When you think of the landscape contractor, images of sweaty men in dirty jeans and tee shirts probably fill your head. You may even resemble that remark. But there’s another side to this industry. One filled with sugar and spice and everything nice. You don’t always see them out in the field, but they are there, often working behind the scenes. To paraphrase James Brown, it’s a man’s world, but it wouldn’t mean nothin’ without the women in landscaping.
There’s no template that these women follow; no set pattern that led them to a profession dominated by the opposite gender. Some of them run their own company, some work for others. The size of the companies and the scope of their responsibilities are as varied as the women themselves. Yet what they have in common is grit and a determination to be successful in a profession that they love.
Back in 2000, when Susan Rush started Green Star Landscape Services, in Battle Creek, Michigan, she had little experience in the field. What she possessed was a burning desire to succeed. For 18 years, factory work kept her gainfully employed. But when she became the victim of downsizing, Rush had little choice but to rethink her career options.
The path she chose was higher education, earning a bachelor of science degree in recreation and a minor in business management, knowing good and well that she intended to start a business one day. As a side hobby, Rush often did landscape maintenance for friends and acquaintances. Things became more serious when she decided to become a master gardener, and then attended Michigan State University’s two-year landscape and nursery program.
“It became a business when I decided to go to back to school full-time,” says Rush. “I was working as a recreation director full-time, but I still had that dream of being my own boss. Landscaping has always been a passion.”
Her education may have helped her get started, but it was hard work that made her succeed. Taking advantage of the contacts she made while working as a recreation director, Rush was able to network within the community and quickly established a reputation for professionalism.
One strategy Rush uses to distinguish her company from the competition is to promote Green Star’s professionalism and knowledge. “Our trucks and equipment are spotless and kept in great shape,” says Rush. “We don’t have that fly-by-night image that I think a lot of landscape companies have.”
“Safety is a big issue,” adds Rush. “We received two safety awards last year from ALCA. I want people to feel real good when we’re on their property. We spend money on training and certification and things like that.”
Another important component to Green Star’s success is its professional affiliations and involvement in community causes. “We promote our staff and service using our ALCA affiliation and certification. We stay very connected to the community’s non-profit climate, and use community-based events to network with local executives, businesses, and homeowners,” says Rush.
“We picked up a big non-profit account, and it was solely based on the executive director being impressed by our community involvement. Last year, we contributed more than $5,000 in labor and materials to local causes. We just try to keep our name out there.”
Keeping her company’s name out there has proven to be a large part of Green Star’s formula for success. Year One in business found her two-person operation getting its sea legs. Year Two, the operation nearly doubled its business volume. And last year, Green Star not only doubled the size of its work force, but also enjoyed a nearly 50 percent increase in volume.
But with success comes growing pains, such as the need to maintain the crews she now employs. That means a steady stream of work is necessary to keep dependable crews on the payroll. As the operation gets bigger, so does the need for a commercial site large enough to accommodate that growth. And there’s always the need to delegate responsibilities to others in the organization, so that Rush can focus on ways to direct the company forward.
As a female in a male-dominated industry, earning the respect of industry peers, suppliers, and manufacturers is a never-ending challenge. “I think you just have to work harder to get the respect,” says Rush. “If I go to a trade show, and talk to sales people, only a few will take me seriously. Some have asked if my husband owns the business, and if I’m just helping out.”
By striving to exceed industry standards, Rush says she can overcome whatever stereotypes she has to overcome. “I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing; I certainly think that I’ve earned the respect here locally. I like to think I’ve raised the bar on quality and service delivery.”
Rush is currently expanding her services by developing a niche market in recreational spaces within landscaping that includes the installation of synthetic putting greens. It may be a risk, but not being afraid to take chances is certainly another key element to her company’s growth.
“Being in business is a huge financial pressure. I’ve got people depending on me, and I really want our customers to be happy with our services. You just have to be able to get past that scared part and say to yourself ‘you know what -- I’m going for it.’ Life is really short; I don’t listen to the naysayer.”
For Christy Webber, the road to her own successful Chicago-based landscaping company began in the small Michigan town of Montrose. As a little girl living in the country, she loved to be outdoors -- hunting, fishing, snowmobiling, and motorcycling were her passions. Little did she know that her love for the great outdoors would lead to a career as a landscape contractor.
While on her way to a bachelor’s degree in physical education at the University of Denver, she and some friends on the women's basketball team started mowing lawns for extra money. She eventually sold the business and moved to Chicago to be closer to home.
Webber briefly taught physical education, but soon realized that teaching was not her passion. So Webber fell back on something she enjoyed doing in her college days. “I knew how to mow lawns. I knew the equipment, I knew how to do a real good job, and do real straight lines and string trimming.”
Beginning with two people working out of an apartment, Christy Webber Landscapes was born. With a little bit of money saved from her teaching days, she bought a used truck, a mower, a string trimmer and a hand-held blower. “I put it all in the back of the truck, and I drove around, and put out a bunch of flyers.”
Webber knew some folks in a well-to-do northern suburb of Chicago, and worked night and day trying to get people to let her cut their lawns. Eventually her hard work started to pay off. “They really liked that I came out, and they liked the fact that I was a girl. What I really loved doing was mowing grass and making people’s yards look really perfect, knowing that when I walked away from it, I was doing a better job than the next guy.”
It was that attention to detail and customer service that gave Webber her big break. A referral led to mowing the lawn for the daughter of a prominent Chicago businessman. That, in turn, gave her a shot at bidding on the lawn maintenance contract for Chicago’s United Center. She got the contract, and that, in essence, put her on the map.
