Aug. 11 2021 10:26 AM

The owner of Plants Creative grew her landscaping business in the Atlanta area and beyond.

The volleyball court is a great place to earn a nickname. Pam Dooley says hers wasn’t a very intimidating one, but it was very appropriate. Her teammates on the Central, South Carolina-based Southern Wesleyan University volleyball team called her Plants.

She earned the nickname because she knew a lot about flowers, shrubs and other photosynthesizing species. As a teenager, she worked alongside her grandfather at a local nursery in Indiana where she grew up. During college she enrolled in horticulture classes at nearby Clemson University.

In 1996, she got to put those horticulture skills to use at the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Her job was interiorscaping for the athletes’ accreditation center where the athletes would go to pick up their credentials. Dooley’s job was to care for the plants inside the center. Even though “Plants” herself wasn’t competing in the games, being up close to the athletes was an incredible experience.

“It was like a dream job for me because I got to see all these teams and all these people coming through,” says Dooley. “It was just a really cool summer job.”

It was also Dooley’s first exposure to Atlanta. She decided to move to the city in 2003 where she began working for a family garden center with production greenhouses.

“I knew plants very well and had a job opportunity to do account management for commercial property maintenance. I knew I would learn about two things I knew nothing about: irrigation and lawns,” Dooley recalls.

Bills to pay

She worked for the commercial landscaping company for two and a half years and in 2005 was interested in going back to school at the University of Georgia, but she says, “I had bills.”

She spoke to her partner, Michelle Nelson, who had just finished earning her master’s degree in social work and said, “I’d really like to go back to school myself. But I know we have bills, so I am thinking about mowing lawns.”

When it came time to find a name for the new business, she didn’t have to look far. She recalled her nickname from her volleyball days and Plants LLC was born. About five years ago the company rebranded to Plants Creative. August 2021 marks the company’s 16th anniversary.

Plants LLC’s first customer was the realtor who sold the couple their house, Shane Little of Avenue Realty. “I’m thinking about starting a business. Can I mow your lawn?” Dooley asked him.

Little would overpay for the service, telling Dooley to “just put that money on my account.” He also started including clean-up and landscape certificates to Plants LLC as part of his closing packets for his real estate customers. Little is still a Plants Creative customer today.

“The business was literally me with my garage sale push mower,” says Dooley of those early days.

Growing the business

By 2008 Dooley had a few employees and was renting space for the business. Little called her up one day saying, “Bring your checkbook, I found your new location.”

She put an offer on the property, located in Decatur, that same day. “We built out a really amazing building,” she says.

The East College Avenue location includes a 1,500-square-foot office with a 3,600-square-foot warehouse attached to it. The grand opening of that location was held in 2011.

Plants Creative has 57 employees and is made up of three divisions: property care, construction and irrigation. About 90% of the business is residential. Irrigation is the newest division, which launched at the beginning of 2021 under the name Hydrate by Plants Creative.

“It’s just all about people and having really good people at all levels,” Dooley says.

Dooley launched the irrigation division, she says, because subcontractors she hired were not applying sustainable technologies that she knew existed, such as smart controllers. They also weren’t educating homeowners on proper use of irrigation systems.

“I’m a big proponent of technology that helps with sustainability, that just allows people to work smarter and allows homeowners to enjoy their landscapes more,” she says. “I envision it becoming a standalone company, which is why I branded it separately.”

Currently, the division mostly handles irrigation for Plants Creative’s existing maintenance customers and new installations for the construction division.

The company’s construction division is a full-service design-build operation. Plants Creative employs two designers and also works with freelance designers to help with overflow business. The types of projects the division undertakes covers the gamut.

“We will do anything from simple enhancements to outdoor kitchens to patios,” says Dooley. “Over the last couple of years we’ve done more and more pools. They are the hot thing right now.”

Because pool contractors are in such high demand, Dooley says it is difficult for the company to make huge margins on pool projects when subcontracting the pool contractors, however.

Plants Creative has been recognized locally and by the National Association of Landscape Professionals with awards for many of its landscape design and installation projects.

