Nov. 10 2021 11:39 AM

Creating strong ties with customers, employees and vendors has allowed Chevalier Outdoor Living to weather ups and downs.


An appreciation for the outdoors and a love for living things only gets a person so far in the landscape business. While those characteristics are helpful, it’s difficult to get ahead unless you’ve also got other people in your corner.

Mike Frank, owner of Chevalier Outdoor Living in Springville, New York, understands the importance of relationships so much that it is part of the fabric of his company. And he makes sure that everyone who visits the company website, youroutdoorlivingspace. com, knows it.

In the center of the homepage, below the company name and knightly logo, are the words, “We believe in building relationships, inspiring creativity and expression, showing love and respect to both materials and the people we work with.”

It isn’t until the last sentence that visitors read, “We just so happen to build and maintain amazing outdoor living spaces allowing us to reconnect with nature and each other.”

And with 15 employees providing residential maintenance, snow and ice removal, and outdoor living spaces in southern Erie County, New York, the commitment to relationships is apparent. Those relationships are the reason Chevalier has stayed in business for nearly 30 years, even when the going got tough.

“What has allowed us to grow our business was focusing on relationships. What drives our business is the relationships with our clients, with our staff and with our suppliers — all of us forming one big team,” Frank says.

Trading farms for lawns

Frank’s first exposure to landscaping came as a college student at Alfred State University, Alfred, New York. Many of the classes he took as part of the agricultural program overlapped with landscaping.

He realized that he probably wouldn’t be able to own a farm like he had dreamed of without first owning a business, so he bought a landscaping company with a partner thinking he would do it for a few years and then buy a farm.

“That didn’t quite work out,” he kids about the buying a farm part, but he has come to terms with it all these years later. The landscaping business on the other hand is still working out quite well for him. He and a business partner bought the company that has now become Chevalier Outdoor Living in 1992.

“We gave him a few thousand bucks and a whole lot of sweat equity, and we had ourselves a business,” says Frank, who describes the business at the time as basically a mowing route.

Not long after, in 1994, he bought out his partner’s share of the business. According to Frank, the partner had unrealistic expectations that you bought a business then you started filling your pockets. Frank realized it was going to take a while to build up the business. He also married his wife Susan that same year, who today manages the maintenance side of the business.

The early 1990s was the era of walkbehind mowers. Frank says zero-turn wasn’t even a term back then.

“A lot of equipment that’s out now didn’t even exist then. When we finally bought our first zero-turn mower, people didn’t even know what they were,” he says.

As the company was performing lawn and landscape maintenance for its clients, Frank starting seeing mistakes that were made by the landscape contractors who installed them, so the company started taking on design and installation work.

“We started designing landscapes that were more perennial and deer-friendly as a way of helping our maintenance customers,” he says. “From there we started seeing the same problems over and over again with patio spaces, so we started doing patios and hardscapes the same way. We started seeing problems and designing them differently and that’s how we evolved along.”

Once the company started using the phrase outdoor living space in its name, that side of the business really started to take off. At first, it wasn’t the catchphrase that it is today. People didn’t think that there were enough nice summer days to warrant making such an investment in western New York, but now it’s here to stay, says Frank.

Problem-solving

The majority of Chevalier’s growth over the years, according to Frank, has been a result of solving problems for people. The company is on track to book $1.5 million in sales in 2021. The maintenance division, which includes lawn and landscape maintenance and snow and ice removal, makes up 50% of the business, and design/build/construction makes up the other 50%. A full 90% of the business is residential.

Solving problems requires good listening skills, and Frank tends to ask a lot of questions so he can understand his clients’ needs.

“One big thing when I am asking questions is not only what they say but what they don’t say,” he says. He explains that when someone calls because they want a patio, it is important to ask what they are going to do with it. Is it to have parties in the backyard? Is it a place to relax? Do they want to be able to look out their window and see a terrific landscape?

“Answering those questions turns into what we build,” says Frank. “It’s really filling a need that they can hardly put into words.”

For example, if someone wants to feel relaxed, Frank knows what textures, colors and layout can create that feeling for the client, even if the client can’t articulate it.

When he meets with a new customer, he quickly tries to establish that they are on the same team and determine if the project is right for the company.

“I am more interested in it being a good fit than the amount of money they want to spend. The money they want to spend is irrelevant,” says Frank.

Chevalier has taken on projects costing $20,000 and ones that are $200,000. According to Frank, oftentimes the $20,000 ones can be more rewarding.

“It’s not the size of the project, it is how the flow of it goes with working with the client. I want them to be thrilled with it, not only when they are writing the check, but 10 years and 20 years later,” he says.

Chevalier will build something that can change and adapt with the client during that period when they are raising kids, when the kids move out and then when the grandkids start coming over.

“We give it a lot of thought going into it,” says Frank. “We are focused on building relationships over a long period of time.”

Hiring for the long haul

Building relationships over a long period of time is not exclusive to clients. Frank thinks of his employees as a long-term investment as well.

About 14 years ago, right before the mortgage crisis hit, Frank was forced to move his company from North Boston, New York, about 15 miles south to Springville. The company would have lost a lot of money had they stayed in that location, according to Frank, because the landlord wanted the company to buy it without holding up on a verbal agreement that the rent was counting toward the purchase price. He learned from that experience saying, “The hardest things often teach you the biggest lessons, and that is where your real strength comes from.”

One positive result from that experience is that it helped him develop a list of core values for his business, he says. Those core values guide every decision the company now makes. Does it build relationships? Does it inspire creativity and express positivity? Does it show love and respect to both materials and people we want to work with?

“If it does those three things then it is a smart thing, and if it doesn’t, it needs to go,” explains Frank.

That approach helped the company restructure a few years back as Frank realized the company was “spinning its wheels.” While money was going through the company’s hands, they weren’t seeing any of it, he says. Frank got the core team together and had a discussion about what it is that makes the company tick and what was needed to keep it going in the future.

What came out of the meeting was an understanding that “what we are doing is less important than having the right people around you, the right equipment, the right tools and the right supplier partnerships.”

He explained that you could have the best, shiniest, newest equipment, but that might be all you have. Or, you might have a complex and challenging project, but next year the economy could be different and those projects might not be there.

“You have to build something that is about the people and then stick together. That’s what has made us continue to grow,” says Frank. His team has told him that they’re looking for colleagues who want to be there and be a part of the company.

“It can make an already challenging employment environment even more difficult, but I think that’s going to start helping us as we move forward because I know there are a lot of people out there looking for jobs,” says Frank.

Frank has put his efforts toward, as he describes it, “building the kind of company that people want to work for.” About two years ago he started getting his employees involved in Breakthrough Academy, which is a type of coaching for tradespeople where they can learn how to harness their energy and creativity.

“What BTA did for us was gave us a structure whereby we can really take all these ideas and get them to the ground,” says Frank.

Finding direction

During its restructuring, the company determined who its ideal customer was and began focusing on those clients. These clients were of a certain sized project and of a certain amount of disposable income. It wasn’t necessarily the biggest house, the biggest budget or the biggest project either, according to Frank.

“Sometimes we get caught up on ‘everything needs to be big,’ and sometimes our most profitable work has been small projects,” says Frank.

Focusing in on the right clientele has been a smart decision. More and more referrals are coming in and even during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chevalier’s phones have been ringing nonstop.

“Our real growth in the last couple of years has been all referrals,” says Frank. “It all goes back to those relationships.”

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