Aug. 14 2009 12:00 AM

You may be questioning whether the American Dream, and the infinite promise it holds, is still a reality. In today’s day and age, with the economic crisis looming, doubts like this are not uncommon. But there is good news: the American Dream is alive and well. If you don’t believe it, just ask Burton (Burt) Sperber.

As a young boy, Sperber enjoyed the outdoors. His father, Lewis, owned Laurel Nursery, a small retail nursery in North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, a sleepy suburb of Los Angeles. It was there that young Burt first gained exposure to the nursery business. He spent long days digging out bedding plants, loading bags of fertilizer into the cars of customers, and performing other chores. He enjoyed the work and thought being a gardener might be a nice way to earn a living.

A few years later, when the opportunity to purchase a nursery of his own presented itself, Sperber went for it. He took $700 from his savings and bought a small landscape/nursery in North Hollywood, California. The new enterprise would be called Valley Crest Landscape Nurseries, Inc. The year was 1949; Sperber was just 19 years old. Back then, the operation was a modest one. There were just a handful of employees, some old equipment and a few rickety trucks. It was a family affair. Lewis and Burt’s wife, Charlene, managed the nursery while Burt focused on developing the landscape aspect of the business. To do so, he would set out on foot, going door to door offering his services. For just a few bucks, he would roto-till and seed the lawn areas and install simple irrigation systems to the residents who inhabited the increasingly expanding neighborhoods of the San Fernando Valley.

Life was good; it seemed like he had achieved his goals. He
was doing what he loved and more importantly, he was supporting his family. Even in his wildest dreams, Sperber could never imagine how much better it would get. Today, ValleyCrest Companies is the nation’s largest, privately held integrated landscape services company. It boasts more than 10,000 employees, operates in more than 100 locations throughout the country, with annual revenues topping $1 billion. ValleyCrest has also established a presence on the international stage, fulfilling contracts in the Bahamas, Asia, Mexico and the Middle East. You might think that the kind of success achieved by ValleyCrest was fueled by an intense desire to make money—the kind of yearning for power, wealth and notoriety that motivated the great robber barons and other tycoons of the 19th Century. However, nothing could be further from the truth. “My goal was simply to feed my family and to be able to raise my children and try to do things right.”

“I wanted to do good work, satisfy my customers and treat my employees with respect,” says Sperber, who today is the company’s co-CEO.

“By adhering to that philosophy, by doing things right, good things02_2.jpg just happened. So my rewards came from this desire to do quality work and to treat people right, not from a desire to make lots of money or be the biggest company in the world.”

ValleyCrest’s journey has been one marked by constant growth. Since its founding in 1949, the company has averaged a compound growth rate of approximately 15 percent annually. “We’ve actually grown very slowly,” says Burt. “Fifteen percent a year is not really all that much. What we do have going for us is that we’ve been growing for 60 years.”

The company’s initial expansion was sparked, at least in part, by external factors. The 1950s was a booming decade. This was especially the case in Southern California, where ValleyCrest has always been headquartered. The continued migration of families away from the cities and into the suburbs required massive amounts of new construction. Homes and highways were built. New parks and schools began to pop up everywhere. All these new projects would require landscape work, and ValleyCrest was there.

The firm quickly established a reputation for performing quality work fast. That reputation lead to more work on bigger jobs. As the 1950s came to a close, ValleyCrest was on its way to becoming a national company, winning contracts in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, Florida and Texas.

In 1961, Stuart J. Sperber, Burt’s younger brother, joined the company and was put in charge of Valley Crest Tree Company, the firm’s newly formed nursery subsidiary.

Under Stuart’s leadership, the division pioneered the process of growing trees in boxes. This innovative approach, which is now the industry standard, allowed trees to be produced in massive quantities and substantially decreased the likelihood that a specimen tree would fall while being planted.

