Cullen Walker’s belief in the redemptive power of second chances has guided him in building Workaholics Landscape Management

Cullen Walker started his own landscape company in 1980 during what was a rough patch for him personally and financially. He was 24 years old, newly divorced and trying to start his business during a recession. That was only six years after he moved to Florida, literally penniless, and working two or three jobs just to pay his bills.

A crew member does some trimming at this customer’s property. Work-a-Holics will maintainanything their clients have, offering services that include an in-house and proactive pest control, irrigation,fertilizer applications and more.

He had rented an apartment from a couple he refers to as “Mommer and Popper” and was working his first job in landscaping. As the owner of that company was getting ready to sell, he offered Walker a dozen small residential accounts. These weren’t “A list” customers – these were the most difficult customers, customers that didn’t pay until they absolutely had to.

But there was a problem – a big problem. Walker didn’t have money to buy even that small bit of the company, and he didn’t have credit. In lieu of a one-time cash payment, the company owner offered to sell him the accounts in exchange for Walker working for him three days a week without pay. He also sold Walker an old lawn mower that badly needed repairs. Hardly an auspicious start, but Walker recognized this as a chance to get started and went to work.

“That’s when the switch flipped,” Walker says. “These difficult customers all of a sudden started seeing the difference because I would listen to them. I knew that if I lost them I wasn’t going to eat.” That was spur enough. Word-of-mouth about Walker’s work ethic spread and his business grew.

A rough start

Of course, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

For those you of old enough to remember, think back to 1981. The economy then wasn’t dissimilar to what it is today, at least in terms of consumer confidence. “The economy was down; it was very tough,” says Walker. Unemployment spiked above 10 percent, construction in southwest Florida stopped, fuel prices stayed high and getting a loan was practically impossible, at least without a stratospheric interest rate. That really didn’t matter, since banks considered him a bad risk

Cullen Walker started Work-a-Holics Landscape Management in 1980 during what was arough patch for him personally and financially. Today, the company has 100 employees and providesmaintenance to high-end residential, homeowners’ associations (HOAs) and commercial properties in twosouthwest Florida counties.

He received help from his landlords, who gave him a loan to help pay for his first truck. “They were the right people at the right time. God put me there and let me rest up – they encouraged me and helped put me back on track.” The truck replaced the old station wagon he had been using to pull around his lawn mowers. “It affected me so much that somebody would do that, I believed I had to pay it off before I bought something else.” And he did, paying them back in six months.

In spite of what he had learned about landscaping, he was still inexperienced when it came to running a business. Walker watched how successful landscape maintenance contractors in and around Naples ran their businesses. One in particular had a good reputation and a large fleet of trucks and equipment. Walker was impressed, and studied how the man dealt with difficult situations by following through on his word and solving customer problems.

“He was the go-to guy in Naples, and that’s the way I wanted to do it. You start disciplining yourself and putting boundaries on yourself and your employees as you go that route,” says Walker, who also started taking courses in landscaping and business at the University of Florida.

Work-a-Holics Landscape Management

Mission: “Established in 1980, Work-a-Holics Landscape Management, Inc. is committed to providing consistent excellence in landscape care. WLM maintains the importance of high standards and values in the day-to-day business and handling of our customers, suppliers and WLM employees. We strive to be that which will settle for only the very best in customer service, maintaining that consistency in customer satisfaction is key.”
President and CEO: Cullen Walker
Headquarters: Naples, Fla.
Market: Collier County and Lee County, Fla.
Services: Lawn and turf care, pest control, fertilizer, irrigation services and enhancements
Employees: 100

Back to the future

Fast forward 30 years: Walker’s Work-a-Holics Landscape Management (WLM) in Naples has 100 employees, providing maintenance to high-end residential, homeowners’ associations (HOAs) and commercial properties in two southwest Florida counties. “We maintain everything they have,” Walker says. This includes an in-house and proactive pest control program; irrigation services provided by technicians trained in all controller systems to maximize efficiency; and a fertilizer program based on best management practices and using low-phosphorous blends.

“If they need something we don’t do in-house, like if they need a tree surgeon, we can get that and manage it and monitor it for them,” Walker says. “If we have to hire a landscape architect, we reach out and network. That has helped us grow, also.”

Until 2006, WLM grew steadily. People planning to retire to Florida would buy condos a few years in advance, vacationing there until they made the move, and housing developments became the company’s prime service market. As Walker nurtured relationships with a local developer, his company grew. Then, as the housing boom imploded, everything changed.

Another recession looms

In 2007, everything “froze up,” Walker says. His client contacts were laid off or fired; developers closed shop; banks took over. Many of the developments Walker’s company was servicing went into bankruptcy or foreclosure; business in southwest Florida became tough for just about everybody.

Margins now are “razor-thin,” he says, and he’s learned to come in sharp in the bidding process because the competition, which includes many national companies, has created a diluted market. Even so, Walker says the current economic situation does not distress him. He says well-run companies will survive today’s competitive environment. He also says he will not succumb to low-balling.

