Kurt Kluznik grew up in a mom and pop nursery business in Cleveland, Ohio. He worked in the nursery and when he was old enough, he started his own landscape business. Their visions were quite different; his father had no interest in the landscape business, and Kurt's interests were to get out and install plant materials, and build lawns and patios.

Yet, the apple didn't fall too far from the tree and Kurt Kluznik, the newly installed president of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), is still in the business and lives but three miles from the nursery where he grew up.

Since 1976, Kluznik has been a partner, with Rick Colwell, in Yardmaster, Inc., of Cleveland, Ohio. "People always have horror stories about partnerships, but I haven't experienced any of that. Rick and I get along wonderfully," Kluznik said.

Early in his career, he hired designer Michael Creange, from Long Island, New York, "who opened my eyes to the value of professional design. He taught me the value of good design and good graphics," related Kluznik. "Prior to that, I was just installing materials and labor, as opposed to the finished concept that we have today."

For upwards of twenty years, the majority of their business was landscape construction for the residential market. By the late 1980s, they began to focus on commercial landscape maintenance for shopping centers and condominiums.

Today, almost 70% of their volume comes from maintenance. Yardmaster is now a multi-site company, with three locations in Cleveland; one in Columbus, Ohio and one in Michigan. They offer landscape design and installation, as well as maintenance.

"The real challenge today is learning how to compete and survive in the commodity business environment," Kluznik said. "This is no longer the mom and pop industry that it was twenty years ago. There are companies in the industry that range up to almost $1 billion a year."

"In business today, there is downward pressure on prices. Reverse auctions are coming. This is where large corporations put their landscape maintenance and snow plowing business up for bid. A maximum starting bid is established by the client, and bidders compete against each other by submitting lower prices in real time. When the bidding is over, the company with the lowest price gets the job. Good or bad, that is the trend."

When asked how he keeps up with changes in the business, Kluznik replied: "I think the best way to keep up with business is getting involved with ALCA. Education is at the center of everything ALCA does. The education I get from attending the conferences is invaluable. I'm able to meet with my peers from across the country, share ideas and experiences and learn from others; that's what does it for me. The people in this industry are so willing to share -- they are the 'cream of the crop'."

ALCA has a three-year strategic plan that is now in place, and Kluznik intends to follow that plan. It involves a major growth initiative of 60% in membership and 100% in certification over the next three years. "There's no need to re-invent the wheel; I can be a great copier," quipped Kluznik. "Our plans are aggressive, but we are fortunate to have such a generous and talented board and staff who are oriented to make things happen."

He believes that companies with staying power are those that clearly define their market, and stay within it; they become efficient at what they're doing, are fiscally capable, and recognize the importance of client sensitivity.

"Understanding your customers will become critical when one recognizes that there are other firms vying for the same business. Trying to be all things to all people will no longer do it," Kluznik said.

There was a time when you could get by if you just learned the technical skills. Today, the industry requires not only good technical skills, but business skills as well.

"Companies that don't have their act together in terms of the business side, and don't have an employee development and a continuous learning program within the company may find themselves in difficulty," Kluznik warns. "This is no time for complacency or casual operations."

Kluznik lives in the Cleveland area with his significant other, Deanna, and their three children. Breanna is nine years old, Charlie is two, and Max is four months old. Prior to having the children, he was a workaholic; now he is developing a balance in his life, and his family is a large part of that. His fun and recreation now involves spending time doing things together as a family.

"Our plans are to keep growing the business. Standing still is not an option that interests us," Kluznik emphasizes. "We have the infrastructure with our regional coverage, where we can now become more efficient."

With many corporations going to outsourcing, Yardmaster can now provide those services on a regional basis.

March 2004