Rain fell lightly but insistently the late October day Nikos Phelps gave a walking tour of his business, Utopian Landscapes, on a former 8-acre nursery in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, that had slipped into disrepair before he purchased it a year earlier.
Several of the greenhouses are open to the sky, their plastic coverings torn or missing, and the trees and shrubs they contain are askew. A vintage, wooden-framed house and 150-year-old barn fronting the road are undergoing repair. Phelps and his crew have created several large rubble piles in the process of reclaiming the property. He sometimes has to jump across mud puddles to get from one building to the next.
Phelps, 28, moves and speaks with self-assurance that belie his youth. “I believe in the product we offer,” he says. “If I didn’t, it would be hard to sell and succeed in such a competitive market.
“If you’re confident about what you’re working with and you believe in it, your skills and your level of expertise matter more than how old you are.”
Last year, Utopian Landscapes grossed nearly $500,000 with Phelps and his crew of six offering full-service property management, design/build services with a focus on hardscaping, landscape lighting and storm water management, which yields about a quarter of the company’s business.
No wonder, this part of Pennsylvania had record rainfall in the past two years, including devastating floods in 2011 as a result of hurricanes Irene and Lee, and Phelps was quick to provide remediation services and create a line of business that other landscapers were ignoring.
“Our recent growth has been a result of added services,” Phelps says. “We listened to our clients, and what we heard was ‘I prefer to deal with one person for property management needs.’
“We developed into a full-service company and took care of managing subcontractors when necessary for work we don’t do.”
Phelps converted one of the former greenhouses into a storage space, covering it with black poly plastic to keep out sunlight. As he steps inside, he flips on a light switch to reveal practically every inch of space draped with bundles of holiday lights and decorations used for his latest and most successful new service.
“We’ve acquired nearly 100 new clients with holiday lighting added on to our business,” Phelps says. “Some of the best holiday lighting customers have also become loyal landscaping clients.”
In 2008, Utopian Landscapes was named New Franchise of the Year by Christmas Décor, which supplies holiday lighting products, training and sales and marketing support to some 400 franchisees nationally.
Age is just a number
Phelps’ start in the landscaping business is a familiar story. “While I was in high school, I sometimes bugged my parents for money for extra things,” Phelps says, “and their reply was to encourage me to get a job by providing an incentive. Every dollar I saved from my job they matched 100 percent.” So, he started a business mowing lawns and doing landscaping projects for neighbors and family friends in the Hershey, Pennsylvania, area.
“If you’re competent and confident, your level of expertise matters more than how old you are.”
“The biggest challenge I had was gaining respect and credibility from potential clients,” he says. “When you’re 16 years old and running a landscaping company out of the back of your Subaru, it can be difficult to convince someone that spending $1,000 with you is a good investment and that they’ll get a quality job.
“But by staying positive and confident, constantly working to increase my skill set and keeping an emphasis on quality, I was eventually able to overcome these concerns that occasionally I still face today.”
The next hurdle came when Phelps entered college to pursue a degree in landscape contracting at Penn State University, a 100-mile commute from Hershey. “Between school, driving home for work, maintaining my landscaping clients properties and conducting business over the phone, it was nearly six years of school and a lot of 90-plus-hour weeks,” Phelps says. “More often than not, I had bags of grass clippings in the backseat of the Subaru instead of my friends.”
Phelps hired help in 2004 and eventually graduated, but there was no slowing down. In 2007, he re-branded his company, adding the moniker “Utopian.”
“I wanted the name to be something different, that didn’t have my name in it,” he says, “Something that we represent in our work, a name that we felt conveyed both the property owner’s pride in his home and our pride in the work we did for them.”
In 2008, he submitted a business plan to 10 banks to secure a loan for investment capital but was denied by all of them. “It was a bit dicey for a while,” he admits. “I was this 20-something kid straight out college, and there wasn’t much sympathy for my plans.”
