Entrepreneurial Spirit Unleashed
New Jersey's Tom Canete can't help himself from starting and building businesses
Tom Canete doesn't compete with the big national companies, instead he partners with them, offering outsourcing services when they are in a jam.
Canete Landscape Management
Owner: Tom Canete
Headquarters: Wayne, N.J.
Markets: northern New Jersey, New York City
Services: Landscape design and installation; landscape maintenance; tree care; hardscaping; holiday lighting and décor; garden center; snow and ice removal
Employees: 55 full time; 200 additional for snow removal
If you live in northern New Jersey chances are you've seen the name "Canete" (rhymes with "confetti") on a landscape truck rolling down the highway, a landscape management sign in a shopping mall or hi-rise condo, or snowplow in an office building parking lot during a snowstorm.
Tom Canete's eight companies, touching every aspect of landscaping and property management, have had a major presence in northern New Jersey landscape for the past 35 years. They include Canete Landscape & Construction, Canete Snow Management, Canete Property Services, Holiday Décor by Canete and Canete Landscape Garden Center. Then, there are the behind-the-scenes companies servicing these visible businesses: Black Oak Management Services covering employee payroll and other HR elements; Black Oak Associates for managing owned real estate; and Big Dawg Equipment for operating the 70 working vehicles and large equipment from top-loaders to backhoes to snowplows.
"It costs me a lot of money to operate many of these companies as separate entities, but it offers ample protection against any major lawsuits that we may face that are so prevalent in our state," explains Canete. This is just one example of Canete's savvy in business operations.
By the age of 9, Canete was already on the road to becoming a savvy businessman. Shoveling neighbors' driveways and sidewalks, delivering their newspapers early every morning, the youngster started asking to mow their lawns, too. He lined up eight mowing jobs that same summer. When he was 15 he got his moped license and designed a lightweight trailer to pull behind it. The trailer (you guessed it!) could hold a mower and a weed trimmer, and he promptly doubled the number of lawns he could mow weekly. Several months later he bought a 1966 Chevy pick-up from a junkyard and invested $500 getting it into running condition in anticipation of turning 16 and getting his driver's license. By the time he was 18 he added two commercial accounts, a Mexican restaurant and a realty company, to his mowing schedule feeding an entrepreneurial spirit that remains as lively today as it was then.
Tom Canete's eight companies touch every aspect of landscaping and property management and have had a presence in northern New Jersey for the past 35 years.
Why not snow, too?
Today, Canete operates with a 50/50 split of maintenance (75 percent commercial, 25 percent residential) and design/installation. Several years ago he added Canete Snow Management and it now provides about 40 to 45 percent of total revenues.
"Approximately 45 percent of snow removal customers are on a seasonal retainer paying for the service whether or not the snow falls," says Canete. The snow removal business has grown so much for Canete that his company now ranks 24th largest in the country, says one business magazine.
Some of Canete's largest accounts include Roseland Property Company and Hartz Mountain. For the past seven years Canete has been managing the landscapes and snow removal for more than 30 Roseland luxury hi-rises, apartments and condos in and around New York City.
"Despite the challenges, we win awards for Roseland nearly every year for Best Maintained HOA Properties in New Jersey," says Canete. "Both the state of New Jersey's Sales and Marketing (SAM) group and Apartment Association (NJAA) have recognized our work." Some of these properties lie in Manhattan and Brooklyn, offering additional challenges including transit logistics and regulatory restrictions.
After seven years in pursuit of Hartz Mountain, one of the nation's largest real estate developers/owners with 200 properties in northern New Jersey/New York City, Canete finally landed a contract for the landscape maintenance and snow removal for two of its largest mega-malls. This past year Canete performed landscape installation, maintenance and snow removal for the megamall's multiplex movie theaters, big box retailers, restaurants, hotels and multi-level parking decks.
With the fierce competition among landscape companies in the greater New York metro area, Canete has managed to more than survive the Recession and the economy's sputtering recovery. "Our response time has got to be one of the fastest. We have set up a communication system that allows for direct calls to all our managers. We are nearly always available to our customers," he says in way of explanation.
Because margins have dropped on installs these past five years, Canete does all that he can to make sure that every customer is a profitable customer.
Customers also know that Canete is a stickler for systems and procedures, which he's constantly reviewing and updating with new and constantly evolving technology. "The important thing is that we know where our trucks are at all times," he says. And as for the way that Canete handles the big national companies like Brickman in the region who manage to out-compete the smaller guys: "We don't see them as a threat, rather we partner with them. When they run into a jam, they call us for outsourcing services."
Canete believes in professional networking as one of the most effective tools for building his businesses. He is an active member of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA), New Jersey Apartment Association (NJAA), Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute (ICPI), Accredited Snow Contractors Association (ASCA), Snow & Ice Management Association (SIMA) and Symbiot Landscape Network. He is also a director for the ASCA and NJLCA.
Canete's main office is on a 4-acre site in Wayne, N.J. He also operates a salt storage dome, repair garage, truck and large equipment yard and retail garden center there. A second satellite yard with an additional salt storage dome is located in Secaucus, nearer to New York City.
Throughout his adult years, Canete operated out of his parent's home in North Haledon. When his parents moved to Florida, he converted the basement to a business office to accommodate several employees. It wasn't until 2000 that he decided to move into professional commercial space when he ran across a "deal of the century" five miles down the road in Wayne.
"I ended up closing on a 10,000-square-foot abandoned building and two adjacent 1800 vintage barns vacant for six years," says Canete. "Windows were broken out; wild animals lived in them." He restored the buildings, which opened in spring 2001, and the garden center opened a year later.
Get rid of waste
Canete is constantly evaluating his business and believes that the key to his future success and others to emerge strong from this economy is to run lean. "We recently completed a five year comparison of our installation projects," says Canete. "The year 2005 was our most profitable with 63 installs. In 2010, we had to install three times as many (around 200) to make the same amount of money. Our profit margins are shrinking."
Canete is striving to get rid of excess waste, continuing to shop around for better prices and honing in on profitable work. He is running P & Ls on every construction, design and maintenance job coming in the door.
"In the past, we lived with the 'balancing out' of customers," explains Canete. "I thought it was OK to make some good money on one customer so it wouldn't matter if we lost on another. Not in these tough times. Every customer for us now has to be profitable."
The past two years have been better for Canete, but they're not yet quite where he wants them to be. Hurricane Sandy gave him a huge bump. "For Hurricane Sandy, we were hired to do emergency tree work," says Canete. "Crazy hours, we started at 4 a.m. and worked until 8 to 10 p.m. each evening, seven days a week. This went on for six weeks straight."
Canete sees a brighter future for his companies. "I think we'll bounce back," he says. "They're (business profits) coming up a little bit. Every year it gets better. This year was better than the preceding year."
For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.