Ethical business practices help Designs by Sundown stand out

The formal parterre garden at this Cherry Hills estate requires detailed weekly maintenance and includes an assortment of scented plantings mixed with annual color.

When Designs by Sundown, a landscaping company in Englewood, Colo., recently won the Grand Award from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado’s Excellence in Landscaping for a maintenance project, it was another accolade for a company that has distinguished itself in the industry in so many ways.

Company President Michael Hommel says his company has won more awards than any other landscape firm in Colorado in the past 26 years since he started the business, which he attributes in part to the company’s creative designs, quality workmanship, service and ethics. Additionally, the company’s success is due in no small part to its ethical practices, Hommel says. The company has been honored with more than 50 awards for its ethical business practices and landscaping excellence. “It’s one thing to win awards for the workmanship you do,” he says, “but it’s another to win it because of your ethics – the way you run your business and treat your clients.”

In this design, eight formal urns adorn the pool, mixing pink begonias with Canna lilies for the perfect poolside setting.

The company’s “highly-skilled and educated workforce,” is another way in which it differentiates itself, Hommel says. Most foreman have a college degree – many in horticulture – or are arborists. Hommel hires people who share his passion for the green industry. “They don’t necessarily come to work for the money – they come to work because they value working for a company with a great reputation that values the quality of work they put in the ground and the kind of service they offer to clients,” he says.

Image is critical to Hommel, so employees are required to wear white uniforms and drive clean trucks. “Customer service is perception,” Hommel points out. “When you show up well-groomed, look professional and the uniform and truck is clean, the consumer’s perception is this is a first-class operation and they’re going to get first-class service and first-class treatment.”

Designs by Sundown has 100 employees, and Hommel says one of his biggest challenges is finding quality laborers to help grow his company. “We look for a particular skill set, attitude, social and philosophical preference to do the right thing,” he says. “We continually educate our people by sending them to seminars and referring books to them that I or upper management has read. The books address how to become a better salesperson, a better manager or how to be a better person in life. It doesn’t have to be a business book – just anything that will increase the value of their life and help them keep balanced.”

Hommel also supports his employees through equipment choices that will increase their safety while allowing them to be efficient and execute their work to a high standard. The company runs Toro Dingos, cranes and backhoes, among other types of equipment.

Designs by Sundown primarily services the residential sector, with maintenance assuming an increasingly larger role in the company’s services.

The work for which the company won the Grand Award is for a long-term Cherry Hills estate client where the company provides weekly maintenance service, plus snow removal as needed and holiday lighting. The maintenance foreman does a weekly walkthrough with the homeowner, who provides a list for the maintenance crew. The company developed an intensive plant health care program for the property and the foreman created a formula applied weekly to the annual beds to intensify color and provide uniform growth. The company also renovated and improved the irrigation system and installed a water management clock and changed out nozzles to conserve water use. Hommel says the project is not significantly different from how his company services other clients. “Most of our projects on the large estates look like that, but this was big enough in size to really see the scope and magnitude of the work that we do and how complicated it could be to keep a project on an estate of that size looking that good: from the flowers to the shrubs to the trees to the condition of the turf to the mowing to the irrigation,” he says.

Hommel is targeting more homeowners’ associations as clients, and he predicts that within four years the company’s maintenance services will take an equal share with construction services. Maintenance trends in the company’s service area focus on environmental sustainability, water management and use of more organic fertilizers. “We’re trying to spearhead that to get more towards organics and away from chemicals,” Hommel says. His company also recycles its grass clippings and debris from property clean-ups.

There are 23 tree rings along the curved driveway leading to the rear entrance of this estate. Wax leaf begonias in two shades of pink were selected since the plant choice needed to be something that would withstand both shade and afternoon sun.

