The Bruce Company stays on top with a diversified, technologically driven approach

The Bruce Company

Primary Officers: President and CEO Bliss Nicholson, COO Seth Nicholson
Founded: 1952
Headquarters: Middleton, Wis.; also locations in Milwaukee and Racine
Markets: Southern Wisconsin
Services: Residential and commercial landscape services providing both design-build construction and commercial landscape maintenance; irrigation services; snow removal services; and golf course construction and maintenance. The company also maintains a 600-acre nursery, a retail garden center and wholesale distribution.
Employees: 500 peak season

The Bruce Company, based in Middleton, Wis., a Madison suburb, is just finishing its 60th year in the landscape industry. Lee Bruce founded the company in 1952. Bliss Nicholson, current CEO, joined the company in 1970, and his son, Seth, who grew up in the business, is now chief operating officer. Seth says that the company’s high standards have played a major role in the diversity of the company.

“Our nursery, for example, was added because we couldn’t find the quality of plant material we needed in the large quantities required for our major projects. Irrigation services were added as a Bruce Company component when the company had difficulty obtaining irrigation contractors to meet company standards. We didn’t want to jeopardize our work, so we added the department,” he says.

The Bruce Company serves a customer base throughout southern Wisconsin from its corporate office in Middleton and locations in Milwaukee and Racine, that provide primarily landscape maintenance. The company’s landscape construction work is about 60 percent commercial and 40 percent high-end residential.

Environmentally friendly water features are increasingly popular in both commercial and residential settings for The Bruce Company.

Longevity is imperative to the Bruce Company in both employee retention and customer relationships, Seth says. “Lots of first-time homeowners think they can’t afford high-end landscaping and go with others. They will come to us on second or third homes once they realize the difference in our quality and value. We get a lot of second- and third-generation customers because of their parents’ or grandparents’ experience with the Bruce Company.”

As the company continues to focus on the highest quality work, it is looking ahead toward approaches to important issues in the future of the landscaping industry.

Decision-making important to success

A focus on high standards in its landscape work and all other components has been intertwined with important management decisions. These decisions have assured a profitable business while continuing to move the company forward. Landscape and related industries across the country coped with a downturned economy beginning in 2008 in many locations.

“The economic downturn hit us a bit later than some parts of the country, starting in 2009,” Seth says, citing the economic make-up of Madison, the capital city of Wisconsin, as a major factor in a more stable economy. Madison is home to the University of Wisconsin and numerous corporate headquarters. The Bruce Company was well-established in the high-end residential and large commercial work with a high number of corporate headquarters as customers in landscape maintenance.

“For us, the biggest factor was how very competitive the business became. We looked for ways to improve our competitiveness and then began to consider whether we should even be in the bid business. Our architects and our crews are not willing to cut corners,” he explains.

Headquartered near Madison, Wis.’s capital, The Bruce Company didn’t take as severe a hit in the 2008 recession as companies elsewhere.

“We needed to approach bid work with caution, and we decided to primarily focus on our design-build projects with our customers rather than bid. Our customers wanted us in the bid process, but we could see it was only going to get worse before it got better. To cut back, to diminish that work, was the hardest decision especially with our concern about our employees and overhead reductions,” he adds. “But, we had to make the shift to focus on profitable work. You can only do break-even work for so long. We’re finding that previous customers are returning, asking us to fix some problem created by other, low-award contractors.”

Addressing environmental issues

Adhering to the company’s highest quality standards is essential throughout all segments. Environmental responsibility is a high priority throughout the industry, and the Bruce Company practices environmentally responsible landscape design and management, including responsible water use.

“We created full-service, design/build irrigation and aquatic departments to service these growing markets. We have also become an Aquascape Pro Pond distributor,” says Seth.

The Bruce Company offers compost blanket seeding as an alternative to sodding or traditional grading and seeding in lawn establishment. Yard waste is composted, and a polymer to help hold moisture is added to the compost, along with fertilizer and grass seed custom-selected for individual sites. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources certifies the composting process at the Bruce Company for use in rain gardens, assuring its safe use on lawns. The compost mixture is blown onto prepared lawn beds at a 1-inch depth.

“The compost mixture increases organic matter in lawns; because the compost is heated to a degree that kills any weeds, homeowners avoid weeds that may be dormant in the soil,” says Linda Bracz, company horticulturist. Because the mixture is black it heats ore quickly in the spring, allowing faster germination and a faster stand of grass on lawns.” Compost blanket seeding is less costly than sodding lawns and provides a quicker establishment than traditionally seeded lawns, she adds.

Water features not only enhance landscape settings but also solve landscape challenges.

Focusing on quality service

“We have a knowledgeable and experienced staff, and they realize how important our standards are. We always try to encourage employee development across all areas,” Seth says. “Diversity in our company helps us keep people year-round. We know that if we lose seasonal people for any extended time, they may begin thinking about new career opportunities.”

Seth notes the importance of evolving technology, and how technology can help the Bruce Company become more efficient. He says, “We’re looking at innovative technologies, at our systems and practices, and how emerging technology and software could improve our current systems and help our operations to communicate more efficiently.”

Irrigation installation and maintenance is a major landscape focus.

Seth has served on committees of the American Nursery and Landscape Association (ANLA) and is a member of Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), along with other associations. He cites the importance of the company’s involvement with those organizations, noting that interactions spur ways to think outside the box and look at new ways to do things. He cites the need for the landscaping industry in general to increase its focus on quality.

“Landscaping can’t be done as a second job,” he says. “People sometimes come into the industry temporarily. They need to understand their costs. If they don’t understand costs, they price themselves out of business. In the meantime, though, they jeopardize the industry’s overall value.

“I enjoy people within the industry and enjoy influencing people to think differently,” he adds. “We’re into a new age of the worker. It’s not that people don’t want to work, but it’s a new age and thoughts on what type of work they’re willing to do is changing. Everything is getting so technology focused, but we’re always going to need quality, hands-on people to improve our nation’s landscapes. Seeing ways to improve this always excites me.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. Reach her at