Surviving the Storm
Indianapolis landscaper credits diversification and good employees in pulling out of '09 nosedive
True North Landscaping LLC
Greater Indianapolis metro area and central Indiana Services:
Maintenance, design/build, installations, snow management, water fountains and ponds, water feature care and maintenanceEmployees:
10 peak seasonWebsite: www.truenorthlandscaping.com
Cory Gliege, owner of True North Landscaping, Indianapolis, Ind., credits a broad range of property services and a dedicated workforce as the most important factors in helping him build a successful company.
"Take care of your people, take care of your clients, price competitively but profitably, provide good quality service, and learn to say no when you're overcommitted," says Gliege. That's a pretty strong indication that he is a fast learner in spite of admitting that he knew next to nothing about landscaping before he plunged into it 13 years ago.
"Both my grandfathers were farmers in Canada, and my parents were raised on farms," says Gliege, 41, who is originally from Saskatoon, Canada. But mostly, he says, it was his dissatisfaction with working indoors that spurred him to start True North Landscaping in 1999. Like a lot of beginners, he started with a single pickup truck and one employee. It wasn't long before good things started happening for him and his company, and True North experienced consistent double-digit growth until the 2008 recession dug in. Then, boom, 2009 was tough - real tough.
Water features incorporating natural stone are a major focus in True North's landscape designs.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF TRUE NORTH LANDSCAPING.
"It almost put us out of business," admits Gliege. "Everyone was holding onto their dollars. I almost gave away work just to keep the customers and keep my employees busy. We had to take a pay cut in some of the snow work because this is where property managers were making some major changes. We had to learn how to live on a tighter budget while still paying our employees the same, or sometimes even more."
Back on its feet
The company regained momentum as consumers got over the shock of the recession, and True North generated revenues of $640,000 in 2011. But fast growth isn't Gliege's main goal right now - maximizing profitability is.
True North Landscaping offers the traditional range of services, including maintenance, design and install services, but it also provides sidewalk snow removal, that this past winter proved to be a dud. Gliege admits the lack of winter events will decrease what he was budgeting this season. "I see us billing a little less this year due to being about $70,000 behind last year's winter in revenue," says Gliege (in March).
True North offers only sidewalk snow removal. In spite of the relatively few snow events these past two winters, sidewalk-only services probably allowed the company to fare better than those relying more heavily on snowplowing. While an average winter creates 25 to 35 snow events, this past winter provided only 15 snow events on zero-tolerance properties for True North.
True North's garden at the Indianapolis Orchard in Bloom Show featured a huge butterfly made of recycled metal.
"We have about a quarter-million square feet of sidewalks, with the majority for a large contractor in the northern part of our county," says Gliege. "We also do some smaller residential and commercial clients downtown, and I subcontract a handful of smaller snowplow jobs."
Gliege's company's growth has mostly come from client referrals, with a few new customers attracted by advertisements in a community newspaper. However, what's really exciting to Gliege these days is the Internet's potential for attracting customers and keeping them informed and up to date about his company and its services.
"I learned about it at a conference, and we put our heads together to update our website. We bolded some words, repeated the right phrases and added fresh pictures. We noticed True North started coming up on Google searches. Boom! Our phone started ringing off the hook and emails poured in," says Gliege.
True North Landscaping does small as well as large jobs. This before, left, and after landscape shows nice use of stone and low-maintenance plants.
True North services a lot of properties close to downtown Indianapolis that, if you've been paying attention, is one of the most vibrant cities in the Midwest. "These properties tend to be smaller, but a lot of them are very high-end. Customers there are loyal and refer a lot of work to us," says Gliege. "It's also close to our shop and the majority of our vendors, so we can get in and out and do a fair bit of volume without getting hung up too long on jobs that are too far away."
Gliege, who describes himself as a "people person," shares the same management challenges that every small business owner faces daily.
"I tend to fall into the typical disorganized owner category," he admits. "I'm great at selling work and the people side of the business, but as we've grown, I'm in the field less and less. It's a big challenge to convey what's in my head to the right people so the work is scheduled and accomplished. I have a great team, and they know what they're doing for the most part." A key member of the team is his wife, Christy, who works in the office part time.
"We do all the basics," says Gliege of his company's service offerings. "We install landscapes and patios. We take pride in our water features that feature natural stonework. Right now we're transforming a yard bringing in hundreds of tons of topsoil, sandstone and plantings. I can't wait to see it in two, five or even 10 years from now. That's very satisfying."
Gliege loves Wright Stander mowers for servicing the region's many half-acre sites. "The Stander mowers really help reduce fatigue when mowing the larger sites." His crews trim with Echo units.
The company services the residential and the commercial markets, "which makes us crazy sometimes," says Gliege. "But it's also a blessing to be diversified." While most of the design work is subcontracted out, True North does some in-house designing. "I sometimes freehand something, and I have a team member who is very creative," he adds.
Gliege has created a small side business of selling trees and plants at auctions at various community sites, and also wholesale and retail at open house weekends at his Turf North shop site. "This is a niche business that's good only in April, so in addition to other projects, one employee and I deliver trees and plants throughout the central and southern parts of the state," he explains.
Big residential project
Like many businesses, True North often acquires more extensive projects through establishing a good client relationship. This winter, Gliege's guys resumed work on an ambitious multi-phased residential project that the company took on in 2009. "The client has a very long-term vision for the property, and in many ways has acted as project manager during the process. This often wouldn't work well, but in this situation, it has worked very well," says Gliege. True North started on the project by providing initial rough and finish grading as the builder put up the house.
"To date, we've brought in more than 300 tons of stone, soil and mulch along with more than 1,000 plantings ranging in size from a gallon up to large bag and burlap specimen trees," he continues. Plantings at the site include masses of perennials (including roses), groundcovers, trees and shrubs. Also new to the site are arborvitae, Yoshino cherry trees and a small orchard of fruit trees
True North is also installing a pond and waterfall inside the back sitting area. "We're using mass quantities of Green County sandstone and moss rock to achieve the staggered berms and outcroppings to complement the woods environment. The design also provides water retention and creates a very organic, natural look to this beautiful setting," Gliege says. When completed, homeowners and guests can walk the property on new flagstone pathways, too."
This kind of activity also compacts the soil on a property, altering the property's drainage and increasing the chance of runoff. North Star has helped alleviate this by installing drain tiles, catch basins, dry creek bed runways and a small rain garden.
True North is a member of the Indiana Nursery & Landscape Association (INLA) and the Indiana Professional Lawn & Landscape Association (IPLLA).
Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at NFRIGGS@aol.com.