The Yardstick: Q&A With Mike Sanders Of Crimson Valley Landscaping


From one man without a truck to a local leader with 60+ employees and four divisions.

The Yardstick

A Timeline Of Accomplishments

Crimson Valley Landscaping

Mike Sanders, Owner
Crimson Valley Landscaping
Rockford, IL

1. When, why, and how did you start your business?

Crimson Valley Landscaping was started July 1, 2001, just months before 9/11. Great timing. Start a landscape company during the hottest part of the year, and then 9/11. I was 35 years old then. I think starting my business a little older than many gave me a good perspective on how to treat and deal with co-workers—since I was an employee for 14 years of my adult life. I learned that many owners put themselves first in everything involving the company—and they fail to recognize what that does to a team. Owners must always remember that the team will perform at the level on which they are treated. Business owners may have a unique drive, but they only get as far as the team can push the business.

For funding, my wife and I had maybe $2,000 saved and a very small 401k. Before I went out on my own, during the first week of 2001, I told my boss that I would give him six months notice and be gone July 1. If he wanted me to leave before that, just say the word. I really liked my job and coworkers, but the owner and I just saw things differently. He laughed and said I was power hungry. He did not believe I would leave a company that I had total control of, for the most part. So when July 1 rolled around, I walked into a meeting the owner was having and told him thanks for the opportunity and wished him the best.

That is officially when Crimson Valley started. Zero clients, no phone number, no work, no office, no business cards, no business was even registered. I just waited until I stepped down, and then the challenge became real. I had no vehicle after I resigned, no truck, because I handed in my company vehicle. I started walking home. I had to call my wife to come pick me up from the roadside I was walking down. I quickly realized I did not have the best plan when leaving.

I made a note to myself: “I need to work on my planning skills.” I had a Harley Davidson and I drove it around town to construction sites, parking two to three blocks away so nobody would hear or see what I was driving. I looked for foreman and/or job trailers to see if they needed a landscaper. A local marina in the construction phase gave me an opportunity to bid on a job. They accepted my proposal and asked when I could start. Upon explaining how busy I was, I informed them I could squeeze them in the schedule in about a week. I went home and told my scared and supportive wife Rhonda: we must buy a truck, a trailer, one tarp, one spade… since I was the crew, one of everything! We had a couple old rakes and round point shovels at home to use. The next day my wife found a truck to purchase. We went to a bank and borrowed enough to buy the truck and we were off to the races. When we started, the only service we offered was design build landscaping.

The Yardstick

2. Describe your business now.

Crimson Valley Landscaping has four divisions: Design Build; Commercial Maintenance; Commercial Snow and Ice Management; and a Deck and Pergola company that operates under the name of Estate Deck. We have between 55 to 65 coworkers. We are located in Rockford, IL and we cover the surrounding area along with Beloit and Janesville, WI. It’s all within a 30- to 40-mile radius approximately.

Design Build is run by our General Manager Chris Bausman, a very driven, well planned, and organized person. Chris has taken our Design Build to new levels; he is our best teacher within our company. We talk all the time about how there is a vast difference between production people and salespeople. Yet just like all rules have exceptions, I think Chris is the rare breed that can design and sell large jobs and really understand production. Chris has his hands full daily and handles everything in a calm and cool manner. His ability to care for the production teams and teach efficiencies, while also mentoring a sales team is a tough task for a tough person to handle. I do not know a better confidant. Chris’s team does planting, hardscapes, outdoor living projects, swimming pools, yard installs, and irrigation.

Commercial maintenance has been the major focus of our company over the last seven to eight years. Long term contracts and recurring revenue—all for predictable outcomes. Our Commercial maintenance team is run by Ashley Nyen and Ben Heitman, two talented and passionate people who believe in being the best always. Commercial maintenance focuses on Spring and Fall clean ups, weekly mowing, summer pruning, lawn care and irrigation maintenance.

3. What is your educational background or skill set? Is there a degree, continuing education class, or skill you recommend for success?

My education is from a small Catholic high school in Freeport, IL. Our school had under 120 kids from freshman to seniors. I believe that school taught me the importance of a team, being a good person, and putting others first. My high school years were a big learning period in my life, starting with always being accountable. I went to Illinois State University. Most people think college was a big advantage in starting Crimson Valley, but I have learned more in life from my co-workers than high school and college combined. My teammates have taught me more about life and business than any schooling. To be successful you really need a few traits, such as: being stubborn; acknowledging when you are wrong; listening; and giving credit where it is due. I’m not stating that I do all of these, but like many things, it is a work in progress. For schooling, get an accounting or finance degree so you understand your financials and how they are the key indicators of your business success. You really need to understand job costing, balance sheets, cash flow, and your profit/loss (P/L). If you have a grasp of these items, you will guide your company in the correct direction. You can always hire the people who know how to produce landscaping projects.

