SOUTH FEATURES


Big Heart in a Big State

Deborah Cole's energy and passion drive Greater Texas Landscape Services
By Alex Harris




Greater Texas Landscape Services is an employee owned company.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF GREATER TEXAS LANDSCAPES.

When most people think of Texas, they think big - big skies, big hats, big hair and big hearts. In a male-dominated industry, Deborah Cole is a big part of the landscape community in this sprawling state. And her passion for her company, her employees and her profession is as big as the Texas plains.

Since 1981, Greater Texas Landscape Services has been delivering top-notch landscape services to a wide range of clients. As Cole fine-tuned the company, it moved toward commercial landscape maintenance as a profitable and productive niche. "When you add up all our branches, we do about 85 percent maintenance and 15 percent construction," Cole estimates. "Our Dallas branch doesn't do any construction. Since 2000, we've been primarily a maintenance contractor."

Greater Texas Landscape Services (a division of Environmental Earthscapes, Inc.)

Founder and owner: Debby Cole

Founded: 1981

Headquarters: Austin, Texas

Markets: Dallas, Austin, Houston, San Antonio and surrounding communities

Services: Commercial services, including landscape maintenance, irrigation, facilities management, on-site maintenance and landscape installation

Employees: 280 (full time and seasonal) peak season

Website: www.gtlandscapes.com

Besides Dallas and her hometown of Austin, Texas, Cole oversees branches in Houston and San Antonio, with more than 280 full-time and seasonal employees. Like many success stories, Cole started small and grew the company with careful planning and a strong staff.

Lovin' the outdoors

As a child with parents in banking and accounting, Cole loved the outdoors. "I always had a garden, always grew things and loved digging in the dirt," she recalls. "I begged my dad to let me mow the grass, but he didn't let me!"

Her love of growing things resulted in an interest in botany classes while earning a Bachelor of Arts degree in biology and history at the University of Texas. But practicality prevailed and she pursued a master's degree in horticulture at Texas A&M University. "I wanted something much more applied and practical than botany," she notes.

Fresh out of college, she was hired by the State of Texas to oversee the grounds of the governor's mansion and the state cemetery. "I didn't know what the heck I was doing," Cole says. "I didn't have a clue!"

After two years, she left the job to start a family. And, two years later she accepted a position teaching vocational horticulture. The following year, 1981, she and a business partner took the plunge and struck out to make their fortune.

"She was a landscape architect and we set out offering design and consulting. After the first month, someone liked a design and asked us to install the job," Cole says. "We hired a company and contracted the job, but when it was over, we said 'We could do this!'"

Starting out, the fledgling company focused on residential clients. "We would do a design, buy the plants and then plant them," Cole explains.



With an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) every employee has a strong stake in the company's success and has input into the operations.

The next year the partners landed their first commercial client. An Austin bank asked the local cooperative extension service for a referral for someone to give it a landscape design and installation. Cole was a volunteer on a committee working with the extension, and was recommended. With that success, a nearby hotel asked for the same services, then followed up with a appeal to the contractors to maintain their installation.

"We bought one mower, one weedeater and one string trimmer," and then they were on their way. With newly enacted landscape ordinances and a booming economy, the company rode the wave and was on the grow.

In 1984, her partner got married and decided to relocate, so Cole bought out her shares and became the sole owner. The company continued to grow, opening a second branch in Austin, then expanding to San Antonio, Dallas and Houston.

Networking and growing

Cole has always been an advocate of networking and trade associations, and attributes the success of her early company growth partly to her membership in the Texas Landscape Contractors Association. Although the group merged with the state's nursery association and is now no longer operating, in the 1980s it was just what the fledgling entrepreneur needed.

"We shared information and talked and picked each other's brains," she recalls. "It was invaluable. We were all at about the same stage in our businesses, but we all had different strengths. Sharing was very important."

As her business expanded, so did her association involvement on a national level. As a member of PLANET (Professional Landcare Network), she attended annual meetings and workshops. At one of these, she met the vice president of The Groundskeeper, an Arizona company that shared common goals and values. A friendship developed, and when The Groundskeeper became employee-owned, her friend contacted her to see if she might be interested in joining forces. In 2008, the companies merged, and are now both under the umbrella of Environmental Earthscapes, an ESOP.

An employee stock ownership plan (ESOP) is an employee benefit plan that provides a company's workers with an ownership interest in the company. Every employee of each company has a strong stake in the success of the company, and has input into the operations.

In 2010, the Austin Statesman newspaper recognized Greater Texas Landscapes in its top 10 workplaces. "Employees say Greater Texas Landscapes is the kind of company that innovates from within, drawing on the advice from those as high up as the president's office and on down to the people trimming hedges," said reporter Jesse Noyes.


Greater Texas Landscape Services specializes in commercial landscape maintenance with branches throughout Texas.

"I have unlimited flexibility to grow professionally," an employee noted. "I love my co-workers. I can't wait to get to work each day."

That kind of enthusiasm comes from the top down. Cole also has the same love of the people in her business. "The people I work with, our customers and our wonderful vendors. they are all my favorite part of this business," she says. "I consider most of them good friends. It's a pleasure to work with all of them. They keep me inspired."

Good people run the show

Although she may not be out in the field, Cole keeps plenty busy. She works closely with the branch managers. "We talk every day," she says. "We're all very close. It's not tough at all when the right people are running the show and they are doing a great job."

As well as working with sales and marketing, Cole is now focusing on honing her leadership skills. "I think leadership is such a valuable skill for all managers within an organization," she says. "I'm in the middle of a mediation class right now; it's mostly lawyers. I pass everything that I learn on to other managers."

Cole is also looking at even greater company expansion. "The plan is to expand within Texas," she says. "We're growing a lot and plan to open more branches, but we need to do that very cautiously."

In spite of the recent down economy, Cole sees great potential in the green industry. "I think for companies that have leaders who have a good sense of ethics and values and business sense, it's a phenomenal time. The opportunities are great," she enthuses.

While an ESOP might be a way to transition a business into retirement, that isn't part of Cole's plan. "They're going to have to take my keys away!" she laughs.

"You've got to get up and can't wait to get to work," Cole says. "If that's not true, change what you're doing. We're in a really challenging industry. Unless you're passionate about it, you shouldn't be here."

Another secret to success?

"Network and develop as many friends and colleagues and acquaintances in and out of the industry that you can," she says. "Learn something from every person you talk to."

To that end, Cole is active in a long list of local and national associations, both green industry and business oriented. However, she finds her busy schedule a source of energy rather than a drain. "I never need to take time off to recharge my batteries," she says. "This is where I recharge."

Alex Harris is a freelance writer in Northern California, specializing in the green industry people, companies and its unique issues.