The Great Recession hit the hardscape industry hard, but “we are finally back on track,” say experts in the landscape design/build industry who report five years of slow and steady growth. In fact, many describe the hardscape market as strong. Fifty-two percent of respondents to a Turf magazine survey say hardscape revenue will increase this year, and 70 percent say they are buying the same amount or more hardscape supplies this year to meet increased customer demand.
Hardscape designers and installers across the country, in addition to hardscape manufacturers and industry experts, share their views on how the year in hardscaping is shaping up.
Signs of strength
“Hardscapes were phenomenal for us last year, and that’s continued this year,” says Dan Stumpf, owner of Stumpf Creative Landscapes in Menasha, Wisconsin. By July of 2016, Stumpf Creative Landscapes was already booking hardscape jobs into 2017.
Hardscape installations make up about 25 percent of the company’s diversified landscape business. “The majority of our hardscapes are residential patios, outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, walls and steps,” says Stumpf.
Josh Graczyk started Grindstone Hardscapes in Kearney, Nebraska, in 2008 as a completely independent enterprise from his existing lawn maintenance business. That was obviously a tough economic period to start a new enterprise, though “since then we’ve sort of grown with the economy,” Graczyk says.
Grindstone Hardscapes is about 95 percent residential. “We do a lot of really decorative stuff … mostly patios and driveways, and a good number of retaining walls,” says Graczyk. He recently completed a 24,000-square-foot paver intersection on a town square, the company’s largest commercial project to date. But Graczyk says he’s not necessarily making a concerted effort to move into the commercial market. “In our market, you sort of take the jobs you can get. It’s not like we can choose to just do commercial work in our market in mid-Nebraska.” There wouldn’t be enough work, he notes.
Hardscapes now represent about 50 percent of Graczyk’s overall landscape business revenue. Grindstone Hardscapes is typically booked two to three months ahead. While the number of jobs the company handles has remained steady recently, he has seen a slight downturn in the size of the jobs, something he attributes more to a slowing local agriculture economy than an industry-wide phenomenon. “We’ve gone from a whole lot of, say, $50,000 projects to a whole lot of $30,000 or $35,000 projects. We track our leads and we track our sales, and that’s just something we’re seeing as a trend. People still want quality and they still want to do neat things, but the projects are just a little smaller.”
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Ryan Shrum, owner of R&S Hardscaping in Spring City, Pennsylvania, is another example of someone who got into the hardscape business during the Great Recession, in his case in 2009. “I started right when the economy was in the downturn,” says Shrum. But he figured that if he could make it in those times, when it was slow, he would be OK. In the beginning he was working mainly on smaller residential jobs, in the $5,000 to $25,000 range. “Now we do more higher-end residential work, and a lot more commercial work,” he explains.
The move into the commercial market was intentional. “I knew that as the economy slowly recovered, there would be a large amount of commercial demand … and that’s been true,” explains Shrum. He’s found there are advantages to serving the commercial market. “When you go to a development that has 400 houses and you know you’re contracted to install the sidewalks on every one of them, that’s a good feeling as compared to trying to individually sell 400 single family home sidewalks,” he says. “Your profit margins are a little smaller, but you make up for it in volume. We’re pushing a lot of volume through our hardscaping right now.” In fact, the company now has five crews working just on commercial hardscaping.
R&S Hardscaping still runs two crews that specialize strictly in residential work, and Shrum reports that area is strong, as well. “Even residential clients are spending more money; they’re not as tight as they were back in 2008, 2009 and 2010 when people didn’t know what was going to happen,” he says. “They weren’t going to spend $30,000 or $40,000 on a patio then; they were concerned about having liquid assets and money to be able to pay their bills.”
On the other side of the country, Hansen Landscape Contractor, which serves the Bay Area of California, is 100 percent residential in its focus. Hardscape makes up about 25 percent of the company’s total revenue, a figure that has increased a bit in recent years, in part due to the drought the state suffered through. “Hardscape got a lift in our area, because of restrictions and surcharges on water,” states owner Steve Hansen. With recent rains, the hardscape numbers have returned to more normal levels, he reports.
“Our company does mainly bread-and-butter type patios and residential hardscapes,” says Hansen. Most of the homes that Hansen Landscape Contractor works on are existing homes. There’s plenty of new construction in the area, but Hansen says the market to landscape these new tract homes is just too competitive for him and the jobs tend to be less expensive, likely because the new homeowners are tapped out financially from the house purchase. “There’s often not a lot left over for the landscape,” he says.
Staying ahead of the competition
Hansen says there is always competition, but his company’s nearly four decades in business helps it to create separation. “And we’re a one-stop shop from design to demolition to installation,” which is what most residential customers are after, he says. There are fewer competitors that can do it all; “if you try to compete in, say, just concrete work, then there’s a jillion other companies out there competing and it’s always about, ‘How much per square foot? How much per square foot?'” His residential customers are concerned about cost, “but that’s secondary to whether they are comfortable and confident in the person they hire,” says Hansen. “Those are the types of customers we shoot for.”
