Maryland landscape pro takes residential property management diversification to the ultimate level

Natural Elements

Owner: Gene Wright
Headquarters: Waldorf, Md.
Founded: 1989
Market: Southern Maryland
Services: Lawn care, tree and shrub care, mowing/maintenance, mulching, seeding, light tree removal, light waste removal, snow removal, pond and water features maintenance, septic system maintenance, hardscape, landscape design and garden construction, and crawl space and basement moisture control, installation, waterproofing, and decay fungi treatment.
Employees: 12

The three most important things in real estate (as if we needed reminding) are location, location, location. In property management, the three most important things will increasingly become diversification, diversification, diversification, claims Gene Wright, CEO of Natural Elements, Waldorf, Md.

“The future service provider will help a homeowner through a variety of issues,” says Wright. For Wright and his employees, the future is now. He says that other landscape service providers, whether they realize it now or not, will be catching up to what his company is already doing.

“If all you do is lawn care, there may be a time that that work goes away. If all you do is pest control it may be tough to sustain just doing that,” he says.

When Wright started Natural Elements in 1989, he focused on providing “environmental” pest control and moisture control services. Until recently, most property owners didn’t realize the role of moisture control in mitigating mold and decay fungi damage.

Natural Elements focuses on the residential market, and divides its primary residential clients into three broad categories:

  • Married couples that own single-family houses. His best customers, most of them are very busy and often both partners are working.
  • “In this market a lot of people are on the job 40 hours and commuting 20 hours each week,” he says. “They don’t want to do hours of yard work on the weekends. They want to relax, barbeque and have their paradise waiting.”
  • Single female professionals who commute to work and also own single-family houses. “They’re valuable customers because they love their homes and they love their properties, but living by themselves, being busy and, I don’t mean anything sexist by this remark, being female, they’re not going to cut down a tree on their property.”
  • Retired people comprise the third large group of residential clients for Natural Elements.

Gene Wright, owner and CEO of Natural Elements, instituted a multi-level training program.

Diversify to get ahead

“Over the years we found that a lot of homeowners needed help with pretty much anything that happens outside of the house, including lawn care and landscaping,” he says. “We would be on a job site and there would be other service providers showing up. We asked ourselves how feasible it is to grow into some of these other areas as far as providing services for homeowners. So that’s what we did.”

Spot-treating broadleaf weeds on a residential property.

The company divides its services into two primary categories: home health and landscape beauty.

For home health, Natural Elements provides tree, shrub and lawn healthcare, as well as services for septic systems, crawl spaces and basements. Its landscape beauty offerings include yard maintenance, winter property care, water features (koi fish pond and waterscapes maintenance), hardscape, landscape and ornamental gardens.

Wright considers Natural Elements’ lawn services as the gateway to the company’s other services.

“In the spring we have a very aggressive marketing campaign. We know the least amount of money that we can charge to provide lawn care and still be profitable. Our marketing piece advertises our lawn fertilization programs starting at that price; our phone goes crazy,” says Wright.

“We schedule appointments, and our salespeople have a toolbox full of products to sell. Lawn care is the door opener for everything we do,” says Wright.

Wright realizes that offering such a wide and varied range of services is unique for a landscape company and not easy to accomplish, the reason why few competitors attempt it.

“Intellectually, this is a good idea, but the business execution is what’s critical. You can step on the gas pedal and go too fast, or not step on it at all,” he says.

In the end, he adds, it’s not only the particular service provided that’s important to a customer, but the level of service customers are receiving.

Customer care

“The economy is difficult. Homeowners prefer if a service provider can offer a high enough quality finished product,” says Wright. “The service experience is part of that. When our pest control people treat somebody’s home they always wear foot covers. They always wear a clean uniform. They don’t look like you’ve been digging in the dirt and show up hot, sweaty and smelly.”

When employees are on clients’ properties they keep their eyes open for property service opportunities for Natural Elements. Are the home’s downspouts draining to the house’s foundation? Are ants invading the house? Are the homeowner’s planting beds in disarray? Are the shrubs on the property overgrown? Any of these issues could be a new sale for the company.

All company employees are encouraged to upsell on their service calls. If they’re successful, they call into the office and get the additional service scheduled. And, every additional service they sell means money in their pockets.

“The services are symbiotic and over time they start feeding each other. The idea is to create what we call the annuitized customer. The core focus of the company is how do we create 5,000 customers who buy $600 to $1,000 of service from us every single year,” says Wright.

The strategy has been successful, says Wright.

