Adding maintenance services helps Grau Landscape & Design move forward

Grau Landscape & Design maintains landscapes for customers all over Palm Beach County, Fla., but will travel as far as Spain and the Caribbean for design and installation work.

Ed Grau acknowledges that umbrella services have helped his business, Grau Landscape & Design in Palm Beach County, Fla., move forward during the weakened economy by giving him the ability to respond to whatever the market supports at any given point in time.

The company’s services include maintenance, design and installation, and the company also operates a nursery.

“We’ve completely switched gears,” Grau says. “Consulting and landscaping has been pretty consistent throughout our revenue line. Maintenance didn’t exist six years ago; we’ve grown it into a decent business now.”

Locating better revenue streams

Grau sought to overcome the issue of bad receivables from building contractors in the past few years by backing off from that market sector.

“Once you lose the revenue coming in from some of these large contractors no longer working, you have to try to find a good revenue stream,” he says. “Every job we did we really tried to push the maintenance to get it; we grew the maintenance by 50 percent.” And, numbers are up 30 percent over last year, Grau adds.

Maintenance contracts are primarily with homeowners’ associations, with communities comprised mostly of retired people. “While for the most part they know what they want, they’re very demanding, and sometimes it can be more difficult to deal with than individuals because you are getting several different opinions,” Grau says.

Business meets 10-year mark

Grau started his business in 1991. He had been working for a retail garden center and going to school to study business.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going with my career. I didn’t think I was the kind of person to sit behind a desk,” he says. “I’m a native Floridian and liked working with plants and being outside, so I decided to start studying it at the University of Florida, then opened my own business.” The design aspect of the business also fit in with his childhood desire to become an architect.

The company services all of Palm Beach County for maintenance and beyond that – in some cases, as far as Spain and the Caribbean – for landscape design and installation work.

A spectrum of codes

The company usually secures the maintenance contracts on the projects it installs.

Maintenance contracts are split evenly between commercial properties and high-end residential, such as 10- to 20-acre equestrian and polo ranch sites and high-end beachfront properties.

Taking care of the landscaping needs in the largest county in landmass in the state of Florida with the third-largest population and encompassing the tony town of Palm Beach offers some challenges.

For one, each community has its own codes regarding landscape maintenance.

Grau Landscape & Design

Founder: Ed Grau
Headquarters: Boca Raton, Fla.
Founded: 1991
Service Area: Palm Beach County, Fla., and beyond
Services: Landscape design and installation; lawn maintenance; tree trimming; irrigation; retaining walls and rock gardens; ponds; flower gardens/annual replacement; vegetable and herb gardens; lighting; and fertilizing and mulching
Employees: 8

“Palm Beach, Boca Raton and certain areas of Wellington are pretty strict with code enforcement on the size of the hedges and the way trees are trimmed,” Grau says. “Some of the municipalities are not monitored; a lot of that may have to do with how they’ve cut the number of employees who do it.”

Landscape design is a specialty of the company, which focuses on native plants because they perform better than others in weather disasters and droughts, and need minimal maintenance.

Advocate of native plantings

“The longer I’m in this business, the more I’ve come to realize the native plants are in this business because they survive,” Grau says. “It’s really that simple.”

The aftermath of a significant weather event like a hurricane shows which plants perform better than others.

“Obviously, when you’re dealing with a Category 5 it doesn’t matter, but with an average hurricane with 100 mph winds, a lot of the natives do a lot better. They don’t blow over as easily, they clean up better, they react better,” says Grau.

“When you’re talking about the aspects of water, which has been a problem, natives perform a lot better and are more drought-tolerant, and they’re also a lot less susceptible to diseases like the fungus non-natives have,” he adds.

Water conservation a concern

Grau designs his landscapes with as little turf as possible to minimize water usage and maintenance. “The turf is the highest maintenance out of any part of the greenery that we maintain,” he says. “If we’ve got to go to a property in January and it’s been really cold, the turf is going to be the only thing we maintain until growth starts occurring again.”

