Diversity is key

Rich Samson would look out of the window of his office building in Charlotte, N.C., and watch landscapers work on city property across the street; he longed to be working with them.

Rich Samson, owner of Samson Grounds Management.

“My first job was in New York, when my buddy and I would cut,” he says. “We were so young that we couldn’t push the mower ourselves, so I’d get on one side of the handle, he’d get on the other side, and we’d go around the neighborhood and cut lawns for $1.”

Changes in his career opened the door for Samson to pursue his dream, and he started doing some landscape work on the side. “I was actually going to do just yard work: trim bushes and do a little landscaping,” he says. “I really didn’t want to get into the mowing and the maintenance. One thing led to another, and through part-time jobs, word-of-mouth and passing out fliers, the business grew.”

Samson was still putting in 40 hours a week at his “day job,” and then working until dark providing landscape services. “It got to the point where I was working seven days a week in the part-time business,” he says. In 2003, he started Samson Grounds Management.

“I would say 90 percent of the expansion was due to word-of-mouth,” Samson says. “I took care in what I did, I was proud of what I did, and I think they saw that.” Samson and his six employees provide aeration, fertilization, seeding, trimming, weed control, thatching, insect control, hedge and bush trimming, leaf removal, pressure washing, yard cleanup, gardening, general landscaping, pine needles and mulch, terrain development and common area maintenance.

Samson believes diversification is necessary for success, and what the company does not provide he will subcontract for the client. “The customer feels comfortable that since I have a good reputation, the subcontractors will do a good job,” he says. “It’s all about servicing the customer’s needs all around.”

Samson favors commercial accounts. His company services 11 schools and does small jobs for the city, including median work and highway entrance/exit ramp work, such as planting trees or flowers. Residential clients may cut back on landscape maintenance, but commercial work always has to get done, Samson points out.

One of the communities that Samson Grounds Management maintains.

Samson Grounds Management employees trim back holly on this property.

Samson has endeavored to make the economy work for him. So, he’s taken on work cleaning up landscaping at repossessed homes. This helps deter crime from areas with a significant number of foreclosures and keeps property values up. His company has gone into neighborhoods where the yards were covered with litter, and once they cleaned it up, the littering stopped. “When you show pride and respect, it starts to turn a neighborhood around,” he says.

Professionalism is key to the business, which can be as simple as returning calls and e-mails and completing projects, even a request for extra work, in a timely fashion. His employees also wear uniforms. “People look at you and want to know, ‘Is he a professional-looking fellow or did he just roll out of bed from having a binge all night?’ Customers appreciate the fact that the employees are in uniform,” Samson says. “If I hire someone new, they see he’s in uniform and he’s an employee, so he’s not a threat.” That’s especially important at the schools and apartment properties where safety is a concern.

Understanding customer needs is another way Samson tries to differentiate his company from others. “When you establish customers’ expectations, you can work with them and fulfill them,” Samson says. “If you just come in and say this is good enough and move on, it may be good enough for one, but someone else may want that extra touch.”

Value-added service is another factor. To illustrate, Samson tells of a potential maintenance customer for whom his company installed sod and French drains. The property owner has a regular maintenance crew.

“I asked him why their regular maintenance people aren’t doing this,” Samson says. “He told me they don’t care, they just don’t want to do it. So he’s probably not going to renew their contract when it expires and will go with me. The reason is I’m all-inclusive. I know their needs. It’s not just a maintenance thing. We can do French drains, retaining walls; maybe we can plant a certain plant to control the erosion. You can’t just come in and cut the grass; you’ve got to show concern for the customer.”

Samson also believes a little friendliness goes a long way. He’ll stop in to greet the property owner, property manager or principal of a school when his company is on-site. “You work as a team to maintain it,” he says. “People just don’t want you to come in and do your thing; they want their concerns taken care of, too.”

An employee prepares a yard for sod.

Employees install a retaining wall at this residence.

Samson primarily uses John Deere and Exmark equipment, Stihl hand tools and Lesco fertilizers and seed. “As far as equipment goes, they’re all good,” Samson says. “I look at availability, spare parts and service proximity. You have to maintain your equipment; you don’t want breakdowns.”

Samson says his biggest challenge is finding competent and reliable personnel. He looks for someone with at least five years of commercial experience, and seeks out people who possess his same level of motivation and drive. “My name’s on this company,” he says. “When a person goes to a property every week, they have to assess what needs to be done. You just don’t cut the grass. You have to look to see if there are bushes rubbing against the building that are going to rub the paint off, then remove them. Are there any vines going over the sidewalk and causing a tripping hazard? Is there mud at the bottom of a stair that needs to be cleaned off? There are all sorts of things you have to look at when you go to a property. The personnel will make or break you.”

Weather can be another obstacle to success. “If you have a drought, you’re not cutting and you’re not doing bushes, so what other revenue are you generating?” Samson says. “We still do maintenance; we still have to stop by the property,” he says. “Even in the winter we go by the property every week. It doesn’t take as long; we have a lot of free time.” That’s when the company tackles landscape installations. For example, one client wants a completely redesigned landscape, with a new walkway, retaining wall and patio, which his company will do during winter.

Rich Samson talks to the lead man on a retaining wall project.

Samson seeks company expansion, but not too much. “If I went up to 15 guys, to me that would be a good-sized company,” he says. “It’s not an overly hard company to manage. When your company grows, you have to look at how many vehicles you’ll need. You don’t want to get so big that your overhead is crazy. You want to get to something where you have enough commercial accounts, meaning you have work every week, every day, and it’s reliable work.”

Samson is always looking for ways to generate revenue. “You have to look at a big picture as a company as to what would make the company flow – try to think outside the box,” he says. One case in point is LEED certification. Charlotte’s Chamber of Commerce recently began compiling a list of ‘green’ businesses, and Samson contemplating getting LEED-certified. “I made a list of how landscaping can be environmentally friendly, and my employees said they never thought of it that way,” he explains. “It’s really a matter of advertising your business in venues nobody else has thought of.”

Samson has been invited to talk about landscaping at a local high school. He also did an interview on a local Spanish radio station and belongs to the Latin American Chamber of Commerce because he is cognizant that demographics are changing. “They have businesses, they own homes. Why wouldn’t you reach out to that as the only landscaper?” Samson says. “All of this is a feather in our cap that we’re out in the community. That’s how my business has succeeded. We don’t just cut grass. We want to know what else we can do.”

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.