You may be questioning whether the American Dream,
and the infinite promise it holds, is still a reality. In today’s
day and age, with the economic crisis looming, doubts like
this are not uncommon. But there is good news: the
American Dream is alive and well. If you don’t believe it,
just ask Burton (Burt) Sperber.
As a young boy, Sperber
enjoyed the outdoors. His father, Lewis, owned Laurel Nursery, a small
retail nursery in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, a sleepy
suburb of Los Angeles. It was there that young Burt first gained
exposure to the nursery business. He spent long days digging out
bedding plants, loading bags of fertilizer into the cars of customers,
and performing other chores. He enjoyed the work and thought being a
gardener might be a nice way to earn a living.
A few years
later, when the opportunity to purchase a nursery of his own presented
itself, Sperber went for it. He took $700 from his savings and bought a
small landscape/nursery in North Hollywood, California. The new
be called Valley Crest Landscape Nurseries, Inc. The year was 1949;
Sperber was just 19 years old. Back then, the operation was a modest
one. There were just a handful of employees, some old equipment and a
few rickety trucks. It was a family affair. Lewis and Burt’s wife,
Charlene, managed the nursery while Burt focused on developing the
landscape aspect of the business. To do so, he would set out on foot,
going door to door offering his services. For just a few bucks, he
would roto-till and seed the lawn areas and install simple irrigation
systems to the residents who inhabited the increasingly expanding
neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley.
Life was good; it seemed like he had
achieved his goals. He was doing what he loved and more importantly, he
was supporting his family. Even in his wildest dreams, Sperber could
never imagine how much better it would get. Today, ValleyCrest
Companies is the nation’s largest, privately held integrated landscape
services company. It boasts more than 10,000 employees, operates in
more than 100 locations throughout the country, with annual revenues
topping $1 billion. ValleyCrest has also established a presence on the
international stage, fulfilling contracts in the Bahamas, Asia, Mexico
and the Middle East. You might think that the kind of success achieved
by ValleyCrest was fueled by an intense desire to make money—the kind of yearning for power, wealth and notoriety that
motivated the great robber barons and other tycoons of the 19th
Century. However, nothing could be further from the truth. “My goal was
simply to feed my family and to be able to raise my children and try to
do things right.”
“I wanted to do good work, satisfy my
customers and treat my employees with respect,” says Sperber, who today
is the company’s co-CEO.
“By adhering to that philosophy, by
doing things right, good things just happened. So my rewards came from
this desire to do quality work and to treat people right, not from a
desire to make lots of money or be the biggest company in the world.”
journey has been one marked by constant growth. Since its founding in
1949, the company has averaged a compound growth rate of approximately
15 percent annually. “We’ve actually grown very slowly,” says Burt.
“Fifteen percent a year is not really all that much. What we do have
going for us is that we’ve been growing for 60 years.”
company’s initial expansion was sparked, at least in part, by external
factors. The 1950s was a booming decade. This was especially the case
in Southern California, where ValleyCrest has always been
headquartered. The continued migration of families away from the cities
and into the suburbs required massive amounts of new construction.
Homes and highways were built. New parks and schools began to pop up
everywhere. All these new projects would require landscape work, and
ValleyCrest was there.
The firm quickly established a
reputation for performing quality work fast. That reputation lead to
more work on bigger jobs. As the 1950s came to a close, ValleyCrest was
on its way to becoming a national company, winning contracts in
Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, Florida and Texas.
1961, Stuart J. Sperber, Burt’s younger brother, joined the company and
was put in charge of Valley Crest Tree Company, the firm’s newly formed
Under Stuart’s leadership, the division
pioneered the process of growing trees in boxes. This innovative
approach, which is now the industry standard, allowed trees to be
produced in massive quantities and substantially decreased the
likelihood that a specimen tree would fall while being planted.
was really an invention created out of necessity,” says Burt of the
decision to begin growing trees in boxes. “When you grow trees in the
ground, which is how all the nurseries were doing it back then, the
weather dictates when you can and can’t dig them up, so there were
certain times of the year that trees were just not available to us. But
we needed access to trees 12 months out of the year, and that’s how the
process of growing trees in containers came about. I’m really proud
that we were the first ones to grow large trees in boxes.”
first is something Valley- Crest has become very comfortable with over
the years. In 1967, Valley-Crest made its first acquisition; since
then, acquisitions have been a fundamental component of the company’s
success. In 1969, it acquired another landscape company in Northern
California and the Sperbers formed Environmental Industries, Inc.