Phelps persevered and eventually received offers from two banks. With the money, he was able to consolidate debts, develop branding for the company and promote new business.
But then the recession hit and presented new challenges for his fledgling business, “The phones basically stopped ringing.”
Community commitment pays
Phelps responded by adding holiday lighting and other aforementioned services, and Utopian Landscapes managed to keep growing. “We kept our prices firm and lost some clients,” he says. “Yet, we hung in there.”
He did so by working from and building on his base of loyal clients and shifting his business model from almost exclusively residential contracting to include more commercial customers.
“We started a program to give back and reward our clients who referred us to their friends and colleagues,” Phelps says. The program works by providing clients a percentage rebate on their scheduled contract work.
“Although our clients don’t have work done just for the rebates, the program has helped spark competition between some of the top referrers. And it has helped our clients feel as if they are having a direct stake in the company, which they do.”
Phelps also began several community service initiatives that he feels have brought recognition and new business his way as well as “good karma.”
“After a client gave a neighbor a gift of holiday lights to help him get through a rough time in his life, we realized how important it was for us to give back to the community that has made us successful,” Phelps says. “We started several grant programs to help families in need with landscaping or Christmas decorating. We decorated the homes of military families who have loved ones serving overseas; we’ve decorated the exterior of the Ronald McDonald House for several years; we’ve provided free landscaping and holiday decorating for individuals with multiple sclerosis in the community.”
He, his crew and other volunteers also donated hundreds of hours creating 6,000 square feet of outdoor learning classrooms with gardens and quiet places for instruction at two intermediate schools in Harrisburg. “They’re designed to provide inner city youth opportunities they wouldn’t normally get,” Phelps says. “You and I take for granted the experience of digging a hole in the ground to plant something, but for some 15-year-olds, it was a first experience.”
Last July, Phelps and his crew participated in the Professional Landcare Network’s Renewal and Remembrance Day of Service at Arlington Cemetery, which they’ve attended for the past four years. It was a hot, humid day, and the air was filled with the smell of lime being spread by the hundreds of landscaping professional volunteers who converged for the annual event. (Phelps serves on PLANET’s publicity committee.)
During the lunch break while others around them seemed a bit wilted and tired from the work, Phelps and his crew were animated, cracking jokes and clearly enjoying each other’s company.
“For my guys, the idea of being able to help sustain and better such an important place for our country as Arlington National Cemetery provides a huge level of pride,” Phelps says. “For this and other service work, they don’t see it as a chore, but as an opportunity to give back.”
“For my guys, the idea of being able to help sustain and better such an important place for our country as Arlington National Cemetery provides a huge level of pride.”
However, Phelps confides one of the biggest challenges he’s faced is dealing with personnel issues related to quality of work and respect for the company. “One situation involved an experienced employee who was important to the company, but not confronting it was a recipe for disaster.”
He eventually fired the problem employee and worked hard toward building a business culture that now prevails where “the employees have pride for their work and accountability — to the point where we hold everyone accountable for any single person’s mistake,” Phelps says.
“This has leveraged peer pressure so that not displeasing fellow employees is a stronger incentive to do well, rather than the threat of being reprimanded or dismissed.”
Eye on opportunity
Near the end of Phelps’s tour of his business in Pennsylvania, he walks to the rear of his property behind a refurbished greenhouse that harbors hundreds of young plants that will eventually be used in client projects.
He describes plans to landscape the surrounding area to host gala events such as weddings. In fact, he’s planning to marry his fiancé, Terra, on the property this summer.
“There’s a great opportunity for special events here and around the community,” he says. “At a lot of outdoor venues, for weddings and parties, you have the big white tents and china and silver, but they’re missing something.
“What’s missing is landscaping and creative lighting. These elements add a bit of magic to these events.”
For Phelps, temporary landscape and lighting installations are yet another new market opportunity and part of his confident vision of the future.
To learn how to become a finalist in Total Landscape Care’s Landscaper of the Year program, click here.