“Of course those projects are spectacular, but I am sincere when I say it is just as significant for me to get that message from the homeowner who appreciates their new patio space, especially these last 18 months,” says Dooley. “The impact of what we do for people and families in the outdoors is off the charts right now because it’s so significant for mental health. Projects that impact people’s lives outdoors, whatever the size, are just as significant to me as the award winners.”

The property care side of Plants Creative offers four different packages of services. In June, Plants Creative launched a “Build Your Own Maintenance Plan” on the company website.

“It allows people to pick what level of care they want and based on just some messaging and storytelling it generates a price, and that is what they will pay,” Dooley says.

The pricing assumes that an autonomous mower, or automower, will be used. An account manager will visit the property within 24 hours to confirm, and assuming the property owner provided accurate information, Plants Creative will get started.

Plants Creative has been a dealer for the autonomous mowers through Husqvarna for the last three years. Sometimes the company will get requests for installation of the mowers only, but Dooley says it is their goal to install them as part of their maintenance contracts. The automowers currently only make up about 1% of the company’s maintenance clients. It is Dooley’s goal to have 50 automowers in operation for clients in 2021 and continue to grow it.

“It’s taken a lot of time to develop the supportive literature, training and buy-in with the team,” says Dooley. She adds that the automowers also create a difficult financial model because they can range between $1,500 and $3,500 and the mowers are only serving that one property versus a push mower that could handle more properties in a day.

“The team is finally seeing it. You have to look at it holistically as part of our brand and you have to slowly, little by little just get traction with it,” she says.

The mowers are leased to customers on 12-month contracts. Dooley explains that the innovators who want the automowers are the same ones who want all the newest gadgets and don’t want to buy something outright that is going to be dated in a few years.

“Like everything, technology is changing so frequently.” Dooley says of the automowers.

The leasing aspect allows the client to upgrade their units. It took a few years to develop a solid model, according to Dooley. Introducing leasing as part of the program, she says, has proven to be effective. The units are purchased from Husqvarna and leased to Plants Creative from another company which Dooley says also helps with cash flow.

Automowers are not a passing fad to Dooley. “It is here to stay,” she says.

The benefits, according to Dooley, are filling in the labor gap that exists in the industry and being able to charge higher margins for more detailed work that the mowers can perform.

“It’s also super attractive for recruiting. I’ve added two team members who knew that that’s what we were about, and they were very excited to join the team and help move it forward,” she says.

Expansion plans

In December 2020, Dooley decided to sell the East College Avenue location. During the pandemic, the design team was entirely remote and Dooley was in the office alone. She didn’t need that much space. She called up her old pal and customer, Shane Little.

At the same time, she’d also been wanting to expand into the North Georgia Mountains. Plants Creative has another location about three miles from the East College location, which was purchased in 2017.

The Atlanta operations were consolidated into the that location.

Dooley’s banker had a client whom he said might be interested in the property. The banker connected them, and the space was under contract in two weeks.

“It was perfect for him, and it allowed us to consolidate into the other location. I took that money and invested in two acres, and we are building a new location in Blue Ridge. It allowed us to build that debt-free,” says Dooley.

In Atlanta Dooley had built a strong leadership team, and the crews were also performing well. Blue Ridge has been almost like starting from scratch.

“Expansion is hard,” emphasizes Dooley. “Doing the expansion in Blue Ridge is almost like going back into startup mode.”

She’s gone back to wearing many of her past hats, like being production manager and doing sales, but she says she also knows there is an abundance of opportunities.

Relationships and curiosity are two important values to Dooley and Plants Creative. “They drive everything that we do. We are so people-centric, whether it’s internally or externally. You have to always focus on doing the right thing and not being right, and there is a distinct difference between the two,” she says.

Curiosity is about learning, asking questions and not being satisfied and complacent with the status quo. “That is so far from who I am,” says Dooley.

Sometimes her team must reel her in, she admits. They tell her they like whatever the idea is that she comes up with on that given day, but they might need more time to implement it.

An appreciation for nature is an aspect of Dooley’s personality that drives her. “There has to be some level of appreciation for the outdoors. I just don’t know how it could be any other way,” she says to be successful in landscaping.

The aspect of the landscape and irrigation business Dooley appreciates most is improving people’s lives. “I think the impact on people is why we are strong in the residential market. I love creating outdoor experiences for people that improve their lives.”

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