Jeff Cartwright: The lawyer turned landscaper

By Kristin Smith-Ely

Jeff Cartwright’s experience as a corporate lawyer combined with his inherent creativity has helped him build a reputable high-end landscaping business in Richmond, Virginia.

Jeff Cartwright’s experience as a corporate lawyer combined with his inherent creativity has helped him build a reputable high-end landscaping business in Richmond, Virginia.

People who start landscaping businesses come from many different backgrounds, but Jeff Cartwright’s journey is surely one for the books. He didn’t start out as many of his counterparts in the business did by mowing lawns after school for some extra cash.

What he did have was a father who always wanted to keep a pristine lawn and who brought out his son’s creative side. It was only after going to law school and becoming a corporate lawyer in Richmond, Virginia, did Cartwright’s true calling begin to emerge, and it wasn’t pushing paper at a law firm.

The icing on the cake Cartwright’s creativity was nurtured from a young age. One of his earliest memories of his dad was of decorating donuts with him, and it was all about who could make theirs the most enticing.

“My dad used to work for Dunkin’ Donuts, and as young kids my dad used to challenge my brothers and me to outdo each other making fancy doughnuts in a variety of flavors with various toppings,” recalls Cartwright. As a regional district manager for the doughnut chain, his dad would take his and his brothers’ creations around to different shops in his territory to see which ones would be the best sellers. A lot of them sold well and became mainstays at various locations.

Cartwright’s father’s knack for making things look good extended into other areas of life. “It carried over into

the landscaping at our home, really keeping our property looking dialed in and nice and beautiful,” Cartwright says. “My dad took immense pride in his yard and was always a stickler for having our yard look the very best it could.”

Unfortunately, in 1999, Cartwright’s father passed away of a heart attack at age 52. “I have an immense amount of great memories of my dad,” he says. And the man’s spirit lives on in the landscapes Cartwright designs.

“That’s where it started, way back with my dad. He just instilled in me a little bit of creativity, and taught me to do things once and do them right, not do them halfway.”

Lawn and order Cartwright thought he knew early on what he wanted to do for a living and it was to become a lawyer. He even worked for a law firm during the summers while attending the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. After graduation, he worked for the legal department of an energy company in Baltimore during the day, while attending law school at the University of Maryland at night. He then accepted a job with a law firm in Richmond. After about two years he realized, “It just wasn’t for me.”

While that realization was hitting him, Cartwright was keeping his yard well-manicured, as he always did, just like his father, and people in the neighborhood started to take notice. He would get questions from friends and neighbors about how they could make their yards look as good as his.

He began sprucing up their landscapes in his spare time. “Then the business started to grow to the point where we were doing so much work, and it started opening my eyes to the quality of the landscape work being done around us,” he says.

Some of the other landscaping work he observed seemed focused on “mowing, blowing and cutting, and on quantity over quality,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of attention to detail, not a lot of refined landscaping services.”

That’s when a light bulb went off over Cartwright’s head. He talked to his wife about his idea of starting a quality-focused landscape company, and she was supportive. Then he started talking to others in the industry about what he was trying to do. He was amazed at how open and receptive everyone was.

“People are open to sharing their advice and experience with you if you show interest and ask questions,” says Cartwright. His law school study habits kicked in, as Cartwright researched and absorbed what people were telling him about their experiences and what pitfalls to try and avoid. Soon, he had figured out his game plan.

By 2011, he had everything he needed to get started. Marketing the new business, which he named Cartwright Landscaping, would be a vital component. A logo and website were developed, and a social media presence was established that included photographs of the team and their projects.

“Our pictures, our marketing content and how we projected ourselves from the outset — everything was focused on showing how we complete upscale work. We paid attention to every detail,” he says.

Promise of perfection

Information on the company’s services, video tips and dozens of images of various projects grace Cartwright Landscapings’ website and social media pages.

Getting the word out about the company has been almost as important as the work itself. As Cartwright puts it, “Although I’d like to think that our work speaks for itself, we recognized the need for a solid marketing strategy to reach clients.”

It helps that he has a solid team, too, averaging 12 employees. “I’ve had the good fortune of having enough time to find very good people. Everyone gets along very well and takes great pride in what they do, while challenging one another to think outside the box.”

Cartwright has partnered with a local lawn treatment company, a sod farm, tree care services and nurseries that closely complement his business. Those relationships have also enhanced what Cartwright Landscaping can offer to its clients, which includes everything from design and installation to irrigation, lighting, hardscaping, grading and tree work.

