Jeremy Wilhelm sees education as vital to his Florida firm’s continued success

Wilhelm Brothers

Owner: Jeremy Wilhelm

Founded: 1978

Headquarters: Sarasota, Fla.

Market: Sarasota from Bradenton to Venice on Florida’s Gulf Coast

Services: Environmental landscape management (ELM), sustainable landscape design, irrigation design and water management, tree and palm arboring, best practices fertilization and pest control

Employees: 30


Jeremy Wilhelm, second-generation president of Wilhelm Brothers in Sarasota, Fla., says that the efforts his company goes to in educating employees and customers is what sets his landscaping company apart from others.

“Since our inception in 1978, our main goal and mission has been education in landscape,” he says. “In Florida, as soon as the housing market takes a crunch, people buy a mower and all of a sudden they’re landscapers. A lot of them don’t even consider themselves professional.” Wilhelm insists that landscaping is a profession that must be promoted as such.

“Just like any other business, you have to present it in an appropriate way,” he says. This includes maintaining the proper licensing and insurance, treating customers and their properties with respect, dressing appropriately and servicing customers’ properties with safe clean vehicles and equipment and doing what you say you’re going to do.

Wilhelm Brothers began in 1978 by brothers Michael (Jeremy’s father, now retired) and David Wilhelm. The company operates five divisions: environmental landscape management (ELM); sustainable landscape design; irrigation design and water management; tree and palm services; and fertilization and pest control.

Tree and palm work is just one of the services that Wilhelm isqualified to provide its clients on Florida's Gulf Coast.

Tree and palm work is just one of the services that Wilhelm is qualified to provide its clients on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

The company’s service area includes Sarasota and surrounding regions on Florida’s gulf coast from Bradenton to Venice. Clientele includes HOAs, condominiums, businesses and hotels, and, occasionally, residential jobs such as landscape design or tree work.

Certified and engaged

Wilhelm and his employees are certified in pest control, landscape contracting, arborist work, landscape maintenance management, supervision and operation. They also hold membership in the Landscape Management Association (Florida), the International Society of Arboriculture, Professional Grounds Management Society and the Florida Nursery Growers and Landscape Association.

The company has won several awards over the past years, and its community involvement includes sponsoring the Special Olympics and volunteer landscaping for Give Kids the World’s “Kids Village” in Kissimmee, Fla., used by terminally ill children and their families who are visiting to attend Disney World and Universal Studios as a special wish.

The University of Florida serves as the primary resource for education in the state’s landscape industry, Wilhelm says. “It has extension services that operate out of the Institute for Food and Agricultural Sciences. There’s one in every county. We reference the material they put out.”

Wilhelm Brothers is one of the only commercial landscape companies in the region that provides ELM and follows the principles of Florida Yards and Neighborhoods, a program implemented by the University of Florida.

“There’s a huge savings just on maintenance if you follow its principles,” Wilhelm says. “There are nine principles in Florida Yards and Neighborhoods. All of them don’t pertain to our business, but those that benefit us in our business are proper fertilization, proper water management, and the right plant in the right place.”

One principal that is not part of the program but is critical to his operation is proper maintenance, Wilhelm says.

Employees of Wilhelm Brothers follow horticultural and propertymaintenance best management practices, in this case not mowing tooclosely to the water and mowing so that debris is thrown away from it.

Employees of Wilhelm Brothers follow horticultural and property maintenance best management practices, in this case not mowing too closely to the water and mowing so that debris is thrown away from it.

“Numerous people who get into the industry and don’t have education take a pair of power trimmers and basically trim every plant the same,” he says. “That creates a number of problems, from increasing pests, decreasing health, increasing contractors’ labor, gas and costs, which in turn increases the customers’ costs.”

Proper maintenance entails fertilization, plant maintenance, tree maintenance, turf maintenance, proper mowing height and managing yard pests responsibly using IPM, Wilhelm says.

“It dramatically decreases our cost as a contractor and increases our profit, as well as decreasing the cost of our service to our customer,” he adds. “It also saves the environment dramatically regarding the use of fuels, pesticides, chemicals and labor. That’s a huge advantage for our company.”

ELM is a practice similar to the Florida Yards and Neighborhoods program, “but basically it’s viewing the environment as an ecosystem,” Wilhelm says.

“That’s what I tell my customers. That’s why it is so imperative for us to operate five divisions of the landscape company. If I’m just a mow guy and I’m maintaining the turf and it’s got an irrigation problem or a pest problem, it’s almost impossible to incorporate multiple contractors and obtain the same goal. It’s imperative that everything works together,” he says.

“If you fertilize too much, it’s going to affect the growth of the plants,” he adds. “You have to have the proper irrigation and sunlight. It all works together in a system and that’s what environmental landscape management is about: using proper principles based on your location and your ecosystem.”

