Suddenly unemployed, husband and wife team start business the right way

Walter Cornett Landscaping

Owner/Operators: Walter and Cindy Cornett
Location: Sandston, Va.
Founded: 2008
Service area: Richmond, Va., and surrounding communities
Employees: 8 peak season
Services: Mowing/maintenance, lawn applications, aeration, overseeding, bed edging and mulching, landscape design/install, seasonal color, gutter cleaning, tree services and tree removals, and stump grinding

There may not have been a scarier time in generations to start a family landscape business in the United States than in 2009. That’s because a lot of suddenly unemployed individuals saw the landscape business as a relatively easy way to make a buck whether or not they knew anything about landscaping or about running a business.

Walter Cornett and his wife Cindy, themselves suddenly unemployed, approached it differently. They saw it as an opportunity to build a legitimate company founded on delivering quality service. Just months removed from the biggest economic downturn in the U.S. economy since The Great Depression, they began growing their Walter Cornett Landscaping from the ground up, step by careful step. That took guts.

For the past three years, the company has been providing Richmond, Va.-area property owners with comprehensive landscaping services, including mowing and general grounds upkeep. The company serves mainly homeowners from its shop in Sandston, a smaller community near Richmond International Airport east of downtown Richmond. With unseasonably spring-like weather in mid-winter, the husband and wife team began looking forward to a good season.

Walter says he and his wife were both laid off from a larger landscaping company on the same day. Within weeks they had made the decision to use what they had learned to build their own company

Cindy and Walter Cornett saw their sudden unemployment as an opportunity to build a legitimate company dedicated to delivering quality customer service.

From the start they wanted clients to know that they’re not a fly-by-night operation, but a serious, customer-centric operation with membership in the Central Virginia Nursery Landscaping Association and the Richmond Retail Merchants Association.

Walter is responsible for decision-making related to landscaping projects, including scheduling, job management and customer education initiatives. Cindy has an extensive background in customer service and is a certified pesticide operator in Virginia. She’s responsible for customer communication, marketing and vital administrative tasks such as accounts receivables.

Both owners are responsible for decision-making related to lawn care services, along with Operations Manager Kirk Dobbins.

Walter, who has been working in landscaping since 1998, says the couple took a deliberate view of the challenges associated in starting a business from scratch. Their plan is to grow the company deliberately, avoiding too much debt and its attendant risks. To date they’ve kept overhead at a manageable level and have been successful in running a lean operation.

That’s the philosophy they’ve used in adding employees, as well. “We added one person at a time,” says Walter, adding that he’s been fortunate in hiring some great talent. He says his people are his number one resource in competing with the many other companies operating in the area. Tools, in his view, are just tools: “In the wrong hands, tools will do more harm than good,” says Cornett.

His plan for growing the family business is to establish a relationship with every customer and to train each of his employees to be more than laborers. He wants the firm’s employees to be able to walk a property with a client and answer whatever property management questions the client might have.

“We have a standard that’s different than many other companies here,” says Cornett. For example, his employees follow specific rules about selecting optimal maintenance times when temperature and humidity best complement upkeep activities.

“It’s not just about cutting the grass.” says Cornett. “Our goal is to treat every yard as if it was your grandmother’s yard.”

The company aggressively uses email to communicate with customers, alerting them to future work, any special property management considerations dictated by special weather conditions, or new services.

While the face of the company offers a full palette of property management and construction services, Cornett says that it subs out specialized services such as paving and irrigation installation.

Walter Cornett Landscaping crews focus mainly on turf and beds, usually for properties that are less than a total of 20,000 square feet. Over 90 percent of what staffers mow is tall fescue, which Walter says thrives on a height of 4 inches in the summer and a slightly shorter length during the off-season.

As for mulch beds, Walter says he advocates for a natural edge cut by hand, versus metal or plastic edging. The manual edge, he says, looks good and is easy to alter. The company buys only hardwood double-shredded mulch that contains only wood and not other kinds of fillers. Cornett buys and uses dyed mulch since it lasts longer and provides a more attractive appearance on many properties. The company website explains how inferior mulch can cause problems for property owners.

As for the tools of the trade, the company uses a lot of STIHL equipment, including string trimmers, backpack blowers and chain saws. Its mowing fleet, serving residential customers on a weekly schedule, is mostly 36-inch walk-behind units.

Cornett and his wife remain optimistic regarding modest growth in 2012, but they’re expecting some serious challenges nevertheless.

“We’re going to take a little bit of a hit this year,” says Walter, citing fluctuating fertilizer prices, as well as higher prices for grass seed and valuable chemical products. But the biggest challenge of all will probably be fuel prices, he believes. Along with the challenges, though, come opportunities, the couple says.

“We have the ability to push for more business when we need it,” says Cornett, who aggressively networks with other professionals within his community. He’s an active member of the Professional Referrals Organization, a group that fosters “strategic partnerships” between small businesses in his area. He says it has helped his company maintain a healthy client list. He also works with Marine Corps Networking Around Richmond, a non-profit that he says aims to help “Marines in distress” and is still very much in development.

Cornett says one of most important assets of the company he and his wife co-own is its focus on communicating with clients. “But I still see room for improvement,” he admits.

Justin Stoltzfus is a freelance writer for various web and print publications. His work has appeared in online magazines including Preservation Online, a project of the National Historic Trust, and many other venues. Contact him at