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Breaking Barriers
Patty Vaughan | March 31, 2014

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Portland landscaper finds success by doing things his own way.

Ross “Joe” Bowen never intended to run his own business.

Located in Lake Oswego, this project features a front yard made of a deep-shade garden with walls of reclaimed stone and gravel paths.

Located on Lake Oswego in Oregon, this project features a backyard that incorporates walls made from local basalt and concrete stairs with slate insets.

His passion for the industry started at a young age working for his father in the family landscape business, Bowen’s Inc., in Phoenix, Arizona.

However, after working for his father most of his career, Joe ventured off on his own, heading to Portland, Oregon.

He worked as the head of landscape construction for a high-end landscape company in the area for three years but learned he needed a less stressful and demanding work environment. He eventually moved on and worked for another individual who had left the same company. However, after one year, he found the job equally as difficult.

“I thought I could work for somebody and collect a salary, but at that point, I just thought, ‘Alright, these companies are both crazy. Surely I can do this and not have the stress there is working for people like that,’” Joe says.

After he decided he was done working for someone else, Joe established Ross NW Watergardens in 1999.

Making a name
In the beginning, it was about finding the right people and connections for the business. Through these lasting relationships, Ross NW Watergardens started to take off with a variety of jobs in the area.  

Also located on Lake Oswego, this project features a front yard made of a deep-shade green with walls of reclaimed stone and gravel paths.

Also located on Lake Oswego, this project features a front yard made of a deep-shade green with walls of reclaimed stone and gravel paths.

With the help of a designer from Bowen’s old workplace, the company entered the high-end residential market. “He was the one who encouraged us to hire Ephrain, our stonemason,” says Ben Bowen, landscape manager and Bowen’s son.

Both Bowens believe having Ephrain Gutierez on the team is crucial when it comes to creating natural, unique elements, which the company prides itself in. “Ephrain is a stonemason, and it’s not just a skill to be a stonemason,” Joe says. “It’s a mindset because it’s the way you look at everything. That’s the kind of stuff that we’re good at.” 

The company has grown to employ 10 people and only in the past couple of years added a maintenance division, which Ben manages.

Specializing in construction at the time, the Bowens were approached about purchasing a local maintenance company. However, it took about four years for Joe to be convinced to make the plunge.

It was not until Ben went on a jobsite with the seller where he mentioned he only wanted $25,000 for the business. “It was a business that grossed $125,000 the year before we bought it with little effort and two trucks, trailers and all of the mowers,” Joe says. “The equipment was worth $20,000 by itself, so it was really a no brainer.” 

What eventually turned into a profitable decision for the company initially created a stressful spring. “It was a struggle at first, but looking back on it, we might not have made it out of that year without it,” Ben says. The maintenance division provides a weekly service of mowing, edging, weed and leaf removal, fertilizing and pruning to residential and commercial clients. 

Ross NW Watergardens also offers design/build, irrigation, stone and water feature services.  

Going Digital
In the past year, the Bowens moved into the digital realm like many other companies, but it took Ben’s aggressive effort to make it work. 

After redesigning the company’s website, Ben took it on himself to let it never be a finished product, which in turn, has brought in between 60 and 70 percent of the company’s clients in the past year. They’re no longer just gaining customers through word of mouth.

“By raising our visibility online, it started to benefit us last year, but this is the first full year where we have seen the benefit from it,” Ben says.

The company is now on pace to double what it made last year with the help of a rebounding economy and online visibility. With the use of a cloud-based billing system for invoicing and using email as the dominant means of communication, Ben says the business has been much easier to control. 

Family First
With close working crews and employees, Joe works hard to create an environment that makes family a priority.

Built into a stone wall and integrated with an adjacent Bluestone patio, this project uses a small water feature surrounded by natural elements that serves as the focal point for an entry courtyard.

Built into a stone wall and integrated with an adjacent Bluestone patio, this project uses a small water feature surrounded by natural elements that serves as the focal point for an entry courtyard.

At one point, another company tried to hire Gutierez away and offered him double what he was currently making. However, a tight-working team and relaxed environment ultimately kept Ephrain with the company.

“We give them a lot of flexibility,” Ben says. “We don’t tell them what time to show up in the morning. We don’t tell them what time to go home. They know what needs to get done. Sometimes they work a short day, and sometimes they work a long day.”

However, Ben and Joe both understand there is a trade off for running a business with a lot of flexibility. “We try to fit everything around the most important things in our life, which is our families,” Ben says. “My dad works less now running his own business than he did elsewhere. Most people don’t go into business for themselves to work less. Obviously, we know that there is a trade off for that, but we consider ourselves a true family business.”

Read the Bowens’ five keys to success, and to see more project photos from the Bowens, visit the gallery

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