Stand Apart and Be Different
Sponzilli Landscape Group, 41 years young, stays ahead of changing market trends
Sponzilli Landscape Group
Management: President Rich Sponzilli, CEO Dan Sponzilli and Vice President Jason Sponzilli
Headquarters: Fairfield, N.J.
Markets: North and central New Jersey; New York City
Services: Landscape design, landscape architecture, installation, landscape maintenance, urban green roofs, erosion control services and snow management
Rich Sponzilli returned home from military service in the Vietnam War with an eye on getting a college degree in education and becoming a school principal. To make money he mowed lawns in and around Patterson, N.J., and gradually attracted more and more customers. Enjoying the work, in 1971 he started a landscape business.
For the next two decades he continued as a "mom and pop" landscape business, providing services in a few New Jersey counties and focusing on residential maintenance and design/build. "He developed this style of design and build where people in our area really knew his style and were attracted to it. He developed a strong reputation through the early 1980s and 1990s," says his youngest son, Jason Sponzilli, who now serves as company vice president. Not that he started his career in the family operation.
Sponzilli and his brother Dan went to college, earning degrees in finance, economics and marketing. Rich insisted his sons work for someone else for a minimum of two years before joining the family business, so they went to work on Wall Street before returning to the family company and adding their business acumen to the already successful landscaping skills possessed by their father and his employees.
"It's like building up a resume that shows that I'm tried and tested elsewhere and it's a decision to come back to your roots and want to make that as good as you can," says Jason Sponzilli. "It's in our blood. When we were growing up, while our friends were out in the summers playing and going to the Jersey shore, we were out working in our father's company: pushing lawnmowers, digging holes and building a level of experience that's helped us today," he says.
The Sponzilli family members have split the business responsibilities among themselves in managing the medium-sized company. Rich, president, handles the residential sector, designing, construction, masonry work and aspects of lighting and maintenance. Dan, CEO, oversees commercial landscape design installation. Sponzilli, vice president, oversees the commercial landscape maintenance and commercial snow removal.
The Sponzilli Landscape Group services north and mid-New Jersey and in and around New York City. It is 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential.
Offering umbrella services requires the ability to plan and manage those services for ultimate efficiency, customer service and keeping a healthy bottom line. "In the beginning years, Dan, myself and my father all took it upon our shoulders to think of the ideas, sell the services we were offering, manage them and hire crew members," Sponzilli says. "We learned and began to implement systems so that those systems become repeatable and we could hire the right people and train them on those systems," he adds. "We don't just put them in place and expect them to work perfectly. We're constantly reviewing those steps weekly and monthly to keep them fresh and innovative so we can get the most efficiency and get the best out of the people we have."
It's unlikely Rich Sponzilli, returning from Vietnam in 1971, envisioned running a company doing this kind of beautiful work 42 years later.
The Sponzilli Group's turf philosophy is based on green practices, a transformation the company underwent two years ago.
With their job to take care of a landscape, the Sponzillis believed it was only natural to do so in an organic way. The company uses technologies and green practices to create energy-efficient landscapes and minimize waste.
Water and energy are conserved through landscape material selection, and the company uses organic fertilizers, as well as the five-step Firebelly Organics program in its maintenance.
Sponzilli works closely with clients to develope specific solutions to their project and property management needs and still remain within their budgets.
"We were doing hybrid and are looking into the next three years to move 100 percent into the organic world," says Sponzilli.
An emerging market is the construction and maintenance of green roofs, designed primarily to treat and divert stormwater. "Dan had a great foresight into what this niche market would become," says Sponzilli. "It's truly a specialized marketplace. It takes a qualified company that really understands the ins and outs of it to be able to perform it and become successful in it."
That service sector began at the request of a client as an aspect of a project the Sponzilli Landscape Group was doing that included a green roof. "From there, we were able to learn and develop with that and look for opportunities. Those opportunities have been coming, we were able to start working with some of the most globally-recognized names around," says Sponzilli.
From turf to snow
While the firm's snow removal services keep employees and equipment working, it is often an unpredictable revenue stream based on weather patterns in any given winter.
"We don't consider snow removal to be a secondary business; it's become a primary business," says Sponzilli. "With that approach and that mindset, we're able to think of all of the components to become successful and how do we put them in place just as if we did this year-round, not just saying it's a several-month business and we hope and pray that it snows and we'll make money from it."
The Sponzilli family members, meeting with a prospect, split business responsibilities. Jason, left, vice president, oversees the commercial maintenance and snow & ice management, while Rich, standing, president, handles the residential sector.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF SPONZILLI LANDSCAPE GROUP.
In response, Sponzilli Landscape Group created insulation to the reality that weather fluctuates and that could include a dry winter, such as the one experienced in 2011 in the Northeast when volume had dramatically decreased from the previous year where there had been a record snowfall of 70 inches.
"We've worked with our clients to understand their business and how we can best serve them within a budget so we can develop a service package for a fee," says Sponzilli. "They have assurance that we will be there to provide them with absolute quality of service with safety in mind and the ability for them to open their doors so they can conduct their business. That is within a fee structure that allows us to have cash flow during the winter months.
"We look at our operating costs for our entire company, everything from overhead to payroll, for that period of four months and we go out to our clients and in the market and we secure that level of business in order for us to break even."
