Passion for Details

Updated Mar 15, 2013

Jay Townsend combines his talent for business with a love of the outdoors.

In his mid-twenties, Jay Townsend went from crunching numbers as an accountant to digging in the dirt and creating his own landscaping company. It wasn’t a huge transition, according to Townsend.

Jay Townsend developed his business savvy in an office and his green thumb in the field.

“Part of being successful in the accounting profession is seeing the details and understanding their value,” he says. “This attention to detail carries over into the landscaping business where the details remain important, from producing finely tuned projects to having strong communications with clients, to generating accurate job-work papers, to invoicing and, finally, to profitability.”

He has parlayed his business sense and love of the outdoors into a thriving business. Today, J.W. Townsend, Inc., based in Charlottesville, Virginia, grosses $3.5 million annually, employs more than 50 people and is a steward of the community. About 60 percent of their work is installation and 40 percent is fine gardening and landscape maintenance.

Early Years

Unlike many of his professional peers, Townsend didn’t start out in the landscaping business as a teenager mowing lawns. But fishing, hunting and working on a farm taught him to enjoy the outdoors and working with his hands.

He studied accounting at Virginia Tech “because it would lead to a stable, professional job,” and worked for a CPA firm for four years. But the work wasn’t satisfying. He craved independence and wanted to be outdoors. Townsend decided the landscape industry fit the bill, but he knew he needed to map out a plan.

Key to the success of J.W. Townsend, Inc. has been the ability to retain many of its early clients during its 28 years in business.

So, he went back to his college stomping ground in Blacksburg and spoke to two professors in the horticulture program, asking if he should return to get another degree. “They did not recommend I return to school; on the contrary, they recommended I get field experience by going to work for a contractor or grower,” he says.

“I took a job with a local nursery in Charlottesville as a laborer. I was this 25-year-old, chubby accountant,” he says with a laugh. He stayed there for a year, learning the industry, and then went on to start J.W. Townsend, Inc. with one person and one truck.

“I didn’t have questions on the business side of things. But I needed to learn the horticulture. I took night classes and also learned the hard way, by making mistakes,” he says.

More than half of the company’s work is installation projects such as this water feature.

In particular, he learned valuable lessons from two early missteps. If he had the opportunity to do it all over again, first, Townsend says he would recognize the value of good people earlier and improve his recruiting and selection processes. “At that time, I wasn’t looking for managers. I was looking for employees,” he says.

Second, he says he would buy equipment sooner to take some of the physical pressure off of his employees. He knows first-hand about the physical strain of the business. In 1990, he injured his back on a job. “It forced me into the office, where I am probably most valuable anyway,” he says.

The company grew fast, quickly gaining a reputation for quality work and principled business practices. Townsend followed the example of his father and father-in-law, who were both building contractors. “They are highly principled and only knew one way to conduct business–in an honorable and honest manner. There were no shortcuts. Thanks to their influence, J.W. Townsend, Inc. is the reputable firm that it is today,” he says.

Beautiful, sweeping properties abound in Charlottesville, providing an ideal canvas for the crews’ work.

Townsend’s portfolio includes many repeat customers. “Our goal is if someone becomes a customer, we want him or her as a customer for life,” he says. “Our attention to customer service is also a key to our success. We invest in our clients every day. Whether it is replacing a plant after the warranty has expired or immediate problem resolution when necessary, our clients come first.”

In the historic city of Charlottesville, the properties are charming and lush no matter what their size. However, many of the ones managed by Townsend look like something from a movie set with rolling green pastures and blankets of blooming colors. In several cases, customers renovated expansive horse farms.

But Townsend says, “Most of us are from this area, so working in and around handsome properties is not unusual for us.”

Townsend attributes much of his company’s success to the staff, of whom have been with the company for many years. “The quality, dedication and commitment of our people are the main reasons our company stands out. We have a highly trained staff as exemplified by our professional qualifications,” he says.

“We worked a lot harder to put ourselves in front of the top customers. In this market, you can’t wait for your phone to ring. You stay in touch,”

Of the company’s 50 employees, there are 19 Certified Virginia Horticulturalists, two ISA Certified Arborists, 12 Registered Pesticide Applicators, two Advanced Certified Horticulturalists and one Certified Landscape Professional.

In an effort to be more environmentally friendly and save money, Townsend recently modified the property around the company’s office to include an irrigation pond. New roads and parking lots were designed to direct runoff water to it, and gutters were also installed on the roof to collect rainwater for the pond. In the first six months, these measures saved nearly 500,000 gallons of public water, which was used for irrigation on various projects.

Townsend and his staff also volunteer their time and resources to help make their community a better place. Recently, they provided equipment for the grading of new turf areas at a local school and collaborated with garden clubs to create a playground.

Although the business was successful from thebeginning, Townsend saw its greatest improvement after he began working with a consultant in 2005, who stressed the importance of good communication with staff on all levels and goal planning.

To improve the camaraderie and inspire his crews, the company began hosting a monthly breakfast meeting, where slideshows of the various projects are highlighted, performance awards are given, community service projects are discussed, and birthdays and anniversaries are celebrated. Every meeting is conducted in English and Spanish, since one-third of Townsend’s staff is Spanish speaking. They also host a safety program each month, and two days a year are devoted to strategic planning.

Townsend also credits having good communication with clients for surviving the recession. “We worked a lot harder to put ourselves in front of the top customers. In this market, you can’t wait for your phone to ring. You stay in touch,” he says.

With an eye always on the bottom line, Townsend proudly points out the company is debt free. “In these challenging economic times, it’s critical to be financially solvent.”

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