David Nelson grew up surrounded by the landscaping profession. His father was at one time the largest landscape contractor between Seattle, Washington, and Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Nelson received his landscape architecture degree from Washington State University. He then worked for design/build firms, first in the San Francisco, then a year later in Seattle.
“I had the vision to start this company when I was in high school,” Nelson said. “When I finally got it off the ground, my wife and I lived on her salary for the first few years,” allowing all revenue to be invested back into the company.
In 1987, the couple decided to call Spokane home, and Nelson started Land Expressions out of their house with an 8×10 shop, a trailer, tractor and a truck. The company has grown to 16 trucks including a Kenworth rock truck, five pieces of heavy equipment and 14 trailers for hauling and onsite job offices. Nelson always tries out equipment before he buys it, and his foremen usually make the final purchasing decisions. All equipment maintenance, except for specialized repairs, is done in-house by a full-time mechanic.
For the first 12 years, most projects were residential installations within 15 miles of Spokane, as well as some water feature installations in Seattle and Portland, Oregon. In fact, the water feature on Microsoft’s campus was one of Nelson’s first projects.
Since then the company has installed landscaping in 17 states, and Japan, focusing on high-end residential and large commercial water features including 3- to 4-acre lakes, streams up to 4,000 feet long and individual contracts up to $2 million. Nelson has six crews during the peak season, with 40 to 45 employees including three landscape architects and three landscape designers.
In it for the long haul
Most of Nelson’s foremen have been with Land Expressions for more than 10 years. Designer Kathy Swehla, with the company for more than 20 years, says, “Land Expressions is a wonderful company to work for. We feel we create some of the most unique designs and solutions for our customers, and it is because of our whole team.”
Though the company is prosperous, Nelson says it hasn’t been without a lot of hard work and some disappointment. “We had a project in Wyoming six years ago where the customer didn’t want to pay about $500,000. We eventually got a good portion of it back, but we had to pull a lot of things together to get through that rocky time.”
A few years ago Nelson hired a consultant to come in and evaluate the work flow processes at Land Expressions. As a result, Nelson transitioned from the communicator role to being more involved in the creative/problem-solving side of the business. In addition, Nelson’s wife Kerry now leads management meetings and heads up the human resources department.
All educational industry-related training is paid for by the company including designers’ state board exams. Each month there are mandatory training meetings and foremen meetings, with guest speakers ranging from insurance experts to designers and past clients. All Professional Landcare Network (PLANET) Certified Landscape Technicians make $1 more per hour than other employees – an incentive for all employees to become certified.
In addition to educational training, Nelson is a firm believer in sound safety instruction. Each person who operates machinery must be trained by a foreman on safety and operational standards. The company has received many safety awards over the years. Two years ago, the company became drug-free and implemented random drug testing to ensure a safer work environment.
For the past eight years, Land Expressions has partnered with a local high school’s work-based program. This allows students who have a tough time learning in a traditional classroom situation to gets hands-on experience working with Nelson and his crews for three hours per day, four days a week. The company also hires landscape architecture students from Washington State University to intern in the office and in the field each year.
Nelson recently donated 27 trees, a huge sandblasted sign rock, team seats for the gym, and a basketball shooting machine to the local high school. He also coaches basketball and volunteers in elementary school classes relating subjects such as geometry and science to the design of playgrounds and parks.
All in the family
“I am a family person,” Nelson says. “I very rarely miss one of my children’s events, and I expect that out of my employees. These guys are like family.
“The guys give a lot to the company through travel, long hours and working conditions. We work hard to provide them with good benefits and a profit-sharing program.” During the recession Nelson’s priority has been to keep all of his staff employed. “I feel a personal responsibility for every one of my employees,” he says.
Most of Nelson’s crew and staff are found through word-of-mouth recommendations, and some of the employees went to high school together. Nelson says he hires based on personality as well as talent; he doesn’t want cookie-cutter employees, and he likes a diverse group. “Some of the foremen are best friends now where they maybe weren’t at first. That makes me extremely proud.”
A formal Christmas event and summer cookouts with team-building games keep the atmosphere light in the midst of long hours and hard work. The Land Expressions office is in a wooded area with a small lake, stream and several waterfalls that they built.
Nelson challenges his employees. “I want them to be creative designers. My guys in the field are the problem-solvers; they understand the design as well as the budget.” His foremen enjoy the higher-level thinking needed for intricately designed jobs. They are bored by simple installations and ask for more complicated jobs. Explaining his managerial tactics Nelson says, “I let them swim, but not drown.”