“Before that, I could tell potential clients that my company serviced 160 customers a week, maintaining their lawns and it still wouldn’t matter. I didn’t have enough clout to bid on anything big. United Center was huge to me… it still is. Mowing the United Center gave me something on my resume besides residential lawns.”
Her firm still handles the United Center. It also maintains Chicago’s Navy Pier, McCormick Place, the Museum of Science and Industry, and both of the city’s airports, along with the Chicago Department of Transportation’s medians and boulevard programs. Still, one doesn’t just go from mowing lawns to becoming a seven-figure landscape contractor without some incremental steps along the way.
For Webber, those steps included hiring the right people as her company grew. “I think I had the passion and the drive, but I wasn’t a landscape designer or architect, and I didn’t have any background in construction.” So she brought a landscape architect on board, someone with experience in budgeting, construction and drawing documents for big, large-scale projects. Once her company was able to bid those projects, it quickly began to grow, and she continued to surround herself with people who possessed skills she lacked.
|A foreteller of things to come... Susan Rush at age seven.|
But just hiring people is not enough. “You’ve got to treat them right,” says Webber. “What inspired the people that I hired was that they knew I loved the business too, and I wasn’t doing this just to make money. I really felt like we were making a difference in Chicago; that we were going to be something and do it better than the other guy.”
Being a woman in a man’s world has not been a major problem for Webber because she would not let it become one. Instead of fighting any discrimination she encountered, she worked around it. If a banker or supplier was more comfortable talking with a man, she’d let a male employee talk with that person. “Why fight it? Just get the right people with you and let them deal with it.”
Feeling sorry for herself was never an option; often she was surprised that someone would treat her differently just because of her gender. “I probably didn’t recognize it because I just never would allow myself to think that I was any less for being a woman, or that these men thought that I was any less than they were. I think a lot of women do experience discrimination; I don’t want to downplay it. For me, it wasn’t worth trying to change them. I figured that once they got to know me, they’d see that I knew as much as my male counterpart.”
A combination of moxie and good-old fashioned hard work continues to be a formula of success for Christy Webber Landscapes. The company experienced 35 percent growth last year. What began with a beat-up old pickup truck and a mower now encompasses ¾ of an acre with 3,000 square feet of office space and 5,000 square feet of interior shop space. And in the fall of 2006, they expect to move into a new 10,000 square foot complex located on 12 acres of land.
Webber takes none of this for granted. She’s grateful for her success and quick to share the credit. “I know a couple of companies that were the same size as we were, and I’ve surpassed them. They wonder, ‘what did she do?’ I think it’s that I was willing to take the risks and hire people and let them take care of certain parts of my business. I’m a control freak,” she adds, “but I let other people excel in my company and bring great things to it, which brought my company up.”
We first met Virginia Aldridge, of A-TreeBiz, in Edmond, Oklahoma, a few months back while researching an article on landscape design software (see Irrigation & Green Industry, January 2005). Not only were we impressed by her willingness to utilize new technologies to further her business, but her story was also one we couldn’t forget.
Aldridge began her landscape design company more than seven years ago. But unlike some, who go into business for themselves after working for another green industry company, her life before landscaping seems completely unrelated to the field. For 34 years, Aldridge was a hair stylist. But after years on her feet, she needed a change.
“I was tired of being inside, and working behind a chair,” says Aldridge. “You’re constantly on a schedule. I would put in 10-12 hour days standing behind that chair. So I thought landscaping was something where I could still be in the design world. I grew up on a farm, so I was definitely an outside person. Also I just felt like this was an industry that seemed like it was up and coming, and I thought it would be fun.”
Now one doesn’t just go from cutting hair to designing landscapes in a day. For that type of knowledge, Aldridge went back to school. While her experience as a stylist did prove helpful, she also realized she had a lot to learn. “It’s still in the design world, but it’s a totally different ballgame because you’re working with live plants instead of people. It’s sort of the same, but it’s not.”
For a while, Aldridge was certainly burning the candle at both ends, working as a hair stylist, going to school, and starting her landscape business all at the same time. She was about six hours away from completing her horticulture degree in landscape design when business really began to pick up. She was able to leave the life of hair styling behind and devote herself full-time to landscape design. She’s been busy ever since.
Since most of her business comes from referrals, Aldridge says she’s rarely had to bid against someone else. She prides herself on the trust that she establishes with her customers and says that’s a key component to growing your business through word-of-mouth. In fact, her first customers were some of the women whose hair she was also cutting.
She credits some of her success to her use of landscape design software. Aldridge is surprised that more landscape contractors don’t use software. Talking with friends in the business, she found that many of them were not computer literate. When she first started her company, she too was a computer novice. “At the time that I bought the software, I had barely started working with the computer. So I went to school; I had to learn, but it wasn’t that difficult.”
It’s that “can-do” attitude that’s allowed her company to prosper in such a relatively short period of time. Over the last four years she’s experienced a growth of 20 to 30 percent annually. And she’s not limiting herself to the world of residential and commercial landscape design. Aldridge is also raising trees on a small tree farm. She says she’s trying to do “a little bit of everything” to see what she likes best. “There are a lot of jobs that become a passion, and this is one of them.”
And this year, Aldridge took out an ad in the local phonebook targeting the do-it-yourself homeowner. “I’m marketing myself as a consultant. I will come out to their home, take a digital picture, put together a program using imaging design software, and let the homeowner design the job.”
Aldridge’s willingness to take on new challenges is a trait that all these women have in common. They all share a positive outlook that has been instrumental in their ability to overcome any obstacle, and serves as a major component of their success. And while Aldridge was talking about her company, she could have been speaking for all the women when she summed up her approach to taking on a new venture.
“I’ll try it and see what happens. I’ll just sort of have fun with it. And if it doesn’t work out, you go to plan B. That’s life.”