More services, sound business decisions help Plantique get ahead

In the turf and landscape industry, the name of the game is monitored and measured growth that’s often nudged along with timely and appropriate expansion. Mike McShane, president and CEO of Plantique in Allentown, Pa., wishes he could say that he knew the economy would tank by 2008 and that acquiring a maintenance company would be the major move that would help his design-build landscape firm weather the storm.

A cascading waterfall here softens a boulder retaining wall.

In 2001, the already-successful Plantique incorporated a maintenance component for tree, turf and snow care, a move that now looks visionary, though it began with practicality in mind. Still a small component of the overall business at Plantique, it makes up an important 20 percent of revenue streams.

Plantique acquired Forever Green Tree & Landscape and brought in its employees, equipment and accounts. The move allowed for cross-selling additional care for installations and for expansion of landscapes for existing lawn customers. “Before [adding the maintenance component], our clients would often say, ‘You put in this huge project for me, but now Fred’s Lawn Care doesn’t even know the names of those plants,'” McShane says.

In years prior, Plantique always shut down during the winter. “I had idle assets,” McShane explains. “Now, our snow removal operation has brought in revenue in January and February that’s now there to use in the spring. Before, once the ground froze, so did business and our crews.”

Forever Green, which was located 2 miles away, was a $1 million company, and Plantique has grown it to a $1.7 million company.

“You can get to the point where you can’t divide too much,” McShane says. “You have to stick to your core competencies. It’s not like we’re going to start selling pizza.”

Managing expansion

In the early 2000s, Plantique also strategically divided itself into three smaller divisions, each named after a tree: maple, oak and beech. A fourth, redwood, may be spawned in the future, but that will be a market-driven decision. There’s no catchy name for it, though the structure is comparable to what larger auto dealerships have done: used color-coded teams to handle large volumes of incoming repair or maintenance work.

Plantique made the managerial move to enhance manageability and also to promote employee empowerment within the ranks, as well as to clearly define career tracks for all employees. The end result: low turnover, the development of leaders and long employee tenure. “Guys have been here for a long time,” McShane says. “There’s a career path. I’m the perfect example. No one can say that you can’t advance here, because I started by pulling weeds.”

There are also three design-build-installation supervisors who started as helpers. Now, they each run multiple crews. There are also two maintenance supervisors. Each team is led by a senior designer, who has a junior designer and an assistant, either a first-year employee just out of college or an intern. Each supervisor can manage up to five installation crews, typically of two men each, all with $1.5 million to $2 million accounts. The juniors learn from the seniors. “We’re mentoring on the job,” McShane says. “Essentially, the structure also provides, in effect, our training program.”

There’s also the ancillary experts in excavation, wood, masonry and electrical. The overall structural change has lent itself to greater flexibility, and team-by-team goal setting. “We’ve tried to match each team evenly, and to provide each with the same level of talent,” McShane says. “They all have equal access to equipment and to larger equipment.”

An excellent use of space for this entry, installed by Plantique.

He can also shift around crews based on need, or to develop teamwork, or to match nuances in styles. Either way, new leads and jobs are spread evenly. “Before, we worked on contracts as they came in, there wasn’t much flexibility. Now, if we’re overloaded, we’ll pull from another crew. Guys continue to grow because they know they could be next in line. It’s a system,” McShane says.

Building on success

Plantique’s bread and butter remains design-build, but the company has started dabbling in bid-build, too. Bid-build, however, comes with its challenges. With public projects, there’s usually little difference in proposals than price, and those projects are often driven by green infrastructure demands upon municipalities forced to respond.

Stormwater issues, for example, the calculations of impervious versus pervious surfaces, the installation of water infiltration pits and the like are big business – and big opportunity for turf and landscape professionals. All those new pervious surfaces need to be maintained.

Because governmental agencies and funds are often involved, it adds expense. Permits and studies are required. “Often, the project has been mandated, as is the use of native plants and things like that, but we’ve been doing that all along,” McShane says.