Walker questions potential clients who want to bid out a job already being serviced by another company why they aren’t content with their current service. “We want to win it right, and if we’re a right fit, that’s fine. But we’re not going to go below our numbers and try to beat somebody out if somebody is doing it right.”

He takes a somewhat philosophic view of today’s business climate. “We may not be able to do volume-wise like in those years when the economy was good, but that’s supply and demand. You can learn how to cut costs and work harder or leaner.”

He adds, “It’s like if you watch a surfer on those big waves. All of that chaos and tumultuous water and they just ride that wave in. If you’ve got the tools, the belief and the confidence, you can ride that chaos and turn it into something really good if you stay with it.”

Maintenance services include mowing; an in-house and proactive pest control program; irrigation services provided by technicians trained in all controller systems to maximize efficiency; and a fertilizer program based on best management practices and using low-phosphorous blends.

The right employees

In spite of the 2008 recession, WLM has persevered. “All throughout this economy, we’d lay off people, but then we’d hire them right back over time. It’s amazing we’ve been taken care of so well,” says Walker.

Southwest Florida is plagued with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, 13 percent as of mid-October, and WLM sees plenty of hard-luck cases looking for work. While the company does conduct background checks and drug tests, it’s not above giving applicants a second chance to establish a good work record.

“They realize they better make this work. They’re physically hungry or they’re hungry for an opportunity and they will work for you,” says Walker. “They’ll listen to you and accept and believe what you’re going to do is going to help them. They’ll take it and they won’t fight it.” He’s looking for humility and a willingness to work in the people he considers.

Walker insists that employees stick to the company’s mission and value statements. “I know what our reputation is and that we’ve got to stay true to that,” he says. “Those are absolutes; we’re inflexible there.” If an employee is having a problem, managers quickly intervene to set boundaries and consequences according to procedures and policies. As part of that process, the company considers whether it has the employee in the wrong job. If it’s determined that the employee, for whatever reason, isn’t a fit, they’re let go. “It may be the very thing they need,” says Walker.

“We’re labor salesmen. We don’t have a lot of material sales. Our primary income is from maintenance and management. We work hard at continuing to recruit people who will line up with our absolutes, our mission, vision, values and reputation.” Walker says.

Water woes

WLM’s managers engage in monthly training sessions (WLM University) where employees get the latest information about job duties, technical information and issues confronting the company and the market it serves. These are vital because restrictions on irrigation (especially during the region’s dry winter season) and the use of fertilizers present two large challenges for landscape companies.

“We obey the water restrictions, but we also find out what our customer’s philosophy is and if they can’t stand dry spots on their properties. Whatever happens, we’ll fix, but a lot of times you get to the fixing stage and some sod has already died and chinch bugs get in.” This in spite of one of the company’s oft-repeated mantra: It’s not going to die on my watch.

“Things can get really dire when we’re watering two days a week, it’s 100 degrees, and the breeze is blowing,” Walker says. “They say they allow hand-watering, we’re going to do hand-watering. If they allow creative inspections where you can come by and turn the zone on and inspect it once a week, then that’s what we do. We’ll have our irrigation guys or pest control trucks out there with a hose sometimes watering dry spots and we all team up on not letting it die on our watch.”

Regions of the market served by WLM also have blackout periods prohibiting use of fertilizers with nitrogen and phosphorous. WLM relies on the University of Florida’s expertise, practices endorsed by its Institutional Food and Agricultural Sciences program, when applying chemicals and fertilizers. “The professors will talk to you about what works, what doesn’t, and how you can formulate your fertilizations. You can call them, email them or talk to them at conferences. They’re great,” says Walker, who credits Florida’s commissioner of agriculture, Adam Putnam, for “promoting what’s balanced, fair and right and getting the truth out about agriculture, chemicals and fertilizers and what we’re doing with water resources.”

WLM uses a lot of controlled-release products. “We load it up before and after the blackout period,” says Walker. “We’re constantly tweaking our fertilizer program. We’re doing the same thing with water restrictions. We’re going to keep our plants alive. Our vision statement is ‘Quality you can see.’ Those are absolutes. That’s all we sell.”

Good business sense

Being able to provide horticultural services that please customers as they beautify their properties is vital to running a successful landscape business. But running a company by numbers is just as vital for a company’s survival, as Walker has learned.

Walker credits his church-going parents for giving him the foundation from which he could build his life and meet challenges. His father, he says, was a constant source of strength and always urged him to rise above any challenges he might encounter.

“Whenever I was working on a project with my dad, he’d ask me to hand him a tool and I would say ‘I can’t’ because I couldn’t reach it or didn’t know how to,” Walker says. “He’d say, ‘Son, you can do anything you put your mind to. You may need to ask for help, you may need to stop and think it through. You will find a way if you work at it or ask somebody for help; you can do anything.’ He never allowed me to say ‘I can’t.'”

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].