Paulita LaPlante: Leading with Vision
|By Sarah Bunyea|
The managing partner of Prescription Landscape is creating innovative ways to grow the company.
Lasting family legacies are often a trademark of the green industry. There are countless landscape companies started decades ago that continue to grow and innovate, all while building on the strong roots laid by their founders.
Prescription Landscape is one of these companies. Based in St. Paul, Minnesota, Paulita LaPlante is the chief strategy officer and managing partner of the landscape construction and maintenance company. And while she assumed this role in 2015, she’s been steadily helping the business from its very beginning in 1980.
“Shortly after I was married, my husband, Colin O’Neill, decided to start the landscape business, Prescription Landscape,” says LaPlante. The name was rooted in his horticulture degree and his vision for healthy land management practices.
In that period of time, LaPlante was a graduate student and then became a research scientist in the transplant department at the University of Minnesota. From there, she moved into various positions within the medical device industry, eventually working her way up to becoming president and CEO of a medical device company.
“Over that time, I used a lot of my earnings to support acquisitions and to start an equipment asset company on behalf of Prescription,” she explains. She started RxLeasing Partners, an equipment leasing company that serves both Prescription and other small businesses. LaPlante remains the CEO of this company and says it’s a way for them to help their subcontractors afford equipment.
“My husband’s philosophy was, ‘If you want to build a successful business in the landscape industry, you want to constantly reinvest in people and equipment,’” says LaPlante.
In addition to being a financial backer of the business, she also provided her husband encouragement and an outside perspective to his landscape business.
“It was really nice for both of us to have a peer in different industries because you could talk to each other about the challenges that you have within your companies,” she says.
O’Neill continued as Prescription’s managing partner and finance and business consultant until he was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in April 2016. Ryan Foudray, O’Neill’s business partner and CEO of the company, formed a business partnership with LaPlante, and together they are carrying on Prescription’s legacy.
The company is now a three-branch operation serving the entire metro from St. Paul, Crystal and Shakopee locations. During the season, they average about 200 employees, which grows to about 500 in the winter to provide snow and ice management services.
As chief strategic officer, LaPlante says, “I look at ideation, I look at new service lines, I look at everything I can think of on growing our business and diversifying it.”
When LaPlante joined the business full time, the first step in this process was to develop new strategic plans focused on expanding service lines and growing the core business.
As a result, Prescription acquired the outdoor services division from Arteka Companies in June 2017. One year later, Foudray and LaPlante hired the senior leadership of
Arteka’s landscape construction business. LaPlante says one of the best outcomes of this was bringing new people and talent into their company. It also helped them expand their focus on urban properties.
“The Minneapolis/St. Paul market is considered to be a terrific market because you have a preponderance of high-income earners here that are in the medical tech industry, and that confers a certain stability to the marketplace,” she explains.
Developing its presence in the downtown has been a change for the company, having to adjust to working more with amenity decks, rooftop gardens and small spaces in courtyards and interiors, but she says, “We’re very pleased with where that’s taking us and just how that’s inspired us in terms of creation.”
Innovating in a pandemic
One of Prescription’s newest services is RxClean360, its eco-friendly cleaning and disinfecting service. The two-step process neutralizes pathogens by combining powerful dry steam cleaning with electrolyzed oxidized water disinfection to decontaminate high-touch surfaces.
“We were playing with it for a different reason entirely,” says LaPlante. She initially began looking at dry steam as an organic weed killing alternative to glyphosate for Prescription’s urban clients and hospitals. But when they started hearing in January that the COVID-19 pandemic was coming, they began exploring how they could use this.
“Because of the fact that we already knew what the dry steam could do in terms of cleaning, we started doing some research on effective ways of providing disinfection to couple with this very effective cleaning system,” says LaPlante.
After seeing solutions that used harsh chemicals that would require applicators to gown up and wear a mask to use them, she thought, “There has to be something better than this.”
She found hypochlorous acid, the solution resulting from electrolyzed oxidized water, which has been used in the food industry and hospitals for a long time. LaPlante says it’s 100 times more effective at killing virus bacteria and fungi than household bleach. It’s also safe, she says, and you can pour it down the drain and it can run off because it’s not a contaminant.
“It’s been around for decades, but the reason that nobody was really using it like household bleach is because it doesn’t have a long shelf life,” she explains. “So in order for us to use it effectively, we knew that we would have to make it.
Prescription has been producing it in-house since late March, and uses it to disinfect everything at its branches, such as vehicles and equipment. It launched the service commercially and has been slowly building interest with clients. “I think there’s a warmer reception to it because of the way we started it. We did it for our own people to keep them safe,” says LaPlante.
“Those are the things that really get me excited about our industry. How can we find better ways to do things that don’t hurt humans, don’t hurt the planet and don’t hurt pets? It’s something that I’m constantly challenging all of us at our company to think about,” she says.
Learning a new industry
LaPlante just passed her five-year anniversary with Prescription. While she’s been able to use her experience as an executive in the medical device industry, she says it’s truly been a time of learning and practicing humility. She says it’s nice to be a student again and not the teacher and laughs about how she knows more now about irrigation and equipment than she would have ever imagined.
“I really have learned a lot in the past four years doing stuff that I never thought I’d do,” says LaPlante.
Compared to the pace of a career in the medical device industry, she says that her job now allows for a more comfortable life.
“I love every aspect of being outside,” she says. “I love the fact that people are more in touch with the things that are beautiful around us, and what’s not to love about trees and flowers?” The part she enjoyed about her previous job was helping people. But that didn’t stop when she started in the green industry. She says making landscapes healthy for people to enjoy is also helping them, just in a different way.
Building a strong team
Assembling a good team with diverse skill sets and listening to your team are two of the most important steps in business, says LaPlante. “Don’t surround yourself with people who agree with you on everything. Put together people who can be critical, in a nice way, and listen to that,” she adds.
What she enjoys most about her job are the people and the loyalty in the company built by both her husband and Foudray. “The fact that they inspired such loyalty and commitment for people to do the best job that they can is pretty inspiring to me,” she says.
LaPlante also loves her team’s willingness to change, to grow and to think outside the box. Prescription recently brought on Chief Operating Officer Tom Hougnon, who has a long history in the green industry doing growth and acquisitions.
“We’re going to grow both organically and through acquisition,” says LaPlante. “That’s part of why we brought on a COO that has that background and can teach and guide us in that regard.”
“Bringing in another team member on the executive staff is always challenging and new,” she adds.
“But isn’t that a wonderful testimonial to saying that we’re open to new ideas and new ways of looking at the world and other markets.”
LaPlante has learned a lot and implemented many positive changes within Prescription, and she’s determined to continue creating better solutions for the company, its clients and its employees. From equipment leasing to growing in the urban landscape market to the development of RxClean360, she’s always thinking of the next step Prescription can take to grow.
“I want to continue to innovate,” says LaPlante. “There’s more out there and there’s more to be done, and that creative aspect of our company is very exciting to me.”
The author is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.