“It was really an invention created out of necessity,” says Burt of the decision to begin growing trees in boxes. “When you grow trees in the ground, which is how all the nurseries were doing it back then, the weather dictates when you can and can’t dig them up, so there were certain times of the year that trees were just not available to us. But we needed access to trees 12 months out of the year, and that’s how the process of growing trees in containers came about. I’m really proud that we were the first ones to grow large trees in boxes.”

Being first is something Valley- Crest has become very comfortable with over the years. In 1967, Valley-Crest made its first acquisition; since then, acquisitions have been a fundamental component of the company’s success. In 1969, it acquired another landscape company in Northern California and the Sperbers formed Environmental Industries, Inc. ValleyCrest and its acquisitions were put into the holding company. Environmental Industries, Inc., would be the first publicly traded company in the landscape industry. By the end of the ’60s, Valley- Crest (Environmental Industries) employed 325 people and had revenues of $10.4 million.

03.jpgSperber and ValleyCrest also played a large role in developing the first generation of commercial landscape equipment. “When we started, there was no such thing as landscape construction equipment,” says Sperber. “All the tools we used were really for agricultural applications.

Our company played a large part in helping to convert agricultural equipment into commercial landscape equipment. We were the first ones to put an engine on a flail mower, and we were also the first to build box scrapers.”

According to Richard Sperber, Burt’s son and the company’s co- CEO, ValleyCrest’s success is largely a result of their talented and dedicated workforce. “Our competitors can buy the same lawnmowers, trucks and fertilizer,” Richard says. “But it’s our people that set us apart. The biggest thing for us is keeping our employees happy and motivating them to take care of our customers. We truly believe that’s one of the best ways to achieve and maintain success.”

It is safe to say that the Sperbers have done a more than satisfactory job of keeping their people content. The company’s 115 branch managers have an average tenure of more than 12 years, and the company’s corporate officers, 19 years. In short, people like to work for Valley-Crest, and the company prides itself on providing its employees with careers, not just jobs. “We have one family that has had about 52 people working here,” Richard says. “That’s three generations. There are employees who have worked here since before I was born and still work here. That’s something I’m really proud of.” ValleyCrest entered the 1970s with a new name: Environmental Industries, Inc. Although the company moniker had changed, its penchant for expansion had not. During that time period, two new divisions were added. The year 1970 would see the creation of Environmental Care, Inc., the company’s maintenance division. And in 1978, Environmental Industries re-entered the residential design/build business with the creation of Western Landscape Construction. Although both entities flourished, the maintenance branch proved to be particularly successful, becoming the first maintenance company to open branches in multiple states. Sales were at $42 million and the company employed more than 1,000.

The 1980s was a decade of milestones. In 1984, Los Angeles was slated to host the Olympic Games. It was the first time the event would be held on U.S. soil in more than 50 years. Needless to say, the city was abuzz with excitement. Knowing their town would soon play host to hundreds of thousands of visitors from both home and abroad, L.A.’s leaders wanted to ensure that the City of Angels lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful metropolises in the world. ValleyCrest was retained to perform the majority of the landscape duties. The firm landscaped the Los Angeles Coliseum, where the Opening Ceremonies were held, as well as most of the sports venues used in the games.

That decade also saw ValleyCrest become the major player in Nevada. Their first high-profile job in the state was the landscape of McCarran International Airport. But the company’s biggest payoff there would come from the work it did on the infamous Las Vegas Strip.

Over the years, Las Vegas has become known for far more than04.jpg the showgirls and poker games that were once its claims to fame. Today, the elaborately landscaped hotels that dot the desert floor are attractions in themselves, drawing visitors from all over the world who want to be photographed beneath the Bellagio’s towering palm trees or famous water feature, or amidst the Wynn’s magnificent flower gardens. ValleyCrest is largely responsible for this phenomenon. The firm has built or refurbished the landscapes of nearly every major hotel that calls Sin City its home. The firm’s hotel projects on the Las Vegas Strip are among some of Burt’s favorite jobs. “There are only a handful of developers in the world who really understand that a beautifully landscaped property is an attraction unto itself; it’s something that people are going to want to come and see,” he says. “Steve Wynn, who hired us to do the Mirage, the Bellagio hotel, and later the Wynn and Encore hotels, is one of those guys.

