If you ask most landscape contractors what keeps them interested in their profession, chances are they’ll tell you they have a strong desire to work with their hands, to create, and to design. They are craftsman. Excellence in their craft and pride in their work can be more powerful than any tool at their disposal. Excellence in craftsmanship is what separates a merely good contractor from one who creates truly inspired projects. These projects bring joy, not only to clients but also to the contractor and crew who worked on them.
What defines excellence? Passion for your work and attention to detail are both essential markers of excellence according to John and Barbara Stropko, co-owners of New Desert Galleries in Tucson, Arizona. The Stropkos have an obvious passion for creating environments that blend multiple elements into a pleasing, cohesive whole. “We love what we do,” says John Stropko “We want our clients to love it too.”
This passion has been one of the primary ingredients in the successful business built by this husband and wife team. The company has won numerous state and national awards, the most recent being the prestigious 2004 Exterior Environmental Improvement Judges Award, the crme de la crme of honors bestowed each year by the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA). It was the Stropkos’ attention to detail and the complexity of the project, a residential landscape set in a remote and pristine location in the Arizona desert, that helped cinch the award.
New Desert Galleries is a small firm that employs 12 people and does a volume of approximately $1.6 million per year. But while the company is small, the projects they take on are usually big and always extraordinary.
The project that won their recent ALCA award is no exception. Starting with a home that looked like a 1980s tract house, the company transformed the residence into a sanctuary with the look of a 200 year old “work-in-progress” set in a Mediterranean inspired courtyard-style retreat. They used recycled 1930s brick and veneers made of stone gathered on site, along with hand-carved Mexican cantera stone. They added ramadas for outdoor dining and reading, and water for swimming and gardening.
Tiptoeing through the desert
The project utilized their entire 12-person crew and took more than a year to complete. The Stropkos faced major obstacles presented by a delicate and problematic worksite. The property is adjacent to the Saguaro National Park, a pristine desert known for its huge saguaro cacti.
“This is a stunning, gorgeous piece of land,” says Barbara. “To some people the desert might seem like a rugged and unforgiving place, but it’s actually very fragile, with its wildflowers, grasses, and cacti.” Negative impact on the desert was simply not an option. A vehicle driving back and forth over the desert can leave its mark for over 50 years. This made access to the site a serious logistical concern.
Care of the fragile setting was not easy. Like many of the Stropkos' projects, this was a full scale design-build that included major construction involving cranes, trucks, tractors, and weighty deliveries. The construction and staging work all had to be done within the property’s developed area, with limited access via a narrow dirt road. Owner access to the property also had to be maintained in the limited space. “It was intense,” says Barbara. “Every delivery and all of the construction had to be carefully coordinated to make sure that we would not disturb the desert.” Despite the logistical obstacles, the project came together beautifully. Designer John Stropko was aiming for an authentic, aged feel. “Our crews spent equal time installing and then sandblasting, acid etching, faux painting and staining the site,” he says. “We also pre-rusted and sealed metals and used bricks that were tumbled prior to installation.” Even the plantings were carefully chosen and installed to look like they had been planted long ago and worked by various gardeners over the years.
Details and more details
It is precisely this kind of attention to detail in design and installation that brought the Stropkos into the full-service landscaping business in the first place. John Stropko started his career as a swimming pool contractor more than 25 years ago. Many of his projects featured elaborate designs including stone that he manufactured himself.
His designs were just one element in each project, however, and this was a source of frustration. “Often there were three or four contractors working on each site,” says Barbara. “One would do the pool, one the landscape, one the hardscape, and so on. Sometimes it was like a puzzle made up of three or four different design concepts that didn’t always match.”
The Stropkos quickly felt a need to get involved in all aspects of the landscape. “We decided to take each project from design to completion,” says Barbara. “That way we’d have control of the outcome.” With full-service contracting, they could make sure that the overall design was unified and that each space flowed effortlessly into the next.
This change in direction has enabled the Stropkos to develop expertise in a diverse array of installations. They now specialize in exquisite yards including swimming pools, spas, water features, artificial rock, outdoor barbeques, entertainment areas, and other custom-designed outdoor living amenities. They manufacture much of their own stone, create sculptures of metal and concrete, and construct elaborate architectural features, like those found in the ALCA award-winning residence.
