Topeka Landscape discovers that doing it all” builds loyal customers”””

Since its inception in 1994, when Topeka Landscape in Topeka, Kans., began as a general landscape design and construction company, the company has greatly expanded the services it provides for clients in eastern Kansas. Services now include landscaping, lawn care and maintenance, walls and steps, patios and driveways, walkways and paths, water features, lighting, fire pits, design, outdoor kitchens, swimming pools, fences, woodworking and benches.

Topeka Landscape uses a wide variety of materials in order to create a combination that appeals to all senses while fitting appropriately with the existing setting.

Providing that umbrella of services has done more to retain customers than co-owner Andy Gilliland ever imagined. Gilliland shares ownership with Blain Bertrand and Ray Rickless, all of which are involved in the daily sales and operations.

Residential is where it’s at

Gilliland says his company is taking on a fair amount of commercial work, including a design/build project for a new casino constructed in town, as well as several manufacturing companies. Even so, its primary focus is residential.

“We’re a little bit more passionate about that because of the one-on-one relationship you can have,” Gilliland points out. He says outdoor living continues to be a big trend in his market, but money is tight.

Many people want outdoor kitchens, but may find them to be out of their budget at this time, so they’ll opt for a fire pit or attractive plantings.

“In a lot of cases, they’re putting more dollars in the back yard than in the front yard,” Gilliland says. “Curb appeal is still important. Right now it’s how they can enjoy the money they spend rather than just looking at their landscape as they pull up to their garage door.

“We try to find out what customers’ needs and wants are and help them develop a plan, implement that plan and follow up,” he adds.

Color, color, color! It’s what everyone wants and Topeka Landscape goes to great lengths to offer as many different options as possible to achieve it in its designs, plant selection and maintenance options.

“We work with our customers on different types of programs to uniquely suit their needs. Maybe they’re OK if the yard stresses just a little bit in the summertime. We’ll work with them on adjusting irrigation back a little bit. It’s a hands-on maintenance philosophy.”

Gilliland says he can meet with 10 customers and each one will have a different vision of what they want their yard to look like and the amount of time and resources they want to spend maintaining it. “It’s an evolving process trying to get as close to their wants and needs as possible,” he says.

Growing the maintenance division

Maintenance is an area his company is seeking increased growth.

“There’s a big opportunity there that goes back to customer relations,” says Gilliland. “If you put in a landscape and it’s done, it’s done, but if you’re maintaining a property, it’s a constant interaction. It gives us more opportunity to speak to a customer about future projects or you’re fresh in a customer’s mind and they may talk with somebody else on the street. That’s the referral process, and I think that’s an area that could grow.”

Even though Topeka Landscape has a full maintenance division, company management prefers preventative rather than curative programs for lawn care and landscape problems. To that end, it educates customers on how to be watchful of their yards so the company can better address conditions before they become problems and require expensive products or repairs. This is in line with the care manual and warranties it provides customers.

Whether it be a patio, fire pit, retaining wall or just some new plants and trees, Topeka Landscape can bring it all together in a harmonious union of materials that create an enjoyable and usable space.

During the past few years, the company began suggesting landscapes that require less maintenance, especially for commercial customers and prospects. “Everybody’s budgets are limited and taxed out a bit, so it’s something we’ve been working with individuals on, too,” Gilliland says. “Let’s figure out how to make this place look good and easier to maintain, and that translates into dollars saved down the road.”

Key to that effort is intelligent plant selection.

Gilliland says he has a “naturalistic” approach to landscaping.

“It’s trying to make a property look nice, but still make it look like it fits into the area we’re in,” he says. “We’re not necessarily trying to use all native plants and materials, but trying to use elements that mimic the prairie we have here with some of the taller grasses.”

Topeka Landscape

Founded: 1994
Headquarters: Topeka, Kan.
Owners: Ray Rickless, Blain Bertrand and Andy Gilliland
Service Area: Eastern Kansas
Services: Design/build, installations, landscape maintenance, lawn care, snow and ice management, water features, lighting, swimming pools, fences, woodworking and benches.
Employees: 45 (peak season)

Topeka Landscape promotes the use of trees native to the area and operates a tree farm from which it sells to the public. “That’s something we’re passionate about is not forgetting about all of the red oaks and white oaks that grow and thrive here where you don’t have to plant the latest and greatest maple,” he says. “Some of these older plants do great, and that’s something we push a little bit.”

Maintaining properties is Topeka Landscape’s expertise. The company offers a variety of options to keep lawns and landscapes looking their best year-round.

Employees make a company thrive

Topeka management is quick to point out that the success of the company directly rests on the dedication and efforts of its employees. While most of them are cross-trained to perform a number of duties, management attempts to match them with what they prefer doing best.

“We always try to listen to the employee and ask them if they’re doing what they want, because that’s important,” he says. “They want to be excited and motivated.” He adds that they try to offer the best benefits they can through salaries, health insurance and retirement plans.

Echoing the sentiments of just about every sizable landscape company, Gilliland says employees are both Topeka’s greatest strength and its biggest challenge, especially finding and hiring employees that have the same passion and attitude as management.

“A company that’s growing and looking forward always has to be looking for good people because they are few and far between,” he says. “Attitude is the biggest thing we look for. If somebody has the right attitude, most everything else can be taught.”

To that point, Gilliland says that in today’s employers’ market he’s not adverse to hiring inexperienced workers, especially if they demonstrate “a positive attitude” about working in the landscape industry.

Balancing equipment needs

In terms of equipment, Topeka Landscape uses a mix of leased and purchased vehicles. “It’s a constant balance,” Gilliland says. “It would be nice to have everything perfectly shiny and brand new, but we try to keep a mix of some leased vehicles so we always have some new blood.”

Gilliland views his company’s trucks and employees as “roving billboards,” and as such, logos and uniform colors are all kept consistent for marketing purposes. The company makes extensive use of social media and the Internet and has ramped up efforts in response to the state of the economy.

Landscape lighting, annuals and natural rock accents are all “icing on the cake” that help to create a mood and give a property character that sets it apart from others.

“We’ve definitely been trying to utilize our website to the max and use it as a tool to meet customers or potential clients,” he says. “We try to direct them there as a place they can look and get ideas.”

Gilliland says he looks to see the industry promote more professionalism, with more accreditations required. “You get a guy in a truck with a couple of push mowers and he’s labeled a ‘landscaper’ and that’s not the case,” he says. “What we do, when it’s done right, it’s very legitimate. I’m seeing a trend of groups of companies that want to do it right.”

Topeka Landscape has a Green Select Lawn Care program that includes a five-step fertilization approach, as well as grub control, crabgrass control, fungus application and nutsedge weed control.[BR1]

Gilliland says he got into the industry through a personal interest in gardening, and while attending Kansas State University he took an interest in the horticulture program. “I always worked in construction and liked plants, so it seemed like a fit.”

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.