Thanks to his vision, and his understanding of what we do, we were able to play a big part in changing the face of Las Vegas. It’s truly a pleasure to work with people like that.” By the end of the 1980s, there were 3,000 employees working at Environmental Industries. The company included four divisions, with operations throughout the United States, and was generating annual sales in excess of $150 million. It was widely considered to be the most successful landscape contracting firm in the history of the industry. Still, Burt was not satisfied.

“I always felt that we had to keep growing regardless of our size. Not because of the money. I just wanted to make sure there was room for our good people in lower and middle management to move up,” says Burt. “If there were no opportunities for these people to build their careers, if they were always going to be stuck in low-level positions, why would they stay? I wanted to continue to expand to make room for these people to reach top management levels.” It was also a time for some soul searching. ValleyCrest, which was a family affair, had become a publicly traded company 18 years earlier. Being a public company, all the stockholders were your partners. It didn’t seem to suit the style of the Sperbers, so they decided to buy back the stock and take the company private.

And the company continued to grow. In 1991, ValleyCrest established yet another division, its golf construction unit. After building hundreds of golf courses, it tackled the Pelican Hill Golf Course in Newport Beach, California. ValleyCrest acted as general contractor on the job, performing drainage, irrigation, sodding and landscaping, and tee and green construction. Thanks to the company’s meticulous craftsmanship, the course, which is placed among the scrubs and gentle arroyos that run along California’s magnificent coastline, is now considered to be one of the finest golf properties in California.

As the 1990s progressed, Valley- Crest continued to thrive. In 1994, the firm’s passport would receive the first of its many stamps when the company traveled to the Bahamas to landscape the Atlantis hotel. After returning stateside, ValleyCrest participated in its second Olympic Games, playing a large role in the construction of Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia, and many other venues. Only a few months later, the firm was awarded a $10 million contract to perform landscape work on the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

Winning a $10 million contract is an incredible achievement, but by 1998 it would be considered just a small job by ValleyCrest standards.

That year, the firm would earn its largest contract to date, a 05.jpg$75 million contract to build Walt Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Florida. By the end of the decade, Valley- Crest had celebrated its 50th year, employed more than 5,000 and achieved $450 million in annual revenues.

In 2001, Richard Sperber was named president and chief operating officer of the company. One of his first acts as president was to shed the Environmental Industries label. He wanted the company’s name to reflect its roots, so in 2002 Environmental Industries was rebranded as ValleyCrest Companies.

Like his father before him, Richard has shown a knack for ex pansion.

In 2006, with Richard at the company’s helm, ValleyCrest added two new divisions. Valley- Crest Design Group was established to offer clients standalone landscape architecture services. The division includes nearly 100 landscape architects who have designed projects across the globe. That year, the company also created Estate Gardens to provide landscape design/build services to its residential customers.

In 2008, the younger Sperber was named co-CEO. His tenure has been a successful one. ValleyCrest reports that under Richard’s leadership, the company has gone from doing $450 million in revenues eight years ago when he was named president to $1 billion today.

Currently, the company has six subsidiaries— ValleyCrest Landscape Development, Valley- Crest Design Group, ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, Valley Crest Tree Company, ValleyCrest Residential and U.S. Lawns—and was recently honored with inclusion on Forbes Magazine’s list of America’s 500 Largest Privately-Held Companies. In 2006, ValleyCrest brought in a financial partner, MSD Capital, an investment company owned by Michael Dell, to help further grow the company. As ValleyCrest begins to celebrate its 60th anniversary, Burton Sperber looks back and reflects on his career; he sees little difference between the company now and the company in 1949. “You know, we really do the same thing we did 60 years ago; we just do more of it,” Burt says. “At the end of the day, it’s still just a family business, and we’re still just gardeners, and that’s just fine with me.”