4. What do you see as the main reasons why your business grew successfully?

Crimson Valley employees volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.

This is the easiest question to answer: It’s because of our team. Chris Bausman, as mentioned, Christian Oyer, the first person Crimson Valley hired. He now runs our estimating team. He really developed our estimating system without much help. Ashley Nyen, who was hired as a contract administrator with the intention of leaving after one year to go to mortuary school. Ashley now runs our office. She is hard working and very efficient and will drop everything to assist others; a real team player. Dawn James who went back to school, earned a design degree, and now is our lead salesperson. Our customers just love dealing with a smiling positive person who is creative and filled with industry knowledge. Luis Ramos, Gerardo Ramos, Juan Perez, Gerardo Martinez, and Armando Nava. These men are our Public Relations team. They are in front of the customers more than anyone else from Crimson Valley and our customers love dealing with such smart and hard-working men. Most people think the success of a company is due to the owner and maybe it’s true but, in our case, success comes from the sacrifice, hard work, and determination of the co-workers listed above and the rest of our team who never stop striving to be the best.

Our true success really started when we figured out the following: The right team leaders. Investing in training and education. The right team goals. The right solution to critical problems. Measuring outcomes of actions. An effective monitoring system for tracking progress, key performance indicators (KPIs) and evaluating P/L. The right plan of action. Communication.

5. How did you set yourself apart from competition?

We believe we are professionals in our industry and community, so we are always learning, teaching, innovating, and improving. We set a standard expectation both personally and professionally that is hard to achieve, but achievable. Both statements are from our core values and mission statement, and we all believe in them, and this is why we have been successful. I think the little things really count a lot. We dress in slacks and dress shirts, our shoes are removed before we enter a house, we follow up appointments with a thank you email and recap the meeting. Our field crews wear uniforms, safety vests, and PPE always. We do what we say we are going to do. Our work trucks and trailers are washed, clean, and neat so when people see us, they know Crimson Valley is a professional company.

We volunteer in our community, such as Habitat for Humanity, Rockford food pantry, Paws, and Meld that provides shelter for abused women and children. We have supplied beds, computers, clothes, toiletries, and gifts for the holidays.

Crimson Valley Landscaping
Crimson Valley Landscaping has grown from one person to over 60 employees and four divisions producing high-quality work, such as this hardscape.

6. What was your best business decision?

Louis Ramos, Gerardo Ramos, Juan Perez, Armando Nave, Gerardo Martinez, Christian Oyer, Chris Bausman, Ashley Nyen, Dawn James, and Ben Heitman. These team- mates improve our company daily and are very passionate about being the best, they are champions in work and life. They are the reason why our customers receive the best in quality, effort, efficiency, and results. These are just a few examples of why I am so proud of them all.

7. What was your worst business decision?

Not reaching out for guidance from NALP and ILCA, our national and state associations, earlier in our companies’ history. There are a lot of people associated with them and they have a lot of experience to share. Another mistake, when our company was a lot smaller, was thinking it was too small to really run like a bigger, well-organized company.

8. What was your funniest business experience?

When we started Crimson Valley, I purchased 3D software and thought it was the bomb. It looked so easy, and for most part, I’m sure it was. After loading the program (that was on, like, 10 floppy disks), I started to play with it. By playing, I’m saying I was trying to figure out how the heck you run this program that was supposed to be easy. I think I may have had a mini melt down that night in my office—which was our basement at the time. My youngest daughter, Lauren, came down to see why I was talking so loud with, most likely, a few bad words. I explained that I was starting a company and she would not understand how hard everything is.

Lauren went and got my wife, Rhonda, and they came to the basement. My wife said I needed a time-out, so I went out back to contemplate what a failure this was going to be. Then 10 minutes later, Lauren asked me to come back to the basement. She explained how easy it really was and how she could teach me to run this program… if she could get an extra hour of TV time. So through a 10-year-old little girl, I learned some computer skills and how to negotiate. What a lesson! Thank you, Lauren and Rhonda!

9. What is your favorite piece of equipment?

I like big equipment: skid loaders, excavators; and trucks. Maybe because I played with them as a kid. Maybe they are just really cool when you see them on a job-site, or at the end of the season when they are back at the shop to start getting prepared for snow. They operate with strength, finesse, and precision. With the correct operators, they really make jobs easier and more efficient. Did I mention that new, big equipment is just cool? I wish I knew how to operate them.

10. What is your advice to others?

The right team leaders. The right team goals. The right solution to critical problems. Measuring outcomes of actions. An effective monitoring system for tracking progress, KPIs, and evaluating P/L. The right plan of action. Communication. This will get you to where you want to go. Yes, it is in here twice!

Buckle up and enjoy the ride as hard days are coming. The road will really narrow during the journey, and at times you will feel alone, but the memories will forgive the pain. Reflection will help you realize how fortunate you have been.

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