After John develops the over-all design, they carefully choose their materials so that every piece fits seamlessly. If they can’t find one of the pieces they need, they make it from scratch.
“Many of our projects are in homes built right up to the side of a mountain or cliff,” says Barbara. “The land may have been bladed down to a flat surface or gouged out of the cliff. Some people rely on plantings to cover up a situation like this. Instead, we manufacture and install artificial rock that we’ve matched to existing rock from the area. This way we can restore the property to the look it had before the builder came in.”
John points out that inspired designs are only half of the equation of a successful full-service landscape business. The other half is an emphasis on performance. “Your designs can’t just be beautiful, you have to make sure they ‘work’ too,” he says. The swimming pools and spas they build are state of the art in plumbing, cleaning, structure, and system controls. The technical know-how he’s gained from years of hands-on work building pools and yards helps him design projects that work well mechanically and function to meet the living styles of the clients.
A winning team: contractor plus client plus crew
The Stropkos' attention to detail and passion for their work is not only evident at the worksite. It also influences the way they run their business, deal with their customers, and manage their employees.
“One of the things that makes our projects work is that we strive to develop a great relationship with our clients,” says Barbara. “We’ve been fortunate to work with extraordinary clients who have a special appreciation for what we do. Our projects are special. They’re intense and they take a long time to complete – sometimes over a year and a half. We need to make sure that we have a good relationship so that it’s a pleasurable experience for all of us. We do a lot of hand-holding and become like family to our clients.”
John agrees. “We offer our clients a value that isn’t based solely on dollars. We feel it’s important to prepare clients for what is to come and be available to them every step of the way. Most of our business is with higher end clients. They want a ‘turn-key’ project, a single company responsible for everything. These people are busy and they appreciate a single-source.”
And the result of all of this handholding? “At the end of each project, almost every client is absolutely blown away,” says Barbara. “We always give them more than they expect.”
The Stropkos' personal approach extends to their crew as well as their clients. Part of their business strategy includes careful cross-training of their employees. They feel that cross-training is essential to shaping a versatile team made up of employees who take as much pride in their work as the owners do. This helps ensure employee satisfaction. “We have great appreciation for our employees,” says Barbara Stropko. “We treat them with respect and make sure our clients do too.”
The work atmosphere at New Desert Galleries contributes to a consistent, stable work force. “We have people who’ve been with us a long, long time,” says Barbara. “We treat them like family; they are family.”
The Stropkos' respect for each other’s work is also an obvious factor of the company’s success. John does all of the design work. His designs have become sought-after not only in Arizona but even as far away as the eastern United States, where the company was hired to design and build authentic looking habitats for a private natural history museum. “John has built the reputation of our company to the point where a ‘John Stropko’ design is very highly regarded,” says Barbara. “It’s something people are willing to wait for. We’ve had clients wait up to two years for us to do their landscape.”
Barbara is directly involved in the landscaping work and also handles most of the administration of the business. She got involved in the field after she met John. “I’ve always had an artistic side and I’ve always loved plants and gardening,” says Barbara. “But my career had generally taken me into the corporate world until I met John. I guess my first day in this career was the day he asked me to marry him,” she laughs.
Since entering the landscaping field, Barbara Stropko has developed a solid reputation of her own. She served as president of the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association for two years – only the third woman to serve in that role in 30 years. “In the construction world you generally see more men than women taking on leadership roles,” she says, “but there are many women who play a very important role in this business. People don’t always realize this, and can make business mistakes as a result. For example, at trade shows, vendors sometimes have a tendency to bypass the women and go directly to the men. They should be aware that, in many cases, the woman has the buying power and may in fact be the owner.”
Aspiring to excellence
The professional achievements of both John and Barbara Stropko are no surprise. Neither is the success of their company. The Stropkos both put their heart and soul into their work and take excellence in craftsmanship to the highest level. What advice do they have for other contractors who aspire to excellence?
Be constantly driven by a desire to exceed your client’s expectations
Find a niche; the Stropkos built a niche for themselves by serving high-end clients with a level of design and construction not available elsewhere in their market
Be a hands-on owner; know what’s going on in the field at all times and look ahead for potential obstacles
Take time to educate your clients and be aware of where they are emotionally during the project
Give your business time to grow and enjoy your work and accomplishments along the way