Facing disaster, David Peabody credits loyal employees with helping him guide award-winning Peabody Landscape Group back into the green

Peabody Landscape Group

Owner: David Peabody
Founded: 1982
Headquarters: Columbus, Ohio
Markets: Columbus, Ohio, and surrounding communities
Services: Construction, environmental site management, Aqualawn irrigation, turf care, outdoor living amenities, horticultural services, estate gardener services, and snow removal
Employees: 105 peak
Website: www.peabodylandscape.com

Like the mythical bird, Phoenix, who some say returned from the sanctuary of the sun, bringing with it a spark to ignite its own nest, and, after reducing itself to ashes, was reborn, so was Peabody Landscape Group.

Problem is, David Peabody, president of the Peabody Landscape Group, Columbus, Ohio, didn’t start the fire. In 2003, a trusted employee evaded paying payroll and sales taxes leaving $1.8 million in deficits for Peabody to handle. Somehow, even the company’s CPA firm didn’t catch on to what was happening.

“It was a dark time in our company’s history. In September 2003, we discovered what had happened and notified our creditors, including the federal, state and local tax authorities. It’s important to recognize a problem and openly admit what has occurred – especially those you consider to be your partners in business, such as venders and financial lenders,” recalls Peabody.

Manager Robin Wolford is a key member of the Peabody team getting the firm back on track.

“There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think, numerous times, of what transpired and the harness of hardship – the debt worn around my neck. To be honest, looking back it would have been much easier if I had decided to liquidate the company.”

For the past eight years the company has been paying on its old debt – over $30,000 a month for most of the payment period. In 2010, the Peabody Group paid off their deficiency to the state, and in August this year, it will pay its final installment to the bank that refinanced its restructured debt.

“That monthly payment will be such a load off my mind and ease the financial strain. The monthly payments that we’ve been paying to the bank will soon go straight to pay normal vender debt and help increase our bottom line,” says Peabody.

“As difficult as it has been for the company, it’s taught us how to make it through tough times. Especially after having unplanned debt coupled with the worst economic recession since the 1930s. We’ve learned to become more self-sufficient and develop ways to become more of a supplier to ourselves and eliminate payments to venders for materials.”

The debt. The recession. The bitter competition causing a downward spiral in prices for professional landscape companies in the crowded Columbus, Ohio, market. The Peabody Landscape Group got blindsided by a triple whammy. Management had to take drastic action to keep the company afloat.

“We had personnel working with us that we simply had to let go. From 2008 to 2012 we downsized administrative staff from 22 to 14, and had to make corresponding layoffs to the crews,” recalls Peabody.

Additional adjustments lowered labor costs, including having employees report directly to job sites in the morning, and having dedicated in-house delivery trucks provide materials to projects to keep production crews as efficient as possible. The delivery trucks also disposed of yard waste, hauled dumpster containers and transferred equipment from site to site.

“Then we analyzed our materials outlay and determined what supplies we were capable of creating for ourselves. In 2004, we started growing our own trees from a 12-acre tree nursery. We process our own topsoil for residential jobs, and special prescription blends for commercial planting projects,” says Peabody.

In 2009, the company began grinding yard waste and offering free disposal of wood chips for tree companies. This became feedstock for the mulch that could be used for maintenance and planting jobs, helping decrease the firm’s soil and mulch costs by 70 percent.

Going CNG – what a gas

Because of rising fuel costs in 2008, Peabody began researching ways to convert his fleet to less-expensive alternative fuels. This summer, after completing a compressed natural gas (CNG) fueling station on its property, the company will begin converting 24 of its 28 service trucks to run on CNG. It will be able to afford the changeover thanks, in part, to a federal grant from the Department of Energy, administered and facilitated by Clean Fuels Ohio.

“Converting to CNG will help eliminate 65 percent of our fuel expenses each year, starting in 2013,” predicts Peabody, who, at the same time, acknowledges that the technology has a lengthy learning curve.

“The CNG kits, tanks and conversions are quite an investment, ranging in price from $8,000 to $14,000 for EPA-certified equipment, but the potential for fuel savings is enormous. Compressed natural gas is selling at about $1.85 to $2.40 at public refueling stations in the United States, averaging 60 percent below current gasoline prices,” he explains.

He also believes the conversion will result in much lower equipment maintenance costs. CNG-powered vehicles can log 10,000 to 12,000 miles between oil changes compared to about 4,000 on gasoline-powered trucks. “However, in order to make the investment worthwhile, trucks must average over 15,000 miles per year and gas mileage must be under 10 miles per gallon,” says Peabody.

The Peabody Landscape Group has long been considered one of central Ohio’s top design/build firms.

Because Peabody Landscape Group has purchased slightly used refueling equipment and will be performing the conversions with their own trained CNG personnel, Peabody believes his return on investment will come in 18 to 24 months. (Turf will run a feature article on how to convert your fleet to CNG in a future issue.)

Growing step by step

Peabody has come a long way in a short distance. The Norwalk, Ohio, native began his career in his hometown working with his twin brother almost 30 years ago.

