A succession of strong leaders have guided this employee-owned company to a leadership position in the Bay-Area market for 39 years

GGI received a PLANET exterior maintenance award for DeSilva Island HOA. Featured here is public garden space with sustainable plantings and contemporary outdoor sculptures.

For almost 40 years, Gardeners Guild, Inc. (GGI) has thrived under three dynamic leaders known for their pioneering spirit and commitment to sustainability. What makes GGI even more unique is that it didn’t begin as a family-owned business, which is common in the green industry, and it morphed into an employee stock ownership plan (ESOP), which is uncommon in the green industry.

Setting up an ESOP

GGI was founded in 1972 in the heart of San Francisco by Adam Blackwelder and Alan Weiss with half a dozen workers providing standard commercial and residential landscape management services. It wasn’t until Linda Novy, an estimator, gardener and environmentalist, was hired, that the company grew wings. It took her just three years to purchase the company and become its president. In her 25 years as president at GGI, she became one of a handful of woman business owners in the green industry to manage a company with more than 100 employees (120 in total) and over $5 million in revenues ($7.6 million to be exact).

To position the company as a leader in sustainability, Novy used a systematic approach to preserving the environment with a careful analysis of the site, irrigation system and local ecology before the work ever began. She was also one of the first landscapers to set up a green waste recycling program. As she transitioned out of GGI, she moved the company into an ESOP. Stepping aside from the business in 2003, she sold her shares to her employees, creating a 100 percent employee-owned company.

Gardeners Guild, Inc.

President: Kevin Davis
Founded: 1972
Headquarters: Richmond, Calif.
Market: Alameda, Contra Costa, Solano, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, San Francisco and San Mateo counties
Services: Exterior and interior maintenance; renovation; construction; design/build; irrigation; and a state-of-the-art sustainable program called LivingSolutions
Employees: 175

A step in the right direction

After Novy’s departure from GGI, John Ossa, an irrigation specialist, stepped up as her successor. Under his leadership, the company experienced unprecedented growth catapulting it into the national spotlight as a leader in sustainable landscaping and water management. The company grew to 175 employees and nearly doubled in value with revenues of $12 million. In 2008, he left the company to serve as president of Irrigation Essentials, a consulting and contracting irrigation systems company.

Currently, Kevin Davis, a 30-year veteran at GGI, serves as the company’s president. He started in the landscape industry in 1975 working at all levels of production and management. At GGI, he first worked as a generalist, then managed exterior maintenance accounts, performing maintenance and pest management operations, advancing to vice president and chief operating officer and, finally, becoming company president in 2008. He says a factor contributing to his longevity at GGI was working for an ESOP.

“ESOPs are unique in the landscaping industry,” says Davis. “Several do exist in some areas of the United States, but our ESOP is fairly unique because we fully engage in an employee ownership structure to become 100 percent employee-owned. Many ESOPs are formed that never achieve that level of ownership. We were fortunate to have a family feel to our company culture, which made the transition to employee ownership much easier.”

A lawn technician applies an organic microbial inoculant at St. Mary’s College in Morago. It’s one of the products GGI uses in its Living Solutions plant health program.

Most small business financial advisors agree that ESOPs are not more common because of the general lack of understanding of this cooperative structure. Successful ESOPs need a solid, collaborative culture to start with, and are infeasible for some businesses due to the cost structure involved in setting up the initial and ongoing financial plan.

Due to GGIs business structure, it’s an open-book company sharing a condensed P&L with a strategic plan that is updated monthly. The company posts financial statements and project reports for each manager. “In a collaborative work environment it’s critical that associates understand their role in the business and can use their knowledge of the company’s financial position to perform better in their jobs,” says Davis.

Under Ossa’s leadership, Gardeners’ Guild University was created to better educate employees about their responsibilities as part of an ESOP. It’s a 12-session course that covers basic business financials, leadership, customer service and communication.

