Fifty-six years later, Cagwin & Dorward remains on the cutting edge of customer service

Cagwin & Dorward

Established: 1955, incorporated 1961
Headquarters: Novato, Calif.
President and CEO: Dennis Dougherty
Markets: Northern California (18 counties)
Services: Landscape maintenance, organic solutions, water management, renovation and master planning, erosion control and revegetation, professional tree care, multisite management, parking lot sweeping, interior plant maintenance, and water feature maintenance
Employees: 350
Revenue: $28.5 million

Landscaping companies that want to stay in business in California and the arid Southwest (elsewhere, too, as it’s turning out) would do well to practice landscape water conservation, especially when it comes to turf care.

“There’s a lot of [conservation] focus on landscapes because I think it’s widely believed that most landscape contractors waste water,” says Steve Glennon, vice president, treasurer and COO of Cagwin & Dorward in Novato, Calif. “Essentially, we get paid to produce a green, lush landscape. Sometimes to compensate for the inadequacies of the irrigation system, landscapers turn up run times because that’s the only way to keep the turf lush and green.”

Cagwin & Dorward strongly believes in water conservation, and backs it up by enrolling every account manager in the California Landscape Contractors Association’s Water Management Certification Program. Water conservation is both an environmental and an economic issue, says Glennon, pointing out that water rates are rising by an average of 9 percent annually in many parts of the state. This is significant for the company’s customers, because Cagwin & Dorward maintains irrigation systems on all of its maintenance contracts, many of them now being converted to “smart” systems.

Glennon admits that it’s taking a while to get everyone trained to using these newer more efficient smart controllers rather than adjusting clocks four times a year.

“Someone once said that smart controllers are only as smart as the people programming them, which I’ve found to be true,” says Glennon. “We had situations where we had installed smart controllers and the water consumption actually went up. We were monitoring them and managing them almost on a weekly basis and establishing budgets for the site similar to the CLCA program and doing weekly meter reads to make sure we were staying within the budget.”

Company managers are learning how to dial down the controllers as far as they can go without stressing plants. They’re also closely monitoring the operational integrity of the systems under their care and fixing breaks as soon as they occur.

An employee of Cagwin & Dorward mows the lawn at a South Bay commercial building.

“We also make recommendations to our customers on things they can do to upgrade their irrigation systems,” Glennon says. Depending upon the property and other variables, that may include using overhead sprays, MP Rotators or drip irrigation.

Many municipalities and water authorities in California are asking property owners to reduce turf- grass. These efforts include “cash for grass” programs. They’re offering property owners rebates for eliminating turfgrass and replacing it with low-water-use alternatives such as climate-appropriate plants, permeable hardscapes or artificial turf.

A full palette

Cagwin & Dorward provides a full palette of land care services, including organic solutions, water management, renovation, master planning, erosion control and revegetation, tree care, multisite management, parking lot sweeping, interior plant maintenance, and water feature maintenance. Landscape maintenance comprises 65 percent of its revenues.

In recent years the company has been taking the “hybrid” approach to fertilizers and other chemical use, especially for clients who do not want them used near children or pets. Instead, the company uses organic products, which it feels has the added features of having reduced carbon footprints and not threatening water quality.

“We’ve been experimenting with different organic products now for four years,” says Glennon. “We’re very strong advocates of environmental responsibility as far as recycling, green waste recycling and grass cycling. We’ve been experimenting with composting, mulching and compost tea. We’ve been using quite a few different organic fertilizers and offering that as an option.”

The green waste generated during the company’s services is returned to its headquarters and picked up by a green waste recycling company that runs it through a tub grinder and mixes it with other material that, after a period of time, results in the creation of rich, dark compost.

In line with Cagwin & Dorward’s progressive approach to land care services, it has been installing and testing fertigation systems with organic solutions on several clients’ sites.

The market in northern California, like markets everywhere, is dynamic. The lack of new development slowed the company’s erosion control business, but it still offers hydroseeding because it’s required by law to address stormwater runoff issues. This generally takes place from late summer to early winter when northern California gets most of its rain, which is needed to germinate the newly seeded turf seed.

