Feb. 18 2010 12:00 AM
From the time he entered the business in 1963, Strauss learned and developed some expertise as he went through the learning curve. With each step he grew and learned more. Eventually, he developed the right formula and, along with a partner, they proceeded to build a landscape company boasting a volume of $60 million annually.

So how do you build a multi-million-dollar-a-year company only to find yourself out at a time you should be thinking about retiring? “I kept asking my self the same question, ” said Strauss.

The story begins when Strauss was in high school. He took a horticulture class, did some landscape design and expressed an interest in the subject. His teacher apparently liked what he saw in Strauss and referred him to John Boething for a summer job.

Boething was the owner of Treeland Nursery, in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, California. That was in 1963. Treeland Nursery hired Strauss as a designer, but “I never got a chance to design,” said Strauss. “I ended that summer working in the nursery.”

Strauss’ father was a home builder and when Mickey graduated, he went to work for his father.

He landscaped model homes; he also worked for a number of small residential contractors as a designer and salesman.

In 1967, Strauss went to work for ValleyCrest. He started out as a site development estimator, became chief estimator and in 1971, when he left ValleyCrest, he was assistant division manager in their Van Nuys, California office.

While at ValleyCrest, Strauss met many people who worked in the landscape field. Among them was Gary Petersen, a superintendent for the company.

Two years later, Mickey Strauss and Gary Petersen decided to go out on their own and formed a company called American Landscape, Inc. The company was located in the San Fernando Valley, and they took work anywhere in the Los Angeles basin. It was a typical business relationship; Strauss would handle the office procedures, sales, design (when needed), etc., and Petersen would run the crews in the field.

Starting off on a shoestring, over the next 30-plus years they built their business up. They had seven offices and a nursery with two growing yards.

But it seems like they always had growing pains and all the inherent problems that go along with it. When the company finally hit the $60 million mark, Strauss began to realize that the company was not making any money. His seven branches were too spread out; he had lots of employees and was doing a large volume of business, but the company was not faring well.

The business was not working as it should, and he started to make changes. He decided to downsize the company to where he could get his arms around the entire business. You might say that by then it was too late. Even after reducing the size of the business to $40 million, it still couldn’t produce the desired profits.

Strauss realized that he needed an infusion of cash to allow the company to retrench and rebuild on a more solid footing. He began looking around for an equity investor. The company was sold in 2006, and Strauss continued to work for them. He began to plan an exit strategy that would happen over the next five years, but Strauss didn’t last even a year. One of the principles in the new company didn’t see eye to eye with Strauss’ management style, and he was asked to leave.

By now he was 60 years old and he thought he was ready to retire. But retirement wasn’t the lifestyle Strauss was looking for. Over the years, he had been very active, not only in his own business, but in various trade associations as well. Certainly in California, Strauss was well known. He was president of the San Fernando Valley chapter of the California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA), he was president of CLIC and president of the statewide CLCA.

When word got around that Strauss was available, he started to receive numerous offers to work for other firms; some people wanted to start up a business with him, while others offered him a partnership in their firms. He began to ponder the thought of staying in the landscape industry, but for now, he needed to take a break.

He began to think back over the past 30-some-odd years. He promised himself that if he ever went back into the business, he would take advantage of his past experiences.

In the meantime, he was still receiving offers. After much thought and contemplation, he made the decision to form a new company with two experienced landscape contractors, Sal Berumen and Ernie Michael Guerrero. Between the three of them, they have more than 100 years of experience. The new company is called MSM Landscape Services, Inc.

“The second time around is always a little easier,” said Strauss. “You know where the mine fields are, you know what you should avoid and most importantly, you know where to go to generate new business. It also doesn’t hurt to be in a better financial position.”

“We want to build a reputable company,” remarked Strauss. “We’re not chasing anybody. I believe we have the skills to build a substantial company.”

Completing its first year, MSM Landscape Services just topped one million dollars in sales. Not bad, considering the economic climate and it’s a brand new company with no track record. Strauss projects that the company will grow to a $5 to $6 million business within a short period of time.

Strauss has been married to his wife, Cindy, for 42 years. “She’s been by my side all this time and supported whatever I did,” he said. Both enjoy boating, snow skiing and horseback riding.

When asked what some of the important points are that he learned over the years, Strauss replied, “Keep involved in the process and don’t grow too fast.”