If someone asked me where they might find a large contingent of middle-aged men, a big chunk of them 50 and older, I would say, “Go to any landscape industry gathering — you can’t miss.” I’m kidding around, but we all know it’s true. Which leads to the question, “Where are all the young contractors?” No endeavor can survive for long without attracting young people into it. Happily, there are some young people — including some very young people — who are already hard at work in their green industry careers, starting businesses while still attending high school, middle school and even elementary school.
The next time you read a story lamenting how entitled and lacking in social skills the current generation supposedly is, think back on the four industrious, focused and articulate teens and twenty-somethings we’ve profiled. To paraphase a song they probably don’t know, “Their future’s so bright, they’ve gotta wear shades.”
Pay attention; these just might be the future leaders of our industry.
Name: Joe Troetti
Company: Troetti Landscaping
Location: Danbury, Connecticut
Services Provided: mowing, mulching
Quotable: “I want to go to college and get an arborist degree. I also plan to get multiple business degrees and study turf science.”From Dad’s helper to business owner
Joe Troetti’s love affair with landscape work started before he could walk, around age one. “I would watch my Dad mow the lawn and get mad because I couldn’t help him. So he built a little seat for me on his push mower that I could ride on while he mowed.”
Troetti says, “I’ve always loved landscaping.” The owner of Troetti Landscaping, Danbury, Connecticut, isn’t kidding; now 13, he already has three years in business under his belt, having founded the company at the ripe old age of 10. This past April, he won a local competition for the best business pitch.
As soon as he could walk, he started being a real helper, and not just to his dad. At an age when most kids are busy playing Chutes and Ladders, “I would go to a neighbor and ask if there was anything I could help out with, like taking out the trash.”
I asked him why he was so focused on helping others at such a young age. Was he prompted to by Mom and Dad? He says, “We live in a small community of only about 30 people. Everyone here knows each other and we all kind of help each other out.” While he was enjoying working outdoors for free, a new idea began to dawn on him. “I slowly realized — at around age six or seven — that I could turn that into a business.”
Once again, Dad had the answer. “When I asked him how I could expand what I was doing and make money at it, he suggested landscape work because he’d done that himself in high school and college.” Soon, Troetti was mowing lawns and mulching, this time for pay. But, “although the moneymaking part was there,” he didn’t realize everything that being an entrepreneur actually entails. Fortunately, several of his neighbors are business owners. “I talked to them, and they started helping me get set up.”
A 30-week class at a local Young Entrepreneurs Academy, geared toward middle- and high-schoolers, helped too. It covered how to launch a business — “although I was already launched three years ago,” — and goes over the financial side. “It’s taught me how to set up my business in the absolute maximum way I could set it up. I’m going to be able to grow so much, once I’m able to drive.” (By the way, he’s not the youngest one in the class. That would be a 10-year-old.)
Troetti isn’t letting a little thing like being too young for a driver’s license stop him. People in neighboring towns want to hire him, and to service them this summer, he’s engaged a driver.
Even though he just got started, he’s already giving back to the community. Every month, he’ll look for someone in need and will take care of that person’s landscape at no charge.
The soon-to-be eighth-grader plans much more education ahead. Math is his favorite subject. When not busy doing extracurriculars, working in his business or playing football (he also plays golf, basketball and baseball) he finds time to hang out with friends.
“I definitely want to do this the rest of my life. A goal I have is to become an intergalactic — I mean, interdisciplinary — landscaper, do exterior design and have a tree nursery.”
That’s all? With his ambition and drive, it’s possible that someday he will be an intergalactic landscaper, perhaps the one who will plant the first crape myrtle on Mars.
Name: Barrett Weckel
Company: Young Entrepreneurs Landscaping
Services Provided: custom masonry, hardscapes designs, plantings, cleanup, property maintenance, irrigation, lighting, trees, and sod
Quotable: “I’ve always liked being outdoors hunting and fishing. I’m an Eagle Scout. I’ve always liked machinery, so it all kind of rolls together with that.”Proving that parents aren’t always right
Barrett Weckel started mowing neighborhood lawns at age 11 or 12. In 2008, he started Young Entrepreneurs Landscaping, Cincinnati. He recently graduated with a bachelor degree in Entrepreneurial Studies from the Williams College of Business at Xavier University, an education that his business paid for. Now 25, he runs the business with partner and boyhood pal Nathan Record, 24.
Weckel says he’s the sort that “always sees the big picture, so seeing a project through from the first meeting to its final completion is kinda cool.”
From mowing, he soon added mulching, leaf cleanup and other services to his company’s menu. Now, Young Entrepreneurs does “pretty much everything under the sun” for its roster of 1,500 clients.