“When people understand what drives profitability, they don’t see their bonus or their stock as an entitlement,” said Ossa when he created the program. “They know why they got the benefit that they did, and they know that they would not have benefited if the performance targets hadn’t been met. Beyond that, the flip side of entitlement is empowerment: employees know that their actions matter, that they are part of a team that is building its collective future.”

GGI installed and maintains this low-maintenance, low-input landscape at the entrance to the 5-acre Waterfront Plaza at the foot of San Francisco’s famous Telegraph Hill.

“We have modified our training programs over the last several years,” explains Davis. “We still commit over 3 percent of our operating budget toward educational and training activities at the management and staff levels,” says Davis. “We continue to invest in our people and train them to ensure loyalty.”

GGI’s employee retention has remained in the 70 to 90 percent range over the past decade. The company pays for its employees to regularly attend the local community colleges’ horticultural programs and PLANET safety training programs. Its goal is to certify its entire field staff to become landscape technicians. For the 70 percent of employees who are Spanish-speaking, it also offers ESL programs.

Kevin Davis addresses employees during GGI’s annual “Fleet Pride Day” featuring the improvement and protection of the more than 70 company vehicles. The event included a company-wide barbeque, and then each vehicle was serviced at separate stations for exterior washing, interior washing, small tool inventory, first aid kit replenishment fire extinguisher check, and registration/ insurance/incident report documentation.

Commercial construction vs. maintenance

GGI is adding more commercial landscape construction services to what had been primarily commercial landscape maintenance. For the past several years, GGI’s commercial maintenance business has surpassed construction standing at about 60/40. “The balance of construction and maintenance services is good for our stability,” explains Davis. GGIs multitude of services include exterior and interior maintenance; design/build installation and renovation; irrigation; and integrated pest management. It also provides interior plant care with a dedicated full-time staffer. “Maintaining plants at offices and shopping centers is a low-risk and predictable source of revenue that provides a secure balance to the construction side of the business,” says Davis.

GGI manages nearly 250 landscaping projects in central San Francisco, including many commercial properties within the dense financial district, high profile urban parks, luxury retail centers and HOA estates. That creates special challenges.

“We’ve developed expert procedures and processes to operate effectively in crowded tight spaces,” says Davis. “In the Financial District, our service has to be ‘invisible.’ We structure our operations at least disruptive early start times including weekends.” GGI’s renovation services have stepped up for its residential estates where its established long-term relationships have been in place for more than 20 years.

New headquarters streamlines jobs

GGI recently moved its headquarters from San Rafael in the inner part of San Francisco Bay across the bay to Richmond. The new 2.5-acre facility increased GGI’s efficiencies because all of its managers and employees operate under one roof and it can now dispatch all of its jobs from one yard. The old space in San Rafael didn’t have enough parking for company vehicles, so they often went home with employees. Also the cost and availability of land in San Francisco figured into the move to Richmond.

GGI was one of the first Marin County firms to be a Certified Green Business in 2002 when it was headquartered in San Rafael. Upon moving to Richmond it was required to re-apply and obtain certification from Contra Costa County. “Responsibility for the environment is imbedded in our corporate values,” explains Davis. “Over the last 30 years, we’ve been recognized for our recycling, reusing programs, along with our initiatives to save water and implement the least toxic practices in the landscape.”

GGI now leads its sustainability practices with a proprietary service line called “Living Solutions” a science based approach focused on soil health. It can offer its clients 100 percent organic maintenance on down at various levels. “Most of our customers choose 100 percent organic,” says Davis. “They not only want to live or work in a healthy environment, but they also know that there are more and more strict municipal codes supporting it.”

GGI is also partnering with a green waste recycling company that happens to be one of its new neighbors and also operates a significant green roof business just now leveling off due to the decline in commercial building construction.

GGI took a hit in revenues during the recent recession but they’ve since rebounded. Each of the past two years saw a 9 percent increase in sales. In 2012, the company expects to hit $18 million in revenues. “I can attribute some of our renewed growth with new electronic marketing initiatives, including a new website and social media, and the company taking on of some larger construction projects,” explains Davis.

For the past 20 years, the author 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. Contact Tom at [email protected].