Northern Michigan landscaper relies on old-fashion values and vintage trucks to stand out in a crowded market

Litzenburger Landscape

President: Gow Litzenburger
Founded: 1985
Headquarters: Harbor Springs, Mich.
Markets: Little Traverse Bay and most of Northern Michigan
Services: Hardscapes, irrigation, water features, landscape design, lawn and tree maintenance
Employees: 13 full-time; 60 seasonal

Harbor Springs, Mich., is the Midwest’s ideal spot for second home summer retreats and retirement estates with acreage and owners who appreciate beautiful landscapes. It’s no wonder that this vacation village of 1,500 residents, nestled in a protected cove high up on Lake Michigan’s Little Traverse Bay, has 63 landscapers listed in the 2012 Yellow Pages.

According to Gow Litzenburger, owner of Litzenburger Landscape, one of the most prolific and longstanding landscape companies in the area, Harbor Springs has the highest number of landscapers per capita of anywhere in the United States. “It’s good news and bad news,” he says. “There are so many willing customers needing landscaping services, but creating a standout identity among so many competitors can be a challenge.”

Gow Litzenburger has more than 30 trucks in his fleet, including many vintage models, the oldest being a 1934 Chevy stakebed. Some have names. He calls this restored 1947 GMC beauty Pinocchio.

Litzenburger figured out his standout identity early in the game – and quite unintentionally. His unique fleet of restored vintage trucks coupled with his local roots and time-proven commitment to personal service not only gets the job done, but also doubles as the business’ best marketing tools.

“Our customers like the personal touch coupled with the feel of the old days,” says Litzenburger, referring to his client relationships and the typical reaction to his fleet of vintage trucks. It works well for his demographics, which is mainly older, affluent and highly-educated retirees from major Midwest metro areas.

Michigander through & through

“You could say that landscaping has been in my family’s blood starting with my great-great-uncle on my mother’s side,” says Litzenburger. His uncle, Dr. John Reycraft, was an innkeeper and gentleman farmer credited for saving the last stand of virgin timber in northwestern Michigan. Litzenburger’s mother tended Reycraft’s chickens and cows that supplied eggs, butter and milk for guests. She also planted trees and tended the gardens around the inn on a regular basis.

At 10 years old, Litzenburger received an $85.05 loan from his father to purchase a lawn mower and other supplies and equipment to maintain the grounds of some neighbors’ cottages. As he grew older, he worked for various area land- scapers during the summer throughout high school and college.

Litzenburger’s love for trucks dates back to childhood trips he took in the ’70s when his family regularly visited his uncle, Robert Bender, owner of Bender & Loudon, a major Akron, Ohio-based trucking company. In its heyday, Bender & Loudon operated 500 trucks and 13 terminals. It wasn’t until he caught the restoration bug in high school that he got the idea to use a vintage truck for landscaping. He restored his first one – a ’39 Chevrolet truck donated by his best friend’s father – in shop class. He nicknamed it “Mule” and showcased it whenever he was on a landscaping job.

This is a line-up of restored vintage trucks at the front gate of the Litzenburger nursery (from left to right): TeeDee, a 1956 GMC; Pinnochio, a 1947 GMC; and Penguin, a 1952 Chevrolet. Litzenburger credits an uncle for his love of trucks.

Litzenburger earned a degree in horticulture from Michigan State University and a degree in business from Northwood University. From the inception of his company in 1985, he was committed to restoring one to two vintage working trucks per year and ensuring that his affable, jovial and quaint style would prevail. Today, he has more than 30 trucks in his fleet covering every decade from the 1934 Chevy stake-bed truck named “Pixie” to his own personal vehicle, a 2002 Chevy S-10. All are painted in Jade Green and Frost White.

Litzenburger Landscape has never needed any sales or marketing staff, and GPS is the only real high-tech gear used. New customers are reeled in by Litzenburger himself, a legendary community-focused hometown boy, who also makes sure to regularly visit with all current customers.

Economy spawns competition

During the last several years of the recession, Litzenburger chuckles about the already-inflated number of area landscapers increasing. “The recession has ushered in about a dozen new landscapers, with very few existing landscapers shutting their doors,” he says. “It’s understandable because landscaping has the lowest cost of entry for any business around here.”

For the last several years, Litzenburger’s leading challenge has been the halt on new development, which has reduced the number of design and installation jobs. “Luckily, we were able to increase our maintenance services,” he says.

Now that the recession is easing a bit in northwest Michigan, Litzenburger is dealing with the largest unforeseen challenge he has ever faced. “Some of our very best and experienced longtime workers left us for a variety of reasons,” he says. “It has been very disruptive and difficult to recruit and train their replacements.”

Sustainability services grow

Litzenburger Landscape employs 13 full-time, year-round workers. In the off-season, they restore old trucks, maintain equipment and grow plants in the greenhouses. During the summer months, operations expand with up to 60 workers. “It’s a very compact growing season in northwest Michigan,” says Litzenburger. “Everyone wants to have their lawn and gardens ready for Fourth of July yard parties.”

With such a well-heeled and educated clientele, Litzenburger continues to accelerate his sustainability practices, many of which his clients suggest. This summer, he’s working on a high-profile native plant restoration on a 3.5-acre property. “We are working with a landscape architectural firm to control erosion and reintroduce native plantings,” he says. “This will lower my client’s maintenance and irrigation needs considerably.”

Although Litzenburger Landscape has experienced steady growth through the years, he’s now pleased to maintain the current size and scope of his operations because he has family members to take over the business. “Not everyone in business is interested in growing and expanding,” says Litzenburger. “I like things just the way they are. I’m very comfortable, having ample time to attend to my customers personally and pursuing my interests in vintage truck restorations.”

Currently, he and his crew are working on a 1949 GMC single-axle road tractor to pull a drop-deck trailer. His next restoration project is a 1930 Chevrolet “Maple Leaf” limited-edition work truck, named for its exclusive release in the Canadian market 72 decades ago.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain, based in Akron, Ohio, has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at [email protected].