Live Oak Landscape Contractors grow despite recession

The pool at this residence in Holmdel, N.J., was designed and developed by Live Oak Landscape. It is the center piece of this backyard oasis, which also has a fire pit and outdoor kitchen.

Attention to detail and commitment to core values have enabled Live Oak Landscape Contractors in Piscataway, N.J., to grow to a $5 million company and survive recessions along the way, notes Alan E. Milstein, vice president.

Live Oak Landscape was started in 1989 by Mike Sidlowski, who majored in landscape architecture at Rutgers University in New Jersey, as a way to help pay for his college expenses. After graduating in 1990, he continued to work on the business’ growth. Milstein was also a new college graduate in the early 1990s, and had a difficult time finding work in his field of business communications/corporate management training, so he joined Sidlowski as partner and vice president.

Live Oak Landscape Contractors

Mission Values: Respond promptly to clients, vendors, teammates; provide value to clients, vendors; keep commitments; “Done once, done right”
Partner/Vice President: Alan E. Milstein, partner and vice president (Founder: Mike Sidlowski)
Headquarters: Piscataway, N.J.
Market: 50-mile radius from headquarters
Services: Landscape architecture design/build, maintenance, outdoor lighting and snow removal
Employees: 90 in peak season

“Landscape work was no stranger to me, from trailing around my dad’s 3.5-hp lawnmower on the back of my BMX bicycle at the age of 12 through many hot summers during my high school years working for a small family-owned business, and then working with some of the larger firms through college,” Milstein says. “Choosing to work in the landscape field was a decision I made out of passion.”

They incorporated the business in 1993 and took it from $280,000 to more than $5 million last year.

“When we started the business, one of the decisions we made is that we were going to run a business that was based on values that people would come to rely on and respect, and that would drive good clientele,” Milstein says. “We knew that in good economies or bad economies, one of the things we needed was good clientele who felt confident in us as people and a product that we would provide and stand behind.”

Michael Sidlowski, left, and Alan Milstein at their office in Piscataway, N.J.

Values drive success

Milstein’s primary focus has been to provide ongoing information to help clients make educated decisions. “I have worked with hundreds of clients and as a hands-on owner, I continue to be the primary contact for the company’s entire client base,” Milstein says.

Milstein says with 20 years of field experience and practical knowledge, the key to his success is his “broad range of understanding people, understanding the economy, and understanding the competition.” Starting in what Milstein describes as a “very poor economy” in 1993 offered his company the chance to learn who was being affected by a bad economy.

“We understood very early that while one portion of the economy was being affected, something else was thriving,” he says. “When business came back, commercial companies wanted their buildings to be full again so they were spending money to make them look good.

“That was a good avenue and we didn’t want to miss that boat,” he adds. “At the same time, once they spent that money, they were done and they were going to put a clamp on their budget so they could reset.”

Working with passion

“We learned how to do it all passionately because every client cares about what they want to spend their money on,” Milstein says.

Milstein is joined by Ethan Petro, irrigation specialist, and Amanda Lyons, client services specialist, to provide maintenance services to the corporate, commercial, hotel and residential sector.

The company’s focus is on high-end properties, even at the industrial level, Milstein says. Services include landscape architectural design/build, maintenance, outdoor lighting and snow removal. Live Oak Landscape also has a company called April Showers that handles irrigation work.

Live Oak Landscape services a 50-mile radius from its home office, going further for irrigation and lighting work. The company employs 90 people in-season who are supervised by certified landscape technicians and certified water auditors.

Hiring and keeping the best

To retain the good employees, managers try to offer employees more than what they would get elsewhere. “People leave for money and sometimes they leave for not a lot of money,” Milstein says.

“In the interviewing process in getting to know them, we ask them questions with respect to the past jobs they had, how they treated their past employers and vice versa, what their family life is like, what their hobbies are, the cars they drive and see how they dress themselves,” says Milstein. “We try to find out if they live their lives with the values that we do in ours.”

Just as important to Live Oak Landscape is solid equipment.

“We’ve always used what we would consider to be better equipment,” says Milstein. “It’s not so much the equipment as the support we get from our vendors. We look for people who are willing to stand behind the products we’re going to buy because we have to stand behind our products.”

Among the equipment used by the company is Exmark equipment from Toro, RedMax, Husqvarna and Bobcat.

“We have one tried and true machine, an old TCM articulated front-end loader we bought in 1994, and it’s still with us,” says Milstein.

Designing for minimal maintenance

In designing to make maintenance most efficient, the design team first focuses on meeting client’s expectations on living space, budget and maintainability, Milstein says.

