April 21 2008 12:00 AM

As a young man, Burt Sperber knew what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. In his wildest imagination, he never dreamed that the company he founded would achieve such heights.

It was not an easy road that Sperber had to travel. From extremely modest beginnings he built a company that is the envy of the industry. With four divisions, ValleyCrest Companies is the largest landscape contracting company in the world, boasting sales of $425 million. How he achieved this success would take volumes, but Sperber had a vision and true to his cause, he followed that vision.

After World War II, as soldiers returned home, got married and purchased houses in the suburbs, the demand for landscaping grew. Sperber was there. At the age of 19, working out of his father's home, Sperber started out with a used station wagon, some equipment, hand tools, and a lawn mower. He would go out late in the afternoons and work until early evenings, knocking on doors of homes in the residential areas of the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. He would offer to rototill the yards and re-plant them with seed so the people could enjoy a nice lawn. A few days later he was at their home, usually early in the morning, doing the work. Sperber was establishing himself in the landscape business.

In those early days of the landscape industry, people just wanted to make a living. As you needed help, you hired them. You never gave any thought to major growth, retirement security, etc. As his business grew, Sperber hired people; some that went on to start their own businesses. Sperber realized that in order to grow, he needed to surround himself with top-caliber people, and to keep these people he had to make it interesting for them to stay. He structured an incentive program. His philosophy: to share the profits with those that helped him make it. Each branch or division got back a percentage of the profits, some to be divided by everyone in that branch or division, and some to be divided by top management.

Some years later, I remember speaking with Sperber. He told me he had to grow because he had some good people in lower and middle management, and if there was no place for them to go, they would leave the company. He had to continue to expand to make room for these people to reach top management.

Expand he did. Today, ValleyCrest Companies employs more than 5400 people, encompassing a number of companies: ValleyCrest; ValleyCrest Tree Company; ValleyCrest Golf, U.S. Lawns; Arbor Care and Waterwise (irrigation systems and water management).

Over the last 49 years, Sperber and his company have been recognized by many industry associations and affiliates for the size and quality of the projects they've built. Now one of the leading landscape horticultural service contractors in the U.S., and the largest producer of containerized trees in the western U.S., ValleyCrest's reputation has been instrumental in winning a number of landmark projects. These include: the 1984 Olympic venues in Los Angeles, a number of 1996 Summer Olympic venues in Atlanta, the Mercedes Benz corporate campus in Birmingham, the gardens of the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the recently completed gardens of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas, theme parks and many, many more. ValleyCrest is deserving of its standing.

In many ways, Sperber was not only a pioneer, but also a visionary. In 1969, he took his company public. A few years later he bought it back. With all the mergers and acquisitions going on today, Sperber feels that there's another way to help green-industry businesses succeed. U.S. Lawns, the nation's only registered landscape maintenance franchise, is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of ValleyCrest. The U.S. Lawns system gives small, independent entrepreneurs an opportunity to align with a large, national company, and still retain ownership of their business.
Sperber has dedicated himself to helping the industry in many ways. He and his top people contribute their time as guest speakers at industry seminars, sit on boards of professional associations and advisory councils, and teach. A warm, sensitive man, Sperber is very philanthropic, but insists on anonymity. He once told me that his goal for the balance of the time he has left is to help upgrade the image of the landscaper and gardener to a level of respect and professionalism.