Richard Sperber: The comeback king

By Kristin Smith-Ely

After taking a break, Richard Sperber has reentered the commercial landscaping arena in a big way.

If you know anything about the landscape industry, you know how legendary the name Sperber is. Richard Sperber and his father, Burt, built up ValleyCrest Landscape Cos. into a billion-dollar-plus landscaping firm over the span of more than 60 years, making it one of the largest landscaping firms in the country.

In 2014, that Calabasas, California-based company merged with another large player in the industry, Brickman Group, based on the East Coast in Rockville, Maryland. It was the largest merger in U.S. landscape industry history, resulting in a $2-billion firm with 22,000 employees. The joint company became BrightView.

“My dad started ValleyCrest in 1949 and built an incredible family business with the help of a lot of great people. He was an inspiration to thousands of people,” Sperber says.

Around 2008, an equity partner was brought on to ValleyCrest and decided a merger of the two largest family-owned landcape businesses in the U.S. would be attractive.

“So the company elected to do that, and I decided not to move forward with the business. I took four or five years off, and here I am,” says Sperber.

Anyone who knows Sperber knows he couldn’t stay away for too long. Five years was long enough. He missed the camaraderie with team members and clients and saw a need to get back into the industry and raise the bar.

“I am a landscaper. It’s in my blood. That is all I know, and I love doing it,” Sperber says.

During his short-lived retirement, many of his old clients and employees reached out to him for advice and encouraged him to get back into the business.

“At a certain point, I finally said, ‘OK, it’s been long enough. Let’s do it.’ I thought it was a great opportunity to build something that I think is pretty special,” he says. On April 1, 2019, Sperber Cos. was officially born.

Diving in

In just six months, Sperber Cos., has partnered with several landscape maintenance businesses across the country.

Sperber Cos. is on target to partner with six landscape maintenance companies by the end of 2019 and does not intend to stop there. Its current partners include KEI Enterprises, a third-generation, family-owned landscaping business based in Milwaukee, and Conserve, a Palm Springs, California-based landscape company where Bruce Wilson, a former ValleyCrest team member, now works.

“We are looking at family businesses that have the same culture as Sperber Cos. Those companies aim to give their employees the same experience that we try to give ours,” he says.

Sperber Cos. also has landed some large landscape installation jobs. “We have a handful of what I’ll call major landscape installation jobs going on around the country,” Sperber says.

One of those projects is the complete remodel of the Mauna Lani Resort, newly held under the Auberge Resorts Collection brand and located on the Kohala Coast of Hawaii. Sperber Cos. is responsible for everything outside of the primary hotel building, including resort amenities such as swimming pools, food and beverage buildings, decks, hardscaping, and landscaping. The owners knew Sperber and called requesting his help. The project has been in full swing since February and is set to commence in December with the reopening of the resort.

It hasn’t taken long to grow the business. These partnerships and projects have already amounted to more than 700 employees. “We are in the landscaping business. You don’t want the grass to grow under your feet,” says Sperber. “We plan to continue growth at a consistent pace as meaningful opportunities present themselves.”

It helps that he has a giant pool of former employees to draw from. “I’ve got a fine group of men and women I’ve worked with for years and years that have joined me to help build this new venture,” Sperber says.

Right at home

Sperber, now 57, says he’s been landscaping since he was old enough to walk. “My dad would take me out to jobs and to our offices. I’d spend summers working for the company.”

After graduating high school, Sperber went into the construction business for a while and even helped build ValleyCrest’s corporate headquarters at the time.

Once the building was completed, he took two years to study at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, but then returned home to take on more opportunities with the family business. He traveled around the country for several years, helping to launch branches in Arizona and Las Vegas, and then shifted into the role of CEO in 2008, working closely with his father until he passed away in 2012.

As a mentor and teacher, Sperber says his father did a great job. “It was a perfect relationship. We never fought. He never yelled at me. He never had to fire me.” He jokes, “especially with all the stuff I screwed up when I was younger. He had a lot of patience with me.”

The lessons he learned from his father are being put to use in Sperber’s new company. In the Los Angeles area, Sperber is surrounded by some big players in the landscaping arena, and he is friends with just about all of them. He even hired Gothic Landscaping to redo the landscaping at his personal home.

“There are so many great businesses out there, and I am aspiring to build businesses like them and even surpass them one day,” Sperber says.

At one time ValleyCrest employed around 13,000 people. That’s a large group of people who Sperber says “enjoyed the experience we took them through.” He adds, “There is no one out there delivering that employee experience today in the way that I think we did.”

Many former employees have expressed interest in working with Sperber again, and he needs them. “I can’t do it without them. Surrounding yourself with the right people in this business is the number one rule of success.”

Giving those employees the freedom to make decisions is important to Sperber. “You’ve got to trust and empower your people to make the right decisions and provide the best service to our clients.”

People before profits

Sperber says some landscape businesses treat landscaping like a numbers game and put profits first, but not ValleyCrest or Sperber Cos. “We’ve never run our businesses like that. We do the right thing for our clients. We do the right thing for our employees. Success comes as a byproduct of putting people first versus saying ‘We have to make decisions based on financials.’”

A lifetime of experience in the landscaping industry has taught Sperber what it takes to be successful. “You have to have patience and you have to have great people that stay with you for a long time. You have to have great communication skills with your clients.”

Besides an effective crew, a love for plants is paramount. “If you want to be successful in this industry you have to be a landscaper,” he says. “You have to be passionate about what you do. You can’t fake that.”

Sperber has a lot to be proud of, and relationships are on the list. It isn’t lost on him how special it is that the people he worked with years ago at ValleyCrest are eager to work with him again and have put their trust in him.

He also recognizes the value of his father’s legacy and accomplishments. “We had an amazing partnership. You hear stories of family businesses and the tension around them. I was lucky enough to have the opposite experience,” he says.

Surely his father is not far from his mind as Sperber starts a new chapter in the family’s landscaping history. Being surrounded by talented people will certainly help solidify Sperber Cos.’ future.

“As long as I have great people working with me, there is really no limit to how fast we grow,” he says.

The author is a contributing editor to Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at kristinsmithely@gmail.com.