Award-winning California contractor finds balance between construction and maintenance

Richard Cohen, blue shirt, creates outdoor environments “to enhance people’s lifestyles.”
Photo courtesy of Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction, Inc.

It’s a wonder Richard Cohen doesn’t have a split personality. His company certainly does.

Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction, Inc. has two distinct sides, each with approximately 50 percent of the business. The construction side plays to its founder’s background in the trades, with a strong emphasis on outdoor projects for high-end homeowners.

The other half of the operation focuses on landscape maintenance, with a client list that’s heavily weighted toward commercial and industrial properties and homeowners’ associations.

However, it’s when the two sides work together that Cohen believes his business is at its best.

Wired for success

Cohen definitely knows the labor side of construction. He started his working life as an apprentice, spending 10 years as a union electrician. Along the way, he also bought and remodeled a couple of houses and earned a general contractor’s license.

Then, in the mid-1970s, he and his wife moved to nearby Mission Viejo, Calif.

Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction, Inc.

Owner: Richard Cohen

Founded: 1976

Headquarters: Lake Forest, Calif.

Markets: Orange County and surrounding California communities

Services: Landscape management and custom installations (complete design; grading and drainage; pools, spas and water features; masonry and concrete; sports courts, tennis courts, putting greens; patio covers, gazebos, pavilions and decks; landscape lighting; specimen trees shrubs and color; outdoor rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, sports bars)

Employees: 60


“Her boss had a house where I had the opportunity to bid on doing some work on it,” he explains. “It was a $15,000 job, which was a decent amount of money in 1976. We did masonry work and cement work and a shade patio cover and landscaping, and that was the start of it.

“I haven’t looked back since.”

One of his first moves was to get acquainted with the local chapter of the California Landscape Contractors’ Association (CLCA).

“I wanted to be in a position to improve myself and learn,” he says. “That was where I met almost everyone who had a big hand in mentoring me and giving me advice and information and helping me grow and improve.”

Today, Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction is definitely a full-service landscape construction firm, specializing in large, complete custom residential projects including pools and spas, patio covers and pavilions, outdoor kitchens, sports bars and living rooms, planting, irrigation and lighting, as well as masonry and cement.

“We create outdoor environments to enhance people’s lifestyles,” he says.

To get those high-end construction projects, Cohen relies heavily on his company’s image. His advertising dollars go to two magazines, Orange County Living, (“It goes to homeowners of a certain demographic,” he says.) and Orange Coast Magazine, which helps create name recognition for homeowners looking to upgrade their landscapes.

By contrast, the marketing effort for the maintenance side of the business is primarily one of personal contacts.

“I have a maintenance operations manager who runs that division and he has a lot of connections with the different management companies we work with,” Cohen says. “I also have a full-time maintenance sales person who makes contact with different management companies to build relationships and get us the opportunity to bid on projects as they come up.”

The difference: while the construction side of the business does what Cohen describes as “the occasional commercial job,” the maintenance part of the operation is strictly commercial.

Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction, Inc., keeps the public informed of its award-winning landscape projects in the pages of upscape publications serving Orange County, Calif.

“I don’t do residential maintenance,” he says. “Where the maintenance really helps me is that the maintenance division helps us sell our services to renovate and enhance those properties. We sell a lot of extras with our maintenance jobs, and then we’re able to use some of our construction people to help the maintenance people as the workflow dictates.”

Meeting of minds

It’s that happy convergence that’s gone a long way toward keeping Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction moving ahead during the recent recession. Cohen admits that he did have to lay off some people due to the economy, and he’s still fielding calls from people looking for too-low pricing on their projects.

“Even though the volume of prospective calls is up, there are customers out there who, how can I say this nicely, think I can cut my prices in half and still stay in business,” he says. “The challenge is to keep trying to identify and find good clients.”

The maintenance side of Richard Cohen’s business works closely with property managers. It serves commercial properties and HOAs.

While Cohen says the economy has forced him to take on some jobs he once would have passed on just to keep busy and he hasn’t raised prices on his maintenance clients in at least four years, he’s finding some success, and a good class of clients, by going back to people he’s serviced in the past.

“We send them letters three or four times a year,” he explains. “For instance, we’ll point out that spring is right around the corner and we’d like to replace plants that might not have made it through the winter and check the lighting system and replace lamps that aren’t working.”

Every letter generates some responses, and often times it’s from people who have a regular lawn-mowing service, but don’t pay enough to keep the rest of the yard looking its best.

“If we go in once a quarter and enhance it and dress it up, we can keep a project looking nice,” Cohen says. “That’s been very successful.”

While many of them aren’t large dollar jobs, he adds that in some cases they can be. In one instance last year, an enhancement grew to more than $200,000.

What makes an award-winning project? It’s the quality of work and attention to detail, says RIchard Cohen. Both are apparent in this landscape.

“We ended up renovating some areas we didn’t do the first time we did the job, and it was a 10-year-old job,” Cohen says. “We went in and did a lot of additional things.”

It’s a direction Cohen says seemed to happen naturally as the economy slowed down, mainly because there’s been a lot less new construction. Fortunately, Cohen says he sees advantages to doing both types of projects.

“They both present unique challenges,” he says. “What I like more than anything is if I get a good client that appreciates my expertise and relies on me for information. Then, I can take the project and make some decisions that need to be made and turn it from a good job into an excellent job.”

With almost 60 employees (including eight maintenance crews), Cohen says part of his success comes from having great people that he’s trained to his demanding specifications. Two of his key supervisors have been with him for more than 25 years, and he says one plus to the economy is it’s been easier to find skilled masons and carpenters.

The other important ingredient in his success is a commitment to doing the best job possible. Within only a couple years of openings its doors, Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction began winning awards from CLCA and Cohen believes that represents his greatest success.

What makes an award-winner? “It’s the quality of the work and the attention to detail,” Cohen says. “Part of it is working with a good design to start with, but to me it’s craftsmanship, attention to detail and an insistence on quality work.”

His ability to present that is certainly Cohen’s greatest pleasure.

“It’s seeing that finished product and knowing that I made a difference, both on the property and in the customers’ lives,” he says. “It’s also the enjoyment and pleasure that the client gets out of having a nicely finished job.”

K. Schipper is a writer and editor specializing in B2B publishing. She is a partner in Word Mechanics, based in Palm Springs, Calif. Contact her at