It's All About Relationships
Michael Bellantoni reflects on 50 years of service in the industry he loves
Michael Bellantoni Sr., and his sons, Matthew on his right and Michael Jr. on his left, are convinced that great customer service and friendly customer relations builds success.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MICHAEL BELLANTONI, INC.
Michael Bellantoni, Inc. has all of the ingredients of a successful landscape maintenance business: healthy revenues, longevity, association involvement, and customer and employee retention.
For Michael Bellantoni Sr., its founder, it all comes down to this: "Business is all about relationships."
The company celebrates 50 years in business this year, and it has revenues of $5 million and a long list of association memberships and employee certifications.
Michael Bellantoni, Inc.
: Michael Bellantoni
: White Plains, N.Y.
: New York metropolitan area,
Westchester and Rockland counties,
and southern Connecticut
Services: Landscape design, grounds
maintenance, masonry, irrigation,
drainage, plant health care, landscape
lighting, water features and blacktopping
: 72 in-season, including 40
Bellantoni eschews the image of a "mow and blow" company. Although he strives to offer competitive prices, he does so with an eye to excellent service.
"Today, more than 87 percent of all of our new work is referrals," he says. "We've built quite a reputation over the years and get a lot of references. We get calls from the phone book advertising and the Internet as well. What's not much different today than 20 years ago is you get a lot of shoppers who want the lowest price in town. Occasionally, you'll find someone who wants good quality service and that's a home run."
The company services the residential and commercial sectors as well as municipalities, mowing ball fields, traffic islands and the side of roadways.
Service is what distinguishes his company from the competition, Bellantoni points out.
"Good customer service, good customer relations and top-shelf work. We stand behind everything we do. We try to build a company that isn't like the others," he says. "We always try to have a personal relationship with clients. I think business is all about relationships. Every aspect of business is about relationships and I want to retain that type of relationship with my clients."
Realistically, he admits his company has grown beyond his ability to touch base with every client. He counts on managers and foremen to carry out the mission of sustaining client relationships. "It's important that we pick the right people to represent our company," he says.
Good, dedicated people
At the height of the season, Michael Bellantoni, Inc. employs 72 people, with about 40 being full-time employees and the remaining being seasonal. Seasonal employees work 10 to 11 months a year, depending on the weather. Layoffs start at the end of December and they return the beginning of March. The season starts with spring clean-ups and, in a typical season, the company enters full production on April 1 when many of its commercial contracts begin.
For a prospective employee, Bellantoni seeks good work ethics, morals, dependability and people free from substance abuse problems.
"We do a lot of training," Bellantoni says. "We like to see our people grow within and we've proven that over the years. We've had employees with us well over 20 years. I have retired a couple of employees who have been on board with me for 25 years."
Bellantoni has helped employees with green cards through the process to gain legal citizenship, with many people on staff who earned their U.S. citizenship while working with the company. "Today, it's a lot more difficult with everything that is going on in the country," Bellantoni adds.
"We have good, dedicated people," he says. "I love my employees. I think they're all beautiful people. We are a team. If you work with the team, you are here for a long time. We have people who are doing tasks almost similar to when they started, so we try to grow them because you can't keep giving them increases in the same spot, so we try to give them more responsibility, more tasks and teach them more things so they can earn a higher salary."
The professional path
Association memberships include PLANET, the New York State Turf and Landscape Association, the International Facility Managers Association and the New York State Turfgrass Association, as well as the International Society of Arboriculture.
Managers and technicians are landscape industry certified, a designation by PLANET to highlight the industry's highest standards of landscape professionalism, with fewer than 1 percent of all landscape professionals achieving this level of certification.
From day one, Michael Bellantoni wanted to service his clients 100 percent, including all of their grounds maintenance, planting, pest control, tree care and irrigation needs.
The company's professional landscapers are certified in the areas of horticulture, landscape architecture and landscape design. Employees are ISA certified arborists as well as certified landscape designers, and New York and Connecticut licensed pesticide applicators.
The company is guided by the following principles:
- Safety first.
- No excuses.
- Be prepared.
- Be honest.
- Have a positive attitude.
- Don't make promises you can't keep.
- Look professional and be professional.
- Be a leader.
- Provide the best value of service.
It hadn't been Michael Bellantoni's intention to go into the business, even though he grew up in it. His father was a landscape gardener in Westchester County.
As a first-generation American, Bellantoni was expected to follow the cultural practice of working with the family, which he did throughout his youth until he joined the U.S. Navy in 1958, serving as a corpsman.
After he returned home from the service, he took a job working at a local hospital and at a White Plains drugstore, a job he enjoyed.
"That served me well and then my dad called me and said he had hurt his back and asked if I could help him with his business," Bellantoni says. "The cultural practice was to say 'yes, I will help,' so I took a leave of absence from the hospital in 1962 and worked with him every day."
As the season ended, Bellantoni realized he didn't want to work indoors. "But I certainly didn't want to work for my father," he adds.
His father suggested they try being partners - Michael would own the company and his father would work for him at salary. "I still couldn't work for him," Bellantoni says. "He was a tough guy to work with."
Bellantoni decided he needed to branch out on his own, and he re-launched the company under his own name with 12 accounts, a Jeep and a lawnmower. He beefed up his business skills by studying accounting at a junior college.
