Oct. 17 2011 03:18 PM

Gary Horton had it all. He started his own landscape company back in the 1980s and slowly but surely, he grew the company to almost $100 million annually. Talk about success, this guy defined it.

Horton grew up in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles, California, where he attended Cal State University, Northridge. His major was accounting. Once in school, he realized that he needed to get a job to help pay for his tuition, and he found one with a landscape contractor. His job was doing take-offs and estimating, earning $5 per hour. Horton recalls, “The office was very small, so when I got there, they took a water heater closet and made it into an office. I worked next to the water heater under a single hanging light bulb.”

One thing Horton did have was street sense. He knew he needed three more years before he’d get his degree. Then he looked at the owner of the company he was working for—he was 27 years old, never finished high school, had shoulderlength hair, lived in Beverly Hills and was earning $250,000 a year.

Horton wondered…if he finished college and got a job with an accounting firm, how many years would it take for him to become a partner? Wouldn’t he be better off going into the landscape business?

If his 27-year-old boss could do it, he thought, so could he. Horton had a friend who was in the landscape business, so he conferred with him and bought into his friend’s company. He continued his education, going to school at night. It took him seven years, but he did get his degree.

Three years later, his partner decided to move into other areas and Horton left the company and started Landscape Development.

Landscape Development focused on the homebuilding industry. He concentrated on the construction end, as opposed to the maintenance area. Over the years, he built a pretty solid business. At its peak, the company employed more than 1,200 people and was doing $95 million annually.

While Horton realized that the maintenance part of the landscape business brought in a steady revenue stream, he also realized that the competition was keen. Although he did capture some maintenance business, he felt he could grow his company more quickly doing landscape construction.

Times were good, life was good, and his business was growing. During this flourishing period, Horton felt that he needed more knowledge if he were to continue to grow the company. He enrolled in an MBA program at Loyola Marymount University. There, he began to really see the skills that it took to run a company, but little did he realize how much that education would come into play in the near future.

Then in 2008, it seemed like his whole world stopped, along with the crash in the housing market. A few clients stiffed him for three million dollars, credit tightened up, and the banks became tougher to work with. “One day, our bank decided they didn’t want to bank subcontractors anymore,” he said. That’s when he saw the handwriting on the wall. “While you’re going through it all, you don’t realize how tough it really was.”

Most people thought that this downturn would only last for a short time, and Horton didn’t panic; he took it in stride. He was absolutely positive that he was going to make it, and he set about putting into practice what he had learned in school. He was not going to let a little downturn in the economy get in his way.

He began to pare down the company. Horton agonized about having to let people go, but he realized that if he didn’t downsize, the company could not survive. He personally did not take a paycheck for at least three years; he lived off his savings.

Looking around for a banking relationship, in that environment, takes some special skills. “Living it day by day, you always think the upturn is just around the corner,” says Horton. But the downturn kept going further down.

“How do you restructure your company? How do you pare down from 1,200 employees to 350? More importantly, how do you manage to keep those 350 employees and yourself motivated?” Over a three-year period of time, Landscape Development shed nearly 70 percent of its top line, as revenue dropped to approximately $26 million. It would have been easier to go out of business than to stick it out. But Horton is a fighter—he wasn’t about to let a recession beat him.

By 2010, he was fighting for his very survival. He needed some stimulation and motivation, so he enrolled in a five-week advanced management program at the Wharton School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “It was the coolest thing I ever did,” he said.

He came back rejuvenated, and some new ideas about rebuilding his company. He began to look at his markets a little differently and to expand his horizons.

In addition to his core business of developers and home builders, Horton is pushing hard into the higher end of the home market. His company is working in erosion control and environmental mitigation, among other things. Horton is also reaching out and expanding his service area.

This year will end up as his best since 2007. His company is now doing approximately $27 million annually. “But more profitably,” he adds.

The lessons Horton has learned over these past few years will stand him in good stead. The courses he took in school gave him the knowledge, the how-to, and the appreciation to rebuild his business. But most importantly, Horton hopes he can impart what he gained from his experiences and learning to others.

“We work in a great industry with lots of good people,” says Horton. “If others can learn what I learned, and I can help them, that would be my greatest pleasure.” Gary Horton is a fighter—more importantly, he learned how to survive. Take a lesson from him; get inspired to move your business back on track.