When you're only 14 and have already started your own grass-cutting business, you might need someone to help keep you on track. “He was always on me,” says Stephen Lisk, now 32, about his dad. “He would push me and push me, and push me.”
Not that his dad was some kind of ogre. “At that age, you’re still a little kid. You’re focused on playing with your friends. It’s very easy to say, ‘I’ll get to it later.’ But he would say, ‘Hey, you promised you’d be there, you’d better stick to your commitments.’” Lisk credits his dad for “keeping me focused on the ultimate prize.” Because he stayed focused, Stephen Lisk Landscape Management in Bellmawr, New Jersey, the company he started back in 1997, has kept growing. Ten customers became 20, then 30, then 40 and beyond. Now, in 2015, it’s a half-million-dollar-a-year enterprise with seven employees, and still expanding.
But then, being a business owner “runs in my bloodline; that’s where I get it from,” he says. His father, Patrick, worked for a small auto and transmission repair shop for a couple of years, then he opened his own shop. His dad’s sister owned a nail salon.
His dad did well, which allowed his mother, Margaret, to stay home full time, taking care of him and his brother Brett, now 23 and an IT professional.
When Lisk wasn’t pushing a lawn mower, he was brandishing a hockey stick, traveling throughout the region for tournaments. “My Dad couldn’t get to practices during the week, but on the weekends, he made all the games; my Mom did, too.”
While attending Triton Regional High School in Runnemede, Lisk decided to become a CPA, because “Math is easy for me, and CPAs make good money.” After graduation in 2001, he enrolled in Gloucester County Community College in Sewell, New Jersey, and started taking accounting classes. But he quickly grew bored. He decided to drop out, get a job and save money while he contemplated his next move.
At this point, he was 19 years old, and the business he started at age 14 had grown to 80 clients. It had been a constant all through high school and college. But at the time, he saw it only as a means to an end. He never pictured it as a career.
He got a job at a box factory, and stayed there for the next 11 months. “I made good money. I was still a young kid, but I was working 12-hour days, making $1,000 dollars a week, with benefits—in addition to what my business was bringing in.”
His company kept growing. Customers started asking him to do plantings. That’s when he discovered he had a passion for plants, and for designing landscapes.
That part came naturally. “I was talented in art, and had taken a lot of art classes in high school. I’d walk through the big nurseries, looking at all the different plants, putting things together in my head.”
Never doing anything halfway, Lisk put his own unique stamp on the landscapes he created (and still does). “I never wanted someone to ask, ‘What’s the difference between your work and the guy’s down the street? It all looks the same.’” The light came on. He realized that the business he had was the business to keep, and expand. In 2004, he enrolled in Camden County College’s horticulture program. He added school to his already full plate, which included running his business and working at the factory. (What a slacker!) Something had to give.
“The day I decided to quit the box factory, I recall that it was very hot in there. I was pushing a shop broom, and thinking, ‘I’m not spending the rest of my days doing this.’” But his new direction didn’t go over well at home. “My Dad was mad at me for not finishing my accounting degree. At that time, you just didn’t hear about people going to school for horticulture. I think my parents thought my interest in plants was just a hobby.”
Around that same time, concrete pavers were starting to get popular. So Lisk added courses in paver installation and landscape lighting.
“I remember installing my first paver walkway. Before I knew it, the walkway became a patio, the patio became steps, the steps became a paver driveway, and the paver driveway became an outdoor kitchen.”
Today, in addition to installing and maintaining landscapes, his company installs sod, synthetic turf and sprinkler systems; does lawn dethatching, aeration and seeding; pesticide application; landscape and holiday lighting; hardscaping and concrete work; water features and snow removal.
Lisk credits sports for giving him the confidence to start a business. “I was on the varsity ice hockey team when I was only a freshman. I’m not tall, but I was very fast, and super competitive. I know I’m not going to fail.”
He realizes, like most people of his generation, the importance of Internet marketing. So he spends many hours a week doing search-engine optimization to boost his website’s page rankings, and spends a lot of time on social media, writing blog entries and posting pictures of his company’s work.
“Lately, I’ve been a pretty big YouTube guy. Our Facebook page is full of links to video walkthroughs of projects we’ve done. It’s all about educating potential customers about why they should hire us.”
Lisk strives to give his customers the best quality work possible. “That’s one of the reasons we are where we are. We might not be huge—yet—but our projects are darned near perfect.”
Always looking for the next opportunity, Lisk’s latest foray is into drainage, something that grew out of excavating for paver installations. “We’ve gotten a lot of hands-on experience with it over the past two or three years, to where we’ve become really good at it.” Word’s gotten around; he gets calls from all over New Jersey.
Marriage and family are somewhere down the road. As for his company’s future, Lisk envisions “big things, like moving towards chemical-free, organic solutions. I want to offer my clients every kind of service I can, instead of letting someone else get their foot in the door.”
But he doesn’t want to grow so big that quality goes down. “A lot of businesses fail because they don’t have a strong enough structure, and expand too fast. I want to keep our company lean, mean and profitable.”
With its owner’s boundless energy, ambition and confidence, don’t be surprised to see Stephen Lisk Landscape Management double or triple in size over the next years. He’s one young entrepreneur whose game merits watching, and not just by his proud Dad.