“We’re doing more in-depth transplanting and planting work now, but also drainage, some minor tree and irrigation work, and landscape lighting. And we’re also one of the bigger sod installers here now.”
While Weckel could see the big picture ahead, others couldn’t always. “My parents are old school, from very humble beginnings, and strove to become white collar. When I told them I planned to do landscaping for a living, they said, ‘Well, you’re going to be nothing more than a lawn jockey, and you’re not going to make any money.’ So I said, ‘Watch this.’” And they have. “We’ve doubled our business every year. In 2016 we did $700,000, and last year, $1.4 or $1.5 million.” Our goal this year is to bill about $1.8 million.” His mom helps out with office work at times and sees those big checks rolling in. Needless to say, those “lawn jockey” cracks have ceased.
It seems as if Weckel is well on the way to building a green industry empire. He recently acquired another landscape company and will be building a new facility this winter. However, he says “I really don’t want to grow any more. You start to lose the personal touch, the ‘How’s your kid doing?’ kind of thing with your clients and your employees. Like, I know every one of my guys’ birthdays.”
He adds, “When a client tells me, ‘I’ve got a spot over here in my lawn that needs attention,’ I can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I know exactly what spot you’re talking about.’ If I get much bigger I can’t do that.”
Weckel has avoided traps that even older, more experienced business people fall into. “I think the reason for our rapid growth is that I never really financed anything until last year; I’ve always paid cash.”
His fleet consists of 12 used diesel trucks, ranging from 1999 models to the newest one, a 2003. “We get older trucks with low mileage cheap, then customize them from the ground up. This way I don’t have to take some job I don’t want just because I’ve got to make a credit card payment.” He tells the group of other young entrepreneurs he mentors to follow his example, saying, “Don’t become a slave to the bank.”
He also says, “Don’t be afraid to get in there and get your hands dirty. A lot of contractors will show up on a job site, roll down the window, point their finger, and then leave. But if my guys are struggling on a job, I hop down and get into the hole with them. You’re only as good as your guys are.”
Weckel says he plans to retire by age 45. Even if he does, someone with this much energy is bound to keep doing exciting things throughout his life. We can’t wait to see them.
Name: Andrew Ellis
Company: A’s Lawn Service
Location: Medina, Ohio
Services Provided: Mowing, trimming, edging, trenching, mulching, bush/ shrub planting and removal
Quotable: “Some of the football coaches joke around how I’ve had the whole team working for me.”It all started with football
Andrew Ellis started his green industry career four years ago, at age 14. “I got started cutting someone’s lawn in the neighborhood, and then for a couple more people and then started mulching and doing more actual landscaping stuff, like weeding and edging beds, trimming shrubs and putting stone in yards.” He doesn’t do any hardscaping yet but plans to start after college.
Ellis’ business, A’s Lawn Service LLC, became “official” this past March, legally put in his own name, now that he’s turned 18.
Having started with his dad’s zero-turn rider, he now owns two himself, having paid cash for a used model with his business profits. (He pays cash for everything his business needs.) The second was a gift from his parents. He also owns two trailers, a truck and some edgers, trimmers and blowers.
The “Friday night lights” were the impetus for starting the business. “I played football and couldn’t really get a job elsewhere because of the practice schedule,” says Ellis. “So, I thought I’d mow lawns. My dad had a good lawn mower, and we had neighbors who were willing to pay me to do it, so I figured, ‘why not?’ ” I asked Ellis if his mom, an accountant, or his dad, a senior operations manager for W.W. Grainger, influenced his entrepreneurial bent.
“In the beginning, no, but as my company has continued to grow, they’ve been a huge support along the way, helping me manage my money and with marketing and advertising,” he says.
He’s already doing some professional-style advertising, ordering uniforms for himself and his workers — and that was his idea, not Mom’s or Dad’s. “I just thought that if we’re going to be out working together, we might as well be wearing similar things. It’s not really a uniform, it’s just shorts — I wear long khaki pants, myself — and a green Dri-Fit shirt with my company logo on the front and the phone number on the back.”
At present, he’s a one-man band, but has someone who helps him out when he needs it, and at times has hired some of his buddies from the football team.
Ellis, who graduated from Medina High School in May, says he hasn’t thought too much about the future of the business, focusing on the next big thing ahead: attending Cuyahoga Community College in the fall. He’ll continue servicing his 33 mowing and 20 mulching clients while he attends.
Ever the practical businessperson, Ellis plans on living at home to save money, adding “I’d like to move out of the house, but I figure, why pay for housing if I don’t have to?” After community college, he’ll transfer to a four-year university where he’ll major in business and minor in horticulture and landscape design.