Clients are given a questionnaire based on expectations, “because we need to know what they’re thinking about in terms of what it’s going to look like, feel like, smell like, what it’s going to cost, how long it’s going to take to go in, what type of colors they like, what type of material they like,” Milstein says. “Obviously, there are some environmental factors they don’t even know how to take into consideration like weather, the direction of the sun, wind, whether it’s by the beach, salt tolerance, water tolerance, drought tolerance.”

The design phase includes a complete site analysis of the land’s ecology and typography, existing trees, rocks and plantings that will remain, and drainage issues in an effort to produce unique ideas in harmony with the natural surroundings. The property is photographed and a preliminary site evaluation completed.

Hybrid maintenance approach

As for maintenance, Milstein says there isn’t a single approach to fertilizers and weed control.

“I’m a believer in the chemical approach,” he says. “I’m not an organics-only person. I believe people who feel strongly about organics have that right. I believe in knowing what you’re dealing with as far as the environment and subsurface, along with an integrated pest management approach to understanding what could be going on. The government has enough regulations that what goes down has enough controls where it can be safe.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned, it’s that all turf has different requirements,” he adds. “You have to know what you’re dealing with and take into consideration the environment surrounding that, which is affecting it every day.”

During the winter, Live Oak Landscape offers snow removal. “It’s such a high priority,” Milstein says. “It requires such a great amount of off-hour time and equipment that we want do to just enough and do it the best we can.”

When a storm is imminent, the company’s staff monitors meteorological data, keeps clients informed of changes and stands by with the necessary equipment and manpower. The company uses a network of weather stations to independently verify snow amounts at its managed properties to ensure accurate and timely dispatching.

Prior to winter months, the company discusses snow clearing protocol with clients, such as designated areas to clear snow, where to pile or relocate snow, obstacles to avoid, where problems may have existed in the past, and what de-icing agents will be utilized.

This residential property in Holmdel, N.J., is maintained by Live Oak Landscape.

Each storm event is fully documented with hourly reports, weather conditions, site conditions and other data to ensure proper performance.

Green reserve study

Live Oak Landscape has also developed a “green reserve study,” which is meant to produce cost savings.

While most reserve studies cover structures such as roofs, siding, asphalt roads, tennis courts, pools and clubhouses, the largest yearly expense for most condo associations, homeowner associations and co-ops is landscaping, and many communities do not have a long-term plan in place.

The study addresses maintenance and budget for the entire landscape environment, including soil, turf, landscape, trees and irrigation, and utilizes expert advice from horticulturists, certified landscape architects, state-certified arborists, turf experts, drainage engineers and irrigation specialists.

Each area of the landscape is examined, researched and catalogued. The company conducts an extensive site analysis and interviews are conducted with homeowners, management and board members to create strategic long-term goals and facilitate a “green” master plan for the community.

Keeping commitments

Landscaping in the Northeast, and in general, has its challenges, notes Milstein.

“In landscaping, there are so many elements,” he says. “We have the economy, client schedules, which a lot of businesses have, but we have weather challenges as well.”

That calls for a lot of scheduling, budgeting, and planning, Milstein says.

“It’s those values that have definitely helped us get through this economy,” he says. “This is probably the third downturned economy we have experienced in our business and it’s one of the biggest and hardest, but I would say with how long we’ve been in business and how we’ve been doing things, we have a client base to level the playing field to help us survive.”

Milstein believes the most significant challenge in the industry today is competitive pricing. “Right now, the economy is hurting everybody,” he says. “Everyone is sensitive to what they’re spending and it’s affecting the price on every service out there, from all levels of maintenance to irrigation, design and installation.”

“In our industry, the pricing structure is a little bit challenging. We’re seeing prices back to 15 years ago. That’s difficult because nothing costs the same as it did 15 years ago.”

Hands-on management

Milstein says what differentiates his company from others that bring in similar revenues is the owners’ involvement in day-to-day operations.

“Companies that get $5 million or larger start getting vice president of this and supervisor of that,” Milstein says. “One of the things that upsets clients the most is they get accustomed to someone they like and the guy gets a promotion or he left and he’s not there anymore. We’re involved in so many aspects of the business from management to customer service and quality control, and we have very little turnover in our company.”

The company’s attention to details has gotten notice. Live Oak Landscape received the Gracious Grounds Award for Raritan Center, given annually by the Edison Arts Society to honor a local business that enhances the quality of life with its attention to beauty through plantings, landscaping and environmental art.

The company also gives back to the community as a sponsor of The Valerie Fund for children with cancer and blood disorders, Lupus Foundation and ALS Association of America.

Going forward, Milstein sees the company going on its same steady growth pattern. Prior to the economy taking a hit, Live Oak Landscape was at its highest point in gross income, Milstein notes.

“We learned how to operate lean through 2009 and we’ve gotten through 2010,” he says. “We’ve been focusing on profits and we’ve learned where we want to grow.”

Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.