Customer service and a hands-on approach are the keys to success
In 2001, Mike Corsie started Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance in Kennebunkport, Maine. His company now services hundreds of Kennebunk and coastal York County vacation properties. His staff of one part-time and three full-time employees primarily services the residential sector, with some commercial work as well, such as bed and breakfasts and restaurants.
Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance provides a full range of services, including design, installation, maintenance, irrigation, hardscapes, water features, lighting, insect and disease control, pond and lake management, snow plowing and removal, exterior holiday lighting and home watch during the winter months.
Although many of the property owners are only in residence from June until September, Corsie will continue to provide services, such as turning on a house’s heating system prior to a winter weekend arrival by the owners. Terrapin also offers year-round home repair services performed by Corsie’s father (also named Mike). Those services provide the company with a source of revenue during the winter months and peace of mind for those clients who have investment properties or are not present in their second home when repairs are necessitated.
The Terrapin system begins with an initial consultation and site survey, moving to material selection and a meeting at the property for layout. It is completed with installation and a survey of the finished project to ensure customer satisfaction. For the most part, Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance maintains what its employees design and install.
There are times when someone else has done the design and installation, and Corsie found that some of those designers have done their job without a thought as to how it would be maintained. “The customer realizes it a few years down the road that it is costing them quite a bit and it’s not really working as good as it did when it was first put in,” says Corsie. “They end up changing a lot of it to make it more easily maintained.” When Corsie works with a designer, he takes a hands-on approach, explaining how a particular design may not work because it will become a maintenance issue.
Corsie says that when someone in a neighborhood does something different with their yards, the rest of the neighbors will request it, as well. Of late, Endless Summer hydrangeas were very popular. “When something becomes popular, it’s almost impossible for the nursery to keep it in stock,” Corsie says. “If one neighbor has it and the other neighbors like it, then they get it.”
Corsie usually subcontracts the irrigation installation. His criteria for the system is that it conserves water while offering a sufficient quantity for healthy and attractive plant growth. The company provides complete inspection and diagnosis; adjustment, repair and maintenance; system design and installation; spring startup and fall shutdown; and system backflow testing. Since the company offers weekly mowing service, employees are able to immediately address a problem when an area is not getting sufficient water.
A key part of maintenance is tree care. Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance’s tree care program includes planting, pruning, transplanting and removal, root pruning and barriers, stump removal, fertilization, cabling and bracing, insect and disease control, inventory and management programs, emergency response and diagnosis, appraisal and evaluations. Kennebunkport is part of the Tree Town USA program, so the area has a number of registered trees that are tagged and cannot be touched unless given approval by the town planning committee, even on a homeowner’s own property. Sometimes, the town’s approved arborist has to do the work.
Environmentally friendly practices are taking a bigger role in Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance’s approach to fertilization and weed control. Each case is handled individually in accordance with geography and the growing season. Corsie subcontracts the fertilizer and weed control jobs. “In the last couple of years, the green movement has encouraged a lot of the fertilizer and weed control companies to go to organic products and right now the fertilizer we’re using is 100 percent organic,” he says. “In Maine, they’ve been doing studies that show that run-off from fertilizer and pesticides could be affecting the lobster population, so that has helped to convince a lot of people to use more organic products,” Corsie says.
Using an environmentally friendly weed-killing formula, the company performs early-season applications to give the turf a sturdy base for the following growing season. Treatments continue throughout the year to help maintain a healthy and weed-free landscape.
“Usually, when people are coming up or when they get in residence, they’ll call me up and we’ll do a beginning of the year meeting,” he says. “We’ll walk the property and they’ll tell me the issues they’d like to address. They’ll say what they’d like the property to look like this year, if they want the seasonal color, if they don’t, if they want to mulch the garden. I really have to be a lot more hands-on with the customer because they decide what gets done and what doesn’t.”
In the past few years, many organic gardeners are going away from using mulch and using organic compost instead. As such, Corsie’s company has been removing a lot of mulch and replacing it with compost.
Terrapin Landscaping and Property Maintenance also provides snow and ice removal services, which helps stabilize revenues during the winter. The company monitors weather patterns, determines the type of equipment needed, and is ready to go before the storm even begins, but winter work is unpredictable. “Last year was horrible,” Corsie says. “We got no snow at all, so we had a few storms in December and then rain for the rest of the winter. I just have to squirrel away money during the summer and find something else to do in the winter. Sometimes we’ll do handyman work; some small renovation projects.”
Corsie has learned over the years how to balance his budget to sustain itself throughout seasonal work. He has attained so much business through word-of-mouth from customers, real estate agents and local contractors that he doesn’t do any advertising. “Especially since the economy got bad and a lot of people got laid off, it seems like every year there is more and more competition out there,” says Corsie. “The main thing that differentiates me is that I’m a very hands-on person. I’m always on-site with my employees. I try to provide the highest-quality work possible so there’s no reason for them to look anywhere else.”
The key to his success is providing excellent customer service, says Corsie. “It’s being able to respond right away when there’s an issue,” he adds. “The biggest thing is returning phone calls. I get a lot of my customers who chose me because they tried calling other landscapers and I was the only one who called back. It’s going the extra mile to make sure people are happy.”
His biggest challenge is getting all of the work done. “My company is small and I want to keep it that way,” he says. “I don’t want to get too big to where I have to hire more people and have less control over the work and can’t do as much of the work.”
Corsie might just be coming full circle. He finds it a challenge to get to the point where his company is busy five days a week, but not so busy that he can’t get it done and has to turn away work or hire more staff to keep up with it—after all, that’s the issue that provided him the incentive to start his company in the first place.
He also tries to be present at every job. “I’m on the mowing crew,” he says. “The only time I’m not there is when my gardener goes around, weeds the gardens and touches up the edging and the beds. He’s on his own on that, but I’m always checking up on that, too.
“It’s tough,” he says of the crossroads where his company now stands. “I’m at the point right now where I could add another truck and another crew, but you get into a lot more problems with customer service. If I’m not there, I’m always worried if it’s going to get done right. I’m not looking for my company to be too big. Five years from now, I basically want it to stay the way it is and continue to be different from the rest in terms of being able to provide the best quality work.”
Carol Brzozowski is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists and has written extensively about environmental issues for numerous trade journals for more than a decade. She resides in Coral Springs, Fla.