A big company that targets a small segment of the market

Photos courtesy of DLC Resources.

It’s important to structure your business to the needs of the local population. There’s no better evidence of that type of market-driven specialization than DLC Resources, a landscape maintenance firm that specializes in servicing the multitude of master-planned communities in and around Phoenix, Ariz.

“It started becoming apparent in the early 1990s that the master-planned communities were becoming a big market in Phoenix, and it was a segment of the market we were good at,” says company President Rick Robinson, who co-founded the company in 1989 with current CEO Jeffrey Penney.

DLC Resources uses two dozen chippers to keep up with the debris generated by maintaining trees and shrubs at 31 master-planned communities.

From a firm with 17 employees and $600,000 in annual billing at that time, DLC has grown to employ more than 350 and is expecting revenues around $21 million in 2008. The company’s focus shifted gradually during that time. While it initially provided services to some homeowner associations (HOAs), it also maintained the grounds at some multifamily and commercial properties. “Over the years, that model became more and more refined,” Robinson explains of the shift that occurred as the growth in Phoenix boomed—largely in the form of master-planned communities.

Today, DLC is entirely devoted to maintaining large, master-planned communities. Currently, it has 31 such contracts, along with one municipal maintenance contract it has held for many years. That means it handles maintenance of the “common areas” of the communities rather than the yards of individual homeowners. The “common areas” can be quite extensive, ranging from entranceways and green belts to sports and recreation fields, walking paths, the landscapes around common buildings and full-fledged parks. “In some cases, there are 60 to 80-acre common areas,” says Robinson.

DLC sets itself apart from other companies working in this market in part by providing a full range of maintenance services from mowing and weed control to irrigation and tree care. “A standard maintenance contract will include turf, shrubs, bedding areas, annual flowers, irrigation, weed control and tree care up to a certain height—say 10 feet,” Robinson explains. “And, if a particular community has a special need, we may be able to provide that, as well. For example, in one community we handle street-sweeping; in others, we do gate repair/maintenance. If it’s something we think we can do and provide value for the community at the same time, we certainly explore it.”

While it occasionally handles “landscape improvement” projects for its clients, DLC has intentionally avoided offering landscape construction services, says Robinson. “We’ve just decided to stay out of that market. It’s very cyclical, and while it can be lucrative, it’s just something we’ve decided not to pursue.”

Mowing is just one service DLC Resources provides; the company also handles irrigation repairs, tree and shrub maintenance, weed control and more.

One of DLC’s most important attributes is that it is an independent contractor, eliminating any concerns of a conflict of interest that can occur when a community management company has its own landscape division. In many cases, it is those community management firms—hired by HOAs to manage the master-planned communities—that search out DLC to provide landscape maintenance services.

“Once you’ve been around for a while, word of mouth helps quite a bit,” says Robinson. DLC maintains some of the larger, higher-profile communities in the Phoenix area, and that further helps spread the word, he adds. “Right now, there are not a lot of new communities being built, but that’s temporary, and the market will come back. We know our target market, and we keep our eye on communities that match that profile. Sometimes, communities that are under homeowner control—as opposed to developer control—will decide they want to change maintenance contractors.”

Most of the crews work at the same community every day. “Our smallest crew is about three people, and our largest is over 30,” says Robinson. Irrigation repair and weed control are more specialized jobs, so there are dedicated crews that move from community to community performing those tasks. “We also have specialized crews that handle the maintenance of trees over 10 feet in height that isn’t generally included in the contract,” he adds.

DLC crews use a large number of Honda walk-behind mowers, as well as about three dozen 62 and 72-inch Hustler zero-turn units and about a dozen Walker mowers that are used when grass clipping and leaves need to be captured. All two-cycle equipment is Echo. “We replace all of our two-cycle equipment every year,” Robinson explains.

The large, single purchase helps the company get a good price, and it also means that their equipment is under warranty at all times. “We try to use new equipment because we’re not an equipment maintenance company—we’re a landscape maintenance company,” he says. “When equipment goes out of warranty, we typically turn it over. That keeps our crews working efficiently, and it helps with our perception when people see us using clean, up-to-date equipment and trucks. I think that’s one reason our employees enjoy working here, because we set them up to do a good job.”

DLC Resources’ staff of 350 uses a fleet of some 150 vehicles and more than 50 mowers to care for some of the largest master-planned communities in the Phoenix area.

With hundreds of employees, DLC has “a very active” human resources department. “Arizona is in somewhat of a labor shortage, so they are very creative in trying to recruit good people. And, many of our staff have been with us for a long time,” says Robinson. He says current government efforts to make employers responsible—and liable—for enforcement of “an unwork­able” immigration program adds further to the labor challenges of the business. “It’s just one more regulatory obstacle that the government keeps throwing in the path of businesses.”

All new employees at DLC take part in a “boot camp” program until they master the skills they need to do the required job. Superintendents go through a more intensive, six-month training program.

Included among the company’s employees is a dedicated shop staff of 30 that maintains—and fabricates—equipment. “For example, we build out all of the beds on our medium-duty cab-over diesel trucks ourselves to suit our needs,” he adds. That helps customize each truck for equipment transport or collecting the large quantities of chips (tree and shrub debris) produced by DLC’s two dozen Vermeer chippers.

The shop crew also cares for DLC’s fleet of about 150 vehicles, which is made up predominately of Ford pick-up trucks and a combination of Ford, Chevrolet and Isuzu cab-over diesels. “We’ve switched all of our superintendents out of trucks and into Honda Accords and Toyota Priuses—we have about 35 of those types of vehicles, and they’ve really helped us to save some fuel,” adds Robinson.

Efficiency is one of the company’s primary concerns in everything it does, he explains. Currently, all employees operate out of a single facility, but DLC has two satellite storage yards and plans to establish at least two more yards within the next 12 to 18 months to help improve the logistics of moving people and equipment around the large city of Phoenix. “We have on-site storage on some of our larger jobs, and, whenever possible, we encourage communities to provide storage,” says Robinson. “Some of the jobs are so large that it would be impractical to transport all the necessary equipment back and forth every day.”

Robinson says DLC has made efforts to become more efficient by minimizing dramatic bursts and lulls of activity depending on the season. “It used to be that way, but we realized that if we were more intelligent in our approach, we could balance out our work load throughout the year,” he explains. “One example is our approach of pruning and renovating rather than shearing shrubs. We worked with some extension agents from Arizona State University and followed some literature from the Desert Botanical Garden to really learn the right way to maintain shrubs, rather than to shear them all the time. If you renovate them according to their flowering cycle, a lot of the work can occur over the winter. Then, when summer rolls around and everything is growing really quickly, you have one less thing to worry about.”

Keeping things running smoothly and efficiently requires a total team effort, for which Robinson credits the entire DLC team. “There are a lot of people involved in making this all work,” he says.

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who is always on the lookout for interesting and unusual stories.