ValleyCrest and its acquisitions were put into the holding company.
Environmental Industries, Inc., would be the first publicly traded
company in the landscape industry. By the end of the ’60s, Valley-
Crest (Environmental Industries) employed 325 people and had revenues
of $10.4 million.
Sperber and ValleyCrest also played a large
role in developing the first generation of commercial landscape
equipment. “When we started, there was no such thing as landscape
construction equipment,” says Sperber. “All the tools we used were
really for agricultural applications.
Our company played a
large part in helping to convert agricultural equipment into commercial
landscape equipment. We were the first ones to put an engine on a flail
mower, and we were also the first to build box scrapers.”
to Richard Sperber, Burt’s son and the company’s co- CEO, ValleyCrest’s
success is largely a result of their talented and dedicated workforce.
“Our competitors can buy the same lawnmowers, trucks and fertilizer,” Richard says. “But
it’s our people that set us apart. The biggest thing for us is keeping
our employees happy and motivating them to take care of our customers.
We truly believe that’s one of the best ways to achieve and maintain
It is safe to say that the Sperbers have done a more
than satisfactory job of keeping their people content. The company’s
115 branch managers have an average tenure of more than 12 years, and
the company’s corporate officers, 19 years. In short, people like to
work for Valley-Crest, and the company prides itself on providing its
employees with careers, not just jobs. “We have one family that has had
about 52 people working here,” Richard says. “That’s three generations.
There are employees who have worked here since before I was born and
still work here. That’s something I’m really proud of.” ValleyCrest
entered the 1970s with a new name: Environmental Industries, Inc.
Although the company moniker had changed, its penchant for expansion
had not. During that time period, two new divisions were added. The
year 1970 would see the creation of Environmental Care, Inc., the
company’s maintenance division. And in 1978, Environmental Industries
re-entered the residential design/build business with the creation of
Western Landscape Construction. Although both entities flourished, the
maintenance branch proved to be particularly successful, becoming the
first maintenance company to open branches in multiple states. Sales
were at $42 million and the company employed more than 1,000.
1980s was a decade of milestones. In 1984, Los Angeles was slated to
host the Olympic Games. It was the first time the event would be held
on U.S. soil in more than 50 years. Needless to say, the city was abuzz
with excitement. Knowing their town would soon play host to hundreds of
thousands of visitors from both home and abroad, L.A.’s leaders wanted
to ensure that the City of Angels lived up to its reputation as one of
the most beautiful metropolises in the world. ValleyCrest was retained
to perform the majority of the landscape duties. The firm landscaped
the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Opening Ceremonies were held, as
well as most of the sports venues used in the games.
decade also saw ValleyCrest become the major player in Nevada. Their
first high-profile job in the state was the landscape of McCarran
International Airport. But the company’s biggest payoff there would
come from the work it did on the infamous Las Vegas Strip.
the years, Las Vegas has become known for far more than the showgirls
and poker games that were once its claims to fame. Today, the
elaborately landscaped hotels that dot the desert floor are attractions
in themselves, drawing visitors from all over the world who want to be
photographed beneath the Bellagio’s towering palm trees or famous water
feature, or amidst the Wynn’s magnificent flower gardens. ValleyCrest
is largely responsible for this phenomenon. The firm has built or
refurbished the landscapes of nearly every major hotel that calls Sin
City its home. The firm’s hotel projects on the Las Vegas Strip are
among some of Burt’s favorite jobs. “There are only a handful of
developers in the world who really understand that a beautifully
landscaped property is an attraction unto itself; it’s something that
people are going to want to come and see,” he says. “Steve Wynn, who
hired us to do the Mirage, the Bellagio hotel, and later the Wynn and
Encore hotels, is one of those guys.
