Motivated employees keep The Greenery at the top of its game

With more than 350 employees operating under an ESOP, The Greenery is poised for continued growth in the U.S. Southeast.
Photos courtesy of The Greenery.

Establishing an employee stock option ownership (ESOP) for The Greenery, Hilton Head, S.C., is the brainchild of Berry Edwards, founder and past CEO, who wanted to give something back to his dedicated employees; the folks that helped him develop and grow the business. He instituted the ESOP in 1993, and the decision, judging by the performance of the firm’s motivated employees and its growth and success, was a good one.

“My main motivation was looking at a good exit strategy for my retirement and taking care of the people who were with me over many years. The people were the success of The Greenery, Inc. and an employee-owned model was a way for me to pass the company on to them.”

The Greenery

Principals: Founder and former CEO Berry Edwards, CEO Lee Edwards

Founded: 1972, ESOP 2001

Headquarters: Hilton Head, S.C.

Markets: Hilton Head, Beaufort, Bluffton, Charleston, S.C., and Savannah and Richmond Hill, Ga.

Services: Landscape maintenance, lawn care, organic services, landscape design/build, irrigation, hardscape, seasonal color, erosion control and turf aeration

Employees: About 350


CEO Lee Edwards, son of the founder, retains that same progressive philosophy and added, “We are a company that invests in and relies on our people who in turn care about the company and the customers we serve. Every employee has a stake in the quality of our work, the success of our business and the satisfaction of each of our customers.”

The Greenery is a full-service lawn care company operating in Hilton Head, Bluffton, Charleston and Beaufort. This beautiful and history-rich region of South Carolina is often referred to as the Lowcountry. The Greenery also recently moved into Savannah and Richmond Hill, Ga.

The company also owns and operates a nursery/greenhouse on Hilton Head Island and is heavily invested in commercial property maintenance as well as residential lawn care maintenance and installation.

With more than 350 employee/owners, the company is poised for continued growth in the Southeast U.S.

The firm’s Hilton Head roots

The company’s history dates to 1972 when after vacationing on Hilton Head Island, Edwards started looking for a business to purchase and acquired Hillside Landscape Nursery. With wife, Ruthie, the pair focused their talents on providing the islanders with a quality landscape business and grew their business by building the most knowledgeable and experienced maintenance and gardening staffs on the island.

Ruthie fell in love with the Old Bethlehem Church in Ridgeland, S.C., a small town near Hilton Head, and had the building moved 28 miles by flatbed truck and by barge to have it placed where it is today. The building has been preserved, and initially served as the corporate offices for the company. It now houses the company’s Antiques & Garden Collectibles shop and is filled with antiques, home and gift items and gardening novelties.

Atilana Najera obviously enjoys her job working with ornamentals.

After Lee joined the staff and continued to grow the business, Edwards retired in 2003, two years after the establishment of the ESOP.

Although operating as an ESOP, The Greenery is obviously a for-profit company and is in business to make money. What sets it apart is that profits are distributed to all employees in the form of company shares to be redeemed at retirement.

Scott Slawson, CFO, explains the many benefits of an ESOP structure and how it is win-win for employees and customers alike. “I’d say the top two benefits for employees are working with others who also care about how we service our customers and having the ability to directly influence their retirement account through their hard work, watching costs, working safely and efficiently, mentoring/welcoming others, and again serving our customers better than anyone else.”

Slawson says that having employees committed to the company creates an environment where employees are “all-in” in their efforts to do those things that best promote their services and keep costs in check.

“An added benefit this year was that we rewarded people who planned for their retirement through 401K retirement contributions by giving them an additional employer contribution to their ESOP account [50 percent of amount(s) contributed up to 6 percent of employee owner wages],” explains Slawson.

“And if they are ‘all-in’ by working hard, safe, smart, watching costs, mentoring/nurturing new employee owners and serving our customers better than anyone else, we believe they will see gains in their retirement accounts resulting from our company being more highly valued.”

The broadest benefits to the business, in turn, becomes specific benefits for each employee. Says Slawson, “There are many different statistics available from the ESOP Association to support what we have seen – e.g., increased growth and profitability, increased share value and high employee productivity.” Slawson offered that any company would want to have loyal, committed, hard-working, safe, profit conscious, service minded employees, and is confident that these values have equated to financial gains for the company.

