|By Kristin Smith-Ely|
When it was suggested I interview Jon Georgio, CEO of Gothic Landscape, Santa Clarita, California, for this month’s Close-up Profile, I may have had a preconceived notion of what a company by that name does. But after only a few minutes of talking to Jon, I realized this company was not into the alternative subculture that the name suggests.
Gothic is the name of the Los Angeles street where Jon and his three brothers grew up. It’s fitting that the family would name its business after the place where it planted its roots. After all, it was Jon’s parents, Louis and Judy, who founded the company out of the family’s garage. It’s also a testament to the importance the company places on family.
And while many members of the Georgio clan have contributed to the company’s growth and success over the years, Jon would consider the now more than 1,700 employees in 13 offices across three states as part of the extended family. And as CEO of one of the largest family-owned landscaping businesses in the country, Jon makes sure he gets out to visit his employees all over California, Nevada and Arizona. I guess that’s just what someone does who values the importance of relationships, be it in family or in business.
Though Jon was born into the landscaping business, he didn’t have any intention of making a career out of it. However, after earning his finance degree from California State University, Northridge, rather than go into commercial banking as he had intended, something happened that made him recognize just what a special company his family had built.
Customer surveys came back from two major clients, and on those surveys, Gothic Landscape received perfect scores. Jon knew deep down that those results meant something, and he wanted to be a part of it.
He approached his brother Michael, who had taken over for their father after he passed away, and said, “If you are willing to expand, I would love to get involved.”
“And away we went,” says Jon. That was 1983.
“I am CEO now, and the steward of our business, but it has really been a family event,” Jon emphasizes. “Everybody played their part.
My father and my mother really taught us our current value system, and my brother Michael, who passed in 2009, was instrumental in creating the culture we have today.”
The family involvement doesn’t stop there. Jon’s brother Gregg, who has also since passed away, started Gothic’s Las Vegas office in 1979. “He really helped pioneer that,” he says.
Jon’s brother Ron joined the company in the mid-1990s after several years as the president of a window and door manufacturing company. “We spun off the maintenance division under his leadership, and he did a great job with that,” says Jon. “It’s been a wonderful family experience.”
But Jon knows it takes more than family to make Gothic Landscape what it is. With revenues of about $200 million per year, that kind of growth could not happen without some great contributions by people who do not share the Georgio DNA. “By nature of that, we have a wonderful team of non-family executive management across the company. I am surrounded by an amazing team,” he says.
The business is on track to grow by 38 percent, over $50 million in revenue, this year. How does the company do it? “Obviously, there is the day-to-day blocking-and-tackling of growing our business,” Jon says. “But I think the deeper thing for us in growing our business is that we’ve just been able to engage our people in our mission statement.”
That mission is “to create a longterm relationship through team members committed to a culture of extraordinary service,” says Jon.
The mission is contagious. “When our people wake up and do that every day, they get engaged and they get excited by it, and that excites our clients. They want us to grow,” Jon says.
Gothic’s main focuses are on landscape maintenance and landscape construction. Its landscape maintenance division services homeowners’ associations, commercial properties, hotels, retail businesses and cemeteries. It’s a very diverse clientele, according to Jon. Its landscape construction clients are mainly large land developers and homebuilders. “There is a lot of synergy between the two groups, but in many ways, we have two different sets of customers,” says Jon.
As with any business that starts small and grows into something large, there have been a few missteps. “We’ve learned by trial and error in some ways,” says Jon. “One of the big lessons I learned midway through the growth was that if you give people the responsibility, you really need to give them the authority commensurate with that.”
It can be hard for entrepreneurs to give up that power, especially when they started out small and made all the decisions. But at some point, Jon says, “you have to give people some bigger responsibilities. It’s going to be a waste of time if you don’t give them the real, true authority for decision making.” He admits, “I made that mistake as we decentralized into different branch operations, and it hurt the company.”
One of the greatest pieces of advice Jon ever received was from his brother Ron, and that was to give people the authority and the parameters in which do their jobs. “We simply wouldn’t be here without having people who feel like they are owners themselves, because they have the authority to make decisions,” Jon says. Teaching him how to do that was one of the “greatest gifts” Ron ever gave Jon. “It’s the only way you can really scale up your company, and it really makes your life a lot more fun and easy.”
He adds that making decisions is easy when you have a strong mission statement to follow such as Gothic has.
Engaging your employees collaboratively by asking their opinions — and listening to them — gives them a sense of ownership, which is highly beneficial. But you’ve gotta “walk the walk.” “You really have to let them put their own little stamp on your organization,” Jon says.
Jon is passionate about the landscaping business, and he says that, too, is critical to success. “It’s not a transactional business. Property owners are emotionally connected to their landscapes, and they will sense your passion or lack of it.”
Jon loves interacting with his teams and seeing them grow. Even when he was just beginning to work in the company, whether a team was a small crew on a job or one that was managing a whole region, interacting with and watching them succeed provides Jon with a great sense of fulfillment. “Guiding them and watching them develop their careers and grow is really exciting, and it’s clearly what gets me up in the morning — seeing what our teams can accomplish and watching people develop.”
Receiving positive feedback from clients is a close second. “I really enjoy it when what we’re doing is working. I get a lot of positive comments. There is nothing more exciting than that kind of feedback, and we share that with the teams and they continue to grow,” he says.
Jon says you can’t build a family without trust, and those two words have become part of the company’s tagline: “The Family You Trust.”
His philosophy is to create a lot of trust within the organization, which, in turn, creates a lot of trust outside of the organization. This creates an even larger family. “That family includes our employees, our clients and our trade partners.”
Building trust isn’t always easy, but two ways Jon has been able to accomplish that is with a servant leadership approach and by being transparent. He says the company turns its organizational chart upside down. That serves as a reminder that, “I am here to serve the needs of all 1,700 people, and if I can serve those needs, they are going to go out and do great things.”
And, just as in a well-functioning family, there are no secrets. “The more transparent you are, especially with the bad news, the more people will trust you over the long run. We’ve been super transparent about the good things and the bad things, about everything, and that builds trust.”
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.