After losing an account that contributed most of their revenue, the owners of Gibson Landscape Services bounced back by aggressively networking within their market

The rocky economy of recent years has presented some daunting challenges to landscape businesses. Gibson Landscape Services, Inc., Scottsdale, Ariz., is a 12-year-old firm that was launched when the industry and Arizona were booming. Things are different now for one of the hardest hit housing markets in the country.

The Bermudagrass within the Sagewood retirement community is overseeded with ryegrass each fall so the lawns stay green through the winter.

Gibson Landscape Services, Inc.

Founded: 1999
Headquarters: Scottsdale, Ariz.
Owners: Jeff and Stacy Gibson
Services: Landscape maintenance, installations and masonry work
Employees: 10
Market: North Scottsdale and surrounding communities

Owners Jeff and Stacy Gibson are furiously networking to bring their business back to its pre-recession vigor. They’re focusing on improved business practices, including more frequent personal client contacts, more efficient processes and more precise budgeting, especially in regards to equipment buys.

Jeff, 43, studied turf management at Mundus Institute in Phoenix, and before launching the landscape business was a golf course superintendent. Stacy, 39, came to the landscape business with a background in swimming pool and other construction.

“We started our business in response to a need,” says Stacy. “We were asked in 1999, while Jeff was a superintendent, if we could maintain a putting green at a retirement community. The community director was dissatisfied with the work of the landscape management firm they were using. We ended up getting the project. A few years into our business, Jeff left his golf course position to devote himself full time to the landscape service,” Stacy says.

For Jeff, this means working with his crews to be sure they understand the importance of high-quality work. He’s personally on site on a regular basis to assure that everything expected is being done properly. “We’ve been able to grow our business because people know the quality of our work, and they know we are very quick to respond,” says Stacy, who answers the company phone or returns email inquiries.

Major setback

By 2007, Gibson Landscape was acquiring an ever-larger base of residential and customer work, and the company began expanding its services. Several crewmembers were skilled in masonry work, so the company was able to do not only landscape maintenance but also hardscape installation when requested by clients. Even so, one large retirement community continued to bring in about 80 percent of the company’s revenues, always a risky proposition.

Stacy Gibson checks the progress of a recent planting.

“We lost the retirement community contract,” says Stacy. “The community was a corporation, and it made a corporate decision to go with a company that did landscape maintenance at its other locations. With that representing the major portion of our work, the contract was a major business loss. We had to sell some trucks, liquidate what we didn’t need, and cut back on some of our crew. But we stepped back and took a hard look at where we were and where we could go with the business. We were able to keep our most highly skilled crew members, and our lead foreman is skilled in masonry.”

Regrouping for growth

While in the past, new business had come mostly through word-of-mouth, the couple began networking in earnest to replace the single large contract. “We asked our customers to provide referrals, and set up a referral incentive,” says Stacy. “While we did not advertise or do actual marketing, we talked to the many people we knew throughout the valley. We let them know that we were looking for residential and commercial work, that we had highly skilled crews to perform that work quickly and that we responded quickly.”

Recovery underway

A Gibson Landscape crew member uses a blower to assure pristine border plantings.

Gibson Landscape obtained the landscape maintenance contract for the retirement community, Sagewood, beginning in 2010 immediately upon its completion. “We came in for maintenance right behind the landscape installers,” Stacy says. “Sagewood represents 50 percent of our work and it’s what brought us back to where we were.” Gibson Landscape has continued to grow adding commercial and residential accounts now totaling about 60. In addition to commercial building sites and personal residences, two major auto dealerships are among its clients.

Desert maintenance

Sagewood is an approximately 40-acre site with about 90,000 square feet of turfgrass. “A lot of the people come from the East Coast, and they have dogs and like to get out, and they like to see green grass,” she says. For that reason, the community’s bermudagrass is overseeded with ryegrass each fall so that lawns stay green through the winter. Bermudagrass, of course, goes into dormancy and turns brown as the days shorten.

Honda push mowers are used for much of the mowing and are serviced by Scotty’s Lawnmower Sales & Service, Scottsdale. A Walker ride-on mower is used to mow the large expanses of turfgrass, and the Walker mower is serviced by A & G Turf, Phoenix. Simplot is the primary supplier for seed, fertilizers and other turf products.

Stacy says that pruning, which allows plants to retain their natural shapes, is a major consideration in desert landscape maintenance. “Accent plantings and flowers provide important aesthetic value. An ironwood tree at one of the entrances from a garden receives special attention since the protected variety could not be replaced if it were to be lost. Seasonal flower changeovers are done with winter flowers planted at the same time as turf overseeding. With the arrival of warm weather in the spring, summer flowers are planted. Gibson Landscape obtains its flowers primarily from two wholesale sources in Phoenix, Dream With Colors and Summerwinds.

Gibson Landscape also does replacement plantings when needed or when changes in plant material are indicated. Trees and plants are primarily obtained from Mazatlan Tree Farm and Desert Tree Farm, both in Phoenix.

“We have high expectations of our crew, but we don’t overwork them. Some landscapers work their crews five and six days a week, 12 hours a day. We don’t do that, but we get a lot out of them,” Stacy says. She cited the highly skilled crew of eight people as a major asset to the company. A three-man crew is assigned to Sagewood. “Our lead foreman at Sagewood is skilled in masonry, and he knows a lot about plants, irrigation and lighting,” she says.

“In the beginning, Jeff tried to personally take care of any problem that came up, but now he works with our crews to go back and fix whatever the problem may be.” Their understanding of accountability is important. It helps them understand the importance of their doing the best job.

“Obtaining new accounts is the most challenging aspect of our business,” says Stacy. “During the 1990s there was plenty of work with people coming in, and a lot of people often wanted to update their landscapes. With this economy, the industry has become much more competitive. We are competing with unlicensed and uninsured people who are doing landscape work, which makes it much more competitive when bidding.” Stacy continues to network to obtain additional referrals and provides prompt quotes upon request.

Managing the cost of purchasing equipment is essential. “With the economic downturn, there’s less capitol available for credit,” says Stacy. “We’re careful with our purchases, and we provide our own capitol on some purchases.”

Educating clients is a major focus of the company. “We spend a lot of time trying to educate our clients, helping them understand that sometimes we are using a plant that may live in the desert, but may not be able to thrive in all locations. Sometimes we suggest changing locations or using different plants to get the desired effect. They trust our judgment, and we are usually able to help them obtain the effects they want.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer from Mt. Zion, Ill., and has been covering the green industry for Turf for more than 20 years. You can contact her at [email protected].