April 21 2008 12:00 AM



Never afraid to get his hands dirty, Carl McCord, the son of farmers in the Abilene, Texas area, knew how to work the soil and grow plants. However, when he was growing up he thought he wanted to pursue other options and he initially chose a different 'green' industry for his future. McCord began as a banking and finance student at Texas A&M.

In 1958, when he went looking for a summer job in the banking business, there were none to be found. His uncle got him a job with North Haven Gardens, a garden center and landscaping company. That was all it took to give McCord the bug to get his hands dirty again. The rest, as they say, is history. But there is more to the story.
"I liked what I saw and I learned a lot," McCord says of that first summer working in landscaping. So, when he returned to college, he changed his major to horticulture and landscape architecture.

Upon graduating, McCord went back to work for North Haven Gardens, continuing to learn as much as possible about the industry -- something he believes everyone should do before striking out on their own. "Ralph Pincus, founder of North Haven Gardens, became my mentor. We're still close friends and business partners." In that same manner, he instructs his own employees, sometimes to a fault. That's according to his son, Greg McCord, vice president of marketing and sales for the family company, Maintain Services, Inc., Dallas. "There are times when I go to bid a job and eight of the 10 guys there once worked for us," the young McCord says.
However, his dad's fairness to employees is also the reason he's still on the job after 15 years. "He teaches, but he also lets us make mistakes," Greg McCord says. "We butt heads a lot, and most of the time I have to go back and tell him he was right. He gives his people the chance to try, and even to be wrong."

Making wrong choices is part of learning, and McCord learned by trials along the way since starting his landscape design/build business in 1969 with three partners, whom he later bought out. With a vision for landscape maintenance, something that others weren't doing in the Dallas area at the time, McCord set the tone for his future.

"At the time, maintenance was a foul word," he recalls. "But I saw a great potential in having repeat business each month instead of trying to replace clients with new ones once the (landscaping) construction was done." So, starting in 'poor-boy style' the four partners began their landscaping business with three trucks, doing a job, getting paid, paying the bills, and then going on to the next job.

McCord says his education as a business owner began with starting a business during a recession. He and his partners learned how to survive and make their business grow, even in difficult times. His education in business was paying off, and in a sly move in 1975 during the gas and oil shortage, McCord bought storage tanks and stockpiled his own gas and oil to get him through the troubled times. Then during the 'great freeze' when vegetation was wiped out in the South in 1983-84, McCord says he was before the curve again.

He headed to California. He planned a strategy, approached some 'ma and pa' growing operations and bought as much plant material as he needed, before the news spread to the West Coast that the freeze had killed nearly all plant material. He not only bought in at advantageous prices, but he realized that "if you had plants (at that time) you could get any job," he says. This led to the development of Sunset Trees in Houston. "The next few years we spent planting. This really put us in the driver's seat."

Debra Holder, executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), first met McCord during the Association's annual meeting in 1981. "He's high energy," Holder says. McCord brings to his business, as well as the industry, a determination and dedication. "There are many people who have learned from McCord who have later gone on to own their own companies," says Holder. "Carl is also involved with ALCA's education arm, working with colleges and students."

That high energy may make it difficult for McCord to leave the business he founded, speculates Greg McCord and Holder. Greg, who will take over Maintain Services, wonders if his father will truly retire.

"We're in the process of transition," says Greg. "I anticipate I'll take over in the next two years. As he inches toward retirement, my father's passion is still the industry, so I don't think he will ever really leave it."

McCord says he loves fishing and sports, and plans to enjoy life with his wife after he retires. He knows he's leaving his business in good hands. In fact, he didn't even hire his son. After working for a retail company for a few years after college, Greg McCord decided he wanted to work in the family business; however, he didn't go to his father for a job. "One day I looked up and he (Greg) was working here," McCord recalls fondly. "One of my managers had hired him."
The younger McCord says he hasn't received any favoritism from his father either -- even being passed over for promotions. And that's okay, he says, because he knows his father expects him to do the job well.

Those same expectations are held for McCord's daughter, Cindy, who is vice president of Landscape Design and Construction, a separate company under the McCord business umbrella. She will take over that segment of the business when McCord retires.

In keeping with her father's tradition of progressiveness, she has certified the company as a Minority Woman-Owned Business Enterprise. "My dad has taught and shown me the importance of education and integrity. To further our industry we must continually educate ourselves, our employers, our customers and our city planners," Cindy commented. "As far as integrity, well, all we have is our word. We must say what we mean and mean what we say. My dad is a tremendous visionary. If he would clean up his office, I'd love to keep him around forever."