Multifamily residential

While Cagwin & Dorward provides a full palette of land care services, landscape management comprises about 65 percent of its revenues.

Glennon says the company’s biggest challenge is remaining competitive when clients are focused on controlling their costs and asking for lower prices. Cagwin & Dorward is not a low-cost provider but a company that stresses value over price. It focuses much of its attention on the multifamily residential market.

“Homeowners associations seem to be more recession-proof than other types of industries and seem willing to pay a little bit more for a higher level of service,” says Glennon. This, at least in contrast to the market represented by commercial office space and retail.

Sustainability the future

Glennon doesn’t believe property owners will be investing money into transitioning their landscapes from conventional to sustainable until the economy turns around. Yet, he feels the movement to more sustainable landscapes will grow because of economic reasons, part of it due to the rising cost of water. “The total cost of maintaining a landscape is the maintenance as well as the cost of water,” he says.

While he predicts an increase in more property owners transitioning their landscapes to something more sustainable, resulting in a reduction in turf care, landscape companies will see increased demand for renovation work.

Cagwin & Dorward offers a five-year Landscape Improvement Plan, a process by which the company reviews a client’s landscape to identify potential problems and propose cost-effective solutions.

“It could be a traditional landscape improvement plan that points out deficiencies and/or recommendations for property that could be done over a five-year period of time that would enhance the aesthetic value of the property,” says Glennon. “The other approach would be transitioning the landscape into something more sustainable,” he adds.

In a recent project at a large apartment complex, the company eliminated a large amount of turf and installed drip irrigation and low-water-use plants. Landscape water costs there dropped by more than 50 percent.

“One of the goals we have as a company is that we’re working toward developing the organizational capacities to help customers transition their landscapes from traditional to something more sustainable over a period of years,” says Glennon. That helps clients realize that when looking at a landscape renovation project from an ROI perspective, they can see that in financing it over a five- to eight-year time frame, the savings will, in some cases, cover most or all of the costs of that transition, he says.

Make it right

Glennon says the company’s 56 years of success goes directly back to founder Tom Caglin’s mantra: “just make it right”.

“If we did something the customer didn’t like even though that’s what they were paying for, unless it was a huge expense to correct it in most cases, Tom basically instructed everyone to make it right,” says Glennon.

“We provide good service for a fair and reasonable price, we treat the customers right, and we have a strong customer base that appreciates that,” he says. “We have several large customer, Fortune 500 companies, we’ve worked with for a long time.”

Cagwin & Dorward has more than 350 employees serving 18 counties through a dozen branches. You would think that with that many employees, the company might lose sight of its core values. Not so, says Glennon.

When hiring, Cagwin & Dorward considers an applicant who “has the ability to work well with others and believes in a customer-centric philosophy in taking care of the customers,” says Glennon. “The hard skills are the technical skills and the soft skills are the personal skills. We focus primarily more on the soft skills. The hard skills can be taught fairly easily. I’m not discounting the need and desire for somebody to possess certain technical skills to be competent at any given position in the company; what we’re primarily looking for is somebody who works well with others.”

The green waste from this maintenance job will be returned to the company’s headquarters where it will be stored and eventually picked up by a green waste recycling company as feedstock for compost.

Community outreach

Cagwin & Dorward and its employs embrace volunteerism and community service. Each year the company donates 100,000 trees to the “Trees for the Future” global reforestation project. The company also helps with coastal cleanups and garden installations for nonprofit organizations benefiting youth. The efforts are part of the company’s brand, Glennon says.

“We have a strong focus on environmental responsibility and doing the right thing,” he says. “We’re very active with organizations such as the Bay-Friendly Landscaping & Gardening Coalition that promotes the concepts of sustainable landscaping practices to reduce the amount of green waste going to the landfills.”

As for the future, Cagwin & Dorward looks to continue its move toward providing alternative options for clients and promoting landscape sustainable practices in the industry.

“Water conservation is not only huge in California now, but I think it’s going to become an even bigger issue as the population continues to grow,” Glennon says. “We will continue to promote water conservation and irrigation in the industry.”

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