How changing his business model propelled Gene Ebertowski Jr. ahead of the competition
Just past the halfway point in his nearly 30-year career as a landscape contractor, Gene Ebertowski Jr. was at a crossroads.
He had started his business focused on the residential market, but made an abrupt change to pursue commercial accounts exclusively. “Once I made the decision about where to take the business,” he says, “I never looked back.”
Since that decision in 1998, Ebertowski’s company, FloraTerra Landscape Management, based in San Jose, California, has prospered to an annual revenue of $3.4 million. Along the way, he has learned how to continually reinvent his business to make it a leader in the highly competitive San Francisco Bay area.
Ebertowski’s interest in landscaping took root in his youth while working in his grandparents’ yard. “I gravitated toward that kind of work,” he says. “I have always had a passion for working with plants and soil, starting back as a child.” He went on to major in irrigation design and installation at Ohlone College. After college, he worked for his family’s business, which focused on small residential design/build and landscape maintenance projects.
In the late 1980s, he left the family business to work for landscaper John J. Shooter’s commercial landscape management firm as a landscape manager.
With Shooter as his mentor, Ebertowski learned the ins and outs of running a commercial business, including how to manage a staff, purchase supplies and bid jobs. He continued to gain responsibilities as a manager but eventually started to consider forming his own company after Shooter retired and sold his business.
In 1997, Ebertowski ran with this idea and created FloraTerra Landscape Management. Although he was hopeful for the success, he didn’t take the task lightly. “I’m the one person responsible for the failure or success of the company,” Ebertowski says.
He began to grow his staff and hired dependable workers. “I treat the workers with respect, following the Golden Rule, and I show them a career path through training and mentoring,” he says.
Early on, he focused on smaller residential properties, but Ebertowski soon faced the reality of how difficult it would be for the business to survive only offering these services.
“It’s difficult to work in the residential market if you’re going to operate a company legally,” Ebertowski says, referring to the struggles of finding workers who are in the United States legally – a major concern in California.
Residential maintenance provided little return and stretched his resources thin, making it difficult to pay legal workers a reasonable salary. “We couldn’t make a profit from residential maintenance. At the end of the day, it just wasn’t for us.”
Deciding to change his business model, Ebertowski talked with friends in the industry about how to enter into the commercial market, and he says it was like a new beginning. His company’s first commercial project was providing landscape maintenance for Carl’s Jr., a burger restaurant chain, which led to Flora-Terra maintaining 12 of the chain’s locations.
Although his company soon began to expand – now having more than 60 employees and five office locations around the Bay Area – Ebertowski said he was careful not to “grow the company too fast to the point of sacrificing profit and quality.”
FloraTerra began to offer landscape maintenance and construction, tree care and maintenance work for sites such as shopping centers, apartment communities, business parks, municipalities and hospitals – a niche that became a huge part of their success.
Floodgate of Opportunities
Their first hospital client was Good Samaritan Hospital, one of the largest hospitals in the Bay Area. After being unsatisfied with four previous landscaping companies, Good Samaritan hired FloraTerra to renovate their landscape. The crew replaced foliage with perennials and low-water-usage plants such as Phormium, flax, fountain grass, indigenous oak trees and Japanese maples. They incorporated softer color tones in the courtyards to create an environment more complementary to the hospital’s mission of healing.
“Working for Good Samaritan Hospital has opened up the floodgate to other hospitals,” Ebertowski says.
Tom San Paolo, Good Samaritan’s facilities director, is a huge fan of Ebertowski and his crew’s work: “The landscape is totally different, thanks to FloraTerra,” he says. “The grass was dead, and now it’s thriving.” But it’s more than the finished product that impresses San Paolo.
“Gene is extremely responsive. If there’s a piece of landscape that needs work, it’s fixed immediately,” he says. “With bigger companies, you can have problems getting a response from them, especially from the person in charge of the company. Gene’s different. I have his cell phone number, and he’s always available.”
Pioneering Water Management
While continuing to gain more share in the commercial market, Ebertowski came across an often overlooked area – water management, which is the practice of carefully planning, developing and distributing water resources with well-defined water practices.
He saw clients wasting thousands of dollars on water bills and noted plenty of examples of over-watered grass and sprinklers spraying on the asphalt as proof. FloraTerra began offering clients high-end irrigation services and solutions for the local environment.
To provide these services, for example, they examine watering frequency, conduct water usage and management audits, make seasonal irrigation adjustments, choose the most appropriate and hardy plants and check the irrigation system routinely. FloraTerra also installs irrigation options such as weather-based smart controllers and drip systems.
“The meters don’t lie,” says Dave McLeroy, president at Green Leaf Mapping Control Systems, “and neither do the bills. Ebertowski and his crew have saved some clients $20,000 to $25,000 annually with their water management programs.”
Named the “2006 Water Conservation Business of the Year” by the Alameda County Water District, FloraTerra has expert California Landscape Contractors Association (CLCA) water managers and Irrigation Association (IA) water auditors on staff.
His ability to adapt and reinvent his business by pursuing a lucrative market and unrecognized opportunities has been key to his success. “Learning from other successful entrepreneurs will take light years off of your learning curve,” he says.