When the economy turned for the worse, these landscapers made changes to survive – and thrive – in the industry.
Whether they are creating an outdoor kitchen, installing native plants to liven up a yard or building a retaining wall overlooking the Detroit Lakes, Luxury Landscaping and Lawn Care’s staff constantly looks for ways to set itself apart from the competition. This drive to be unique not only gives the business new clients; it also offers them new ways to grow and succeed during the down economy.
In 1997, Chris Songstad and his friend, Chris Okeson, started Luxury Landscaping in Audubon, Minnesota. Songstad, with a degree in corporate fitness, started mowing lawns with his brother when he was in the fourth grade and discovered a love for nature that led him to create a landscaping business. “I enjoy landscaping because I love being outside,” Songstad says. “I get to see the site change and see the project come to completion.”
After starting the business, they had to overcome a big learning curve. They gained knowledge on the logistics of different projects, managing a business, design software and working in the field. Okeson, who had experience with construction work, would visit the job sites and “get his hands dirty” to better understand the projects.
Adapting to Change
Luxury Landscaping, which began with lawn maintenance, was forced to evolve when the recession hit in 2008. Songstad and Okeson said they knew they had to change their business model if they were going to survive in the landscaping industry. Mowing and maintaining lawns required too many man hours with not enough profit. They expanded the business to include residential and commercial landscaping, as well as hardscaping and irrigation projects. Their annual volume, which was $30,000 after their first year, increased to $2.4 million in 2010.
They also transformed their Garden Center, which originally sold plants, to sell materials such as rocks and mulch. “We’re always aware that the landscape market is changing, and we know how competitive it can be,” Okeson says.
Luxury Landscaping competes with landscapers from across Minnesota and neighboring states. “You’re always in competition with someone else,” Songstad says, “but the biggest competition comes from within. We’re always trying to become better: fine-tuning, lowering budgets, gaining more certifications.”
In a struggling economy, it can be tempting for landscapers to lower their budgets or make unreasonable agreements, such as impossible completion dates, Okeson says. “Landscapers can find themselves in a tough spot if their bids are lower than their overhead costs, or if they miss their completion date.” He suggests not taking on projects until after a contract is signed.
Finding hardworking, reliable workers with clean driving records is a difficult task for these landscapers. They recruit employees who have worked for other landscape businesses to see examples of their work and capabilities. Employees are given the opportunity to move up in the company, gain certification and work more hours.
Luxury Landscaping typically has about 18 part-time employees, who vary from each project and season, and four full-time employees, including Songstad; Okeson; Okeson’s wife, Paula; and their foreman, Dave Noel.
Wearing ear muffs, safety glasses, bright yellow shirts and hard hats on each job site, Luxury Landscaping’s workers, as well as its owners, take safety seriously. “Complacency is the biggest thing to avoid,” Songstad says. “Accidents occur when people become comfortable with the job and aren’t thinking about being safe.”
Their workers start the day early and often work after dark to get the project completed early. “We’ve always been a company that does what we say,” Okeson says, referring to staying on budget and finishing on or before the completion date. “We don’t leave until we’re done, and we walk around the project with the clients when it’s completed. We want them to be happy with the results.”
“It’s our goal to be proud of every job we are a part of,” Songstad says.
Luxury’s 5 Keys to Success
1. Change. Lawn maintenance required more workers and time. Getting into commercial landscaping, hardscaping and irrigation was easy and set us apart from other landscapers in our area.
2. Gain Trust. We have customers who live in other states who ask us to do work on their properties here in Minnesota, without even seeing the finished work. That’s trust.
3. Yearly Meetings. We sit down with our employees each year and ask what we can do differently, whether with safety, equipment or profitability. We try to make ourselves better each year.
4. Know Costs. Know your overhead. Winning the bid can put you in a hard spot if the bid is too low.
5. Find Good People. Hardworking employees are what make a good business.