Southern Botanical emphasizes service, hard work and quality

Southern Botanical’s owner Jason Craven’s goal is to build a company that offers the same level of customer service and attention to details in the landscape industry as the finest five-star hotels provide in the hospitality business.

When Southern Botanical of Dallas, Texas, sought to define its corporate culture, the company took its cues from five-star hotels.

Southern Botanical

Owner: Jason Craven
Founded: 1995
Headquarters: Dallas, Texas
Markets: Dallas/Fort Worth region
Services: Landscaping, garden management,interior plants, floral d_cor,irrigation and drainage, pool andfountain maintenance, hardscapeinstallation, fountains and pools, deckingand fences, outdoor living spacesand kitchens and retaining walls
Employees: 185 total (101 maintenance)

“We wanted to separate ourselves by providing a high level of detail and customer service,” says Jason New, vice president for garden management. “What we find in our industry is that the customer service aspect is lacking and we as a company decided to improve that as a strategy. We started learning from hotels that get five stars for their customer service – the St. Regis, the Four Seasons and other resorts.”

To do that, Jason Craven, who began building his landscape company in high school before founding Southern Botanical in 1995, has been diligently building a strong supportive management team. It includes:

  • COO Jim Cali is responsible for operations, business development, finances and marketing. Before joining Southern Botanical he was vice president of sales & marketing for North America at The Regus Group. Before that, Cali led the International Sales & Marketing for FedEx Kinko’s. He earned an MBA from the Cox School of Business at Southern Methodist University and is also a graduate of the University of New Orleans.
  • Vice President Garden Management Jason New who is responsible for contracted lawn maintenance, agronomic and garden enhancement services at Southern Botanical. New joined the team in 2007 after working for The Brickman Group as an account manager. Before that he was an intern for ValleyCrest Landscape Companies.
  • Alan Richmond, vice president irrigation & drainage, is responsible for the company’s irrigation and drainage business. He joined Southern Botanical after leading the Business Development efforts for Hydromulch Services. Before that he was a quality assurance manager in the 767 and 747 groups for Boeing in Seattle, Wash. Richmond holds a Bachelor of Business Administration from City University, in Seattle.
  • Andrew Lenz, director of the company’s interior plants and floral décor division, is a former director of operations for Texas-based Plant Interscapes and operations manager for Ozarka water, as well as a former professional rugby player.

In 2006, Southern Botanical instituted a college recruitment program to seek team leaders. Its international recruiting initiative brings the best from Mexican universities for high-quality, legal crews.

The foundational values of the company’s operation are open communication with clients, knowledgeable and uniformed employees, on-time arrivals for jobs, meticulous attention to detail and well-maintained equipment, says New.

If a company is to set itself apart by a high level of customer service, quality control is critical. Every employee of Southern Botanical is trained 52 weeks a year in horticultural education, customer service and safety. Additionally, account managers visit client sites weekly to ensure the company is delivering what is needed.

When hiring employees, “the first aspect we look for is a positive attitude,” New points out. “We also look at their communication skills.”

The Dallas/Ft. Worth metropolitan region is loaded with large and excellent landscape companies. Southern Botanical’s management is embarking on a 10-year project to grow the company to $40 million annually, and to be counted as one of the biggest, as well as one of the best, landscape companies in Texas.

Potential employees go through three separate interviews with a salesperson, crew leader and middle manager to assess their attitude about landscaping, their level of excitement about the industry and their ability to communicate.

Employees are rewarded for improvement. They are promoted based on their work habits and their willingness to acquire new skills. They advance from Gardener 1 to Gardener 2 to assistant crew leader, crew leader and senior crew leader. Managers’ improvement is assessed through their acquisition of industry certifications.

“We look at how they self-improve by industry standards,” New says. “Working through the team, we can see how well they’re working within the team to get results.”

New oversees 20 of three to six-employee maintenance crews. The crews work year round. They visit commercial properties a minimum of 44 times annually. The company’s two irrigation technicians make monthly visits to clients’ properties.

Agronomy technicians visit properties to treat for weeds or fertilize according to the results of soil tests. An enhancement team responds to clients’ requests for services such as seasonal color or the planting of trees and shrubs. Two employees handle enhancement work.

Water watch

Texas is prone to periodic droughts and some are severe. Water issues and water costs are always a consideration for property owners in the north Texas market serviced by Southern Botanical.

“We have areas that go into water restrictions during the summer. Our clients are very conscious of how much water we are going to need to do something,” says New. Consequently, the company promotes the use of native and regionally adapted, drought-tolerant landscape plants as well smart irrigation technology. New estimates the company can show many clients how to maintain attractive landscapes while using half or less of the irrigation water they previously used.

“People are asking for less seasonal color and more perennials,” New says. “They are thinking about water and water restrictions.”

Also, commercial clients are moving away from ryegrass for the same reason. “They realize it’s an expense. It costs more to water and it competes with the summer grass, whereas on the residential side, that’s the only time they see their turf, so they actually want green grass during the winter.

“We tell our clients if they want the turf to look its best when they’re living here, we need to do annual ryegrass and that’s going to cost more to water and more to overseed it; that they need a heavier turf program to get the summer grass to live through it. Our residential clients love it, so we do more ryegrass on the residential side than we do on the commercial side.”

