Nikos Phelps offers the complete package to his clients

Utopian Landscapes, LLC

Founder and Owner: Nikos Phelps
Founded: 1997
Headquarters: Harrisburg, Pa.
Market: Harrisburg metro area and central Pennsylvania
Services: Landscape maintenance, lighting, installation, Christmas lighting, snow removal and irrigation services
Employees: 7 (peak season)

Nikos Phelps started his landscaping business in 1997 while he was still in high school in Harrisburg, Pa. He wanted to stay busy, make some money, and have a steady summer job. In 2007, Phelps received a degree in landscape contracting with a minor in entrepreneurship from Penn State University. He also became a certified landscape technician. As Phelps worked and learned, his company grew, and his Hillside Landscaping mowing business became Utopian Landscapes, LLC, providing a full range of services to clients.

A holistic approach to landscape services

Phelps offers a “one-stop shop” approach to clients, which benefits them, as well as his company.

Nikos Phelps (far right) with three of his crew members.

“It is a convenience option,” Phelps explains. “The less people someone needs to deal with, the better.”

Utopian Landscapes provides landscape maintenance, lighting, installation, Christmas lighting, snow removal and irrigation services. What’s more, the company can also act as the go-between for tree care services for clients in need of those services. So the client receives only one monthly invoice from Utopian Landscapes.

“This additional work can give our company 50 or more, sometimes up to 100 touches on a property each year. You want someone who has a vested interest and truly cares about your place. When your landscaping company knows more about your exterior than you, it means they care,” Phelps says.

By meeting all of his clients’ needs, it is harder for his competitors to encroach on his territory. It also allows Phelps to keep track of client feedback and respond to any issues. “Finally it’s accountability – one contractor, one person to point the finger at,” Phelps says.

Package deal

His landscape packages are priced based on the production rates and costs to provide these services. He adds incentives for his crew when they stay on time and on budget.

“We are willing to sacrifice some of the percentage of our profit to get a larger piece of the pie. It also tends to be less expensive to have us combine services than if we were offering everything separately. Also, our larger packages are broken out into monthly payments, and it allows clients to budget accordingly and spread payments out since they are split over a 10-month period. It’s more appealing to be able to split out the payments rather than have a deposit and balance due in the span of a two-week period,” Phelps explains.

Of course, to offer this type of package, a landscaper needs to have reliable equipment to get the job done. Phelps invests in good, quality equipment and develops relationships with the companies that service his equipment.

“We use Exmark for mowers, Echo for hand-held, Bobcat for loaders, and a mixed bag on trucks – the jury’s still out on that one [best truck dealers],” Phelps says. “These are the brands I have always used, and my attitude has been the old saying, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.'”

Phelps believes that quality service providers are essential for his business. “Without them you can have the greatest equipment, but if it doesn’t work, it’s of no use to you,” Phelps says.

Marketing Utopian’s services

Like most successful businesses, Phelps has found that word-of-mouth referrals are the best method for marketing his business. He has tried door hangers, but didn’t find them as effective. And, he is working on developing social media buzz about his business, but that takes time.

“The market is definitely tighter than it has been in the past years, and pricing is more of an issue than it has been in the past for some existing, as well as new and potential clients. That being said, our reputation as a top-quality provider has given people the incentive to switch [to us] or stick with us. Much of our work, 95 percent, has been referral/word-of-mouth based. People are anxious to get work done.”

One thing he won’t do is use Groupon or other coupon deals to bring in more clients.

“I don’t care for coupons because every time that we have done that, we have had people looking at spending the minimum – one-time clients – and then we end up paying out discounts to our clients as well. When it’s all said and done, we’re usually in a worse position than we started in.

“We just started an aggressive pay-per-click campaign with dismal results; the phone book was actually better for us. [It’s] hard to believe,” Phelps says.

His charity work also helps spread the word about Utopian Landscapes.

“We do a fair amount of charity work, and I believe that this does help in making people aware of us. People don’t mind working with someone who believes and follows through with the same values as they have,” Phelps says. “It makes for a nice relationship when our clients know that a portion of what they pay us – some years up to 5 percent – goes back into charity work for individuals and the community. This is not why we do it, but it is a very nice, very unexpected side of it.”

A sample of Utopian Landscapes’ work at a central Pennsylvania home.

Phelps offers the Decorated Family Program in the Harrisburg area. Families that have a loved one deployed overseas during the holidays are nominated. The chosen family will have their home decorated for Christmas. He also sponsors the Donald Phelps Christmas Grant to decorate a deserving family’s home with Christmas lights free of charge over the holiday season. The grant is named after his grandfather, Donald Phelps, who died in 1993.

Hiring quality employees in a tough economy

Phelps says that finding quality employees is difficult despite these tough economic times. Like his marketing plan, he recruits employees via word-of-mouth.

“We offer a competitive pay system that allows our crews to bring in sometimes up to 40 percent more than competitors’ employees. We have a large level of accountability which helps weed out those who are there simply for a paycheck and not to do the best possible job they can.” Phelps says.

“I wish I had the answer to how we overcome the challenge of finding quality employees, but it’s a lot of trial and error. Some people have a shelf life – sometimes it’s a day, sometimes a week, a month or even a year.

Utopian Landscapes offers many services for their residential clients, including installation of Christmas lights.

“I would say the bulk of our issues are poor work ethic, lack of pride in their work, zero sense of accountability, unwillingness to do the dirty work when needed. A lot of guys are still coming in looking for work and would rather collect unemployment for a year than work for a little bit more,” Phelps says.

He weeds out the good from the bad by asking potential hires two questions during the interview:

  • What do you want to do in the long term?
  • Are you looking for a job for the time being until something else opens up, or are you looking to make a career out of landscaping?

“You’d be amazed how many people will open up and say this is just something to pass the time until something better opens up – they don’t tend to get hired,” Phelps says.

On the flip side, however, Phelps feels great joy when his employees are able to move up financially because he pays them a fair wage.

New hires get hands-on learning. “The best way to learn something is to do it. We do weekly training with our crews on different aspects to make sure the methods being used are universal,” Phelps explains.