PHOTOS COURTESY OF MIKE TOD_. New Jersey company strives to be not just good, but great

Mike Todé attributes the success of his business to being available to clients at all times and not settling merely for being good, but “great” – in essence, exceeding client expectations.

Tod_, The Artistry of Landscape provides design/build services to high-end residential clients, such as this 25-by-4-foot natural pond that features a bog, two streams and a 3-foot waterfall.

Todé, The Artistry of Landscape, is located in Midland Park, N.J., 15 miles west of New York City. The company predominantly services the New York/New Jersey region in Bergen, southern Passaic, Essex, Orange and Rockland counties. The company’s service market is 80 percent residential, 15 percent commercial and 5 percent public work, such as downtown streetscapes.

Residential work focuses on high-end residences. It’s not unusual for a design/build project to bring in $50,000 to $150,000-plus, Todé says. The company has been pursuing the high-end market for a few years.

High-end service for high-end clients

“We’ve been working on it pretty hard to make us more the exclusive company over our competitors,” he notes. “We have team meetings every week to talk about what we need to do. Our philosophy is to do everything great, not just good – even if the client says it looks perfect.”

Another factor that sets his company apart is finding a way to get a client request done, even if the lead time is small. “We’ll find a way to get it done,” Todé says. “If we have any warranty work, we try to follow up on it right away. This way it’s completed and fixed to the client’s satisfaction and there’s not a bad taste in the client’s mouth.”

Todé started his company 14 years ago. He was inspired by his father, who is in the site work business for roads and utility construction. “I’ve been around it my whole life, and I was interested in landscape-design/build from an early age,” Todé says. “I started out doing a few things here and there, and then I got to the point where I said I was going to take a chance and start the company and see how it would go.”

Todé, The Artistry of Landscape

Mission: “Our philosophy is to do everything great, not just good – even if the client says it looks perfect.”
President and CEO: Mike Todé
Headquarters: Midland Park, N.J.
Market: New York/New Jersey region in Bergen, southern Passaic, Essex, Orange and Rockland counties
Services: Design/build, maintenance services and contracting work
Employees: 15

Providing umbrella services

Todé, The Artistry of Landscape provides design/build, maintenance services and contracting work.

Design services include professional landscape plans, pool and spa design, custom ponds and waterfalls, arbors and pergolas, specialty gardens, rooftop gardens, garden pots and furniture, play areas, front entries, landscape restoration, house orientation and siting, grading and drainage, and event and holiday planning setup and breakdown.

Maintenance services include lawn maintenance, shrub and ornamental tree care, turf rehabilitation, garden enhancement and restoration, fertilization, insect and disease control, mulch and bed care.

Contracting services include custom stonework and masonry, specialty pool and spa details, large specimen trees, custom plantings, ponds and water features, landscape lighting, hydroseeding, putting greens, excavation and site work, paver driveways, and grading and drainage.

Contracting services include specialty pool and spa details, like this paver pool deck with natural boulders, plantings and a Fastigiata Hornbeam hedge for screening.

Employees reflect high industry standards

To promote its commitment to high industry standards, the company has employees who are certified landscape technicians, and it holds membership in the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association. Todé is a member of the board of directors.

Todé: The Artistry of Landscape has 15 employees. While he looks for someone with experience, Todé also looks for someone who not only wants work, but is genuinely interested in the job.

“Secondly, they have to be willing to work hard everyday,” he adds. “Come to work everyday, be on time and to learn to grow, not just come and go through the motions.” That describes most of the employees who’ve been with him for the long term, Todé notes.

Design with maintenance in mind

Design/build is the main focus of Todé’s business. “A lot of times we will design a project and we won’t be maintaining it,” he says. But his company endeavors to design it so those who do can do so in an efficient manner.

“Most of our lines are free-flowing,” he explains. “There are no real hard lines, so this way the lawn mowers can continuously cut and not stop.”

In areas where turf had previously been unable to grow, Todé offers his clients choices. “We’ll advise them to either remove the large shade tree, prune extensively or get rid of the grass,” he says. “We’ll look at all aspects. Our philosophy is right plant, right place. If you consider grass as a plant and it’s thinning out and not growing well, remove the grass and make it a shade garden and install plant material that will grow in that area, depending on exposure, light conditions and water. We work with nature and not against it.”

