At the age of 51 Jody Shilan feels like he’s been in the landscape business all his life, certainly for the majority of it: 38 years. “I had a paper route up to the age of 13,” Shilan recalls, “and one of my friends was making money cutting lawns for his neighbors. So I approached the people on my paper route and created a maintenance route. It’s funny but it turned out to be great marketing—they already knew and trusted me, so I segued very well from delivering papers to mowing lawns.”
When Shilan graduated from high school, he sold his route and enrolled at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, majoring in landscape architecture.
He graduated in 1986 and went to work for a landscape architectural firm in Medford, New Jersey.
While there, Shilan realized that he was more comfortable working on residential sites than on parks and large projects. He decided to go back to school, where he earned a master’s degree in landscape architecture from the University of M a s s a c h u s e t t s , Amherst.
Upon graduation, Shilan moved to Manhattan. He married his wife, Kathy, in 1990. He joined the team at Doelrler Landscapes located in Lawrenceville, a suburb of Princeton, New Jersey, two hours away from his home in New York. It was a long commute, but he learned a lot. He cut his teeth designing and selling large-scale, high-end residential work in New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
In 1995, with a baby on the way, Shilan moved to the suburbs of New Jersey. He also felt he should try his hand at a business of his own, so he decided to start a landscape design/build company, which he called Landworks. Now his responsibilities changed. In addition to designing and estimating, he had to build the projects, as well as attend to the normal tasks of office procedures. Ultimately, the experience left Shilan dissatisfied; he realized that his skills and passion remained in landscape design and sales.
“After five years, I realized I was not the kind of person who could grow a company,” he admits. “Like a lot of people who go into business, you go into it for something you love. But there are so many other aspects of running a business that you don’t enjoy and you’re not especially good at. I enjoy the designing and building, but I’m not an MBA and I didn’t like the business part of it.” He sold the company and equipment to pursue other opportunities.
At that time, Jacobsen Landscaping and Design, Midland Park, New Jersey, was expanding. Shilan took a position with the firm as a designer/sales person. He worked there from 1999 through 2001. “The owner was building a design center and he was doing things that I knew I could never do on my own,” he says. “It was a great learning experience.”
In 2001, a better opportunity presented itself and Shilan moved to Borst Landscape and Design, Allendale, New Jersey. “When I first started working there, the projects were medium-sized. During my four years there, I helped transition the company into highend residential design/build.“ In 2005, Shilan reached another turning point in his career and, once again started his own company called Shilan Designs, a landscape firm that targeted the landscape contractor. “I had developed a very successful design/sales process. I was ready to go back into business for myself,” says Shilan. “I joined the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association (NJLCA). It was great; I got to meet landscape contractors who needed a designer, plus, through my network, I was able to get them installation work. It’s a great relationship. ” “As a member, you get to network with your peers and develop relationships and friendships with people who go through the same struggles that you do,” Shilan says. “You meet your competitors, but they can be your friends as well.”
Through the years, NJLCA has served him well and Shilan feels it is now time to give back. This year, he assumed the office of president of the association.
Shilan has found a comfortable middle ground that suits him perfectly. “I’m the guy who loves interacting with the client and selling the project,” he says. “I’m not a production guy; I don’t like scheduling crews or dealing with all that equipment.”
He works with small to mid-sized landscape companies that can’t afford to hire a designer full time. The majority of his revenue is generated from design fees, but he also works on a commission basis with some contractors, selling the installation to homeowners.
Currently, Shilan is handling multiple swimming pool installations. He refuses to stand around long enough to become static, and continues to evolve within his field. His latest undertaking includes FromDesign2Build.com, a members-only website he created for landscape design/build contractors. He writes articles, has a discussion forum and provides peer-to-peer conference calls. “I do a lot of consulting now,” says Shilan, who finds the Internet a terrific way to disseminate information and assist his peers.
Today, Shilan and his wife share their Wyckoff, New Jersey, home with daughter Sydney, 16, and son Jake, 13. Every year, the Shilan family likes to summer in Cape Cod. Life is good, but the road to arriving there was not a straight line for the firm’s namesake.
“It’s definitely an evolution and it’s still evolving,” says Shilan. “I wouldn’t trade any of my experiences along the way. I think the value of working for large design/ build companies, as well as the experience of physically doing things hands-on makes me a better designer. My designs are buildable, they’re realistic, they’re exciting— I can walk the walk and talk the talk. Working for these various companies has brought me to the point I’m at today.”
Of course, the recession hit our industry hard, but Shilan says he’s working through the economic downturn. “It’s affected everybody. We’re not on an upswing, but we are consistent and hanging in there.”