Women in Landscaping
|By Mary Elizabeth Williams-Villano|
Women have certainly come a long way in the business and professional worlds. Our next U.S. president might even be a woman. Even so, the green industry is still pretty much a testosterone-filled milieu.
Because women in prominent roles in our business are still the exception, it’s good to hear their stories once in awhile. Here are two.
Judy McNew is chief operating officer (COO) of SunTerra Landscape Services in Austin, Texas, a commercial landscape maintenance company that turns over gross revenues of $13 million annually. It
employs around 250 people in the high season.
The company was acquired in April by Merit Service Solutions, a facilities maintenance company out of Malvern, Pennsylvania. (Through Merit, McNew also holds the title of division president.)
McNew entered the green industry by marriage. “My ex-husband owned part of a residential landscape company in Bloomington, Indiana. At the time, I was working in retail, as an assistant manager.”
At age 22, she became pregnant with their first son, Jonathan, now 23. (Later, there would be two more; James, now 21 and Joshua, 18.)
“My husband said, ‘We’re growing, come work with me.’ So I started out mulching and riding a mower, even through my pregnancy. Occasionally, I’d have to go over and throw up in the bushes,” she laughs, remembering. In spite of this, she ‘fell in love’ with the landscape industry.
One of five siblings, McNew grew up in Van Buren, Arkansas. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom and my dad was a carpenter.” The family moved a lot with her father’s job. The kids worked too, picking apples and chopping cotton. “I remember being five years old, getting up before dawn, and heading out to the cotton fields. Those rows went on forever.” Even so, her favorite activity was being outdoors with her father, whom she credits with teaching her a work ethic and common sense.
She’s always been interested in “how people tick; Growing up, I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I love to hear people’s stories, I think it helps me manage people and relate to customers.”
After the couple’s divorce, McNew moved to Texas, “because there, they do landscaping year ’round.”
She started at SunTerra nine years ago as an account manager. It was the third Texas landscape company McNew has worked for. At one of her previous berths, Greater Texas Landscapes, headquartered in Austin, she met a woman who would become one of her mentors, owner Deborah Cole. “She really encouraged education, so while I was there, I became a Certified Landscape Professional (CLP).”
McNew is as comfortable crunching numbers as she is gravel. “I worked a lot with numbers before I got into the landscape industry. I really liked doing that. With my love of the outdoors, this industry is a good combination for me.”
While McNew enjoys her executive role, she’s nostalgic for her days on the mower (morning sickness and all). “At times, I do miss getting my hands dirty, so I’ll go out and walk a site with someone. I love being out there with the guys. I also think it’s important to have that open line of communication, even with a person who started yesterday.”
Angelia Woodside Beckstrom is a LEED AP (accredited professional) landscape designer, and owner of Angeffects Landscape Design in Mission Viejo, California. She says she discovered the green industry ‘by accident.’ Born in Newport Beach, California, she grew up in nearby Orange and Villa Park. Her father was a self-employed civil engineer with a love for nature. “Every summer, my father would take me and my three older brothers mule-packing in the High Sierra. We’d go and stay for a week. The guides would take us deep into the wilderness, then leave us there for six or seven hours.”
“Running around in the woods became so comfortable for me, and made me a big fan of nature,” she says. “Looking at forests, streams, meadows and trails, that’s my happiest place to be; it’s like heaven on earth. When I’m designing a landscape, I just have to close my eyes, think about how God might lay it out and try to replicate that.”
After leaving Arizona State University where she’d been pursuing a business degree, Beckstrom found herself at a software company in Menlo Park, California. “I was a marketing program manager for their e-commerce division,” she recalls. “My territory was global. I would write White Papers and do strategic selling assistance.”
After six years there, the company was acquired. At the same time, the dot-com balloon was popping, so she decided to go back to school, this time to Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California.
Just for fun, she also enrolled in a horticulture class. “Our final project was to turn in a custom landscape plan,” she says. “I found that I really loved working on it, so I just applied myself.”
