July 20 2021 09:39 AM

The general manager of Yellowstone Landscape explores robotic and battery technologies.

When Ben Collinsworth was looking for the right landscape firm to acquire his Austin, Texas-based landscape company, technology was a key consideration. Several companies expressed interest in buying Native Land Design, but it was Yellowstone Landscape that came out as the frontrunner.

Yellowstone Landscape, Bunnell, Florida, is one of the top five largest landscape companies in the U.S. with 45 branches in markets in the Southeast, Texas, New Mexico, Chicago and Columbus, Ohio. Two years ago, the company was interested in growing its presence in central and south Texas. Native Land Design was a perfect fit, not just for the footprint it had in the market but for its employees and tech and business savvy owner, Collinsworth. After the acquisition in 2019, Collinsworth became general manager for Yellowstone Landscape.

“Since then, I’ve worked with Yellowstone on acquiring other companies, special projects and growing the business in Texas,” says Collinsworth.

At the time of the acquisition, Native Land Design was using the landscape management software Aspire for its 300 employees. Yellowstone, which has 6,500 employees, was looking at implementing it across its branches. Collinsworth and the former Native Land Design team helped with the transition. That’s not all Collinsworth has helped with since he’s been a part of Yellowstone Landscape. His role encompasses just about anything the company may need.

“I really enjoy working with a team that our CEO Tim Portland put together. I am playing in any area they find fit,” Collinsworth says.

He’s helped with acquisitions and most recently he’s been spearheading Yellowstone’s research into robotics and battery-powered equipment.

“I’m spending a lot of time talking to robotics companies, interviewing and bringing them down to Austin and seeing their products all across the country,” he says. “I work with some of the battery-operated equipment companies to see how we can transition some crews into battery, and I’m working with the IT team on some projects right now.”

An early adopter

Collinsworth considers himself “a lifelong landscape guy,” starting like many in the business mowing lawns at 13 and continuing through high school.

When he enrolled at Texas A&M, he recalls one of the counselors asking him what he was good at. He remembered responding that the only thing he had ever done was landscape.

“Well, you could try horticulture and landscape architecture,” the counselor said. That’s exactly what he did.

“I fell in love with it pretty much from the first class,” says Collinsworth.

His roommate his senior year was an agriculture major and got a call for a job in Austin doing landscaping. Collinsworth ended up joining him after finishing his last semester. He worked for the company for a couple years, and when that company was acquired, Collinsworth decided to start his own company. He founded Native Land Design in 2001.

The company started out doing residential work and then slowly transitioned into larger construction projects. When the economy crashed in 2007 and 2008, Collinsworth transitioned to maintenance to make up for the lack of construction work.

“I pretty much dropped all the construction after 2008 and just focused on commercial maintenance and grew that until 2019,” he says. Years later he is proud of that decision saying it was well-timed and he took a huge gamble that paid off.

Collinsworth has long been an avid user of Apple’s Mac operating system. When he was considering different operating systems for Native Land Design a few years ago, there weren’t many software companies that appealed to Apple users, he says.

Native Land Design was one of the first companies to implement Aspire, a software for commercial landscaping companies. Larger landscape firms began looking at it, including Yellowstone Landscape.

“It was intriguing to me that Yellowstone was looking at it, so when I was interviewing different suitors that were going to purchase my company, that was a big part of why I liked Yellowstone,” Collinsworth says.

Yellowstone also liked that Native Land Design had already implemented the software and could help with its software rollout. “And that’s what we did,” says Collinsworth.

Revved up about robotics

Yellowstone has put Collinsworth to work in other tech areas of the company. He’s currently working with several robotics manufacturing companies, including Greenzie, Scythe, Zupt, Electric Sheep, Robin Autopilot and Husqvarna.

“What seems to be the model so far is the smaller companies are developing all the tech and then the bigger companies will come in and buy the company out and put the technology into production,” says Collinsworth.