Construction trends center on more outdoor living environments. “People have decided because of the economy that they are not going to take as many vacations and they want to enjoy their home,” he says. “They want to enhance the value of their home through landscaping it and making it look nicer.” Outdoor living spaces may encompass brick pizza ovens, warming drawers, under-counter refrigerators, sinks, stone countertops, wet bars and grills. Designs may also include flowing water to provide a soothing and peaceful addition to the garden, and fire elements to provide a gathering place for warmth. The company also has designed outdoor entertainment centers that include televisions and audio/intercom systems. Landscape lighting and decorative pottery housing colorful flowers and plants help complete the design.

Hommel serves on Rain Bird’s advisory board and is one of the company’s select contractors. “Water is a precious commodity,” Hommel says, adding that it is one of his company’s biggest challenges. To address that, landscape companies such as Designs by Sundown help clients to use only the water needed, and use more water-wise landscaping with indigenous plants that can survive naturally after they are established for a few years. “We stress to our clients rather firmly that they do water audits during the spring, summer and fall,” he says. “Every four to six weeks, we can go back and monitor their sprinkler system and adjust the timing and the spray of the heads. We run through the whole system to ensure that the water being used is being used wisely – that there’s no overuse of water.”

The company utilizes ET controllers that read the evapotranspiration rate and will enable only that much water that is needed for the landscape. Clients are on board with the idea more often than not, Hommel says. It’s when property owners start seeing escalating water bills that the practice of water conservation starts making more sense. “Municipalities have been increasing water rates every year and it’s only going to get worse because the water supply is only going to get worse,” Hommel points out, adding that a population increase coupled with an inadequate water conveyance infrastructure will result in a significant limitation of water use.

In addition to water audits, Designs by Sundown also works to do turf preparation that gives beds, plants, trees and flowers “a good base of organic material to survive in,” says Hommel. “That helps eliminate the amount of water and fertilizers you have to use.”

Smart designs are the foundation of the company’s environmental practices. “We take into account the northern exposure of the home. In Colorado, you can create an evergreen boundary on the north side to help protect the home from the cold winter winds,” Hommel says. “In the summertime, shade trees on the south and west exposure will shade the house from the harsh summer sun, but then drop their leaves in the winter to allow the sun to filtrate on the home to warm it up.” If a yard has a significant slope, company workers will slightly terrace it to retain the water and or limit the turf area on the property so water doesn’t run off.

Designs by Sundown not only creates environmentally-friendly landscapes for its clients, but engages in business practices that help reduce its own carbon footprint, such as having salespeople and managers use fuel-efficient vehicles as they check jobs around town.

Hommel is committed to giving back to the community that supports his business and his company. “That’s the culture I’ve developed since I started this company and the people I hire feel that way,” he says. “We want to give back. We feel very blessed and grateful to the community for building our company to what it is – supporting us, trusting us and letting us do their work – but we feel it’s necessary every year to give back in some way to charitable causes.”

Hommel believes the recession has been a “great cleansing and detox of America from a personal standpoint and a business standpoint. It’s going to be survival of the fittest. It’s going to be awhile before this economy gets strong and robust like it was in the 1990s and 2000s.” That will create an industry that is more streamlined, he says. “I think a lot of the weaker companies are going to fall and the stronger ones are going to survive and be more prosperous and successful,” he says. “But, I think it’s going to be three or four years for that weeding out to take place.” As for landscaping new construction, Hommel doesn’t see that happening for a long time. “That’s a market correction that’s going to take awhile for it to resolve itself,” he notes.

As concerns continue about the economy and as environmental rules and regulations continue to change, Hommel says his company’s task will be “to stay focused on who we are and what we do best, and that’s providing for that high-end consumer who values quality and customer service over price. For most of our clients, price is the third or fourth priority down the line,” he adds. “They first want to know what kind of quality are they going to get and will they get the service they’re requesting. They want to know if we’re going to be ethical and are we going to be there when we say we’re going to be there. And, are they going to get a fair price?”

Down the road, Hommel sees his company growing at a rate of 10 percent a year with “a very prosperous future with the young workforce we have on board that has been excelling in the last four years. I think the future looks very bright for Designs by Sundown.”

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.