Florida’s cyclical housing busts have tempered Cornerstone Solutions Group to be more resilient than ever

Cornerstone Solutions Group has survived two recessions and recently returned to a $25 million company offering 19 services and employing 320 people.

John Faulkner, founder of Cornerstone Solutions Group, Dade City, Fla., is the green industry’s double “Comeback Kid.” Operating his landscaping business for the past 27 years, he’s used to riding the economic waves and taking the blows thrown by the extreme ebb and flow of Florida’s tumultuous real estate market.

The recession hits – twice

Faulkner attributes his faith, prayer and perseverance for pulling him through each time. The first blow came in 1991 when Florida suffered one of its most severe recessions ever, creating a severe slump in new home construction. It took four of his top clients, all high-end custom builders, into bankruptcy. With little work and a pile of debt, Faulkner considered bankruptcy for himself. “It was a struggle for survival,” recalls Faulkner. “But, two years later I was debt free when I converted my landscaping company into a more diversified business with a plant nursery and a landscape architectural division.”

Faulkner took a second hit in 2007 when 70 percent of his business washed away with the virtual halt of new home construction in Florida. Prior to this recession, 90 percent of Cornerstone’s business was cruising along with landscape installations of new $300,000 tract homes, installing landscapes on 3,000 to 4,000 new homes per year.

Back in business

Five years later, Cornerstone has finally turned the corner. It returned to a $25 million company offering 19 services and employing 320 people. It forged long-term working relationships with 18 of central Florida’s top 25 builders and has now landscaped more than 20,000 new homes and countless commercial projects. Its commercial-to-residential mix stands at a healthy 50-50 split. Previously focused on the Tampa Bay area’s seven counties, it now maintains offices in Orlando, Jacksonville and Sarasota, in addition to its Dade City headquarters.

How did Cornerstone turn the corner? Even though Florida’s housing market is in recovery, Cornerstone has worked hard to build recurring revenues primarily from maintenance work. “We now maintain the common grounds on hundreds of subdivisions that we have designed and installed over the years,” explains Faulkner. “The subdivisions we have landscaped over the years welcomed us back to maintain them. We were slow to enter into this reoccurring revenue market, but now we are glad we did it.”

A humble business beginning

“I spend a lot of time working on our company culture.”
-John Faulkner

Cornerstone had its humble beginnings as a tree cutting service when Faulkner left the marines in 1984, where he served as a jet engine mechanic. Moving back to his hometown with his wife Julie, he began working at his father’s furniture store.

“My landlord told me I could have three months of free rent if I could cut down and dispose of a fallen eucalyptus tree in the yard,” he recalls. Faulkner bought a chain saw and went to work. He enjoyed cutting down the tree so much that a week later he ran an ad in his local paper that read, “Expert Tree Removal Service.” The ad brought in calls – lots of calls – and he started felling trees.

“At that point I didn’t even know the species of the trees I was cutting down,” says Faulkner. Then, a large national builder told him that he could make more money planting trees than cutting them down. So, he quickly learned how to plant and identify trees when that same builder gave him a $50,000 job to plant trees in the builder’s new subdivisions.

Cornerstone Solutions Group, Inc.

President/Chief Visionary: John Faulkner
Headquarters: Dade City, Fla.
Founded: 1984 as a one-person tree felling operation
Locations: Tampa, Sarasota/Bradenton, West Palm Beach, Orlando and Jacksonville
Services: Design center, construction services, landscaping, irrigation, total maintenance, environmental services, nursery, preparedness and cleanup
Employees: More than 300 full time

In subsequent years, Faulkner built the environmental side of his business by acquiring the Florida operations of Dallas-based Paradigm Engineering, a stormwater management firm that had been one of his largest competitors. Cornerstone also builds retention ponds filled with native wetland plants for commercial clients. The ponds clean stormwater runoff before it ends up in the watershed. In addition, Cornerstone operates a 107-acre nursery, where Faulkner resides with his family. The acreage includes a functioning wetland, serving as a harvesting area, and a ranch for raising Western performance horses.

In 2007, the company added a commercial construction/hardscapes division for building office/retail complexes and other structures including clubhouses, recreation shelters, cabanas, community pools, entry monuments and fountains.

Company morals and values

“I spend a lot of time working on our company culture,” says Faulkner. He hires what he considers to be the “right person,” even if a new position has to be created. “We do a lot of what I call character hires,” he explains. Faulkner conducts “people mapping,” a process that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of employees. “Understanding the uniqueness of an individual is key to helping them be successful,” he explains.

When you walk into the lobby of Cornerstone’s corporate office, you won’t see the walls lined with professional awards, certificates or accomplishments; what you will see are collages of family pictures of the staff, charity event pictures and letters from members of the community that the company has touched. It organizes quarterly “Family Fellowship Nights” featuring an abundance of food, music and fellowship, and also maintains a “Victory Page” on the website, where staff accomplishments such as adding new clients, upselling current clients and winning landscaping awards are featured.

John Faulkner has seen the landscaping market change rapidly. “Customers are shopping so much harder,” he explains. “They are scrutinizing all their services now

“We value each family that is represented by the larger Cornerstone family, and their support plays a large role in the success of the company,” says Faulkner. “If you have people watching the clock at work to start their life after they go home, then I know we are in trouble. You have to make sure everyone enjoys their life at work. It’s not just about how much you pay your people; it’s getting them to enjoy their work.”

Faulkner is a man of deep faith who brings his spiritual values into the workplace. He is a leader with the Tampa Bay chapter of The C12 Group, a national consultancy for Christian business owners that merges business principles with biblical precepts while placing special emphasis on peer-to-peer accountability and counsel. He writes articles for a Christian magazine and conducts public speaking engagements on Christian values for other businesses.

“It’s not just placing a fish symbol on your business cards and saying you are religious,” says Faulkner. “It’s about treating people right and providing good values. It’s a gift from God to be a good steward at your company.”

The ever-changing industry

Over the years, Faulkner has seen the landscaping market change rapidly. “Customers are shopping so much harder,” he explains. “They are scrutinizing all their services now. Managing growth and cash flow can be difficult in times like these. Understanding your client’s financial position is extremely important to the success of any firm.”

Faulkner realizes that he has to be careful when dealing with new customers. “If customers have been in the market for a long time and are changing vendors all of a sudden, that’s a real red flag,” he says. The company never had dedicated sales reps until four years ago, and it started using a company that assists with branding and social media to gain new customers.

“Our short-term goal is to strengthen our recurring revenue base,” says Faulkner. “We want to be profitable every year.” Faulkner delivers good news during the recession about being in the green industry: “The grass is always going to grow, and it never knows when the economy is bad.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.