“We have a lot of great partners,” he says. “There is an inherent sense of trust where we hold the same high standards as we collaborate on projects.”

Commitment to the client

Cartwright worked for some high value clients as an attorney, the same sort of people who today are interested in the high-end landscaping services his business provides. His ability to understand his clientele on their level has been a helpful tool in his business.

“I can relate to them. I know what they expect and how they want to engage with my business.” He adds, “I think that sets us apart from other companies, not just in our work, but in our communication and how we interact with our clients. Clients can sense that right off the bat.”

When quoting a job, Cartwright says he knows what information his clients are interested in and provides the exact amount of detail they want in their quotes. “We give them a comfort level about the work we are going to do and avoid surprises.”

The fact that the company handles everything, from the design, to the installation, to the seasonal maintenance builds a level of trust, says Cartwright. “The education we provide people gives them the comfort level to trust us to do the work.”

When taking on a new project, Cartwright will often take his clients around area neighborhoods to show them projects the company has underway or has recently completed. He’ll take them on a nursery tour to teach them about plants, and provide pictures and books for them to look through.

“We are very committed to the design process,” Cartwright says. “We work hard to understand client expectations. We’ll tell them which plant materials will work best in their landscape and we’ll guide them along the way.”

Having a gift

How does Cartwright know what to plant and where? He says it’s just something that comes naturally to him — just as some people can draw really well and others have an inherent talent for interior design.

“You know your plants and have an eye for what looks good together: textures, colors, shapes, big trees, understory plantings and ground covers.” He can weave different landscape elements together seamlessly and is self-taught on what makes each plant flourish. “I learn everything I can about the plants that thrive in our environment. How do they grow? What kind of maintenance do they need? What do they look like at various times of the year?” Cartwright works extensively with local nurseries to whom he credits part of his success. Of course, the feeling is mutual. “If you don’t have good people to help you — employees, partners, suppliers and others that have a vested interest in seeing you be successful, and vice versa — you aren’t going to get anywhere.”

He says once you find dependable and like-minded contacts, business gets much easier. These relationships strengthen his commitment to being a part of the Richmond community that has contributed to the success of the business. That does not go unnoticed by Cartwright. That is why the company donates money and time to local charities, supporting a variety of causes for children and veterans, among others.

“We try to do the right thing, and we try to be pros at everything we do and make a difference,” Cartwright says.

Finding his sweet spot

Cartwright says he doesn’t want to grow his company astronomically. Rather, he says, “Quality to me is the most important thing. I don’t have any aspirations to be huge, my goal is to do exceptional work.”

To him, growing means finding good people whom he trusts and who share his vision. He says he has “found a sweet spot” with 10-12 employees, bringing on seasonal help as needed. “Growth is very tempered with me,” he adds. He constantly asks himself, “How can we be more creative and test the boundaries of projects?” Being successful, he says, is a combination of inner drive and a desire to succeed.

“I work long hours, but now have some perspective because I used to do that for somebody else. Now I do it for myself, my family and my employees.”

It looks as if Cartwright has finally found the right profession for himself and one that he truly enjoys. “At the end of the day, you have to love what you do. The legal profession turned out to not be for me, but I love what I’m doing now.”

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at

Pushing Boundaries

In the eight years since Cartwright Landscaping has been in business, owner Jeff Cartwright can still recall the projects that have really stood out over the years. One of the company’s first projects put its capabilities to the test. The company had been doing smaller projects in the $1,000 to $2,000 range.

“Then a prospective client called up and said, 'I want you to redesign our front yard. I want you to rip everything out and start from scratch,'" Cartwright says.

The client let him sketch everything out, determine a budget and run with it. It was the company’s biggest project up to that point.

The client was ecstatic with the finished result, and the next year, the client called again and asked Cartwright to do his entire backyard. That got people talking. “We were tasked with a pretty tall objective, and we did a great job. It proved to me early on that we can do big jobs, that they are nothing to be afraid of.” Cartwright remains very appreciative of this exceptional opportunity having come along in his first year of business.

Fast-forward to 2018, and the company is in the middle of one of its most complex and comprehensive projects to date, doing work on a modern-style Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house. The company and its subcontractors have redone the deck; built custom railings; added custom planters; laid bluestone treads; refinished a pool deck; added numerous retaining walls; and installed stepping stones that will form a path through decorative grass meadows, a variety of tree groves and perfectly placed shrubbery.