Succession plan bringing fresh ideas, new energy to successful Maine firm

Conrad Davis II, seated, is excited about the direction his children, Nicole and Christopher, standing, are taking Davis Landscape Company

Conrad P. Davis II’s long-range vision for his business life is taking a detour. Davis had been running his business, Davis Landscape Company in Lisbon, Maine, with thoughts of eventually selling it to fund his retirement. Then he had three children. It turns out that two of them share his passion for the green industry. Now, instead of a retirement plan, Davis is putting together a family succession plan.

Davis Landscape Company, employing 28 this season, serves commercial and residential clients with landscape maintenance, design/build and irrigation services. Its market is central and southern Maine.

Davis Landscape Company

President: Conrad P. Davis II
Founded: 1976
Headquarters: Lisbon, Maine
Markets: Central and southern MaineServices: Maintenance, design/buildand irrigation services
Employees: 28

Davis started his company after graduating from the University of Maine, where he studied horticulture. “I always had a strong desire to work in the outdoors, not realizing when I was a kid what the green industry was, but I was always very interested in plants and how they grew,” he says.

When he was younger, Davis sold the vegetables he raised at a roadside farmstand. In the summer of 1976, he started Davis Landscaping and Lawn Care using $200 he had saved to buy a wheelbarrow, shovel, iron rake, broom, a pair of shears and a pair of hand-pruners from Sears.

He put out a sign at his farmstand, which attracted a few clients. He reinvested the money he made back into the business, buying power equipment and hiring employees. He hired Scott Thomas, the brother of one of his best high school friends, who continues to work for the company as the lead field supervisor. Several other employees have been with his company for more than 20 years.

Davis determined from the start that he needed to set his company apart from the competition, starting with branding. To that end and almost from its founding, he identified a shade of green that has remained one of the strongest identifiers of his company. Each of the 62 vehicles his company has purchased since has been the same color – “Davis Green.”

Conrad Davis II says that when employees are treated with respect and dignity they respond positively and with their loyalty. Several Davis Landscape Company employees have been with the company for over 20 years.

The next generation

Davis, who for years has been a single father, is particularly proud of his family and credits his own work ethic to his father. His children are carrying on the work ethic: his daughter Nicole serves as vice president and his son Christopher heads up field operations.

“I am slowly but methodically working at stepping away and letting these two young people bring this company into a whole new generation and to a whole new level,” he says. “In the last 10 years, I realized I may not be selling this off, but instead it might be a great opportunity for this company to go into a second generation of family ownership.”

Davis finds it “humbling” that his children are building upon what he has worked to create, a company built on integrity, honesty and customer service. The company receives high rankings and has been voted in local polls the best landscape company in the greater Lewiston/Auburn area for 10 years and the Best of the Best in Lisbon for five years.

Davis points out statistics show that second-generation businesses don’t have a positive success rate and when a family business involves two siblings working side by side, “the statistics are dramatically worse”.

His children work “countless hours,” Davis says. “They’ve got their heart and soul in this company and to see how the two of them get together, not only as family but professionally, if I were to step down today, I would step away a very proud man.”

Davis is aware that passing the baton to the next generation entails careful succession planning. He’s focused on building upon the strengths of each of his children. Nicole was drawn to the administrative tasks, and Christopher excels at supervising the workers in the field. Father, son and daughter meet each week for management discussions.

“We go over everything, including finances, profit and loss statements, staffing, the amount of work coming in and everything else we’ve deemed necessary. They both have a tremendous amount of responsibility that they accept almost as a challenge,” notes Davis. “What’s great about this next generation is they’re both hard workers and dedicated. It’s in their blood, but it’s fresh. We get up very early in the morning and put in long hours. They’re so enthusiastic about going after certain types of work that on my own I just wouldn’t do it anymore because I’m simply tired.

“That being said, when we leave work, we leave work and spend time as family. As far as we’re concerned, there’s nothing more important than family,” he adds.