Yellowstone tests the mowers the companies are developing, which range in size from 21, 30, 48, 60 and 72 inches with various levels of autonomy. Some of the robotic mowers don’t require any interaction, while others need to be taught how to mow a property and then they’ll retain the information for future mowing sessions, explains Collinsworth. Yellowstone lets these companies operate their mowers on its properties to help work out any issues.

“There’s a lot of really good companies developing robotic options for mowers. They develop prototypes that they want to get tested,” he says. “We’ll test it and tell them where it needs improvement. They’ll go back and fix it and let us try the new version. We help them develop a prototype that is production ready.”

Collinsworth coordinates with the robotics companies to make sure they have a branch of Yellowstone to work with. The robotics companies also meet with Collinsworth to provide updates on their timelines for production-ready units. As a result of this work, Yellowstone recently entered an agreement with a vendor to buy some robotic mowers.

“We plan to have them in production this summer, which will be really cool,” says Collinsworth. “It will be our first big robotics mowing internal tests where we take the robotics and use them in real-life scenarios to see if we can utilize them over a broader spectrum across the company.”

Yellowstone’s interest in robotics is the same reason many landscape companies are looking at the technology: labor.

“We all have labor shortages. We all have problems finding people. If we can take robotics and put it out there to do the easiest tasks then we can scale our business without having to go out and constantly try to find new employees,” says Collinsworth. “Robotics aren’t meant to replace labor. They’re meant to fill in the gaps of labor where we don’t have people.”

Battery power

Battery-powered electric equipment is another area that Yellowstone is researching with Collinsworth at the helm. Before Collinsworth sold his business to Yellowstone, he liked a lot of the electric equipment on the market but says, “Unfortunately, a lot of them had run times with their batteries that weren’t feasible.”

That is changing, however, according to Collinsworth. “With a lot of these newer mowers, the batteries have impressive durations of six-, seven- or even eight-hour run times.”

Collinsworth is a big proponent of electric equipment since he embraces the technology in his own personal vehicle. He drives his Tesla Model X to and from work every day.

“If you ever drive a battery car, you’ll experience how different it is. It is so quiet.

There’s no vibration, there’s no noise,” he says. “It’s the same with mowers. You still have bumps in the ground, but you don’t have emissions. You don’t have fumes, and you don’t have vibration.”

He adds, “You don’t have nearly as many problems in a day and you also don’t have any parts. You don’t have to change your oil. You don’t have to change air filters. You don’t have to replace all this stuff that breaks on a regular basis on a gas-powered machine.”

Collinsworth says the emissions, less parts and less time in the shop are the main reasons Yellowstone is considering moving some of its crews to battery-powered equipment, including mowers and handheld equipment.

“We’re going to have a crew that can run big battery mowers, and they’re going to have a full gamut of all the blowers, weed eaters, trimmers, chainsaws and anything else they need,” says Collinsworth.

He says he’s pleased with the larger battery-powered mowers he’s seen from Greenworks and Mean Green Mowers. Makita and Stihl are two companies Yellowstone is working with for batterypowered handheld equipment.

Reflecting back

Being a landscape business owner for 17 years before joining Yellowstone taught Collinsworth a few things. He went through ups and downs with Native Land Design and says the most important part of owning a landscape business is knowing what you want to be good at and why, then building a talented team around you.

“For me it was always knowing my weaknesses and hiring to my weakness, playing to my strengths and not trying to be something I wasn’t,” he says. “If you do good work and you are true to your word and do what you tell people you are going to do, you get a lot of opportunities out of that.”

He says he also tried not to grow the company past the point where it could do quality work and maintain its integrity. “That was a model that worked really well, and I grew it for 17 years before I sold it. I was very proud of the team that I built and the work that I did and was very happy to be able to partner with Yellowstone.”

The transition has given Collinsworth a chance to really focus on the areas of landscape that he likes.

“With all the different changes that are going on in the industry I am really excited to be able to work with someone like Yellowstone,” he says. “They are really at the forefront of all these developments that are happening with technology. All the things going on in our industry with robotics and green power are really exciting.”

Kristin Ely is an award-winning writer who specializes in industry reporting for business publications and can be reached at kristinsmithely@gmail.com.