Meeting Challenges with Change
Embassy Landscape Group adapts to tougher economic, environmental realities
Embassy Landscape Group
President: Andy Miller
Headquarters: Riverside, Mo.
Markets: Greater Kansas City region
Services: Construction, design/build, landscape maintenance, irrigation, WaterWise water management, residential hardscape, blower truck services, and snow & ice management
Employees: 60 to 70
Embassy Landscape Group, Inc., serving the Kansas City region since 1979, has a simple philosophy to providing good service and retaining customers. "Do what you say you will. Our role is to identify issues before our customers do," says Andy Miller, president.
Miller acknowledges the landscape industry has been forced to change in the face of today's shaky economy that's characterized by more competition, increased client demands, a shrinking profit margin and more regulations. Incorporating careful attention to client needs and responding to changes spurred by the 2008-'09 recession have helped assure the company's continued success. With the tightened market, the company's business is about 70 percent commercial maintenance with 170 to 180 accounts.
"Commercial maintenance contracts have become a mainstay for our company while residential and commercial design-build has slowed," Miller says. "Commercial customers include homeowners associations, corporate headquarters, retail establishments and general businesses. We maintain turf and flowers at a number of locations. We change out color two to three times seasonally at some of these locations.
"Commercial property managers sometimes change every couple of years," Miller says. "We must continually show how we're helping the property managers protect their budgets and keep their spending down long term."
Miller notes that increasing competition, often from poorly qualified companies, is a major concern to the industry.
"It is frustrating that anyone with a truck can be considered a landscaper or turfgrass professional. Most people do not know the difference until results are not there," says Miller. "In the tight market, we have to be sure our pricing is competitive. Although we did lose a few contracts, some returned to us to fix problems in their landscapes.
"Fortunately, we are still growing in the scope and number of maintenance contracts and our design-build team is staying busy. Without a true winter last year, our installation crews never stopped working."
Eliminate the waste
Runoff water flows through an interesting pattern into a rain garden featuring colorful, water-tolerant plants designed and installed by Embassy Landscape at Kansas City Art Institute to help assure efficient water management.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF EMBASSY LANDSCAPE GROUP.
Looking for ways to maximize time and effort has been important to the profit margin. "We are looking to identify waste in any way which includes time and travel," Miller says. "Our systems of checklists for crew leads, supervisors and managers are basic operating elements that every company could use. We have implemented very clear agendas for every meeting with a system of follow-up action items.
"Technology has played a major part in our operations this year. We use software that integrates all operations from sales to billing. We have implemented the use of mobile tablets which give crews up-to-the-minute work tickets, have GPS imbedded in the devices and are linked to the software. These features give supervisors an instant view of what is happening with the crews all over the greater Kansas City area. The use of tablets gives us real-time hours for job costing to compare budgeted versus actual."
Within Embassy Landscape Group, communication is key, both within the company and with prospects and clients.
Focusing on plant health
"Plant physiology is my main interest," Miller says, noting that soils, climate and disease pressure all are interconnected. Miller is a landscape certified manager and an ISA certified arborist, and as a young man spent a year working for a landscape construction company in Germany. "In the environments we create, it can be a constant uphill battle for plants to grow well. Fertility programs and inspection procedures for quality control are the basis for most of the programs that we have devised."
Miller says his previous experience in working with landscapes of private estates is an added bonus. "Landscapes in private estates are meant to be around for decades or even centuries, whereas most commercial and residential properties are designed to last 10 or 15 years," he says. "Our strategy is more long term, and our HOA clients really appreciate that."
President Andy Miller, left, and Operations Manager David Moore, evaluate the turfgrass at an upscale commercial site in their market.
Miller sees a green focus as a key element for the landscape industry in general. "For our company, that means a strong management program, and our ability to innovate and respond to opportunities."
He says the experience and award-winning designs of Daniel Nelson, vice president and division manager for design-build, has been a huge asset. Nelson has been with the company since its inception, and he focuses on implementing green solutions through the use of native plants and rain gardens. Nelson has earned regional and national awards that include awards from Kansas Association of Nurserymen and Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), and he is a certified rain garden professional.
Focusing on water management
Recent droughts in his Kansas City market have become a major issue in years past and are now spurring attention to better water management. The past summer was extremely dry throughout the Midwest following a winter with very little snow to provide carry-over moisture.
Kansas City leaders have focused on the region's becoming a national model for sustainable growth. The region's broad green solution approach includes water management features ranging from the city's 10,000 Rain Gardens program to managing urban runoff through extensive bio-retention facilities and stream buffers. Embassy Landscape Group has integrated its green solutions into that approach by focusing on managing water and installing landscapes designed for the long term.
David Moore, operations manager, notes, "Water management continues to increase in importance for the industry. Water resources will be a huge topic in this area of the country."
As water concerns continue to increase, Embassy Landscape Group will respond with landscape design and planning that will demand less water allowing more durable landscapes that can better survive droughts and water restrictions.
Planting low-water-use prairie perennials and native plants, recycling water and incorporating ponds to catch water are all important elements of a focus on water management in landscapes. Looking at evapotranspiration (ET) rates is gaining increased importance in managing landscapes. Miller notes that most commercial landscapes the firm manages are on drip irrigation. He cites software such as MaxiCom and ETWater that help in managing water by allowing wireless management of controllers.
Miller sees increased regulations in the areas of water management, employee health care and many as yet unknown regulations as concerns for the company and the overall landscaping industry. He is a member of PLANET and International Society of Arboriculture (ISA), and Moore is a member of Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA).
Employee training is becoming more important, as well, says Miller adding, "we have a 'training rodeo' each spring, and we have bi-weekly training sessions."
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.