When she turned in the plan, the professor called her up to his desk. “He started quizzing me, ‘What’s this plant? Why is this here? What are these materials?’ and so on. After I explained everything, he said, ‘So you really did do this yourself? I thought you’d paid someone to do it for you.”
“Then he asked me what I was in school for, and I told him. He said, ‘You really need to rethink that.’ I just laughed. I said, ‘I’m not that kind of person—a tree hugger!’ But it was one of those moments when a little voice inside talks to you.”
The epiphany led Beckstrom to take another horticulture class.
Only a few years later, she was in business for herself, doing what she was obviously meant to do. ‘One of the guys’ Any woman who works in a male-dominated field faces moments when she’s made acutely aware of that fact. That’s when her mettle is really tested.
At times, Beckstrom’s had trouble getting her workers to see her as ‘one of the guys.’ “They’ll want to carry the plant cans for me. I have to remind them that although I appreciate and respect their consideration, we’re all working shoulder-to-shoulder here.”
“As a woman, you have to be very confident of yourself,” says McNew. “When you walk into a room, you have to show that you’re not intimidated, that you deserve to be there, just like anybody else.”
“Dealing with some male customers—even some women—I can see a difference,” she adds. “When I take one of my male regional managers to meetings with me, a lot of times the clients’ eye contact will be with him. They’ll tend to talk over me.”
In Beckstrom’s second horticulture class, a fellow student, who happened to be a contractor, invited her to help him with a landscape design for one of his clients. This man owned a big new house in Newport Beach. He had a large family, and wanted his home to be the center of many gatherings.
“I was looking at the planned layout, and picturing a big family party, with all the kids running around. I asked the pool builder, and the person who was going to install the outdoor cooking area, ‘Who placed these elements? Kids are going to come running through here, and the way this is set up, one of them is going to catch an eye. Have you thought about that?’” “This group of men just looked at me, and at each other, like, ‘Who is this, and why is she saying this?’ I said, ‘Look, I’m just a student, and I’m sorry for interrupting.’ But they said I had a point.”
The role of networking
Both women think networking and belonging to professional organizations has been vital for their career development.
McNew is a member of the Texas Nursery and Landscape Association, the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), and others. “Through PLANET, I’ve learned about horticulture as well as the business side, advertising, marketing, profit-and-loss.”
“I love going to social gatherings at PLANET conventions,” adds McNew. I’ve learned so much and made some good friends just by hanging out.”
“After I started Angeffects, I joined the National Association of Women Business Owners (NAWBO),” said Beckstrom, “and got really involved in it. From them, I learned how to market, balance my books, approach new customers, and change my business model as the market changes.”
But Beckstrom felt that women in landscape needed its own group. “If you Google ‘women’s professional associations,’ you’ll find one for every walk of life out there. Yet for anything dealing with dirt— agriculture, irrigation, horticulture, arboriculture—there was absolutely nothing just for women.”
So Beckstrom and some other women started the National Association for Professional Women in Landscape (NAPWL). This experience was “a total education.”
“We started chapters in four different counties, set up meetings, and lined up great guest speakers. We’d get lots of RSVPs, but only have four women show up. This would happen time and time again.”
The problem was that many of the women were just too overscheduled to fit one more thing into their work-and-family juggling acts. “It didn’t mean that they weren’t passionate,” said Beckstrom. “They just needed a professional organization that, for lack of a better word, ministers to them right where they are.”
“So that’s why the business model for NAPWL has changed radically. Now, we’re primarily online, but we will do some special events here and there.”
Green light for women Despite the challenges, both interviewees agree that the green industry is a good field for women. To any woman thinking of “getting her hands dirty,” they would say, “Go for it.”
“This is a growth field for women,” said McNew. “Times are changing, and it’s much more acceptable for us to be in this industry. The women who are in it have had a big part in changing the atmosphere and the culture.”
As for the future, Beckstrom is consulting while she focuses on building up NAPWL. And McNew eventually wants to get an MBA. (Don’t be surprised if she ends up running Merit someday.)
These women are changing our industry just by doing what they do every day. As more women join them, they’ll no longer be the exception, they’ll simply be exceptional.