Hansen says another way he’s found to compete is by having great employees. To attract and keep them, the company offers a comprehensive benefits package, vacation time and a $25 bonus for all workers any day outdoor temperatures get above 88 degrees. “If we were to not offer the benefits we offer, we could decrease our costs and sell our work at lower prices, but then we’d have way more work than we could keep up with and then we’d have to hire more workers….” says Hansen of a cycle he doesn’t care to pursue. He says he’s comfortable with the formula his company is following now, and lowering prices just to increase his sales closing rate doesn’t make sense to him.
“The market is actually less competitive, in my eyes, than it was back in 2009,” says Shrum, “because the first thing people were doing when they lost their job was to get a pickup and a wheelbarrow and start cutting grass and putting in patios. So there was a lot of low-balling with bids. There are fewer of those types of companies around these days, but still plenty of competition with more established companies.
“One way we compete is to be prompt,” adds Shrum. “If I meet with someone to do an estimate, they have a quote within 24 to 48 hours. I don’t make them wait or chase me for it. And we’re very prompt with our callbacks.”
When forced to compete strictly on price, Shrum (who has a degree in business management) says it’s important to know when to walk away. “Some people never want to lose a job, but there’s just some jobs you’re not going to get.” He works off a strict margin, and if a job doesn’t meet his pricing structure, “then it’s unfortunately not meant for us.”
Stumpf says there’s a fair amount of competition in his area. In fact, having been in business for nearly 45 years, Stumpf has had five former employees leave to start their own landscaping firms. “Two of them didn’t make it, but three of them are doing some very nice work,” he says. “That makes me feel good. We don’t seem to have any problem competing – there’s enough work.”
Graczyk feels professionalism is the best way to gain a competitive advantage. “There’s sort of a snowball effect. When you do good work, it doesn’t take long for word to get around,” he says.
Permeable pavers paying off
Currently, the majority of Stumpf’s hardscape work is on the residential side, but he sees that changing in the future. Because of tightening environmental regulations, there’s going to be more demand for permeable paving, especially on the commercial end, he feels. “We’re expecting that developers who are required to retain water [on a site] are going to start requesting permeable paver parking lots,” says Stumpf. “That might be cheaper for them than doing a whole lot of underground retention.”
There’s also some demand for permeable paving on the residential end, he adds. “Especially with homes that are lakeside or near water – there are rules now saying that a certain amount of the property has to be green space, mostly because of water runoff,” Stumpf explains. And he’s seeing regulators clamping down more to enforce these types of regulations. Permeable paver driveways, sometimes in conjunction with rain gardens, are becoming recognized as one way to meet these requirements, he notes.
“Permeable pavers are huge right now because of stormwater,” agrees Shrum. “There are a lot more roadways going in and a lot more impervious surfaces going in, so they’re running out of space to put all that water.” He’s currently working with a local municipality that’s even looking at converting some of its side streets to permeable pavers.
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Thanks to HOA and community requirements, permeable pavers are also growing in popularity among residential homeowners. “It’s not so much that they’re concerned with where the water is going, it’s more of an issue of they’re only allowed so many square feet of impervious surface, so they need to use a different kind of paver.” He sees this market booming in the future for installers and manufacturers. And while he says the options of permeable pavers available at the moment are somewhat limited and mostly commercial in appearance, he thinks that will change as demand for residential permeable pavers grows. “Even now they’re starting to become a little more unique and modernized because manufacturers are starting to see the demand from the residential end,” says Shrum.
From an internal management perspective, Shrum keeps his commercial and residential hardscape crews separate, stressing that each market requires a different approach. “With residential, you have a particular type of customer. There’s more attention to detail required, and you need to have the personnel to back that up on a day-to-day basis,” he says. Homeowners also frequently request changes, and the right employees need to be involved to work with them, get revised pricing, etc. Commercial work is primarily done off site plans, materials are pre-determined, and it’s more a matter of just installing them properly.
Similarly, Graczyk keeps the operations of Grindstone Hardscapes separate from those of his lawn maintenance company because of the specialization that each requires. “Each crew is dedicated to what they do (he has three hardscape crews), and the divisions are run separately,” he explains. The exception is cross-training provided to some employees from the lawn care side. “When the lawn maintenance work runs out in October, I’ve still got two months of hardscaping I can do,” he states.
Beyond management, Graczyk has found another strategy to help with sales: Grindstone Hardscapes built a hardscape showroom that has proven to be a big sales tool, says Graczyk, who emphasizes that selling hardscape is completely different than selling lawn services: “With lawn care, someone can call our office and we can have an estimate to them in 10 to 15 minutes and have a sale. With hardscape, they need to come in and sit in front of that fireplace in our showroom and they need to walk on the pavers and feel them.” A large TV monitor is used to walk clients through their new patio designs in 3-D.
Hansen Hardscape Contractor has also seen success with its half-acre outdoor “show yard.” “We’re one of the few companies in the Bay Area that has such a facility; we’ve invested more money and time than I care to admit to create that area,” says Hansen. About 10 perspective clients a week tour the facility by appointment. The showroom has been around for about 20 years and every year it is updated and improved to represent new materials and trends; it features samples of different types of hardscape materials, including stamped concrete, pavers, flagstone and other products. And it gives customers a chance to inspect them and see what they like. “We find that it helps with sales,” says Hansen. “People will get down and actually touch the pavers to see what they feel like.”