Lawn care company acquisition

Lee is excited to have recently purchased an existing lawn care business in Georgia. “Our newest acquisition is a small company in Savannah that does high-quality work and fits well within our business model of primarily commercial landscape maintenance accounts,” he says. “It has a good staff who will stay on as employee owners, as will their owner. We aren’t specifically going out trying to grow The Greenery, Inc. through acquisitions, but if the right one comes along, we will look into it.”

Adds Slawson, “Acquisitions will remain a focus of ours if we find companies that have a good business mix, possess our same customer service beliefs and are located in regions where we believe we’d like to operate. We have an easily replicated system and a solid support foundation making acquisitions, priced appropriately, a good growth strategy for us. When we meet with the new employee owners, it’s exciting to see their reaction when we discuss their ability to grow within a larger company and become an employee owner of The Greenery.”

The operational focus of The Greenery is clearly in landscape maintenance, although there are many unique problems associated with warm-weather southern turf with which the staff must contend. Stuart Grant, horticulturalist and business developer, explains that chemical and organic materials are used on clients’ lawns on an individual or case-specific basis when company techs are performing scheduled maintenance.

“Pest problems, such as mole crickets, which are most active in April and July, can be troublesome in bermuda, centipede and zoysia,” says Grant. “Chinch bugs are a problem in St. Augustine turf, and can be difficult to identify because of their size; they’re not much larger than a flea. They like full sun and dry areas in St. Augustine. During fall, army worms are a problem in bermudagrass and St. Augustine turf types because these insects have chewing mouth parts and will make a lawn look very unsightly and have a distinct pattern of damage in which the lawn appears very uneven in height; the blades of grass will have been eaten to their margins.”

Grant reports that weeds, specific to the region, are also treated when noted in their weekly maintenance programs.

“Our clients battle dollar weed, sedges, crabgrass, spurge, clover and goosegrass. Weeds commonly appear where the soil has become compacted and or overwatered. These types of weeds can be easily eradicated through both chemical and cultural means,” says Grant.

Aeration, tree maintenance, edging, leaf removal, irrigation (start-up, shut down and servicing), hand pruning ornamentals and fertilizing are other popular services in the region. To handle the workload and the extensive mowing requires a diversified and comprehensive set of mowers.

Even though The Greenery is a for-profit company, profits are distributed to employees in the form of company shares to be redeemed at retirement.

Jim van Dijk, area manager, Hilton Head Island, explains that The Greenery has the right mower for any sized jobs.

Mowers for all types of jobs

“Depending upon the types of turf and terrain we’re utilizing a wide range of equipment. For big roadsides we’ll use a medium-sized tractor with PTO-driven, rotary-type, pull-behind mower like a Bush Hog that might range from 72 inches to 12 feet,” says van Dijk. “Finished road cut areas, such as parade fields, parks and nicer roadsides, might require a John Deere 1600 rotary-type with a 12-foot cut. On commercial turf areas we’ll utilize our zero-turn and ride-on fleet with cutting widths of 60 to 96 inches for finished-cut and utilize Exmark, Gravely and Lastec brands depending upon type of terrain, use, turf, etc. Stand-up rotary-type mowers are preferred in tighter areas and with sports turf. On select properties, we’ll use walk-behind mowers,” adds van Dijk.

For residential properties, The Greenery uses zero-turns with 60 inch cuts for larger properties and walk-behind rotary equipment, primarily Exmark and Gravely, with 36- to 48- inch cuts. Precision turf cuts and smaller properties they’ll engage push mowers with 20- to 22-inch diameters and the company adapts reel mowers for fine precision cut on high-end residential accounts.

Christina Hodge is just one of The Greenery’s trained plant specialists.

At The Greenery, it is not one voice that resonates above the crowd; it is a choir of men and women working for the same purpose and in the same direction. Starting with six employees back in 1973, The Greenery employs more than 350 people today. “Who would have thought that our little landscape company back in the ’70s would be what it is today?” asks Edwards.

Mike Ingles is a freelance writer and researcher who lives and works in Columbus, Ohio. Contact him at