Landscaping entrepreneur takes company to the next level

Reclaimed cedar and lichen-filled stones give this arbor an authentic weathered appearance. Vines, perennials and ornamental trees enclose the yard providing for a lush appearance.

Michael Hupf, CEO of Denver-based Lifescape Associates, Inc., is a shrewd businessperson and entrepreneur. He seeks outside experts and consultants, and continually introduces new sustainability measures to all areas of his business. He is a strong networker, and he can be found at the industry’s most important events and seminars. Even though Hupf’s direct working experience while growing up in the green industry had been tepid at best prior to joining Lifescape Associates, he represents a new breed of landscaper experiencing success in the new landscaping market.

Colorado Buff flagstone steps wind their way around granite and moss rock boulders. A 4-foot-high fall of water creates a unique sound that also masks unpleasant street noise.

Hupf was introduced to the green industry while growing up in Hastings, Neb., where his father owned a 1,500-acre grain and cattle farm. In high school, he was the first employee of a start-up landscape company, and together with his four brothers also found time to run a truck garden at the local farmers’ market. After graduating from high school, he took a hiatus from the green industry, and moved to Omaha to attend Creighton University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting. After graduation, he worked for Deloitte Touche for four years, and then was accepted at Stanford Graduate School of Business, securing an internship at Disney. After receiving his master’s degree, he took a management consulting position with McKinsey & Co., working on both coasts to serve high-profile accounts. “I always wanted to get back into the green industry,” says Hupf. In 1999, he left McKinsey to start Signature Wine Cellars, a custom wine cellar installer in New York’s Westchester County, which he sold five years later to rejoin McKinsey & Co.

During his second stint working at McKinsey, Hupf was methodically coming up with a plan to get back to operating his own company again, this time landscaping in the southern Rockies where he had spent many summers with his family. During those three years at McKinsey, he took time to attend PLANET marketing symposiums to gain industry knowledge and consult with landscaping professionals to achieve his goals.

Hupf learned that the Denver market was ripe to embrace upscale design-build landscaping businesses. He also knew that it was better to find an established landscaping company rather than to start one from scratch. He found five Denver-based landscaping companies to interview for a succession plan, where he could eventually take ownership. Lifescape Associates rose to the top. “In 2004 at age 38, I left McKinsey and relocated to Denver with a spot on Lifescape’s management team and a 35 percent minority share,” says Hupf. Five years later, he became CEO with full ownership.

Before Hupf started at Lifescape Associates, it was already considered a pioneer in the landscape design-build industry throughout its 35-year history. Founder Charles Randolph, ASLA and licensed landscape architect, created the first high-end design-build company the Denver region had known through influences he picked up while studying the landscapes of California’s Carmel Valley. Today, Randolph still works in sales at the company.

Hupf has taken the company to its current revenues of just under $5 million with 42 employees. During this recession, when most landscaping companies can’t find investment dollars, Lifescape Associates was able to secure a significant loan to stabilize the company and fuel its growth. The company also continues to rack up many awards. Lifescape Associates has received 33 awards from the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado (ALCC), and three awards from the Denver Water Board for developing some of the region’s most efficient irrigation systems with lush and colorful xeriscaping. The company’s close ratio used to be 30 percent, and now with Hupf on board, it’s 70 percent.

Landscape restoration of a house from the 1930s designed by noted Denver architects William and Arthur Fisher. Highlight of the restoration included the re-introduction of a curved walkway versus a straightened one that was incorporated in the original hardscape of the house.

One of Hupf’s first moves at Lifescape Associates was to elevate productivity and forge a winning team. He eventually got the company to invest in and move into a new design center that was large enough for the designers, operations team and administrative personnel to be able to communicate face-to-face. “We augmented a great sales and operations team to the existing one, and, over time, there was a natural weeding out process,” says Hupf. “Those that wanted to push themselves professionally were rewarded and are a part of the team today. Our move under one roof helped that effort considerably.”

Hupf also knew the importance of having a well-balanced company. “When I came on board, the company was 95 percent design-build and 5 percent maintenance; today its 85 percent design-build and 15 percent maintenance,” says Hupf.

Currently, Lifescapes’ customers are almost exclusively residential, and Hupf is targeting commercial customers to increase the balance. “We’re going to continue to ramp up our maintenance services, including snow and ice removal,” says Hupf. “Maintenance is recession-proof.”

The perennial and edger colors on this property, including lavender, daylilies, blue spruce and rose of Sharon, complement the architectural details year-round.

Hupf ensures that every job be pre-assessed for profitability. “The key is job costing; managing costs for every job that comes in the door,” he says. The company now uses Asset from Include Software, designed exclusively for the landscaping industry. “It was a major investment in both dollars and time,” says Hupf. “It is definitely paying off.”

The market has changed a lot since Hupf returned to the landscaping industry in 2004. He observes that little is going on in the lower end of the Denver housing market, like tract home development, and the landscaping companies that served that market were hurt most in this current recession. “Design-build and construction has been decimated,” he says. “Lifescape is capitalizing on the ‘staycation’ trend. Our customers are willing to invest $5,000 in a new backyard entertainment project they can continue to experience year after year, instead of going on a one-time vacation.”

Hupf adds, “Customers are watching the price. In 2008, we saw large projects like additions disappearing. Now it’s all about improvements on already existing landscapes.”

On the bright side, Hupf saw a true change in the market early this year. “We’ve seen more business in the first quarter of this year than any first quarter of the past three years,” he says. “This bodes well for the entire industry.”

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. He is also a marketing communications specialist for several companies in the travel, agriculture and nutrition industries.