Peabody’s experienced design staff delivers unique landscape solutions to its residential clients.

“We traded a pickup truck cap for a 1967, 1-ton Chevy step-side pickup with 227,000 miles on it, and we got a used wood chipper and started out by trimming trees. Because of a sluggish economy, we moved to Columbus in 1982.”

The focus quickly changed to residential design/build, which was in line with Peabody’s education in landscape architecture from The Ohio State University. The company began a topsoil supply business in 1988 when it was offered 5,000 cubic yards of topsoil at no cost from a local commercial construction site.

“Back then we had our fair share of residential work, mostly older homes doing landscape renovations and a few larger custom homes. Since the economic boom of the 1990s, the company’s revenue shifted to 65 percent commercial and 35 percent residential,” he explains.

Peabody has long been a recognized as a major competitor in the residential design/build market of central Ohio. Experienced and dedicated professionals like Pat Lynch, manager residential design/sales, with over 25 years experience in the industry are an integral part of the team’s success.

Lynch uses his formal degree in landscape design and construction from The Ohio State University Agricultural Technical Institute and combines it with hands-on, practical experience.

“Pat has been with the company over nine years and his creativity and professional background has really made a difference with our success and with client satisfaction,” says Peabody. “Our entire staff, whether in administrative or logistics or production really works to make the difference. Our people allow us to be efficient and deliver each job to the customer successfully and on schedule. We want our designs and project installations to last generations.”

The Peabody Group designs and delivers landscapes that customers can enjoy for generations, says founder and president David Peabody.

The company prefers to train and promote people from within; average tenure of a Peabody associate is eight years. John Sinats, residential maintenance manager, has been with the company 28 years.

Each division of the company functions as its own mini-company and is a separate profit center. “However, we all work collectively for the common cause of making customers happy and providing a fair profit at the end of the day,” emphasized Peabody.

Over the years, the Peabody Group has supported numerous charities and fundraisers and has contributed to: Habitat for Humanity, AmerCrest Community Garden, Boy Scouts of America, Material Assistance Providers, Christine’s Christmas and “Kickbutt Columbus”, an eclectic group of companies who meet once a year in early April to clear cigarette butts and litter from major freeway exits within Columbus.

“Pat Lynch has had us involved with the Kickbutt operation for several years. In fact, I’m looking into the possibility of adopting the exit ramp nearest our facilities in the near future,” says Peabody.

Residential services, beyond design/build, include estate gardener services, irrigation services, accent lighting, turf care and plantings.

Incredible facility

And, what a wonderful facility the Peabody Group has. Originally a 22-acre working farm, the large grounds feature a four-level dairy barn that has been converted into space for crew leaders’ cubicles, tools and dry goods supply storage. The office building was specifically designed as a rural white Cape Cod style-structure with wrap-around porch that resembles an Early American colonial home with brick walkways, and featuring a white-picket garden fence immersed in abundant colorful plantings. A white three-rail farm fence surrounds the main entrance to the “homestead” and is flanked by the ornamental and shade tree nursery to the north, helping to emphasize its rural appearance.

Peabody says, “We often invite clients to visit and select materials from our nursery and garden plantings. We take great pride in our facility, and we’ve tried to sustain its country appeal, especially since we’re located in the middle of Columbus, Ohio.”

Residential services include estate gardener services, irrigation services, accent lighting, turf care and plantings. The firm also offers commercial services including site construction, hydroseeding, environment site management and snow removal.

“We offer an array of services and we don’t take shortcuts,” says Peabody. Trust and value are prime motivators for Peabody Landscape Group. “We want to create better environments for our community; with our expertise and our skills, we can add value for the people we serve, not just in site appreciation, but in quality of life.”

Peabody and his crew are, and have been, members of Ohio Turfgrass Foundation, Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, PLANET and other construction-related industry groups who promote professionalism of the landscape industry.

“We must do something to attract sharp young people into the industry. It’s getting harder and harder to find employees with a driver’s license, yet alone the skill-set needed to operate heavy machinery. Of course we’re a seasonal business, but the government’s answer is the H2B program, and it’s not working. Most of these workers are hired in the hotel or resort industry before we can have them hired for landscape work in the early springtime.

“We need to promote our industry in a better and more professional way. The public looks at the landscape industry negatively because of the low-ball pricing mentality, and the fact we are so dependent on immigrant labor. Sad, but true,” says Peabody.

From the dark days of Chapter 11, when his bank pulled all the company loans and didn’t have faith in Peabody’s turning the business around, to the new horizons of today, Peabody reiterates, “the reason we are in business today is a direct result of our dedicated staff. For a time, when we were losing business, most people didn’t think we could make it; things looked awful bleak back then and the current economy has definitely not made things any easier.”

This company and its crews have risen from the depths and will be soon flying high once again.

“Our people make the difference; they stood by me when things were rough. We’re made up of great people and we’re back on track to build something special out of those ashes of the past.”

Mike Ingles is a freelancer writer living in Columbus, Ohio, who writes articles about business and the green industry. Contact him at duckrun22@gmail.com.