Business grew quickly. With the help of a crew of four, Bellantoni worked long and hard hours. Each year brought a few dozen new accounts; the maintenance service mushroomed.
Bellantoni's strategy was to eliminate accounts, concentrate on high-profile business and condense his business into a local area, the White Plains and Scarsdale area.
"I cut out a lot of windshield time driving," he says. "I would go anywhere for anything except mowing because I wanted to keep that crew condensed."
As time passed, Bellantoni couldn't hold back the growth demands any longer. His crew grew, and in 1983, he moved his four trucks from the yard he rented from his father and bought property at another location in White Plains where he constructed his first building with his own hands at night and on weekends. The business was there for 10 years before Bellantoni ran out of space and bought a building across the street. In early 2000, he purchased two more buildings on an adjacent lot, and expansion continued.
"From day one, I wanted to service clients 100 percent," he says. "I wanted to take care of all of their needs, their grounds maintenance, planting, pest control, tree care and irrigation."
Bellantoni also is keen on continuing education for himself. In 1972, he went to an irrigation school, leading him to install and service irrigation systems. He went back to school to study lighting and now installs that.
Soon, he was joined by two of his sons who, unlike Michael, willingly entered the business to work with their father.
Matthew handles business development and sales and oversees maintenance, quality control, customer relations and efforts to find new jobs. Michael Jr. is the operations manager, who also oversees office staff and human resources.
Bellantoni has delegated much of the responsibilities for the client services to his sons and other management; he now focuses his efforts on sales and customer relations. "I like to delegate, not micromanage," he notes.
Bellantoni has no qualms about how his sons run the business. "I let my staff make a lot of decisions on their own, but they do consult with me," he says. "They do all of the research and I say, 'OK, if you think that's good, go with that' unless I have a strong objection."
Bellantoni prefers using a few vendors for everything from trucks to lawn equipment to ensure purchasing power. He prefers sending a few employees to a vendor's facility to train on how to service equipment so as to do most of the work in-house.
Every Michael Bellantoni, Inc. employee wears a uniform, which founder and owner Bellantoni believes promotes a professional image for his company and also for the industry.
The industry's image
Bellantoni has worked to improve the image of the industry. He says it's a personal mission.
"Working with my father as a child, we were looked down upon by clients," he recalls. "They'd say, 'you're my gardener, you're my servant, you're my this and that.'"
He wanted a better image for our industry, so he immersed himself in association involvement on the state and national level, chairing committees, working with others on the state level to bring certification to the landscape industry and contributing to training manuals.
Another component of promoting the industry's image is making the trucks and employees look "presentable", Bellantoni notes, adding that every employee wears a uniform.
Bellantoni does a great deal of networking. He serves as a PLANET Trailblazer and offers help to other less experienced contractors. "I know landscape contractors from coast to coast," Bellantoni says. "I help other people as long as it's not my competitor next door, but then again, I always help my competitors, too. I always say there's plenty for everybody."
However, he says, "There are people in the industry who don't represent the industry very well. In 50 years' time, I've seen homeowners, the elderly and other people taken advantage of. I see unwise shoppers looking for the best price or are not familiar with what they need to do." When he sees that, he tries to educate the consumer by talking with them, even if it doesn't result in a job for his company.
"I tell the truth when I visit with clients," he says. "I'll tell them they don't need certain things, but do need other things. The approach has been successful, because it's all honesty. I love my job and I love helping people."
To educate customers, Bellantoni sends out email flashes on sales and special products and news clips.
"We talk to them about diseases that are prevalent," says Bellantoni. "We talk to them about weather conditions and how they affect their plants and their gardens. We do this with all of the clients."
There is a trend in Bellantoni's service region toward organics and natural plant care approaches. "We jumped on board," says Bellantoni, adding that his company is partnered with "Bee Safe", an organic lawn care system that focuses on creating living, organic, microbial-rich soil as a means of producing healthy, attractive lawns.
The company is celebrating 50 years in business this year, servicing residential and commercial clients, as well as mowing for municipalities, sports fields, traffic islands and roadsides.
Raising the bar
Looking back, if Bellantoni was to do anything differently, it would be to shorten the amount of time he would keep people who weren't a good fit for the job.
"I would not keep a person on staff who wasn't meeting our expectations and standards. I've come to realize that you don't change people's personalities. I can take a waiter from a restaurant and if he's got a good personality, I can teach him landscaping, but I can't change personalities and work habits."
These days, the company's management keeps a close eye on new hires during their training period.
"If they're not going to meet our standards, we have to let them go," he says.
To ensure quality control, project managers will look at a job when it's finished to make sure it meets the company's standards. Most of the time, clients are invited to walk through the process and provide feedback regarding their satisfaction with the job.
Bellantoni says his company continues to expand its services in each division to meet clients' requests. With the maintenance division, it has been the addition of organic products. Irrigation has been expanded to take on lighting. The company may even get into garage floor enhancements and polishing concrete floors.
Bellantoni says his greatest challenge is compliance with changing government requirements such as health care and maintaining safety in the work place.
"We're studying all of our options and trying to figure out the best way to handle all of our challenges," he says.
Bellantoni envisions his company will continue to grow over the next five years. "The teams I have in place, including my sons, are going to grow it," he says. "They're going to expand on operations. We may see ourselves opening a satellite facility somewhere, expanding into a new region. I want to grow carefully. I want to make sure that we're solid when we make a step into a new area."
Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org