May 15 2012 07:47 AM

Frankie Valli, Bruce Springsteen, Derek Jeter, and kids’ writer Judy Blume are all people born in New Jersey who’ve made it big. Those in the landscape business know to add to that list Mark Borst, who founded and owns Borst Landscaping and Design in Allendale, New Jersey.

Borst was born and raised in Midland Park, New Jersey. His dad was a salesman in the heating and plumbing industry, while his mom stayed home to raise the kids. “There wasn’t extra money in my family,” he recalls. “So if you wanted something, you got a job, saved up for it and bought it.”

His older brothers had a paper route. Every once in a while, when one of them had to go somewhere, Mark would work their route. Although he wanted the extra spending money, he knew he didn’t want a paper route of his own.

While still in junior high school, one of his neighbors asked him if he would cut their lawn. He did and he found out that he liked it. One lawn job led to another. “At one time,” he reports, “I probably had ten lawns I was cutting.”

When he was in high school, Borst started working for a local landscape contractor, and loved it.

He thought, “This is really cool, but I want to do more than mow lawns. I want to do plantings and patios and stuff like that.” So he figured that after high school graduation, he’d open his own business.”

Then Mom intervened. She was fine with him going into the landscape business, but she wanted him to have an education too, so she enrolled him in the local community college. He attended classes during the week and did his ‘lawn care thing’ on the weekends.

“Bob DeRosa was a professor at Bergen Community College and he owned his own landscape business. He got me excited about the landscape industry. Because of his enthusiasm, I graduated with an associate’s degree in horticulture.

Equally as important, it pushed me to continue on,” says Borst.

He then enrolled at Rutgers University and got his degree in landscape architecture. While at school, Borst would still come home on weekends to cut his customers’ lawns, since Rutgers was just an hour from Midland Park. He graduated in 1993. “By that time, I’d built my business to where I could work five days a week, with one employee. I was one of those guys who started out with a pickup truck and a lawn mower. After college, I never worked for anyone else.”

Borst’s company has come a long way from that original pickup and lawn mower. He’s driven by one of his personal trademarks: a constant desire to learn. “I got involved in the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association even when I was in college. When I graduated, I met everyone I possibly could. Bob DeRosa helped me a lot. I took every short course. Plus, I’m not shy about asking people how to do stuff.”

Another personal trademark is his careful attention to time. He tracks time like he tracks money. Where many contractors think in terms of jobs done, Borst is obsessed—in a good way—with how much time it takes to do the work. “Bob DeRosa said it over and over: man-hours. We’re selling time, not selling dollars. Bidding has to do with estimating time and man-hours, and estimating it right.”

Borst has made his company and reputation by bringing thoughtful management principles to his business. Those practices run the gamut of his operation. A hands-on, visible boss, Borst is the kind of chief executive who wanders the yard with his iPhone as crews get ready to set out in the morning, ready to snap and upload photographs of things worthy of praise or correction.

A former president of the New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association, Borst is only in his early 40s.

In two decades, he has built his business from pushing a lawn mower between college classes to an enterprise that has $6.8 million in annual revenue and employs 75 people at peak season.

Borst believes that a happy worker is a productive worker. “I have to be the happy cheerleader. I try to hire staff members with good attitudes, and then give them the leeway to make mistakes and learn,” he said. Borst has several company programs in place to build morale, including “first out of the yard in the morning” raffles, company trips, and a profit-sharing program.

Borst Landscape and Design has several divisions. There’s the design/build group, the landscape maintenance group (20 percent commercial, 80 percent residential), garden maintenance and a snow removal division. “Design/build got smacked by the economic downturn,” Borst confides. “But we’re seeing construction coming on again.”

When asked what challenges he foresees in the near future, Borst says that he finds himself confronting the perennial problem of training employees who then leave to start businesses of their own. “Until they develop the skills and experience, they cut prices,” Borst explains. “I offer quality. Clients who’ve gone in the direction of cheaper prices often come back, because of the quality of work I offer. We get out there and do what we do best.”

He also believes in using organic fertilizers. “Using organic fertilizers is the future, and that future is now. We put a lot of emphasis on our Organic Fertilization Program and most of our clients agree. This portion of our business is really growing.”

Borst is committed to give back to his community. His employees make an appearance on local Earth Day. They have educational/informational speaking programs that are offered to local libraries, women’s clubs and garden clubs. He has also teamed with various schools to donate time, materials and labor to enhance their properties and create a better environment for the students.

A volunteer teacher at Bergen Community College, Borst feels that he can inspire the younger generation to seize their dreams and enjoy a landscape career as much as he does.

Happily married for eighteen years to his wife Heather, they have a close-knit family. They are the parents of three children. The eldest two are in high school, the youngest child in middle school. All are athletes, so there’s a lot of driving to and from baseball and basketball games. Wintertime sees the Borst family on the ski slopes.

Valli, Springsteen, Jeter, Blume, Borst. Sounds like an all-star all-Jersey starting five.