The landscaping industry continues to evolve, and while economic ups and downs affect the industry as a whole, landscapers adapt and change to remain successful and grow their businesses. James Martin Associates, Inc., Vernon Hills, Ill., represents one of Chicagoland’s leading landscaping companies, and while the company has evolved, its direction was in place ahead of the country’s downturned economy. The company serves Chicago’s northern suburbs including the North Shore and numerous affluent suburbs.

Martin launched the company in 1977 after earning a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Illinois. With vision and leadership provided by Martin, the company has been successful in landscape design and installation; residential and commercial landscape maintenance; and commercial snow management. Recent growth has been centered in its residential maintenance division. Recognizing potential for growth and positioning the company to move in that direction have been key elements in the company’s success. Focusing on a team approach within the operation has facilitated the client satisfaction necessary to move the company forward.

In 2005, Martin articulated the overall business goal to become the world’s most client engaging professional landscape development, landscape management and snow management organization. The company sought to not only engage with clients assuring satisfaction but also to enhance environments, create beauty and be stewards of the environments the company built while reducing carbon footprints. Although goals of creating beauty in the environment and reducing carbon footprints sound lofty, the company, under the leadership and vision of Martin, has reduced costs and contributed not only to green initiatives but also heavily supported charitable causes in Chicagoland.

Martin cites the great importance of retaining clients. “When I review our list of corporate and residential clients, I am very proud that we have served and sustained our client relationships for five, 10, 20, 30 years and more,” he says.

Positioned for growth

With Martin’s articulated goals of 2005, the company was positioned to forge major landscaping ventures to assure success. This positioning was significant as much of the industry struggled to find new directions that offered profit as the 2008 economy challenged even some of the most stable companies.

“We’re unique for our level of quality for both design and maintenance in both residential and commercial,” opines Tom Bolas, company general manager. “We have excellent leadership, vision and ideas, and we have excellent people working on the team.”

James Martin Associates incorporated boxwoods and groundcovers into the design of the landscape of this sun-dappled lakeshore property.

Bolas is responsible for commercial landscape maintenance and commercial snow management. Heidi Sibert manages design and installation, and Mike Patton manages residential landscape maintenance.

Martin says that the elimination of waste through lean management and processes have reduced the investment required to maintain properties while also reducing carbon footprints. Such cost-saving measures as recycling landscape waste and using biodiesel fuel have minimized costs for shredded hardwood mulch and reduced carbon dioxide emissions. The Waste Elimination and Being Green Campaign has lowered costs by more than $1.2 million since it began in 2005.

Landscape maintenance

“We were positioned to take advantage of the residential maintenance opportunity. We brought Mike Patton on to lead the residential maintenance,” says Bolas. “That part of our business is vast and has very renewable revenue. We became very proactive in our approach to marketing through the Web, and developed business through follow-up on prospects. The difference between commercial and residential is that most of our commercial clients are consolidated within 15 to 20 minutes of each other.” The distances involved in residential landscape management required careful attention to routing to minimize travel costs.

Bolas says it is important to provide a good working environment for employees who make up the team. In addition to the satisfaction of creating lasting beauty and contributing to the environment, employees reap benefits that are tangible in their lives and the lives of their families.

“We feel we should share some of our benefits with employees,” Bolas says, citing the inclusion of a 401 Retirement Savings plan that includes both employee and employer contributions. Employment during peak landscape maintenance season ranges around 115.

Looking at cost-effectiveness was a key component that went hand-in-hand with assuring the level of quality already within the company in both design and maintenance.

“We put on two-man teams and cut down on our driving time,” Bolas says Looking for the right people to become part of the team took on major significance. “We looked for good people who know how to constantly be on the lookout for new business.”

Focusing on client satisfaction in the residential landscape management has been key to its growth. Both Bolas and Patton emphasized the team approach to quality and to client satisfaction. Says Patton, “We’re casually intense in our work. We look for self-starters and are all client engaged. Every customer is different. Each has its own challenges.”

While client satisfaction is always a goal to retain business, James Martin Associates takes that goal a step further. “Communication with clients is key,” Patton says. “Communication keeps us on time with clients. Operating efficiency outweighs the challenges and helps us provide great service.”

Looking ahead

While most companies seek growth in their futures, James Martin Associates envisions growth supported by specific steps. Last year, it acquired LID Landscaping of Boulder, Colo. The 25-year-old company was owned by Phil Loughman, a University of Illinois classmate of Martin. Martin had provided consulting to Loughman over the years, and last year, Loughman proposed that Martin buy his firm. Bolas says that LID is strong in irrigation services.

“We hope to learn from their skills, benefiting from that core competency in irrigation,” he says. While the importance of water issues varies in different locations, it will continue to be of major significance throughout the country and the world.

If you’re providing commercial landscape services in the Chicago market, you almost have to provide snow, too.

Revised immigration policy continues to be of significant concern to businesses in general and is of major significance to the landscaping industry. Bolas says, “We want to see revised immigration policy. That would give us a much larger work force from which to draw employees.”

James Martin Associates is a member of several landscape-related professional organizations including the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) and Illinois Landscape Contractors Association (ILCA). Martin was NALP board president in 2007. The company has received numerous awards in design and installation; commercial landscape management and residential landscape management.

Along with landscape design and installation, commercial landscape maintenance and commercial snow removal, the company expects to continue its focus on residential landscape maintenance. “We expect to sustain and grow our residential landscape maintenance,” Bolas said of the company’s expected future.

Fast Facts:

James Martin Associates

President: James P. Martin

Founded: 1977

Headquarters: Vernon Hills, Ill.

Markets: The Chicagoland region, including the North Shore

Services: Design & installation, residential maintenance, commercial snow and commercial maintenance

Employees: About 115 peak season

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