While many children dream of being astronauts or rock stars, Richard Cohen had a much more practical aspiration. “I wanted to be a landscape architect when I was a kid,” Cohen explained. He loved the artistry of landscapes and the joy of working in his parents’ garden.
However, even this sensible dream was abandoned when a family friend, who was an architect, told the young Cohen, “By the time the building is built, there is never any money left for the landscape.” It would be years later that he’d finally come back to landscaping. By then, the industry had caught up to his dreams and, he would soon discover, there was money to be made in landscaping after all.
Cohen grew up in the 1940s in Trenton, New Jersey, as the middle child of an electrician and a registered nurse. When he was in second grade, his family abandoned the chilly East Coast winters for a new life in Southern California. Settling in Santa Monica, his father found a job in the electrical field and worked his way up in the industry, providing for his wife and three boys.
After being talked out of his childhood dream, Cohen couldn’t decide on a new career path. He graduated from Santa Monica High School and Santa Monica College and then entered California State University, Northridge, where he pursued a variety of classes, but nothing really stuck.
While he never found a major, he did find the love of his life. Cohen met his now wife, Linda, when they were both students at Santa Monica College. Linda was a member of the women’s drill team and Richard was the drum major of the marching band.
Cohen eventually dropped out of college and decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. He entered into a four-year electrical apprenticeship program and spent the following six years as an electrician. However, somewhere in the back of his mind, his childhood dreams of being a landscape architect still lingered.
In 1969, the Cohens settled in Mission Viejo, California; Cohen commuted to Los Angeles County for his job. In 1976, he decided to leave the company to start a landscape business in Orange County, and became a licensed landscape contractor. After Cohen left, one of the partners at the electrical company was getting ready to retire, and the remaining partner offered Cohen a chance to buy into the company.
For a while, he pursued both career paths; he ran his landscape company in the morning and did electrical work in the afternoon. In the end, he decided to stick with the landscape business. Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction, Inc. garnered $250,000 worth of work in its first year and the company has steadily grown ever since.
Cohen credits some of his success to his association with the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA). “If you want to build a quality company, you need to learn from other people,” Cohen said. That’s why he got involved with CLCA from the very beginning of his business. He went on to serve on the state board for more than six years. Cohen also used to contract out the maintenance work on his projects to other CLCA members when he was starting out, but eventually started offering in-house maintenance work himself in order to supply his company with a steady secondary income stream.
While Cohen has found great success pursuing his childhood dream, that didn’t stop him from getting lured away from the landscape business one final time. While sitting around one Sunday morning, flipping through the business section of the newspaper, an advertisement caught his eye.
A company was looking for investors to open franchises. “I thought, ‘What could be bigger than bagels, fruit smoothies and coffee drinks?’” he said. After several meetings with the company’s officials, he liked what he heard. He decided to open his first unit, with plans of opening several more.
While the planning meetings had felt like a series of doors opening, once he signed the lease, it felt like all of those doors immediately closed, said Cohen. “For starters, I was forced to take a lease for 3,400 square feet, which was double the amount of space I wanted.”
In addition, the business center it was in didn’t bring in the foot traffic he had been hoping for, and Cohen quickly found himself paying a steep lease without enough business to sustain the restaurant. One of the final straws came when his baker no-showed for his 3 a.m. call time to prep the bagels, forcing Cohen to do the work before facing a full day at his landscape business. Within 11 months after making a major investment, he shut down the bagel shop.
Having lost much of his savings, Cohen threw himself back into his landscape company.
One day, one of his clients, who owned a commercial building, asked if he did maintenance work. Cohen replied that he would take on the job. His client was so pleased with the quality of work being done that he turned over other properties. Currently, the design/build (only for residences) division employs 10 to 12 people, while his maintenance employs 40.
His company always had a reputation for doing high quality work. It’s not unusual for him to work on $800,000 to $1 million landscape projects.
It’s no wonder the company continues to grow, from $250,000 his first year in business to $5.5 million annually today, and he couldn’t be happier. Richard Cohen is finally living his boyhood dream.