CENTRAL FEATURES


The Dream Team

Milwaukee landscape firms join forces to provide sustainable solutions
By Tom Crain


The Green Team


Owner: Brad Blaeser
Founded: 2006
Headquarters: Milwaukee, Wis.
Markets: Southeastern Wisconsin, primarily from RiverHills to the North, Oak Creek to the south, Milwaukee to the East, and Germantown to the West
Services: Lawn maintenance, snow removal, playground maintenance, landscape design and installation, irrigation and community gardening
Employees: 12
Website: www.greenteamwi.com

Four landscaping businesses are pooling their resources and talents to provide sustainable landscape solutions to the Milwaukee market. This unique collaboration is the brainchild of Brad Blaeser, landscaper turned artist turned outdoor educator turned landscaper again.

In the span of six years, Blaeser's company, The Green Team, has provided sustainable landscape management for properties ranging from small residential properties to large commercial and municipal green spaces. His first year in business, he worked out of his home. In the second year, he worked out of a storage container, which really motivated him to join forces with someone else to obtain more space.

Through networking in Milwaukee's green circles, Blaeser found his first partner, Darrell Smith, president of Earthcare Natural Lawn and Landscapes, a company specializing in ecological landscape design and organic lawn care. The two men pooled resources to work out of a small industrial building. When they took on a third partner, John LaPointe of Greener Roofs and Gardens, an ecological water management and green roof installation company, they moved into a location on Milwaukee's west side that provided them offices, storage facilities and yard space.


Brad Blaeser initiated the idea of the The Green Team, a unique collaboration of four landscaping businesses pooling their resources and talents to provide sustainable landscape solutions to the Milwaukee market.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE GREEN TEAM.

Dylan Payne, owner of Forester Tree Service, was the fourth member to join the green confederation this past fall. Payne's three-year-old company, in addition to tree work, brought snow removal services to the partnership.

"We all went beyond sharing space and began working together on some projects," says Blaeser. "We thought about competing against each other being a problem, but we thought it better to collaborate in the end." Blaeser admits that the four companies overlap in some services, but each one brings with it different "gifts" and unique services to the table.

"We are actually four independent businesses now, and when appropriate, we do projects together or just refer clients to each other," says Blaeser. "We bounce ideas off one another and come up with the best sustainable solutions for our clients. For example, I get advised on appropriate mowing height for water infiltration and soil quality that my partners can provide." The collaboration makes joint decisions on building set up and use, joint marketing and even sharing of employees. The Village of Shorewood and the Charles Allis Art Museum are two major accounts recently acquired by the company.


Brad Blaeser started his career at a young age, mowing lawns and doing yard work for his neighbors. It looks like his son may follow in his footsteps.

A typical start to the industry

Blaeser, as a kid, living first in Chicago and then in Milwaukee, mowed lawns and did yard work for neighbors. He and his brother continued mowing and doing yard work through high school. His brother continued on with landscaping, but Blaeser left for college and started an artist collective where he sold beaded jewelry. For reduced rent, he took care of the collective's landscaping, and then moved on to become an outdoor/environmental education program manager for a local nonprofit agency.

In the fall of 2006, Blaeser's brother, who got into the home remodeling business, offered him a few of his remaining landscape maintenance contracts. "When I mentioned that I was interested in getting back into landscaping full time, my brother checked back with his past landscaping customers," Blaeser says. "About 10 were interested in coming back and that was just enough to get The Green Team started."


The team's sustainability practices don't stop with landscaping. This old Mercedes used for estimating jobs runs on waste vegetable oil.

An investment in sustainability

Six years later, after acquiring adequate office space, Blaeser is making considerable investments in equipment. He purchased two Hustler electric Zeon mowers to replace his 48-inch walk-behinds. "It doesn't eliminate the need for walk-behinds, but it has helped us reduce our footprint when possible," says Blaeser. He has also started to convert the company's older diesel mowers to run on waste vegetable oil. His estimating vehicle is an old Mercedes that gets over 30 mpg and also runs on waste vegetable oil, provided the air temperature remains over 50 degrees.

Blaeser is currently assessing how many of his customers are referred to him because of his company's reputation for sustainability practices. "I estimate it stands at about 50 percent who are specifically interested in our sustainability specialization while other customers want to work with us through referrals because they heard about how accessible, dependable and consistent we are," says Blaeser. "Our customers like it when they see the same work crew coming out consistently and knowing that if there are any problems or concerns that they will be able to see the boss on their doorstep at a moment's notice."

Blaeser also gets involved in high-profile sustainability projects such as the Natural Playscape Alliance. He is a leading member of this unique alliance of individuals and businesses committed to providing services to increase and enhance outdoor play areas using all-natural materials for children. Blaeser provides grounds maintenance and consults on program ideas for it.

For his non-green clients, Blaeser believes it's all about education when it comes to introducing them to sustainable landscape practicies. "We have to show them strong return on investment because at times the organic and natural products can be more costly," he says. "If we show our clients that their lawns will need fewer chemicals, irrigation and overall maintenance over a relatively short period of time, they will spend more with us up front."

Blaeser is not a purist, however. He believes that in some circumstances, the use of chemicals - often spot-spraying initially - is necessary before moving into sustainable landscape maintenance, offering more green long-term results. "We don't want to use chemicals, but in some situations - i.e., creeping Charlie infestation - it is necessary."

The Green Team's long-term goal is for really low-impact landscaping. "I wouldn't mind if I convert most of the green lawns I currently maintain to native prairie grasses, edible landscapes, interactive learning landscapes or other things that have more of a triple bottom line," says Blaeser.


After. The Green Team designed and installed this raised bed that is going into a community garden to replace a vacant lot for a central city nonprofit agency.

Still growing - even in this economy

Currently, The Green Team performs about 70 percent maintenance and 30 percent design/installs.

With revenues hitting nearly $220,000 in 2010, up more than 35 percent from 2009, the company has grown every year, with a modest 15 percent uptick this last year. "Design and install is growing steadily for us, as is the raised bed/edible garden market," explains Blaeser. "We are starting to get into holiday lighting and adding commercial properties to our snow removal program as well."


After. With each of the four businesses contributing their unique skills, the Green Team provides clients with attractive and easy-to-maintain landscapes.

Now that Blaeser is turning 40, he would like to integrate more of his background as an urban social worker and youth educator into his work. His roots are in the inner-city community development and he's working on a youth apprenticeship program to train 16 to 25 year olds in landscaping. "If you get them involved in the industry at a young age coupled with education and training, they are more apt to not only be more successful in their careers, but also stay at a workplace where they have already had a considerable positive experience," he explains.

This spring Blaeser will be working with Growing Power, a nonprofit organization propelled into the national spotlight by former professional basketball player Will Allen promoting sustainable food systems for urban communities.

"We will be working together to bring more backyard gardens to more residents in southeastern Wisconsin," says Blaeser. "Growing Power will supply its own compost and plants to clients, while The Green Team will do overall landscape design, install and future maintenance. This project can be affordable for low-income residents and will also offer higher-end, design-savvy options to other clients who will actually subsidize the lower-income installations to some degree."

Over the years, Blaeser has learned that successful collaboration takes time, and like any successful relationship, it takes a lot of work as well. His long-term entrepreneurial vision of forming a prosperous collaboration succeeding through sustainability is becoming a reality.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at tecrain@goingreenguy.com.