Todé notes that the company does try to get maintenance contracts for the larger projects it installs.

Client requests generate new business lines

The company is known for its stonework, Todé says. “We do a lot of natural stones, including walls, outdoor kitchens, patios, walkways and some ponds,” he says. “In our choice of plant material, we use a lot of perennials and grasses in our designs so there is constant color, texture and change in the landscape throughout, so it’s not just the basic rhododendron and azalea landscape.”

Todé tries to differentiate his company from others by not following the norm, but endeavoring to improve by listening to client input.

“A lot of our business is generated out of that by getting a new client and expanding upon the scope of work,” he says.

Case in point: the company’s party and holiday set-up and breakdown service grew from a client request. “Twelve years ago, we did work at a house and we were just finishing on a Thursday or Friday and the party was Saturday,” he says. “The question to me was that they were going to have 50 kids over for a big party and they had new sod that they didn’t want to get trampled and wanted to know what to do.”

Todé suggested his company could help set up the party on the driveway, bringing in plant material and setting up a tropical-themed garden around the perimeter, making it appear as if everything was actually planted in the ground.

“We set it up late Friday. They had their party Saturday, and we came back Monday and broke it down and they said it went great,” Todé says. Since then, his company has provided that service for numerous clients over the years.

Maintenance sector: growing it, but growing it “right”

Todé: The Artistry of Landscape does a standard maintenance program for the majority of its clients.

“One of the philosophies we got into a long time ago is integrated pest management and moved away from the kill-all, spray-all mentality,” he says. “For weed control, we just spray the weeds. We don’t spray the entire lawn. We use the minimal amount of pesticides and herbicides needed, but also we’re looking for desired results.”

The company adds a balance of color and texture on this property with the Japanese Maple, Colorado Blue Spruce, Catmint, Salvia and Hamelmn Pennisetumn grass.

This year, Todé: The Artistry of Landscape began using an organic-based product and is trying it out on six properties. “To see if we can get the same results we’ve gotten in the past before we make a complete change,” Todé notes.

He’s now looking to grow the maintenance end of his business.

“A few years back, we stepped back and looked at all of our maintenance accounts and decided that a lot of them weren’t where we wanted to be, so we scaled back our maintenance operations to the point where we were more comfortable,” he says.

“Now we are looking to grow it, but grow it properly,” he adds. “We want to pick and choose our clients and look for either larger properties or get more into golf course maintenance – not cutting grass so much as taking care of the beds, the pruning, the mulch and the flowers.”

Overcoming challenges

Todé is addressing two challenges in his business. “One is spending time to educate our potential clients and have them understand what the difference is between us and somebody else, and how we’re building things that are not going to be the everyday,” he says. “With that, there’s a little bit more cost involved, but you’re getting an overall much better product and that’s in every aspect from our construction crews to our enhancement to our maintenance,” he adds. “It’s not just the crews running through their daily routine and they’re done, but little details or upgrades at the end that are completed.”

That approach, while taking more time, is much better, Todé says. After a tough two years of trying to promote that approach, Todé is noting that people are paying more attention to his message.

The second challenge is getting paid in a timely fashion. Some of his clients have waited up to 90 days to pay an invoice.

Diversification key to success

Looking to the future, Todé plans to grow the business about 25 percent. “We fill a need for some of our existing clients and we’re trying to build upon that,” he says. “We want to do more on the maintenance end. We run two crews now, and I want to get that built up to the point where we run three or four full time, but also doing enhancements, not just cut the grass.”

Todé also is looking to separate out his company’s design/build services into specialty work and stonework so he can have a couple of crews concentrate on the stonework and offer that niche service.

As for the industry itself, Todé sees a “weeding out” of companies occurring. “It’s amazing with residential maintenance, a lot of companies are keeping their rates really low and not really delivering on what’s supposed to be done,” he says. “I see more people getting into it, but I see people getting out of it. They’re finding out that running a business is a lot more than doing the work and not following up on things. The cream of the crop will always rise.”

Todé says larger, diversified companies will always do well.

“The smaller ones, the two-man operations, will always be around,” he says. “But the five-man operation might not be there so much because the competition will gobble them up. They might have too much overhead and too much in the way to keep them going unless they really decide what direction they’re going to be going into.”

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.