Mid-summer slowdown

Idle time at Southern Botanical is in July and August.

“In Texas, it’s at least 100 degrees,” says New. “Our clients don’t want to come outside. Our guys are baking by 3 p.m. because they’ve been in the heat all day. For those two months, there are not many people that want any enhancements from us.”

Grass and shrubs stop growing and it’s too warm to apply fertilizer. The focus is on water management.

However, the company does retain its employees during the off-season. “We like the consistency of having people here and having our guys know they have a full-time job, even down to our field, to the newest person working,” says New. “If he’s hired to work here, we’re going to keep him employed 12 months out of 12 months. We’re going to pay somebody at least 35 to 40 hours a week during our slowest times of the year.”

During those months, employees look for ways to help combat the effects of heat on a landscape, such as hand-watering container plants and pulling weeds by hand instead of using weed treatments. Mulch is applied to help protect flowerbeds to help keep water moisture in where the plants need them.

Southern Botanical also offers a severe weather service for emergencies that result from high winds or the random snowstorm that shuts everything down. The driving factor for that came two years ago on a Super Bowl Sunday when the region got slammed with snow as people were getting ready to host large parties.

“I was out there personally with our crews because there were so many calls about this,” says New. “We were out there putting down ice melts and shoveling snow on sidewalks to make sure there were clear walkways so people could walk up to the resident’s house or in a commercial setting, they could drive through without slipping on some ice.”

The firm’s maintenance crews number three to six employees (depending upon property size and services provided) and visit commercial properties a minimum of 44 times a year.

Recruiting challenge

The company’s biggest challenge is recruiting talented people. “Our business is growing and we’ve taken on new clients,” he says, which requires hiring more employees.

To facilitate that, Southern Botanical management has created a work culture to make it unattractive to work anywhere else, New says. “It’s a culture where you love the people you work with, we have a lot of fun,” he says. “We have a benefits program that is better than any of the national landscape companies out there.”

Upper management speaks on a weekly basis to the employees about their career paths. “If they’re interested in doing something else, we want them to talk out loud about what they want to do and we’re going to help them get there,” says New. “They know they can stay here in a small company as we grow and have the opportunity to do something more later on.”

Having quality products and equipment is just as important as having top-notch employees. Managers put potential vendors through an interview process that includes comparing service, price and product quality.

“We did a rating system for each of them,” says New. “We picked the top two vendors that we use for each product: seasonal color and then for shrubs, trees and plants.”

The company uses an elimination process of vendors with poor response time or poor customer service in deciding they wouldn’t fit the company culture or clientele demands.

“Product quality is a big issue for us,” New notes. “Some vendors we’ve used for 10 years.” The same holds true for equipment and truck choices.

Awards galore

Southern Botanical’s aim for excellence has paid off not only in healthy revenues, but in awards as well.

In 2012, Craven was awarded the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association (TNLA) Young Leader award. He currently serves on the association’s board of directors.

Other company honors include D Magazine’s “Best of Big D” Reader’s Choice Awards in 2012, the Plantscape Industry Alliance Award of Excellence in 2011, and the SMU Cox School of Business Dallas 100 List in 2009/2010.

Southern Botanical has also won Texas Excellence in Landscaping Awards for many years: Gold, Silver and Bronze (2012); Grand Platinum, Gold, Silver and Bronze (2011); Gold and Silver (2010); and Grand Platinum and Gold (2009).

Southern Botanical was awarded two Judges Awards during the presentation of the 2012 PLANET Environmental Improvement Awards. The firm earned one each for its commercial and residential work.

The company was awarded two Judges Awards at PLANET’S 2012 Environmental Improvement Awards for its work on a corporate courtyard in the commercial contracting category and one in the residential management category. It also was honored with merit awards in the commercial installation/special events, commercial landscape management and residential installation/residential contracting categories, as well as a Recognition Award in the residential installation/residential contracting category.

Southern Botanical is heavily involved in community work. “We are excited to be the 2013 Horticulture Sponsor of the Dallas Arboretum and the Corporate Sponsor for all color and maintenance in beautiful Klyde Warren Park,” says New. “Southern Botanical also has joined the Leadership Circle of the George W. Bush Presidential Center Foundation and is the Evergreen Sponsor for the Dallas Museum of Art 2013 Art Ball. We proudly support local schools, teachers, students and their organizations at all levels. “

Since Southern Botanical does not employ landscape architects, the company partners with them through organizations to make connections for its commercial work. The company also has joined the Community Associations Institute to network with homeowner associations.

Looking ahead

This season, Southern Botanical will expand its comprehensive tree services to include air spading, a process which uses large volumes of compressed air to remove and break up soil without damaging roots. The technique will allow the company’s arborist to diagnose and treat tree problems.

Trees that have been in landscapes for years may not have the proper root flare, New says. “Whenever that comes up and the soil is too high on the tree, you’re suffocating the roots,” he adds. “We have found so many trees that need air spading.”

Presently, Southern Botanical stands as a small- to mid-sized operation in the region. “We have a 10-year plan to be a $40 million company and to be a larger presence in the Dallas/Fort Worth area,” says New.

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