Former Silicone Valley techie prospers as landscape company owner
Photos courtesy of DK Landscaping, Inc.
David Lee, the “D” of DK Landscaping, Inc., has a simple philosophy in life: do a good job. An adjunct to that might be: don’t do things in the same old way. Those two convictions together have guided Lee into an unplanned but now much-loved career in landscaping as the founder and owner of a growing business in California’s Sonoma County.
Lee spent more than 20 years of his first career working for Hewlett-Packard in California’s Silicon Valley. His last position there was as a programmer. But he and 5,000 fellow employees found themselves out of work when the http://dot.com bubble burst in 2000.
While contemplating what his next steps would be, a neighbor asked him to do some weeding in her lawn. “I’d never done yard work,” he says. “My wife always did the yard work because I was into high tech. I did it anyway because I wasn’t doing anything. I pulled her weeds and cut her lawn.” Lee approached the work with his do-a-good-job philosophy. Before too long the neighbor was telling her friends. “I started getting calls and getting busy,” Lee says. “One day, I woke up and realized I had a landscape business.”
Starting out, Lee took a fairly relaxed approach to what he was doing. Then, a couple of events changed his approach. The first was something of an epiphany. He started thinking about his former employer, and how Hewlett-Packard is not only known as the “Father of Silicon Valley,” but has really become a legendary company.
DK Landscaping, Inc.
Owners: David and Kathy Lee
Headquarters: Rohnert Park, Calif.
Markets: Santa Rosa, Rohnert Park, Cotati, Petaluma, Sebastapol and other areas of Sonoma County, Calif.
Services: Landscape maintenance and cleanup, irrigation, tree services and colorscapes
Employees: 7 full time, plus a few part-timers
“I thought I wanted to build something unique, my own legendary brand,” Lee says. “That’s when I started working to develop a brand, started marketing and started hiring people.” Then, a little more than five years ago, his wife Kathy – the “K” in DK – decided to leave her position as branch manager for a title company for outdoor work and enrolled at nearby Santa Rosa Junior College (SRJC) to study horticulture.
“She’s been happy ever since,” says Lee, who stresses he’s proud of her for making such a drastic career change in her 50s. “She loves to play in the mud.”
Even today the bulk of the company’s accounts are single-family residential, as Lee prefers to work with individual homeowners.
“With a residence, you call the owner and deal directly,” he says. “With commercial there are more layers to go through, and it seems like the majority of the clients only care about the lowest price. We don’t want to compete in that area.”
That’s not the only place where Lee goes against the norm. For instance, the company has now grown to seven full-time employees (plus some part-timers), all of them having previous careers with large commercial landscape companies.
“We hired them because they have experience with the commercial side,” Lee says. “Since I got started on the residential side, I now have my point of view and their point of view. It’s done by design.”
David Lee says that his wife Kathy couldn’t be happier after switching careers and helping him to grow DK Landscaping, Inc.
Overall, conventional thinking just isn’t part of Lee’s makeup, and the price of DK’s services is far down the list of things to be discussed with a potential client.
“We offer clients a unique proposition,” he says. “As a residential landscape maintenance company, we’re licensed, bonded, insured and carry workers’ comp. All our permanent employees are in uniform and all of them are required to speak English. They’re all legally able to work in the U.S. And, it’s all backed up by a 101 percent money-back guarantee.”
While Lee is going the extra mile for clients, he’s also doing the same for his employees. He’s committed to paying a living wage with benefits. DK also remains based in the Lee family home, in part because the employees take their company vehicles home at night (although he has begun the search for some additional yard space).
Vehicles play a special role in Lee’s life. Car-crazy since he was a teenage, his custom-decorated Cadillac stresses the theme, “We provide Cadillac service at affordable prices,” he says.
“I like to think I’m using my company to change the world and make our society better,” Lee adds. “The business part, building a brand, providing good jobs, and giving back to the community really excites me.”
Lee likes to think of himself as “a rebel with a heart,” an approach that’s also apparent in his marketing, where giving back to the community is the bigger part of the effort. The company was recently honored as Charitable Business of the Year for its work with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Central Sonoma County over the last two years.
The majority of DK Landscaping, Inc.’s accounts are residential properties. Founder and Owner David Lee likes to work directly with his clients.
Kathy remains active with SRJC’s monthly fund-raising plant sales, and one of the Lees’ commitments for 2014 is to raise enough money to donate a new car to the California Homemaker Association.
“Instead of advertising, we try to do things that people really remember us by,” Lee says. “I’m trying to create a very golden image of this company, and that’s how people remember us.”
So far, it appears to be working. DK is growing at a rate of 20 percent to 30 percent per year post-recession, a rate that Lee describes as manageable.
Lee also keeps finding new niches for the company to fill. He says it’s doing more irrigation work than in the past and has also added some installations.
DK Landscaping, Inc. is committed to paying its employees a living wage and providing them benefits. All employees wear company uniforms, speak English and buy into the firm’s committment to excellent service.
“Usually, the smaller companies that are addressing homes don’t have a lot of irrigation expertise,” he says. “We’ve also started doing a little xeriscaping work. People kept asking for it and we decided to go ahead and pursue it.”
In general, Lee believes his customers are looking for more environmentally friendly practices than they did in the past. Add that to the rest of its approach and for DK Landscaping it’s paying off.
David Lee keeps finding more services for his company to offer, such as irrigation work and also some landscape installations. Recently, it began offering xeriscaping, too. The company grew 20 percent last season.
“We had an installation job in Santa Rosa where the client went to our website, checked it out, then called and said, ‘I want you to do the installation, and you only because of what you stand for,'” Lee says. “We’ve gotten quite a few jobs where people have told us that.”
Not that there aren’t challenges, of course. Along with changes in health care coverage, Lee says that some communities within the market he serves is attempting to ban blowers.
David Lee prides himself on giving back to community, one of the key components of building “a special company,” he says.
“We use a STIHL BR 500 with a special muffler designed to be quiet because we’re concerned about noise pollution, too,” he says. “But, if they ban the blower, I don’t know how we’re going to do our work.”
Minor irritants aside, though, he takes a great deal of pleasure in DK Landscaping.
“I’m able to do whatever I want, and I don’t have to answer to anyone,” he says. “We’re also doing something that most people say can’t be done: offer a high level of service, pay our guys well and at the same time give back to the community. I had a vision that I could do something really special and it’s worked out.”
How do you reinforce your unique “Cadillac” property management services? David Lee does it with a custom-designed Cadillac.
K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at [email protected].