April 21 2008 12:00 AM

Although conventional wisdom sometimes pegs the green industry as a man's domain, women across the country have proven that they can succeed in this traditionally male-dominated field. In fact, a number of women in the green industry have been recognized with national awards from the American Landscape Contractors Association (ALCA) and the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO).

What does the woman-owned green business look like? For starters, you can find women across the spectrum in the landscape and irrigation industry -- managing multi-million dollar operations, running small outfits, and in the field and factory. While you may find a woman in any typically 'male' job, the female business model tends to differ slightly from their male colleagues' plans. The businesses are often more family-centered.

Cathleen Ozmore, owner of Design Scapes, Inc., Manassas Park, Virginia, has sponsored employees from Mexico, helped them buy their first homes and attended the birth of their children.

In the early 1990s, when she tired of never seeing the sun because of late nights in the restaurant business, Ozmore decided that cutting grass might be a good way to get out in the sun during the day. Although she had no background in landscaping, her odd jobs hobby quickly snowballed, with customers asking for mulch and plants. The green industry novice bought a beat-up truck, hired a college student and focused on growing her business.

She brushed up on landscaping through books and a mentor who ran a local garden company, and grew her business to 24 employees, many of whom have remained with the company for more than ten years. Ozmore credits her business success to her feminine touch. She admits, "I'm one of the most creative landscapers in the area. I add a lot of texture and color to my work."

Mutual respect between employees and management is apparent at MaxiJet, where the dynamic duo of owner Suzie Thayer, and her vice president Diane Halliday, shut down once a month for an employee lunch. They also take a yearly trip to a theme park. These incentives, coupled with an open-door policy, have yielded tremendous dividends characteristic of many women-owned businesses, such as upbeat employee morale, great retention and a significant reduction in office politics. Their stories provide an excellent road map for anyone, male or female, interested in navigating a path to success in a green industry business.

Overcoming dad's shadow

Suzie Thayer never planned on joining the family business. But, when she quit college, Thayer turned to the business she knew best -- irrigation. She started her own business, installing MaxiJet products, before going to work for her father in his factory. The all-male tool room was a tough environment. "I really had to prove that I knew my stuff and wasn't there just because I was my father's daughter," says Thayer. With a fair amount of on-the-job training in injection molding and quality control under her belt, the younger Thayer took to the road, selling MaxiJet products.

Once again, she encountered more than her fair share of challenges. "There was a lot of discrimination. It was awful," she recalls. Thayer often waited for hours to meet with clients. When customers finally realized she understood the business and could share her know-how, their attitude changed to one of respect and appreciation.

At the age of 24, Thayer took over MaxiJet, and along with Halliday, took the business to new heights. In 1990, they started a sister company targeted to homeowners. Called Mister Landscaper, they ran the new enterprise after putting in 40-50 hour weeks at MaxiJet. In the last fifteen years, Thayer has earned a dozen patents and trademarks, and won a Supplier of the Year award from Lowe?s.

She is quick to share credit. ?The business is really a joint effort. Our employees are a great team.? Her employees aren't the only ones who deserve kudos. Thayer points out that her father never interfered after turning the reins over to her, allowing her to run and grow the business according to her vision.

From odd jobs to employee-owned company

Linda Novy, founder of Gardeners' Guild, San Francisco, California, was working as a secretary in the 1970s when she started tending to houseplants and gardens on the side. Her business grew by word of mouth to the point where the owners of Gardeners? Guild of Marin asked her to join their landscape maintenance company. Novy agreed and continued to juggle her clients with her new duties.

Within a few years, Novy obtained her contractors' license, sitting for the exam in a sea of men. "This was representative of the industry in the 1970s," recalls Novy. Over the next few years, Novy purchased Gardeners? Guild of Marin, changed the name to Gardeners' Guild, and joined the California Landscape Contractors Association. She also managed to grow the company from six to 130 employees, and garner a few national awards. Revenue skyrocketed from a few hundred thousand to $8 million.

In 1998, Novy decided to take her democratic style of running the company to the next level and sell the company to her employees, creating a win-win situation for herself and her employees. Employees jumped at the chance to own a piece of the profitable business, and Novy gained time to pursue other interests. Today, she sits on the board of her former company, and offers consulting in sustainable landscape management to San Francisco Bay area clients.

The business guru

Former real estate professional Judy Guido, in Laguna Niguel, California, may not have planned on a solo career in the green industry, but dozens of green industry clients are more than pleased with her career path. Guido provides business consulting to clients across the green industry; she's worked for the largest companies in the field, two-person operations and everything in between.

Guido started out in sales and marketing for a large real-estate development company. One of her colleagues, a professional landscaper, recognized her aptitude for the business and sought her advice as he grew his business. She agreed to provide some consulting, but maintained her day job. But after the landscape contractor brought her to an ALCA conference, Guido was besieged by contractors seeking her advice on growing their businesses. For the last 18 years, she's used her business know-how to assess strategy, opportunities and resources to help her clients grow profitably. Although Guido may be the only female consultant in the green industry, she has not run into any challenges related to gender.

The comprehensive contractor

Debbie Cole, owner of Greater Texas Landscape, Austin, Texas, does it all. She is the sole owner of a full-fledged landscape contracting firm that provides exterior design, build and maintenance, interior and irrigation services. Running her own operation was a natural for the Texan, who has an associate's degree in business and a master's degree in landscape horticulture. According to Cole, a degree is wonderful, but the best education in the world can be had through working in the business, and by tapping into ALCA resources.

Cole and a former business partner/landscape architect (who happened to be a woman) started Greater Texas Landscape in 1981. At first, they provided design and build services. As the company grew, they added maintenance and other services. Today the company employs 85 workers, many of whom are women. But Cole asserts, ?My company is not gender-oriented. It is quality personnel-oriented.? And that just might be the recipe for success.

