Landscaping company brings together superwoman” designer and former U.S. marine”””

The company’s maintenance crew trimming and mulching a client’s property.

When Sharon Shaw’s hours were permanently reduced at the suburban Philadelphia landscaping firm where she worked as a junior designer, she never thought it would lead her to co-owning another landscaping company, writing professionally and becoming a leader in the community garden movement.

After her reduction in hours, Shaw patched in a series of consulting assignments with other landscaping companies, including Keystone Landscape Contractors, where she met her future business partner and former U.S. Marine, Barry Martin. At the same time, she had signed up for a writing course at Temple University, landing her first story on “ecogardening” in the Philadelphia Business Journal. She also had time to develop her passion for vegetable gardening into a community project involving her local food pantry.

Three years later, Shaw now co-owns Martin Shaw, LLC Landscape Design & Construction, based in suburban Philadelphia, with Martin, writes landscaping stories regularly for various Philadelphia-area publications, including Philadelphia Style, Greater Philly House & Home and Suburban Life, and has helped establish the highly-visible Maze Community Garden in Bethlehem and an educational community garden in Bucks County that donates its produce to area food pantries. She was also one of 25 women in business who received a “Superwoman” award from a popular regional lifestyle magazine.

Sharon Shaw, co-owner of Martin Shaw, LLC.

For 12 years during Philadelphia’s suburban boom in new housing developments, Keystone had gained high name recognition among new homeowners for its landscape and hardscape installations, resulting in profitable “in-and-out” projects, but not ongoing relationships. It grew to approximately $1 million in revenues with several full-time maintenance crews. With the onset of the recession, its core business drastically declined as a result of the near-halt of new housing starts. Martin Shaw, which grew out of Keystone as a legally separate company, produced approximately $750,000 in revenues last year with five employees. “We carried over many customers, procedures and practices from Keystone, but by forming Martin Shaw, Barry and I were able to re-brand with a distinctive name, logo and message,” explains Shaw.

Today, 90 percent of Martin Shaw’s business still lies with residential customers serving the tri-state area of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, with a focus on the historic Bucks and Montgomery counties, Saucon Valley and Main Line around Philadelphia. It has stepped up its specialty services including seasonal maintenance, subcontracted snow plowing, outdoor lighting and natural stonework, and is also developing stronger ongoing relationships with its clients.

“In the recession, we find that our clients are taking on their own maintenance, but fortunately, not many have the desire or expertise to upgrade their outdoor living spaces with something like an outdoor kitchen,” says Shaw. “We have far fewer projects, but most are larger in scope. It is far more important that we communicate with them, not only about the work, but personally as well. These relationships are for more important to our success than they were with Keystone.”

Even though Martin Shaw focuses on high-end clients, it doesn’t exclude anyone, taking on projects large or small. “Some of our most rewarding projects are small,” says Shaw. When the client values craftsmanship and desires to keep the historical integrity of their property, Martin Shaw considers them an ideal client.

A brick patio with reflecting pond and outdoor bronze sculpture featuring ornamental groundcover and flowering herbs.

An example of small, yet rewarding landscaping projects included a client who had a passion for Colonial Williamsburg with a desire to bring a little of that experience into her yard. Shaw was able to do a lot of research, re-creating the landscape with historically-accurate building materials. Another project involved an original farmhouse on a small lot in a new dense housing development. The client, who lived in the original farmhouse of the development, wanted to create an oasis with a hot tub. “I told her it was going to be a fish bowl rather than a relaxing ‘get-away’ experience,” says Shaw, so her solution was to place the hot tub within a folly, a fabricated falling-down structure resembling an old wellhouse that created privacy on the interior and great visual appeal and interest on the exterior.

Since the formation of Martin Shaw, Shaw has taken on the sales and marketing end of the business while Martin continues a similar role while operating Keystone by overseeing construction projects, including crew management. Shaw is the face of the company, fielding calls from prospects, selling the designs and conducting customer service including any follow-up issues. “I love what I do,” says Shaw. “Landscaping is a very interesting field and so many people identify with it. I’ve always enjoyed working outdoors with nature and bringing more creative activities such as designing, decorating and writing into my work.”

A knot garden designed to resemble the threads of ancient Celtic knot work featuring a central planter, red brick and white stone pathway cross and ornamental bushes.

Growing up on a family farm that grew Christmas trees and raised stocking pond fish in a remote section of New York’s Finger Lakes region, Shaw had plenty of opportunity to immerse her in the outdoors, pursue creative activities and learn about small business operations. When she grew up and left the family farm, she first traveled 70 miles west to the State University of New York at Alfred to earn a degree in ornamental horticulture. It was there that she learned landscaping was more than just taking down trees and maintaining green lawns. “It was just as much about decorating as it was heavy lifting,” she says.

Shaw also learned the advantages of being a woman in an industry overwhelmingly populated by men. “Women are there in the landscaping industry, they just aren’t as visible,” she says. “Women have a particular knack for decorating and design. We understand how a family will use a space and know what features are important to an outdoor room. Being a woman in this business is an advantage because most of our customers who make the decisions about the home landscape are the women of the household, and there is a heightened sense of camaraderie between two women versus a man and a woman.”

Shaw believes she has a good handle on the pulse of the landscaping industry. “Customers are becoming more informed about landscaping techniques and choices,” she says. “They are open to more possibilities because they are exposed to all the television shows like HGTV and a wide array of consumer publications featuring landscaping.

Barry Martin installing an outdoor masonry fireplace.

To feed the information needs of her customers and feature her latest articles, Shaw started an interactive company Facebook page last fall. She gets better feedback from her clients when she posts their project online than when she sends out traditional evaluations asking them to fill out forms. The Facebook page also posts local events including garden tours. “It gives our company a personality and it’s an excellent way to maintain customer relationships,” she says.

In a couple of years, Shaw plans on having her new company regain the level of revenues that Keystone once enjoyed, even though she realizes that the industry is in a period of slower growth. “One way for us to grow is to become a ‘lifestyle’ landscaping company including the selling of a line of furniture and accessories,” she says. “We’re moving closer and closer to that direction every day. It’s very exciting to see that come together.”

Martin Shaw, LLC LandscapeDesign & Construction

Location: Philadelphia, Pa.
Clientele: Residential and commercial
Services: Landscape design,installation and construction;maintenance; water features;drainage solutions and stormwatermanagement; and hardscaping

For the past 20 years, Tom Crain 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.