Kevin Mulkern likes to quote the author Anita Brookner as he reflects back on his life, “Time misspent in youth is sometimes all the freedom one ever has.”
Kevin has worked nearly nonstop since he began Mulkern Landscaping & Nursery in Oahu, Hawaii, 46 years ago, and he’s not ready for a break any time soon.
His younger days were a little different, however. When he was in his early 20s earning a degree in marine biology from Leeward Community College in Pearl City, Hawaii, he admits studying wasn’t always his main priority. Living in a beach house with several roommates where he could see one of the best surfing spots in the world from his bed made studying a little challenging.
If the waves were good that day, he’d grab his surfboard instead of his textbooks and head toward the water instead of the library. But it was also during his college years that he began to develop a passion for horticulture.
Surf And turf
“While I was in college, I took what I call my fun courses, and they were Hawaiian plants, horticulture, agriculture and botany,” he recalls.
He also got his first taste of working in the green industry when he took a part-time job working at a nursery that also did landscaping. At the same time, his career aspirations of being a marine biologist quickly changed “once I realized that going to sea wasn’t as glamorous as the Jacques Cousteau movies.”
The pristine waters with highly visible coral and fancy yachts portrayed by Cousteau were far from reality for most sea scientists. Choppy seas and getting ejected from your bunk bed in the middle of the night was more accurate. That was not the lifestyle he wanted.
“By the time I graduated I realized I wanted to do landscaping,” he says.
It was while on the job at his part-time landscaping gig that he got the idea of starting his own landscaping business.
“One day, I looked in the back of my little Datsun pickup truck and thought, I’ve got my truck and I’m using my own tools. Why not start my own business?” he says.
He put his resignation in at his job. It was about the same time that he was planning to marry his high school sweetheart, Susan. She was on board with the business idea and wanted to be part of it. He admits, he couldn’t have done it without her. “I married well,” he says of his wife and business partner.
A family business
Mulkern Landscaping & Nursery was founded in 1975. Initially, there was a lot of surfing and little working … about eight hours a week, but that quickly grew. Susan has been part of the company since day one in the role of vice president. Her business knowledge complements Kevin’s landscape expertise.
“I do enjoy what I do, but I am not a businessman,” he says.
Susan, on the other hand, has a four-year degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, and bookkeeping experience she gained from her previous job working for an attorney’s office.
“My wife keeps a close eye on the books. I trust her and try to defer to her with regard to our bidding,” he says.
That trust allows Kevin to focus on what he does best: consult on projects; perform and oversee hundreds of landscaping, maintenance and irrigation projects; and grow things.
Susan also keeps meticulous records on clients, from how many crewmen were onsite during the last visit to what work was performed and when. She’s also that constant reminder Kevin needs when he is out in the field that there are bills and people that need to be paid.
Susan’s English degree and attorney’s office experience also helps with the company’s contracts.
“I think our contracts are fairly clear and precise,” says Kevin. “Any misunderstanding is generally because the client didn’t read the contract or didn’t bother to Google the definition of different words such as ‘not responsible for underground unidentified objects.’” He adds, “We really appreciate it when people ask us questions about our proposals so we can iron things out before we get started rather than someone being overwhelmed with excitement about the job and later realize they wanted something done differently.”
Mulkern Landscaping & Nursery charges for its estimates. There’s good reason. Before they began charging for consultations, the company would provide the customer with a lot of information for free, and often the customer would turn around and do the work themselves, leaving the company high and dry for the time and effort. Now, Kevin doesn’t mind if they want to do the work themselves. He’ll even tell them where to rent equipment and purchase fertilizer and plants.
“When people call us for help with their landscape or help with their lawn, we call it a consultation. We tell them we have a two-hour minimum,” Kevin says. “Right off we are trying to explain to them that our time has value, and we’d like to work for you, but we’d like to get paid.”
That’s not to say there aren’t occasions when he doesn’t charge a customer, such as when he arrives at a job for an irrigation repair and it turns out the ground fault circuit interrupter outlet tripped, and it’s just a matter of pressing buttons. “They’ll call us when they have real irrigation work,” he says.
The Mulkerns’ daughter, Dorothy, has also been involved with the business from time to time. Like many children of landscape company owners, she grew up in the office and joined her parents at trade shows and meetings in her youth.
Apparently, it had a lasting effect. Though Dorothy isn’t currently working for the family business, she decided to follow in her parent’s footsteps, earning a master’s in landscape architecture and urban planning. She and a friend are credited with building Mulkern Landscaping & Nursery’s website, which has helped tremendously with new business.
“I can’t really overestimate the importance of having a virtual presence. Sixty percent of our new work comes in from internet searches, 40% is referrals and some we get from our vehicles. That’s a very inexpensive way of letting people know that you’re working in the area,” Kevin says.
Over 90% of Mulkern Landscape and Nursery is residential. About 40% of the work Mulkern Landscaping & Nursery performs is new design and installation work, including installation, irrigation, lighting and ponds.
The projects Kevin is most fond of are those that involve restoring neglected landscapes.
He recalls a lot a while back that was covered with invasive plants that were between 3 feet and 7 feet tall.
“When I looked at the project, I could kind of see remnants of a lawn and plants underneath this dense overgrowth,” he says. He suggested to the owner that the crew try to restore it.
“It was actually kind of amazing there after we pulled out the weeds. There was enough of the el toro (zoysia) lawn to recover,” he says. “We actually almost ended up with a perfect lawn without having to plant anything.”
In the beds, there were native plants, both fruiting and flowering, so the crew didn’t have to put in any new plants, either.
“And we found an irrigation system that was functional, it just needed the heads cleaned and a couple of broken heads replaced,” Mulkern says. “That is the kind of project I really like to do, versus coming in and bulldozing everything.”
In another renovation on a large property, crews were restoring walkways in what appeared to be a forest and found a tennis court with a chain link fence and 20-foot trees growing out of it.
“We really didn’t do any new planting, we pruned and shaped the trees and shrubs, restored the walkways and started them on a weed control program,” Kevin says.
Because Kevin is a landscape contractor, he says his designs are a little more conservative than that of a landscape architect.
“I don’t want to make something I can’t keep alive,” explains Kevin. “I think what makes me unique is I listen very carefully to what the client wants so our designs represent the client’s desires.”
Kevin was recently joking with the local fire department about how offended he was that while he was in the middle of a conversation with them, they abruptly left for a call.
The fire chief told him, “The way we respond to calls is as if every call is a call from our mother.”
That comment resonated with Kevin, and he says his company takes the same approach. “The majority of our business is dealing with homeowners or families. We like to try to treat them the way we would treat our moms and develop relationships with them.”
He still even helps his own mom with her plants. She turns 100 in July.
The nursery part of the company name makes up the remaining part of the company. It’s on an acre and a half of land but has been slowly transitioning to a larger, 7-acre parcel. The move has been a few years in the making, and Kevin acknowledges his slowness.
“I’m on Hawaiian time, and I probably work slower than most Hawaiians as far as getting my projects off the ground, but eventually my parcel will be developed. We’ll have a little stand and I’ll be picking avocados, mangos and other fruits and running my landscaping business,” he says.
As far as retirement goes, the Mulkerns don’t have any plans to slow down just yet. The two spend about 80% of their time together, most of it working, and that is OK with them.
“We haven’t really developed an exit strategy, and my wife continues to tolerate me in the office until she chases me out to work in the field,” he kids. “We enjoy what we are doing, and I’m not sure what we’d be doing if we weren’t doing what we are doing.”
Kristin Ely is an award-winning writer who specializes in industry reporting for business publications, and can be reached at email@example.com.