Employees highly trained
The Sponzilli Landscape Group set a level of expectation for new employees where they have a brief trial period to get acclimated.
"We, as well as the employee, decide if this is the right career path for them," Sponzilli says. "Once we get through those ropes, we typically have a good working relationship with our staff. We have many employees who have been working for my father for 20-plus years."
Sponzilli Landscape Group began designing and installing green roof installs at the request of a client. The decision led to this project at the headquarters of J.P. Morgan.
The company is keen on certification for landscape technicians, pesticide applicators and snow professionals; landscape architects are licensed; and the company meets OSHA 10 standards and is LEED Green Certified.
The Sponzilli Landscape Group goes beyond work-related training to other skills, such as CPR training. "We want to be able to have staff members feel like they could help out other people should something happen on the job," he says. "Two, many of the men who work for us are fathers and it's vitally important that should one of their children or someone else in their family be in a situation in which these men could help, I think it's very helpful and very valuable to them. I've gone through it and it's something I want to keep doing on a regular basis so I can remember how to do it when I'm in that situation."
The Sponzilli Landscape Group endeavors to portray a professional image, from the business suits the Sponzilli men wear to the uniforms worn by the employees. "I think it's something that all of us in our industry should aspire towards, escalating our own individual images, how we represent and present ourselves to the market, to the client, and to other businesses we're working with and to try to pull away from that typical stereotype that has been placed on the landscaper for so many years," Sponzilli says.
The company is diligent in training the staff, which Sponzilli likens to coaching a team. "The biggest thing I say to our staff is we need to practice for the game," he says. "We do it on a regular basis so that when we go out to do our service for our clients, we're as ready and prepared to play that game as we possibly can be."
That has led to exponential growth in the past 11 years, he notes. "In 2001, we were a smaller company in the $1 million range, and today we're in excess of $10 million," he says. "That's attributable to people in our system."
Landscape lighting is one of the many residential services the company offers - everything from maintenance to outdoor living amenities to water features, including pools and spas.
The company provides every mowing crew identical equipment, Walker mowers. "We've forged relationships and alliances with some of our dealers and have outfitted our crews to be the same across the board," says Sponzilli. "We'll just modify it based upon the client. In the New Jersey market, there's a real premium for the client who wants turf that is striped and the clippings caught, so that's what we have to provide."
Successful branding effort
The Sponzilli Landscape Group several years ago hired a marketing company to help it brand its services and differentiate itself from other companies.
"They sat down with us and went through questions with different employees and managers of our company," says Sponzilli. "They then went out to 20 of our clients across the different departments we work in and asked a series of questions and with those answers they were able to formulate a new branding image for our firm."
One client noted how impressed they were with the service they got from the Sponzilli Landscape Group.
"It blew our minds as to what the results would be," the client remarked. "You came in here with an army of men and turned my property into this beautiful, picturesque experience. We thought it would be done in 10 days, they did it in seven, and now we're so thrilled we have this to enjoy even more."
Part of that new branding included modifying the company's logo to give it a more expansive, corporate feel. The marketing firm also developed a motto for company operations: Stand Apart. "It comes from 'Let no one tell you that you have to be a certain way: stand apart,'" says Jason Sponzilli.
The Sponzilli Landscape Group has earned industry awards for its work and was named "Best of Essex Landscaper" in 2009 and 2011. While Sponzilli acknowledges the awards are helpful in marketing, they have more significance in boosting morale within the company.
"It shows our clients we're taking pride in getting our work recognized and it's being reviewed by other people and held to a high standard," he says. "It becomes more of a pride factor for us than for the client."
As with anyone in the industry today, challenges for the company include expenses, which Sponzilli says are becoming burdensome. These include insurance and fuel costs.
"Our fuel consumption prices have doubled from last year to this year," he says. "That's a challenge to be able to absorb that and to find a balancing act to pass that along to the client and to educate the client on the need we have for fuel that trickles through anything that we do in the landscape industry."
Another challenge is staff development. "It's getting them to understand and buy into our 'stand apart' mentality and deliver it to our customers everyday," he says. "It's a challenge for every organization, no matter what type of business you're in."
To manage growth, company managements engages in annual planning, including forecasting the type of growth the company should pursue. "We also look at the types of clients and the types of services we may not want to continue doing, and we make those eliminations," Sponzilli says. "We forecast where we want the company to be in the coming years and we take that one-step approach toward getting towards those goals."
Sponzilli sees the industry moving increasingly toward environmental business practices, including increasing the use of organic materials and eliminating the use of traditional pesticides.
He also believes technology is going to continue to play a larger role in running more efficient landscape operations in managing workflows, systems and staff. "We're using it regularly right now with iPads and GPS in our vehicles," he says. "We're finding better ways to utilize that knowledge and data to run the company. As outside firms in the technology world start to see the landscape industry as a viable area for them to build business models around, it's just a matter of time before there becomes a lot more technology and resources that we can use to be doing so much in the field.
Sponzilli offers a hybrid lawn care program, employing both traditional and natural products. It's working to convert that service to 100 percent organic within five years.
"I can be doing an estimate for a client on my iPad and provide that estimate to my client via email while I'm in my vehicle in their driveway. I couldn't do that 10 years ago. Technology is going to blow the doors off what our capabilities are," he says. "We're using technology to reduce our costs and still provide a great customer service."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at