Responding to client requests

While Wilhelm would use organic approaches and prefers to withhold fertilizations, “What we put on turf is really up to our customer,” he says. “One of the biggest challenges in our industry is educating our clientele. Everybody is old-school. A lot of people come from up north and down to Florida where we are subtropical and it’s a totally different ballgame in educating our customers on how to do things properly.

“You go to other areas of the country and they’ll fertilize six, seven times a year. Some of our properties, depending on the area, only need it once or twice. That’s sustainable and it will actually last, so we use a multitude of different chemicals and fertilizers when we actually use them. We educate our customers to the best choices, but it is ultimately their choice.”

Employees are company’s greatest strength

Wilhelm Brothers employs 30 people, some who have been with the company for more than 25 years. Wilhelm describes his employees as his company’s biggest asset and an ongoing challenge in regards to retaining employees who share his company’s vision and mission.

“I don’t necessarily look for skills or experience,” he says. “I look for personality and attitude. It’s easy to train somebody to do something the right way. If they have a good attitude and they’re hardworking and would like to learn, that’s a huge asset we really look for. It’s hard to train somebody to do something the right way when they’ve been taught to do it the wrong way. That’s a huge issue in the industry.”

Wilhelm takes the family approach in running the company, encouraging positive service with recognition and fun events. “Every time our employees get a compliment, they get an extra bonus in their check,” Wilhelm says. “We do monthly morale parties. They get rewarded based on their performance. Every month our company gets a grade, which is issued by me.

“If they get a C or better, they get pizza. If they get a B, they get a sub or something a little higher than that for everybody. If they get an A, I actually have to go there and cook for everybody,” he says.

The company also has what it calls a “green room”, an operational facility “plastered with educational references,” Wilhelm notes. “We almost make it so that if you work here, it’s really hard not to learn and to be proud of what you’re doing.”

Wilhelm attributes his business management style to his father. “The biggest business values he has taught me are education, professionalism and that customer service is commonsense business,” he says. “What I brought to the table is technology and change.”

Employees are trained to follow proper safetymeasures and wear appropriate gear when servicingclients' properties. Palm maintenance is high work.

Employees are trained to follow proper safety measures and wear appropriate gear when servicing clients’ properties. Palm maintenance is high work.

Pest and water management

Wilhelm says that Florida, because of its sub-tropical climate and unique geography, provides unique challenges when it comes to managing pests and landscape irrigation.

“In Florida, our ports provide a gateway for all sorts of things,” he says. “Every time we turn around, we’re getting a new pest that is so difficult to manage. Sometimes you’ll go out into the field and find something that wasn’t there three days before. You have no clue. Even the University of Florida doesn’t have a clue because it just arrived that day. You really have to stay on top of education with pests, manage responsibly and be aware.”

As for water management, he says, “Water is such a complex issue here mainly because our climate is so drastically different. One year, we’ll have a wet summer. Next month, we could get an influx where we could have a year with absolutely no water and we’re in a drought situation.”

Many clients don’t understand that irrigation is not meant to water plants, but intended to supplement rainfall, he says. “Explaining that to people and having them work within the restrictions, and that reverts back to right plant in the right spot, is a very difficult process,” he adds.

When it comes to equipment, the plant variety dictates what is used. “We use a lot of hand-pruners. Most people think of them as primitive, but they’re more efficient in the long run,” Wilhelm says. “Most people grab the power shears because they are the quickest and easiest. They shape the plants like boxes and lollipops like you see up north all of the time. Florida’s landscapes are drastically different.”

Also, the company is switching to propane mowers, Wilhelm says. “I don’t have any results right now because it’s in the preliminary stages, but we’re definitely happy and it’s definitely equal to our gas machines,” he says.

Controlled growth

Wilhelm has never advertised, but instead has grown his business by word-of-mouth.

“We are in the process now of having to do a little bit of advertising and marketing because we do want to grow,” he says. “I don’t have any vision to grow out of the specific service area at this point. I don’t want to lose that family-owned and operated feel, which I think is our competitiveness and what we go for in that customer relationship. I think when you get too big, it’s really easy to lose that and reputation is so hard to get back.”

In addition to longevity in human resources, Wilhelm Brothers also has longevity in its customer base.

“We have large commercial properties that have been with us for 18 years because of our service, honest reputation, hard work and our ability to continuously perform,” he says. “I would be very, very cautious in growing that and the possibility of losing it.”

His goal for this year is at least 15 percent revenue increase, “but I think we’ll obtain up to 20 easy,” he adds.

“I don’t really push for more than that, primarily because growing too fast can be an issue that can detrimentally affect your business,” he says, adding that he sees his company growing at 15 to 20 percent over the course of the next five years.

Wilhelm is “optimistic” as he looks ahead this season. “I think every company president should be,” he points out. “I’ve talked with numerous friends who own businesses in our industry as well as other industries and everybody says it does seem like they’re seeing an upswing.”

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