He says he’s not going to try out for the football team, so for now, the only uniform he’ll be donning is the one with his company’s logo on it. He has done some forward projection, though, saying, “I think my first step after college will be to find a building to keep all of my equipment in and kind of have my own little workshop.”
In his free time, Ellis is a typical teenager, going to his friends’ baseball games, hanging out with his girlfriend and buddies, building bonfires and watching sports on TV, especially football. In the meantime, his business will continue gaining yardage.
Name: Dawson Borcherding
Company: Young Leaf Landscaping
Location: Overland Park, Kansas
Services Provided: General landscaping, hardscaping
Quotable: “I’ve always been excited to work.”His business is paying for college
Dawson Borcherding needed a job, so the 15-year-old high school sophomore got one at a local nursery. He didn’t know it then, but it would put him on a path toward achieving a major life goal.
The new job dovetailed nicely with the entrepreneurship class he was taking at the same time at Shawnee Mission West High School. “My teacher was incredible, had us writing up business plans. I did one for the idea I had, a nationwide urban gardening service that would do fencing, pest control, weeding and trimming. I entered it in the First National Bank Business Plan competition and won the top prize, a $2,500 scholarship.”
All of that combined success made Borcherding start thinking, “I can do this on my own.” He quit the nursery job and started Young Leaf. “I decided to pursue my urban gardening service idea and found out pretty quickly there’s no market for it.”
Shortly thereafter, he undertook his very first hardscape job: building three patios, a retaining wall with seating, a stone staircase and a French drain system — all of which he completed while doing a 40-hour-a-week internship at ARCO National Construction in Kansas City. “I found that I really enjoyed building that retaining wall and the other projects too. I decided that’s where the market is.”
Perhaps it’s because he is so young that he enjoyed the building process because it sounds arduous; he did the excavation part of it “hand digging it out with shovels” borrowed from Dad. “I just used what I had at the time, the two shovels, an axe, and a wheelbarrow,” he says. “After a year of working parttime I was able to buy a trimmer, a chain saw and a backpack blower.”
More jobs came his way, mostly via word of mouth, and by the visual advertising his excellent work produced. “My first project was in a cul-de-sac. By the end of the first year and a half, I’d done work at four of the six houses in it.”
He’s an unusually disciplined, goal-oriented young man, as are all of the future contractors in this story. I asked him if any of the money he’s made has allowed him to buy things typical 16-year-old boys salivate for, like a car, sports gear, or another musical instrument (he plays several)? Nope.
“I kind of knew, even as a high school student, that most of the profits from my business would go to pay for college. I reinvested some of it back into the company, buying equipment. The other 10 percent, I gave to my church.” (His dad’s a minister).
Borcherding, now a junior at Kansas State University, recently shut down his contracting business while he focuses on finishing his construction science and management degree and summer internship (the same one he did last year, at ARCO). “But my landscape and hardscape knowledge and experience will help me in my future career as a construction superintendent, because I will be working with landscaping contractors in the field from a logistics standpoint.” He can already read blueprints. I wouldn’t be surprised if he eventually starts another landscape business. If he does … watch out!
Judging from this impressive group of young folks, our business has a bright future. Don’t be shocked should you find their names on a list of “weathiest landscape contractors in America” one of these days.
The author is senior editor of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Phil Allen, Ph.D., CLP, a professor of landscape management at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, is sick of millennials, Gen Z’ers, or whatever the latest crop of young people is labeled, being stereotyped as lazy and entitled.
“I don’t subscribe to that notion, don’t believe it at all. I love them. Maybe they’re not workaholics like my generation was — they want to have a balanced life, something that most people realize at some point we all need,” he says.
Allen has taught many young men and women who went straight from the parchment podium to founding very successful green industry businesses. “One of my former students has never set foot in the state of New York, but he has a landscape company there where he subs out all the systems to take care of foreclosed homes until they can be sold. He’s systematizing it like a fast food franchise and is now expanding it to several states.”
This generation does not know a time when computers, smartphones and the internet were not a part of everyday life, and that, too, is working for them. “These kids can take technology and run circles around the old ways of doing things,” Allen says.
How do we attract more young people like this? “The National Association of Landscape Contractors has been working on this and so has the Tree Care Industry Association,” says Allen. “Whether it’s landscape design, design-build, irrigation, arboriculture or something else, we need to help young people and their parents recognize that these are truly professions. Not everybody’s cut out to be in a cubicle.”
And BYU understands equally as important as finding a field that interests a student, providing them with the tools to be successful in business is part and parcel . “A lot of these kids just love creating beauty outdoors. While that’s important, knowing your costs and understanding the fundamentals of business is very important. Our kids at BYU are very fortunate in that we make them get a business minor. They don’t have a choice.”