Davis also believes in treating his employees as family, what he calls the DLC family, an acronym for the Davis Landscape Company. “If somebody has an issue or a problem in their family and someone is hurting, we hurt,” he says. “We pitch in to help each other. It’s all about teamwork. Every once in a while, somebody gets hired who doesn’t understand that philosophy or just doesn’t want to operate that way; they essentially ostracize themselves out of the company.”

Some employees have left, only to come back. “The old adage: the grass is greener on the other side of the fence,” Davis points out. “It’s a lesson learned hard sometimes.”

Davis maintains an open-door policy. He says his children do not have special privileges because they are family. He adds that his company’s integrity and name is “very important” and is a branding the company has earned.

“Our company is like a well-tuned machine, a series of gears,” he says. “A very high-precision machine cannot operate at peak performance if it’s missing a part or it has a bad part. Without any one of us that system isn’t running as well as it should be.”

Conquering challenges

His company has faced numerous challenges, Davis says. One is how to compete with small operations that compete on low prices, operating with no overhead on a cash-only basis, with many having no insurance. Davis has lobbied in the state capitol of Augusta for legislation to mandate licensing or certification for contractors.

“Anyone can stick a magnetic sign on their pick-up truck, go to a box store, buy a lawn mower and a shovel and call themselves a landscaper,” Davis says. “It happens every spring. These so-called landscapers flood the market with prices so low that it is just not competitive to even try. They truly have no idea of customer service and typically do not last beyond a full season.”

As a result, Davis’ company is sometimes called in to fix or finish a job started by one of those other companies.

“Even though we may feel a bit of the sting, we have been and always will be willing and able to take on any clients despite the size,” he says. “It is essential, however, that minimum costs, particularly overhead, are recouped.”

The economy has also presented challenges.

“Landscaping and grounds maintenance truly is a luxury expense,” Davis says. “With the downturn in the overall economy since 2007, wise people started paying attention to their financial situations and started to scrutinize their expenses. Unfortunately, landscaping and grounds maintenance oftentimes were the first on the chopping block. As the clients became financially savvy, so did we.”

The company management examined each company facet: every department, every cost center, every expense.

“We shared our philosophies and thought processes with staff,” says Davis. “It was apparent that we were all in this together. If we had to change strategies, we were going to do it head-on, with everybody on board. As family, we are one.”

The company took steps to become leaner and paid close attention to everyday operations.

“Nicole scrutinized her tasks as the financial gal, Christopher scrutinized his task as the operations guru,” Davis says. “We did not defer equipment purchases, we just made wise purchases. We recognized those team players who were truly on the team and promoted them.”

As a result, 2013 has “taken off with a bang,” says Davis. “Our sales have doubled for the same period a year ago,” he says. “We remain very optimistic, yet cautiously guarded as this can change rapidly. We firmly believe that our integrity, our reputation and our honesty have truly played integral parts in this growth.”

Staffing has been another challenge. As soon as the snow melts, the season begins quickly.

“There are companies that hire people and work them incredible hours weekly. Their turnover rates are astronomical,” Davis says. “We like to pride ourselves in a vastly different philosophy. We expect our staff to work what is needed by us. Occasionally, there may be night work or weekend work. This is typically done on a volunteer basis only.”

The staff will typically pull eight- to 10-hour days. Davis is sensitive to the demands such long days bring.

“Our staff are people, not machines. They are human beings with families, girlfriends, boyfriends, kids and their own lives,” says Davis. “They certainly deserve to be treated as people. We have always been cognizant of people and although it appears that society is changing to the so-called corporate attitude where there is no loyalty left, that simply is not the case here and never will be.”

Davis says as the company moves into its second generation of family operation, “it is humbling and most satisfying to see the early philosophies that were associated with the birth of the company continue to be practiced. I am proud of the DLC family and honored to be a proud dad.”

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