Prospering in a Changing Market
Stay Green says its people make the difference
Clean, colorfully branded service vehicles proclaim Stay Green, Inc.'s commitment to smart water use on customers' properties.
Photos courtesy of Stay Green, Inc.
Chris Angelo, president of Stay Green, Inc., brings a Generation X perspective that's group-oriented and strong on personal relationships to one of Southern California's most-successful landscaping contractor businesses.
His father, Richard Angelo, launched Stay Green in 1970 from the family's garage in a modest Sun Valley, Calif., neighborhood, and Chris, in grade school at the time, would do job walks with him - or, with the family, attend California Landscape Contractors Association gatherings. Little did he realize then that he was meeting some of his future competitors.
While founder Richard remains active in the company ("He says he's going to work until he's 85," says his son.), Angelo took over the reins at Stay Green in 2008. What a time it turned out to be - just as the economy took a nosedive during the so-called Great Recession.
Stay Green, Inc.
President: Chris Angelo
Headquarters: Santa Clarita, Calif.
Markets: Los Angeles and Ventura counties
Services: Landscape maintenance, in tree care and plant health care
Still, Stay Green has continued to thrive, in large part because Angelo says, "We're in the people business; we just do exceptional landscaping."
Angelo knows all sides of the business personally. Not only has he seen it evolve from his father working a residential landscape route to the 300-plus employees it has today, but he spent his high school summers working everything from a mow crew to irrigation inspections.
Later, he took on the role of account manager, which led him to work not only with clients, but also help schedule the crews. He also found he had a flair for recruiting new people to the company, something that's helped him build the Stay Green team. That was nowhere more evident than in Stay Green's response to the recession.
The company's headquarters are in Santa Clarita, a community of slightly more than 200,000 people 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Since, 2008-2009 when it pulled out of the San Diego and Riverside markets, it has focused on strengthening its presence in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties wehre it has five yards.
"The San Diego market became extremely price sensitive," says Angelo. "And six months later we pulled out of the Riverside market because there were just no sales; clients out there weren't doing anything."
Instead, the company chose to strengthen its other markets with some price reductions, a move Angelo says wasn't easy.
"We were able to retain our customers, but it lowered the gross margins we were accustomed to making," he says. "We had to get leaner on some of those costs. Rather than compromise on human capital we got rid of things the clients weren't willing to pay for."
Angelo explains that about 75 percent company operations fall under the general heading of landscape maintenance, with another 20 percent in tree care and the remaining 5 percent in plant health care.
"Out of that 75 percent that's landscape maintenance, about 35 percent of that is renovation or landscape enhancement work, which includes irrigation retrofitting," Angelo explains.
Irrigation retrofitting is an area Stay Green chose to beef up during the recession, and Angelo says it has paid off. Today, one of its unique selling propositions is the company's expertise in sustainable practices and water management.
"That also includes California landscape designs, which we believe means being water-wise without having the Arizona desert look," he says. "We stress having the proper plant palettes that put lower demands on water."
Still, Angelo says there were other efforts made to keep employee costs in check that should continue to pay off. One, three years ago, was a major investment in software technology to reduce the amount of double entry keying in the office.
And, he says, that look at technology has continued out into the field.
"For example, we've looked at different types of mowers that can get faster cuts and that are more ergonomically comfortable for the guys" Angelo says. "We can do more production with the same number of people. And, we're looking at techniques and tasks - how we engineer a job - so we're not just simply adding bodies."
When Stay Green has added people, particularly to its management ranks, Angelo says one of the upsides of the recession is that it's become an employer's market, and the company has been able to find good people, sometimes by looking outside the traditional areas that feed the landscape market.
"Some of those outside industries have been financial services and the mortgage business for sales team members and electronics and electronic installation for some of our field account managers," he says. "They became good fits, and our job has been to instill a passion for horticulture in them and now retain them."
While he admits that as the economy improves it may prove a challenge to retain all of those outside-the-box hires, it's just one example of being a people-centric operation.
Certainly another is the structure of the company itself. Fewer than 10 people fill the administrative positions at the corporate office, but Stay Green has 20 field managers working from the yard locations.
About 20 percent of Stay Green's revenues come from tree care. Landscape maintenance produces 75 percent of its income with the remaining 5 percent from plant health care.
In the field and active
"They're out talking to clients and managing the team members," says Angelo. "Our managers are boots-on-the-ground people, and we believe that's one reason we're so successful. Our ratio of employees to managers is higher, so we're able to be closer to our clients and manage our quality more effectively."
In much the same way, the sales team is proactive. While Angelo says the company has a heavy social medial presence, including a secured portal on its website called "The Garden Shed," where existing clients can log in to get information for their own client newsletters, what really sells is face-to-face contact.
"I'd say our most-effective sales tool is our lunch-and-learns," he says. "As a marketing strategy we go into an office of property managers and talk about things such as water rebates, return-on-investment during irrigation retrofitting, as well as general topics such as plants and trees. We bring the lunch and talk for about an hour, and that gives us great face-time contacts."
Those, and dinner meetings, tend to "get contracts pushed through faster," says Angelo, although he continues to study his best marketing options. For instance, although municipal contracts provide less than 30 percent of Stay Green's business, he says what's best about these low-bid jobs is the exposure they offer.
"They're often in areas what have high exposure," he says. "We have also wrapped the more than 120 vehicles in our fleet, so they're all branded very effectively. If you see one parked on the side of the road, you're going to notice it"
Along with keeping an eye on his marketing, Angelo says he's continuing to monitor both immigration reform and the Affordable Care Act "because we don't know how that's going to impact us."
However, he adds that Stay Green, Inc. will continue doing what has made it a success since 1970.
Stay Green, Inc. got leaner by getting rid of things that clients weren't willing to pay for, and not by reducing its human capital.
"We're projecting revenues of more than $18 million this year," Angelo concludes. "We'll continue to grow strategically and continue to retain great team member and retain great clients. Those are things we can measure that show our culture is healthy and the Stay Green team is working well."
K. Schipper is an experienced writer and editor who lives and works in Palm Springs, Calif. She and her husband are partners in Word Mechanics, Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at email@example.com.