When designing, Grau meets with clients to ascertain what type of landscape they desire.

“Is it a piece of property where there is going to be an inordinate amount of turf, or can we work around that and do some hardscapes, maybe some gravel walkways. It’s so wide open, it depends on the customer. We’ve done every type of design you can imagine,” he says.

The company also installs flower, vegetable and herb gardens.

Minimal chemical use

There are situations in which Grau does use chemicals, but in general, he says, “We try to steer away from that for several reasons … It’s all about the proper material in the proper place in the proper setting. You’re going to have fewer problems. There are environmental and cultural problems that occur by using the wrong plant in the wrong spot.”

Fertilizers have become a problem in relation to Florida’s water bodies, Grau says. “A lot of chemicals break down really quickly, but the fertilizers have really heavy minerals that last awhile, especially phosphorus. Fertilization is key because the soils here in Florida are awful. That’s the problem when you’re using exotics; they are not used to these really poor soils,” he says.

“If you use more of the natives or the plants that are more adaptive to this soil, it’s just fertilizing a couple times of year.”

Strategic planting

Grau Landscape and Design monitors water use on all of the projects the company maintains, as the region is on twice-weekly water restrictions.

The company installs plants during the rainy summer season, and after there is a 90-day exemption period in which that landscape can be watered more frequently for establishment.

Water is not as big of a concern with more established landscapes and landscapes with less turf, Grau says. With the new projects, Grau aims to plant as many natives as is agreed upon by the client.

“Once they are established, they should be fine with watering just twice a week,” he says.

Networking nets work

Grau networks with contractors who do different types of landscape work than his company.

“There’s a guy who does outdoor kitchens, and whenever he breaks ground on a project he refers me to the homeowner, and 90 percent of the time I’ll get the project because he is there already working,” Grau says. “We’ve got a good group of guys to work with. We keep it tight and it’s efficient for the homeowner to deal with that group versus bringing in another contractor.”

Budgets are the biggest concern, Grau says.

“Landscape is always the last thing on any project,” he says. “The budget is already shattered. We get in there and want to provide beautiful trees and palms. They always want this glorious garden, but they don’t want to spend the money. We’ll provide the design and obviously the maintenance, but it’s super competitive, and they will shop around.”

Grau’s not concerned about the competitor who has a lawn mower and is trying to undercut prices of more professional operations. “With the clientele we have, you have to have workers’ compensation, liability insurance, and you have to be bonded,” he says. “We have all of that in place. We’ll provide a quote for maintenance, say $500 for a home. The homeowner tells me he can get it for $200 from Joe Schmoe down the street. I tell them they can do that, but if he breaks something or hurts himself on the property, he’s not covered – and I know that 90 percent of those guys in regard to maintenance are not.”

The industry is also not regulated, Grau points out. “I can’t compete with that, and I don’t want to compete with that, so that’s not my biggest competition,” he says. “I would say it’s other landscapers like me; the same middle-of-the-road landscapers that do $1 to $2 million in revenue and have a half-dozen to a dozen employees and have been around about 20 years like me are the ones I’m competing with.”

Versatility underscores success

Grau says versatility is what has made his company a success. “We consolidate. We export. We do property maintenance. I do consulting. We do design and installation. We grow our own material. Being versatile keeps us very competitive.”

The company has eight to 12 employees at any given time. A typical crew has four employees, with each crew spending an average of three hours per property visit. There are also two managers, one for landscape and another who oversees maintenance.

“They pretty much run the show in the field,” says Grau. “I do all of the sales and designs and basically run the business.”

Going forward, Grau says he wants to continue with this work that he loves. “What hurt a lot of people in this economy was growing too big too fast,” he says. “I think if I could grow 20 percent a year in a slow, sustained growth, I’d be happy with that. If I could double that in the next five years, I’d be happy with that, and then get more hands-off and spend time with the family and have the right people in place.”

Carol Brzozowski resides in Coral Springs, Fla., is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for more than a decade. She can be reached at [email protected].