Make it simple

“One time the customer will do a leaf removal or something simple and then all of a sudden, we advise them for their pest problems,” Wright says. “We make it very simple for them to solve their problems. We have landscape clients who, all of a sudden, sign up for our lawn fertilization program. Then they realize that we also do pest control. It’s very easy for them to solve these problems with just one vendor, us.”

There are risks, of course. Big risks in this business model, admits Wright. The biggest is keeping the company’s technicians trained and motivated.

“If a company has a poorly-trained staff and the customer has a bad experience, you don’t just lose one customer, you lose a customer that’s taking many of your services. You lose a pest control client; you lose a landscape customer,” Wright points out.

While each of the company’s 12 employees specializes in one particular service category or another, all undergo cross-training in all of its service categories. Part of that involves learning what to do or say, and what not to do or say in categories where they’re not specialized.

Natural Elements’ employees undergo three levels of training, starting with a thorough indoctrination to the company’s culture. Wright describes it as the Mercedes-Benz experience. It starts by indoctrinating each employee into the company’s “culture of excellence.” The instruction then focuses on job and safety training. Wright says his company is fortunate to have key people who are “industry experts” in more than one category

“If our lawn guys leave fertilizer granules on their sidewalk or if they get a tree installation from us and the tree is leaning a little bit we expect our customers to call,” says Wright. He wants clients to understand that his company will address their concerns immediately.

“Ultimately, we want our client, at their next barbeque with family or friends, to rave about how wonderful our organization is. Everyone knows that perfection is fantasy. We want our clients to realize that we strive very hard to maintain a corporate culture of excellence even if not everything is perfect,” says Wright. Natural Elements’ culture of excellence must exhibit itself regardless of conditions or unforeseen occurrences, he stresses.

“The difference is when you’re out there doing your tenth lawn service of the day, you’re bone-tired, it’s 12,000 square feet of lawn and you’re running out of product – fertilizer or whatever you’re doing – and you may have only 5,000 square feet left, do you give up and walk away, knowing full well if you just get up and walk away, nobody but you and God are going to know that you didn’t do the whole deal? Or do you go to the little extra effort to finish it the right way? It’s tough to find that type of employee, but that’s what we try to do. We try to indoctrinate everyone into the corporate culture,” says Wright.

Seeking good workers

As for retaining the good employees, Wright notes that since “people vote with their feet”, he pays competitive wages. The company has seasonal turnover but retains its key people, he says.

Wright is constantly seeking employees that can perform at the level of his company’s expectations. To that end, he pays what he terms a “very attractive” compensation package as well as endeavoring to create a work environment based on mutual respect. “We always have our ear to the ground for people,” says Wright.

“If somebody loves what they do and they feel like they’re part of a friendly team, they don’t need to make $100,000,” he says. “There are people making $100,000 who hate what they do. When people are offered jobs by larger corporations and they say ‘no thank you,’ the reason they do that is they enjoy where they are.”

Marketing and trends

Shane Stump examines shrubs on a residential property in Maryland. All company employees are encouraged to upsell on their service calls.

The three-pronged marketing approach includes marketing to the general public through direct mail, newspaper print advertising and inserts, and a breakdown of the company’s database into active customers and those who have contacted the company at one point in the past.

“We have a very specific program to each of those different groups,” Wright notes.

One of the trends Wright is noticing his area is a need for groundwater management on properties.

Noting that his region is “pretty much all swamp,” Wright observes that in the new housing developments that are being constructed, “the net result is these contractors come in, log an area, excavate the raw material such as timber and top soil out of it, backfill with some type of aggregate and construct on it.

“Most of the time with the finished product, they’ll have the sump pumps coming out right against the foundation,” he says. “There are a lot of negative grade that grades back towards the house and the downspout is not finished; they put a little splash box under it. The net result is you have this excavated area that is very difficult to passively move water with gravity and so the homeowner has all of this groundwater around their house.

“When you have 1 inch of rain but a 2,000 square feet of surface area, you can get about 1,200 gallons of runoff. That water is just pouring down alongside your foundation and if you have a crawl space and basement, you’re dealing with these hydrostatic pressure issues and a whole host of things,” Wright says.

“If you let those conditions persist for five years, 10 years, then you get into structural problems. For us, the trends that fit our radar screen is water management, moisture control, and decay fungi in crawl space is huge. We’re pretty efficient at learning how to identify it and solve it.”

Carol Brzozowski, Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and a frequent contributor to Turf magazine. Contact her at