He agrees that the green movement has been good for Plantique and others, but also hesitates before responding. “We have the capabilities to do it, from design to engineering to construction,” he says. “A lot of times big earth-movers are required, and we have that capital-intensive equipment, whereas 25 years ago, we didn’t, and needed an excavator. But, it’s a much tougher sales environment today, plus all the fees, tests and permits and approvals.”

There are also board meetings and easements to worry about, too. In the old days, a homeowner would call and say, “I want to add a berm and cut my lot in half,” McShane says. “Now, that land needs to be surveyed first, and they’ll ask why they have to do all this, then we have to explain the figures in the proposal, and how in a $45,000 job, $10,000 of it is for fees and permits.”

As busy as ever

McShane is superstitious, and doesn’t want to jinx himself or the company, but Plantique is busier this season than it’s been in two and a half years. “We’re swamped,” he says.

He sees clients who have their balances in order again, and who are loosening purse strings, and searching for instant gratification. “Later might be never, so they want to do something now so they can enjoy it now,” he says. “They’re not selling their homes. They’re staying and making improvements, and they’re doing it on the outside.”

Patios, waterfalls, outdoor fireplaces, privacy planting and installing value into landscapes with unique gardens remain popular. “They can only gain value when those landscapes mature, especially if they have been installed correctly,” McShane says. “For a few years, people were scaling down projects, or putting them on hold. Now, we’re seeing an increase in the size and number of projects, and most are extensions onto existing spaces.”

Plantique hasn’t had to expand staff, but in the heart of the recession, it didn’t cut staff either. There were no layoffs, but rather careful management of overtime and internal adjustments within any company’s biggest budget item: labor. “We were able to get through the worst of it,” McShane says.

There are four partners, each with diverse skill sets that combined provide dynamic, diversified leadership. Bruce Fritzinger, vice president of sales, is the company founder’s son. His father started the business in 1948. Jeff Amici is chief of operations, while Tim McGinley is president of Forever Green. He was previously the owner of the company.

McShane’s background is in business administration and marketing. With the company since 1977, he began as a high school student pulling weeds in the nursery. McShane is actually back in school for the first time since 1978, finishing his degree. As a young man, his interest in the industry augmented, mostly because of the use of the equipment, the construction side.

The four partners, plus eight designers and sales staff, lead a total of 85 employees on a 16-acre complex, 13 acres of it in nursery. “We’re very proud [of the nursery],” McShane says. “We’re self-suppliers. Customers love to come, see, touch and tag what will go on their property. For us, we never have to wait for a delivery.”

Also, Plantique just began a lifetime guarantee that comes with a maintenance contract. “It’s just the right thing to do, even if we lose money,” McShane says.

That guarantee is among what Plantique considers its changing-the-game innovation, along with its own nursery, having designers with degrees and a company with same-location longevity. McShane has incorporated these selling points into Plantique’s simple-image billboard advertising. For example, to push the exceptional design, there’s a baby carriage with an oak seedling sprouting out of it.

Another advantage is that Plantique didn’t back down on its aggressive approach to marketing. McShane says companies that continue to advertise in a recession fair far better when it’s over than those that pulled back. “For us, we continued to market and deliver the message: We’re still here, ready, willing and able,” he says. “It’s all about the message we’re sending.”

Maintenance and more

The maintenance business has also inspired some expansion into unique uses for the express mulch truck, another Plantique acquisition. Plantique has also branched out into blown erosion control work, which helps with stormwater runoff. It replaces the 2-foot-high black silt screen fencing with a biodegradable silt sock: 9 to 12 inches of fabric filled with compost that’s laid directly on the ground and filled with the mulch machine. The sock lines areas where soils have been disturbed, such as construction sites, and is used to trap sediment in storm flow. Often, it’s a mandated installation, so only clean water sifts through and the mud doesn’t run down streets and into sewers or tributaries. When work at the site concludes, the tube is sliced open and the mulch is spread.

“For us, it’s just another way to keep the mulch truck busy,” McShane says.

Plantique, Inc.

Location: Allentown, Pa.
Clientele: Residential andcommercial
Services: Landscape architecture,design and installation; landscapemaintenance; hardscapes;snow removal services

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th century America, agrarian culture, land use and sports and recreation topics.