One of the nation’s oldest landscape companies thrives with loyal family ownership and year-round services

Elbers Landscape Service

President: James Hornung Jr.
Founded: 1919
Headquarters: Buffalo, N.Y.
Markets: Buffalo and western New York
Services: Design and installation, maintenance, lighting, retail garden center and athletic grounds maintenance
Employees: 25 year-round; another 25 seasonal

The year that the nation witnessed the flight of the first passenger plane, passage of the Suffrage Bill and Babe Ruth’s first major league home run record, Elbers Landscape Service started tending the lavish lawns and gardens of Buffalo, N.Y.’s Frederick Law Olmsted-designed Parkside neighborhood.

Locally renowned horticulturist Henry H. Elbers, former superintendent of Buffalo’s Parade Grounds and director of Buffalo Botanical Gardens, started the landscape company in 1919. A year later, he moved the business to its permanent location on Main Street in North Buffalo across from Bennett High School. Over the years, the business was sold to other owners, but because of Elbers’ stature in the community the name was never changed.

The beginning

Crewman Peter Cumbo prepares a landscape bed at a private residence in North Buffalo, N.Y.

In the 1960s, James Hornung, an enterprising Bennett High School student, worked for Elbers after school, weekends and summers. After graduating, he became a permanent staffer, eventually buying the business in 1980. In addition to running Elbers Landscape Service with his wife and son, Hornung also worked as a landscape consultant for the city’s minor league baseball stadium for 16 seasons, and then was appointed as county parks commissioner for the past few years. Because of the political winds, he left the commissioner post and returned to Elbers to serve as chairman.

“When my dad bought the business, he too believed in keeping the name because it was so entrenched in the community,” says current president James Hornung Jr. “My family has been the longest single family to have owned it. We’ve kept the original vintage (Coca-Cola-style) logo and (forest green) company colors.” The Elbers also kept the Elbers Garden Center and its headquarters in the inner loop of Buffalo, being one of the few remaining garden centers and landscape companies that hasn’t defected to the tonier suburbs. “To this day, many people call me James Elbers Jr., and I don’t bother to correct them.”

Over the years, the Hornungs added an athletic field maintenance company, holiday and accent lighting and irrigation to its existing retail garden center operations, and landscape design/build, snow and ice removal and general maintenance services.

“The Elbers Garden Center has been around forever in North Buffalo, well before we ran it,” says Hornung Jr. “Even though it accounts now for less than 10 percent of our total revenues, it gives us a competitive advantage being able to wholesale our plants. We can resell them without having to transport them.”

Diversifying services

Since the mid-1980s, Elbers has been building athletic fields for schools and universities. The Hornungs realized that creating a breakaway sister company was the best way to differentiate from Elbers’ main landscape company. So, when Hornung Jr. graduated from college, he and his father formed Great Lakes Athletic Fields.

Great Lakes primarily provides turf maintenance of athletic fields including aeration, seeding and fertilizing – all of the services that they can usually do more efficiently and less expensively than the inhouse sports field folks can do themselves. When it comes to athletic field installations, Hornung Jr. says that it has drastically slowed down over the past several years. “Four to six years ago, you could go to taxpayers and ask for several million dollars for capital outlay, but now that appetite is gone,” he explains. “Those that come up on referendums are always voted down. Bidding for any of these projects has been greatly reduced and the competition is stiffer.”

Business as usual

Crewman Mike Pesono plants seasonal color along Main Street in downtown Buffalo.

Summertime showcases Elbers landscape design and installation business. Residential work accounts for about 25 percent of the company’s workload with the remaining 75 percent divided: 65 percent commercial and 10 percent institutional.

In recent years, Hornung Jr. has found that more homeowners are showcasing their landscaping. “This is especially true in Buffalo’s Delaware District and Parkside neighborhoods, which feature an impressive number of garden walks,” he says. “People really want to show off their homes. Personally, we love that challenge.”

When winters roll around at Elbers, business is just as brisk. In December, Elbers sells and delivers fresh-cut Christmas trees to Buffalo residents. “We sell 800 to 900 trees in a single season,” says Hornung Jr. “We deliver the trees right into our customers’ living rooms and even set them up. We are known for this extra step, which is now an important part of many of our customers’ family traditions.”

As recently as seven years ago, snowplowing and ice removal comprised less than 15 percent of Elbers’ business; now it’s up to one-third. During the peak winter months, Hornung Jr. schedules crews on a 24/7 cycle, depending on weather reports. “We are staffed 24/7 regardless of weather, but we ramp up considerably when our record snowfalls move in,” he explains.

Employees make the business

Elbers performs all these services with 25 full-time employees and another 25 or more employees during the growing and snow seasons. The company offers its employees full benefits and personally matches all 401(k) contributions.

“We purposely target families for employment covering the gamut for family teams: father-son, father-daughter, uncle-brother, you name it, we have it,” notes Hornung Jr.

Making sure the employees and their families are taken care of is a responsibility Hornung Jr. takes seriously. Since he grew up in the business, he’s known many of these families his entire life. “What keeps me up at night is to be able to run the business well enough to provide for families dependent upon our company,” he says. “I can always land on my own two feet, but when it comes to taking care of our employees and their families, I always worry.”

Jayson Allison, a crewman at Elbers Landscape Service, trims hedges at the Fredrick Douglas Apartments in Buffalo.

Tricks of the trade

Hornung Jr. has found that being heavily involved in trade groups has helped him keep up with customers’ changing demands. He was recently elected president of the 1,700-member Snow & Ice Management Association. In addition, he joined the New York State Turfgrass Association, which his father once headed.

Even with Elbers’ lengthy history and deep pool of clients, Hornung Jr. says landscaping in his region remains a keenly competitive business. “I cringe every time I hear about another industrial plant layoff,” he says. “That means there’s another person out there with a pickup truck and lawnmower who wants to start cutting grass.”

Hornung Jr. is the first to criticize the state that Elbers conducts business in. “We have persevered over the years despite the fact that we operate in New York state,” he says. “It’s very anti-business; a struggle for me every day. They [New York state] make it very difficult for small businesses here; we are over-regulated and overtaxed.”

Despite all these challenges in a time of recession, Elbers continues to thrive and grow. The company fluctuates between 3 percent to 8 percent average revenue growth per year, with the only flat year in recent memory being 2008.

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain has been a regular contributor to B2B publications, including many in the green industry. You can contact him at [email protected].