Thanks to his vision, and his
understanding of what we do, we were able to play a big part in
changing the face of Las Vegas. It’s truly a pleasure to work with
people like that.” By the end of the 1980s, there were 3,000 employees
working at Environmental Industries. The company included four
divisions, with operations throughout the United States, and was
generating annual sales in excess of $150 million. It was widely
considered to be the most successful landscape contracting firm in the
history of the industry. Still, Burt was not satisfied.
“I always felt that we
had to keep growing regardless of our size. Not because of the money. I
just wanted to make sure there was room for our good people in lower
and middle management to move up,” says Burt. “If there were no
opportunities for these people to build their careers, if they were
always going to be stuck in low-level positions, why would they stay? I
wanted to continue to expand to make room for these people to reach top
management levels.” It was also a time for some soul searching.
ValleyCrest, which was a family affair, had become a publicly traded
company 18 years earlier. Being a public company, all the stockholders
were your partners. It didn’t seem to suit the style of the Sperbers,
so they decided to buy back the stock and take the company private.
the company continued to grow. In 1991, ValleyCrest established yet
another division, its golf construction unit. After building hundreds
of golf courses, it tackled the Pelican Hill Golf Course in Newport
Beach, California. ValleyCrest acted as general contractor on the job,
performing drainage, irrigation, sodding and landscaping, and tee and
green construction. Thanks to the company’s meticulous craftsmanship,
the course, which is placed among the scrubs and gentle arroyos that
run along California’s magnificent coastline, is now considered to be
one of the finest golf properties in California.
As the 1990s
progressed, Valley- Crest continued to thrive. In 1994, the firm’s
passport would receive the first of its many stamps when the company
traveled to the Bahamas to landscape the Atlantis hotel. After
returning stateside, ValleyCrest participated in its second Olympic
Games, playing a large role in the construction of Centennial Olympic
Park in Atlanta, Georgia, and many other venues. Only a few months
later, the firm was awarded a $10 million contract to perform landscape
work on the Getty Center in Los Angeles.
Winning a $10 million
contract is an incredible achievement, but by 1998 it would be
considered just a small job by ValleyCrest standards.
year, the firm would earn its largest contract to date, a $75 million
contract to build Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. By
the end of the decade, Valley- Crest had celebrated its 50th year,
employed more than 5,000 and achieved $450 million in annual revenues.
2001, Richard Sperber was named president and chief operating officer
of the company. One of his first acts as president was to shed the
Environmental Industries label. He wanted the company’s name to reflect
its roots, so in 2002 Environmental Industries was rebranded as
Like his father before him, Richard has shown a knack for ex pansion.
2006, with Richard at the company’s helm, ValleyCrest added two new
divisions. Valley- Crest Design Group was established to offer clients
standalone landscape architecture services. The division includes
nearly 100 landscape architects who have designed projects across the
globe. That year, the company also created Estate Gardens to provide
landscape design/build services to its residential customers.
2008, the younger Sperber was named co-CEO. His tenure has been a
successful one. ValleyCrest reports that under Richard’s leadership,
the company has gone from doing $450 million in revenues eight years
ago when he was named president to $1 billion today.
the company has six subsidiaries— ValleyCrest Landscape Development,
Valley- Crest Design Group, ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, Valley
Crest Tree Company, ValleyCrest Residential and U.S. Lawns—and was
recently honored with inclusion on Forbes Magazine’s list of America’s
500 Largest Privately-Held Companies. In 2006, ValleyCrest brought in a
financial partner, MSD Capital, an investment company owned by Michael
Dell, to help further grow the company. As ValleyCrest begins to
celebrate its 60th anniversary, Burton Sperber looks back and reflects
on his career; he sees little difference between the company now and
the company in 1949. “You know, we really do the same thing we did 60
years ago; we just do more of it,” Burt says. “At the end of the day,
it’s still just a family business, and we’re still just gardeners, and
that’s just fine with me.”