Nov. 16 2011 07:26 AM

learned the landscape business at an early age, working at a nursery in North Hollywood, California, after school. When the owner of the nursery passed away, Burt and his father bought the business for $700, and called it Valley- Crest Landscape. Burt was 19 years old.

Little did he realize back then, that he would parlay his $700 investment into the pinnacle of the landscape industry. But the path to this success was not easy.

Sperber met Charlene, his childhood sweetheart, when he was 16.

They married in 1949, and began to raise a family. All he could think of was that he needed to make enough money to pay for food and rent.

In those early years, Sperber would go out in the late afternoon and work into the early evening, knocking on doors of homes in the San Fernando Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. He would offer to rototill and re-seed the lawn areas. A few days later, he’d be there early in the morning, doing the work.

It was a time when servicemen, returning from World War II, were putting the War behind them and beginning to build their futures. Prior to the war, only large estates had fulltime gardeners, to maintain the turf and take care of the planting of color, shrubs, lawns, etc. When homes started popping up in the suburbs, landscaping became a business.

In those post-war, early halcyon years, the landscape business was in its embryonic stages, and Sperber was right smack in the middle of it. His company began to grow as he charted new waters. As the business grew, there was a lot of experimentation that went on—only nobody knew it was experimental. Office buildings and apartment houses were being built. The demand for landscaping increased, and ValleyCrest grew along with it.

To cut down on travel time, Sperber opened branches to be closer to where the jobs were. He had a branch manager who hired people to work on the crews and ran the jobs that were coming in. As the company continued to expand, he structured an incentive program for his employees.

His philosophy was to share the profits with those who helped his business grow. Each branch or division received a percentage of the profits, some to be divided by everyone in that branch or division, and some to be divided by top management.

Speaking with Sperber some years later, he told me how he came up with this program: he had good people working in lower and middle management positions, and in order to keep them, he needed to grow the company so these people could reach top management positions. If there was no place for them to grow, they would leave.

But, along the way, some employees still got the entrepreneurial spirit and left the company to start their own businesses. Over a period of more than 60 years, ValleyCrest has been a spawning ground for many successful landscape contractors.

At one point in time, Sperber began acquiring other companies. His focus was to acquire landscape companies in areas where Valley- Crest did not have a branch. He acquired Shooter Landscape in Northern California, and merged it into ValleyCrest. Realizing the need for additional capital, he took his company public, under the name of Environmental Industries, Inc.

Before you knew it, Environmental Industries, Inc., was adding more branches. But being a public company was not what he thought it would be, and some years later, Sperber bought back the company, and changed the name again to Valley- Crest Companies.

ValleyCrest began taking on larger and larger projects. They did the landscaping and irrigation for the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas; years later, they worked on the Wynn and Encore hotels, and many more in between. They did the venues for the Los Angeles Olympic Games in 1964, and again in 1996, in Atlanta, Georgia. Some other projects include: Sea World Discovery Cove, Orlando, Florida; U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; Dallas Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas; Patriots Place, Foxboro, Massachusetts; Florida Marlins Stadium, Miami, Florida, and many more. At its peak, ValleyCrest Companies employed about 9,000 people and hit a volume of almost $1 billion annually.

Sperber liked to say, “I’m just a gardener.” But he was much more than that. He grew his company from nothing to become the largest privately held landscape company in the country. He was a visionary; he was also an accomplished magician; but more importantly, he was a mentor to many in both fields.

He did not go to a formal college, but he did graduate from the “School of Hard Knocks”; he even taught some of the courses.

Sperber has been recognized throughout the industry. The American Society of Landscape Architects named him a Fellow (FASLA); he was a former director of the Landscape Architecture Foundation; he was elected into the Green Industry Hall of Fame, and was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award for Contractor of the Year.

In the past dozen years or so, Richard Sperber has worked side by side with his father and learned from him. Richard was co-chairman of the company. “I had the great privilege of working with him every day and saw how he loved nurturing people,” said Richard. “Nothing made him happier than watching everyone at ValleyCrest grow, and seeing people doing great things both inside and outside the company.”

“He always encouraged us to do the right thing, and he was an amazing family man,” Richard continued. “I’m taking on the personal responsibility to carry on his legacy and the values he instilled in me as I lead the company forward.”

In addition to his other philanthropies, his educational contributions included the University of Southern California’s School of Architecture, and Cal Poly Pomona’s Horticulture program.

Burton S. Sperber, founder and chairman of ValleyCrest, was a giant of a man; a legend in his own time. He pioneered methods and practices that are still used in the landscape industry today. His passing, at the age of 82, sent shockwaves throughout the industry. Burt Sperber will be remembered for years to come, and for those of us who were fortunate enough to have known him, he will be sorely missed.