A Truck, A Man and His Plan

Updated Apr 9, 2013

After getting into landscaping by default, Tom Nierman’s business has blossomed into a successful company.

When Tom Nierman began work at a golf course in high school, he didn’t anticipate it would set the seeds for his future career.

Jill and Tom Nierman

“I never planned on opening my own landscaping business,” he says. “It started as a fluke.”

His father told him he had to go to college. So, Nierman agreed to go and said he would one day be a superintendent managing a golf course.

He began taking classes at the community college and continued his studies at Southern Illinois University, where he received a degree in plant and soil science with an emphasis in turf grass management.

From the Ground Up
After college graduation, Nierman worked as assistant superintendent at a prestigious golf course, just as planned. But not long after, there was a “change of the greens’ committee” for the golf course, and the new budget left Nierman without a job.

Yet, a friend/mentor assured him he had a future in landscaping. “He said it was more stable…a big growth area,” Nierman says. “That was about 25-plus years ago.”

“There isn’t a better feeling than when you get to a subdivision, start with one house and migrate through the neighborhood. It shows you are doing something right.”

Soon, Nierman began work for a large landscaper and moved between different operations as he worked his way up in management. But while working on a project in Chicago’s affluent North Shore area, he wasn’t seeing eye-to-eye on issues with the company’s leadership, so he quit and bought a Chevy 1-ton dump truck on the way home.

“I came home and said to my wife, ‘Guess what? We’re starting a business,’” Nierman recalls. “I thought, ‘I can do this myself.’” Thus, Nierman Landscape and Design (NLD) was born in Woodstock, Illinois.

Jill, Nierman’s wife, says she was “dumbfounded” when he showed up with the truck. “I thought, ‘Here we go. We’re going to have to live on mac and cheese for a year.’ But I knew he had the drive. He’s stubborn — that’s his personality.”

Jill, who was working as a teacher during the day, went to work for Tom in a makeshift garage office at night. “We borrowed my sister’s typewriter, and I eventually took a leave of absence from teaching to work full time with Tom,” she recalls.

“We put flyers in people’s mailboxes, joined the local Chamber of Commerce and just tried to get our name out there.”

Today, Nierman has his own office and shop on five acres, a full staff and a fleet of equipment. He still has the trusty truck he used to start his business more than 20 years ago.

Why keep it? He says it’s a symbol of his success, which he’s achieved by working hard, treating customers and employees right, keeping his word and giving a quality product at a fair price. “One of my mentors told me to always honor your word and do what you say,” Nierman says. “Treat others as you would want to be treated.”

The cut-drywall retaining wall ties the home’s achitectural accents into the landscape.

This simple advice is the foundation upon which NLD is built. Nierman says he wants customers to know they are important, and his company takes pride in its work. “Once someone becomes a customer, we get to know the person,” Nierman says. “We are adamant the customer is not just a number. Once you get a relationship going, trust is established.”

Building trust within his local community is also a priority for Nierman. His company sponsors or donates to several organizations. “From schools to little leagues to the Rotary Club, we sponsor just about every organization out there,” Nierman says. “I like this community a lot. It’s home. Our kids went to school here. We like all the people here, so we want to give back.”

In 2010, Nierman received an award from the local chamber of commerce celebrating his many years of community service.

Autonomy’s Advantages
Through philanthropic endeavors, Nierman Landscape and Design not only shows it cares about the community but also uses it as a business-building tool. “It works both ways,” he says. “We get referrals from it, and we run our business on about 80 percent referral by word-of-mouth.

This NLD-built water feature flows down to a sunken bluestone patio with a seat wall, pillars and a fire bowl.

“There isn’t a better feeling than when you get to a subdivision, start with one house and migrate through the neighborhood. It shows you are doing something right.”

Nierman’s employee retention also shows his company is doing something right. Like the trusty Chevy truck, the company maintains loyal employees. One crew has had the same three crew members for 12 years. Nierman allows his crew foremen to recruit and hire his members.

“They will be the ones managing them, and they know at the end of the day what the crew needs to produce,” Nierman says. “If they don’t produce the work, it falls back on the foreman.”

By allowing the foremen to choose who will work for them, it gives them a sense of ownership and helps them mold a team that works well together.

Jacob Trom, NLD’s CAD landscape designer, has been with the company since 2008, and describes it as “the whole package.” Trom says not only are his fellow co-workers “great people with whom to work,” but he truly feels like part of a family at NLD. “I can sit here and start joking with Tom,” Trom says as he and Nierman playfully make jibes and shoot rubber bands at each other. “Everyone works hard, but we have fun doing it.”

Getting a serious look on his face, Trom then says, “I couldn’t ask for a better boss or place to work. If something comes up with my kid, Tom is flexible about the family.”

Chris Crosen, construction supervisor/production manager, has worked for the company since the winter of 2000, and like Trom, he appreciates the the importance placed on the work-life balance.

“Tom and Jill have always insisted if there is a school function or a doctor’s appointment that I be there for it,” Crosen says. “It wasn’t a question of if I could have the time off, but they told me, ‘Go take care of what you need to do with the family.’”

Expanding Services
In the current poor economy, Nierman has become creative in expanding his business beyond traditional landscaping to include hardscaping and water feature installation, limited chemical applications, snow removal and even creating ice skating rinks.

With the purchase of a 20-foot pontoon boat and a mini hydraulic dredge, Nierman and a local contractor teamed up to add services to de-silt pond bottoms. “Between us, we have most of the equipment. It’s a learning curve, but I think it’s a promising market,” Nierman says.

However, Nierman isn’t jumping into too many new forays. “If we are going to do something, we are going to do it right,” he says. “I’ve stayed out of irrigation because everyone does it. You need to be versed in it and do it well. There are too many guys who try too many things.” He doesn’t want to be one of them.

Part of doing the job well is having equipment in good working order. The company has an equipment shop and two mechanics. Nierman emphasizes good equipment care because it’s a tool in getting a job done well.

“Preventive maintenance has paid off,” he says. “We think long term and make sure we take care of the filters, grease and oil.

Nierman’s 20-year-old Chevy is proof of that. It started the business, and by taking care of it along with his customers and employees, it has kept NLD going strong and made the business a mainstay in his community’s landscape.

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