A successful business finds and meets some sort of need, and that’s exactly what Tom’s Outdoor Living does every day.
Tom Butchko started the business in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a decade ago and has since grown it to $1.5 million in annual revenue. He did that by focusing on the client – a mindset that was missing from several businesses in the industry, he says.
Whether it’s sending a text to tell them the project’s process or being a one-stop shop, Butchko has become the go-to landscaper in his community. His solid business model also made him one of TLC’s 2015 Landscaper of the Year Finalists.
Butchko got his start mowing his neighborhood in high school and stayed with it while earning a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Oklahoma. Once he was out of school, he decided to work in the landscaping industry full time.
“It was a slow evolution,” Butchko explains. “I started by listening to clients and then put together our team.”
He now has 25 employees and offers maintenance, design/build, chemical, irrigation, landscape lighting, masonry, electrical and plumbing services.
The business is about 75 percent design/build and 25 percent maintenance, and the team focuses on high-end residential.
His fleet includes pickups, mowers, compact track loaders, skid steers, chippers, leaf blowers and a variety of attachments. He also adds equipment as needed.
“When the crews tell me what equipment they need, I’ll buy it for them,” Butchko says. His employees are assigned their own equipment, helping to create a sense of ownership.
Behind every successful landscaper is a hardworking team – and that’s definitely the case at Tom’s Outdoor Living.
In 2014, he hired in-house lead landscape designer Cherlyn Reeves, who has a bachelor’s degree in landscape architecture with a minor in horticulture.
Butchko’s father, a retired engineer, is also part of their team and heads up the company’s furniture division, which offers clients wooden indoor and outdoor pieces. His father also manages workman’s compensation, insurance and payables/receivables.
“He takes a huge weight off of my shoulders and helps me focus on everything else,” Butchko says. “He’s the numbers guy.”
But finding the right employees isn’t always so easy. To help counteract this challenge, Butchko created an incentive-based program that includes commission, bonuses, 100-percent paid-by-employer health insurance and an optional 401(k) package. He also asks crewmembers for referrals.
“We want to be known in Tulsa as the best place to work,” Butchko says. “Mowing grass and moving material is the same everywhere, so we want to build a good culture here.”
One part of that is guaranteeing employees work throughout the year. During the winter, Butchko looks for jobs to keep crews busy, such as hanging Christmas lights.
“We try to keep as many employees with us during the winter, even if it’s just half days,” he says. “It reassures them they have a secure place with Tom’s Outdoor Living.”
In addition to his staff, Butchko credits his success to two more things.
First, the company offers clients a one-stop-shop for different services, which comes in handy if an issue arises on the jobsite. For example, the chemical crew can let the irrigation group know if a head is broken. Instead of being from different companies, all of the crews report to the same person.
Second, they go the extra mile – and sometimes miles – for clients, Butchko says. They listen to what clients want and keep them involved through the process.
“This could mean weekend hours, walking them through appliance stores, stone yards and one-on-one hand holding while they pick plants and landscape lighting.”
To market the business, Butchko focuses on local publications, Facebook, Houzz, Angie’s List, putting signs in clients’ yards, Home & Garden shows and his company website. He says he’s found it takes five to seven impressions with their branding to produce one phone call from a prospective client.
Client referrals are another way they find new business. With a population of about 400,000, Tulsa isn’t a particularly large city, “so word of mouth is huge,” Butchko says. “I know them from school and church – I’ve lived here my whole life.”
Once someone contacts Tom’s Outdoor Living, Reeves creates 2-D and 3-D designs to show the prospect what his or her space could become.
“There’s no greater sales tool than showing them the design so they can see the space,” Butchko says. When a project is finished, they give the client a photo book – a simple gift that goes a long way.
Putting the focus on customers has helped the company stay ahead of its competition, and part of that is keeping them involved.
“Over communicate,” Butchko explains. “That way, clients aren’t worrying where we are with the process. We also stay in constant contact with crews. Communication is the key.”
They return every phone call within 24 hours and build strong relationships with their clients. Reeves says: “After a while, we know their kids, their dogs and the whole family.”
And it’s clear Butchko’s clients appreciate their efforts.
“Tom was very involved, and if I had any questions or issues, he took care of it,” says client Carol Tandy. “He walked me through everything, and communication was great.”
Butchko’s clients continue to want outdoor living areas, so he installs a lot of fireplaces, covered structures, landscape lighting, patios and outdoor kitchens.
“Instead of spending money on lavish trips, they’re spending it on their backyards,” he says. “They could live out there all year long.”
One design/build project the company completed last year included a driveway, retaining walls and outdoor kitchen with an overhang. The project cost more than $100,000.
Another house he worked on had an Art Deco style. His team added lighting, seating and trees that lined the driveway. They also crafted a table from trees that were in the client’s yard. In keeping with the home’s style, they added a drainage screen and gate with an Art Deco pattern.
Beyond his dedication to clients and their properties, he also looks for ways to give back to his community.
Butchko and his team sponsor a local soccer team, volunteer at gardens that provide food for low-income families and sponsor “Adopt-A-Spot,” a project that helps with beautifying neglected portions of Tulsa.
In the next five to 10 years, Butchko says he would like to acquire small mowing operations to get his company into new neighborhoods. “New mowing jobs are a shoo-in for design/build work,” he says.
After buying these smaller companies, Tom’s Outdoor Living would keep the acquired company’s owner as a foreman if possible. That way, the new clients can continue working with someone they know and trust.
“We’ve had a foreman give a mow quote, and that turned into an outdoor kitchen,” Butchko says.
Butchko also expects the design side of the business to continue growing. He says he’s not afraid of growth, but he’s happy with where the business is now.