For instance, he recently needed a new mower for some high-end work, but the vendor wasn't going to have it in stock for a week.
"I could have run over to another vendor and bought and that would have been fine, but in order to maintain my relationship with this guy and he maintain it with me, he loaned me one until the one I wanted to purchase came in," Amber says.
"Gas is the same way with me," Amber says. "I use one gas station all of the time. If I send a guy in a truck to buy gas, he'll just get the gas and I'll go in three hours later and pay for it. They don't mind."
Amber prefers managed growth and while he wants to make more money, he doesn't want to do so at the sacrifice of quality.
One strategy going forward is to evaluate his costs.
"I evaluate insurance companies and leasing companies every two years," he says. "I make sure my vendors are giving me the best prices and I challenge them. If I'm going to provide the best prices and quality mix to my customers, then I'm going to have to make sure my costs are in line."
He's also beefing up the professionalism of his employees as more stringent state regulations concerning flawn fertilization and licensing are expected. "I'm making sure my employees are well-trained and qualified and have the certificates to do the work they're actually doing when required," he says. "Fertilizer laws are coming down that not just anybody can put fertilizer on the turf." While he's hopeful that all operators abide by the regulations, being a realist, he's doubtful that some will comply. For his part, he wants his employees to be well ahead of the curve when it comes to providing legal and top-line service.
"I want to be the guy that has certified people. I make sure that my foremen are all first aid trained. I do safety checks on my equipment, my trucks. Even though I'm a small business, I try to run it like a big business and still try to be cost-effective," says Amber.
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.