The business planner

Twenty years ago, Connie Balint abandoned a career in the corporate world so that she could pursue her interest in all things green. She combined that interest with a solid business and marketing background to grow her company, Buckingham Greenery, Buckingham, Virginia, from a two-person show to a 40-employee business.

How did she do it? Balint credits an air-tight business plan. From day one, Balint and her company followed the plan. She says, "I wanted to establish a reputation for good service and good design and spent the first year marketing new installations and new service [to demonstrate our skills]." Today, Balint remains focused on customer relationships and works to maintain a good working rapport with all of her clients.

Carving a niche

In the early 1970s, Pam Stark, vice president-customer satisfaction for ValleyCrest Companies, Calabasas, California, was one of the first women in the field for the green industry giant. She admits, ?It was very challenging, but I buckled down and worked hard to show everyone I could keep up on the crews.? After gaining experience in day-to-day operations and establishing a reputation as an able-bodied worker, Stark was promoted to crew leader. She also did stints in sales and estimating, and as a branch manager before moving to the corporate office.

Once again, she was a trailblazer. At the time, central support and customer satisfaction were tiny bleeps on the corporate radar. Stark ensured that they became a central focus of the company. She developed a company-wide customer satisfaction culture by basing training and workshops on information gathered during face-to-face interviews with customers. The result? Today, at ValleyCrest, customer satisfaction isn't just a nice idea. Economic return is tied to high levels of customer satisfaction.

The husband and wife team

Eleven years ago, pharmaceutical sales representative Heather Schuster and her husband realized they were tired of spending the best hours of the day away from each other. After deciding that they wanted to work together, the two inventoried their skills. Her husband, who was employed as an electrical engineer at the time, had worked in the landscape business during high school and college. It seemed like the best option.

Schuster returned to school to study horticulture and accounting, and the two formed a company called Terra-Firma in Muskego, Wisconsin, and began selling residential design installations. Over the next ten years, the business grew to 20 employees, and today Schuster manages finance, bookkeeping and maintenance while her husband handles construction.

It's not uncommon to see a husband/wife team in the landscape business, but traditionally women may have remained behind the scenes. Ten or 20 years ago, a husband/wife company may have been in name only, as having a woman owner provided considerable ?affirmative action? benefits. The situation is quite different today. "Now women are coming out of the office and getting involved in committees and projects," confirms Schuster, who is the president of her local landscape contractors association.

There are a lot of pluses to the husband/wife business combo, continues Schuster. For starters, women tend to be more detail-oriented than men, which provides a good balance. Women also tend to bring good listening and communication skills to the table. And because more wives are directing landscape jobs, a woman?s perspective can be a helpful sales tool.

The formula for a successful business

Tri-C Enterprises, Chino, California, is Marilyn Chambers' second, family-owned green in-dustry business. When she and her husband decided to set up another business, she felt confident in their ability to provide a good product ? organic soil amendments. But translating a good product into a successful business hinges on more than the product. ?Starting a business is a trial by fire, and I have to work a little harder because this is primarily a male industry,? says Chambers.

Chambers relies on skills mastered in her first career as a psychiatric nurse to succeed at Tri-C. She believes her listening skills and attention to detail differentiate her business from the competition. Chambers says an eye for detail and willingness to listen are typical of the female landscape contractors she meets in the course of her own business. They bring other key attributes to the business as well, continues Chambers. "As a whole, women are not interested in rushing through the job. They want to take the time to do the job right."

Gardener turned small business owner

Susan Sadler, owner of Plantscapers, Waco, Texas, an interior landscape business, had always enjoyed gardening. When she came across the opportunity to purchase a landscape business, Sadler decided to convert her interest into a profession. The business major dove into the business side of the company, analyzing procedures, systems, efficiencies and customer satisfaction, while mastering the nuances of landscaping.

Sadler relied extensively on ALCA to come up to speed in the business. She was also paired with a mentor, who helped her network and earn certification through ALCA. Sadler acknowledges that her new business was not an outright success ? initially. After she purchased Plantscapers five years ago, the numbers dropped. But she didn't panic and stuck to her game plan, proving that 'slow and steady wins the race.' Sadler says the company is bigger than it was when she purchased it. Equally important, she notes that the experience has helped her grow personally. Sadler concludes, "It?s also a great example for my children, who often help out at the office after school."

Words of wisdom

Without a doubt, there are men in the green industry who are detail-oriented and take the time to listen to their customers and complete each and every job right. These traits need not be limited to women in the green industry; they should represent the industry as a whole. Much of what successful women bring to the business applies to both men and women in the industry. Best of all, they are willing to share their ideas and offer advice to both men and women interested in starting or growing a green industry business.

Do your homework, says Chambers of Tri-C. Find out about worker's compensation, business loans, and credit and other critical requirements. Guido adds, "Landscaping is a business. Learn as much as you can about business, finance, operations, sales and marketing."

Use ALCA and other professional resources, says Cole. Sharpen your decision-making and negotiation skills.

Make goals and stick to them, says Thayer. Refuse to limit yourself or sell yourself short. Running a business is a wild ride. Be prepared for the little hiccups along the way, and don't let them stop you.

Utilize standard business tools, says Novy. This includes a business plan and a formal advisory board with outside thinkers who can offer independent feedback and guidance.

Male or female, be true to yourself and your vision. Ozmore notes, "A lot of women think you need to be rough and scruff to be in this business. You don't. At the same time, be open to change -- that franchise or consulting job may be a golden opportunity that doesn't present itself twice.

Finally, have fun. Most people get into the business because of a passion or interest in all things green. Don't let that initial spark get too far away from you.

March 2004