Many young people graduating from high school don't have a clue as to what to be when they 'grow up'. David Katz, founder and president of Elite Landscaping in Poughkeepsie, New York, was not one of them. He knew from the get-go what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
When Katz finished high school, he went on to the State University of New York at Cobleskill, receiving his degree in landscape design and ornamental horticulture. Upon graduation from Cobleskill, he enrolled in the school of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) in Syracuse, New York, and majored in landscape architecture.
The first summer out of ESF, in 1980, Katz went to work for a local garden center. He thought that it would just be a summer job. That summer job lasted five and a half years. You might consider those as post graduate work.
Katz started in the garden center, then went on to the landscape crew, and eventually became a foreman. He then became a designer estimator, and also gained sales knowledge.
He continued on to become the garden center and nursery manager.
Now managing the garden center, Katz had people reporting to him. It was a family business, and when the next generation began working at the garden center, “they had to interact and often reported to me, which they resented,” he says.
“Business was good and people were asking me to do things the company didn’t do,” said Katz. “They asked for planters, paving stones, lighting, etc. It started me thinking. When the owner’s children became more confrontational, I decided that it would be a good time to leave.”
“I got to know a lot of people who worked at the garden center, because they reported to me. I was talking to my foreman one day, saying how I would do things differently, and he asked if I left, would I take him? If he could get another person to invest, he asked if we could be a partnership,” said Katz. “Of course, I said, two heads are better than one and three are better than two—or so I thought. Once I made the decision to leave, we began setting up the new company. That was in August 1985, and by mid-1986, we were in business.”
Over a short period of time, it became obvious that this partnership was not going to work. “They wanted to focus on being handymen and doing maintenance. One of them didn’t see the value in the design/ build side,” said Katz. “He didn’t think maintenance and snow plowing were the right mix. So they left.”
Katz recalled, “During this time, I had two very large jobs. They were three times larger than any job I had sold before, even in the company I had worked for. My partners left just as this work was coming on stream, so I had to do something fast.”
Katz placed an ad in the Pennysaver. He hired eight people over the phone in one night. “Show up tomorrow and you’ve got the job,” he told them. “They all showed up. I had an incredible crew of young college students who were working with me on these projects.”
With his formal education and a half-dozen years of hands-on experience, Katz began to realize how much he had learned. More importantly, he was able to capitalize on those experiences.
remember, these were the “good ol’ days.” Business was good, but in the early 1990s it slowed down. Not being prepared for it, Katz’s company took some big hits. “I learned from that to be lean,” he said. “So when 2008 came, we were pretty much prepared.”
Because he always focused on design/build, Katz has an innate ability to spot new trends and jump on them. He is always adding additional services to the company’s menu. He picked up on landscape lighting very early in the game; irrigation work, high quality masonry as well as retaining walls and paving stones added more volume. He moved into ponds and water features and swimming pools.
“I would say outdoor kitchens, great rooms and fire pits have been the movers over the last five years,” said Katz. “We do a project for a client, and a year or so later we’re called in to do even more. We take pride in every project we do.”
Katz continues, “We want to grow the company, but on a solid footing. I don’t want to be the biggest; I want to be the best.” That mindset has been the building block for his business for the past 29 years.
Katz’s wife, Debbie, has been involved in the business ever since they were married. He started the business from his home, so she was always there. After 30 years of marriage, the Katz’s maintain an affinity for each other. They love being together.
When their second child was five, Debbie got involved on a full-time basis. “She is our office manager,” said Katz. “We’re best friends and confidants, and together we continue to fight her nine-year battle with breast cancer. Unfortunately, it escalated three years ago, to stage 4 metastatic. This is no easy gig to deal with anytime, but it is an added burden when running a small business.”
At age 54, what does Katz see for the future? “We have a succession plan. My kids are heavily involved in the business. My son, Mitchell, is vice-president of finance and a director of Hr. He is responsible for all of our tools and equipment and controls and service division. My daughter, Shellee, is counsel to the company.”
The current plan is that within the next six years, Mitchell will take over as president of the company. He’s very capable and still indoctrinating himself. “Because we have broadly different styles, we work well together. I see myself as focusing on our training and educating our successors. We’re building a team that can do what I do,” Katz said.
“Then I see myself staying on as chairman of the board, or advisor, or whatever he needs. If he tells me one day, ‘Dad, you don’t have to be here anymore,’ then I know where the door is…as long as he gets me my Porsche 911.”
David Katz has a lot of years left before he hangs it up. “I’ve been blessed with a great family, and built an exceptionally good business and a supportive team of professionals. Now it’s time to pay it forward.”