Partnership Perfected

Updated Jun 7, 2013

Late in their careers, Bill Henkel and Gordon Denmark took a leap of faith to found a new business. Their successes led them to be named the 2012 Landscaper of the Year.

When Bill Henkel and Gordon Denmark arrived at work in the first days of their partnership in 1999, they hung their coats on metal IV holders serving as coat racks and walked into dark narrow offices adapted from an old storage building in Lexington, Kentucky. The offices were sparse for the two 47-year-old men who were risking their homes and retirement to found a company.

Sitting at old clunky desks they’d purchased along with other furnishings at a hospital auction, the duo focused not on the risk but rather on developing a principled company with a diverse portfolio of landscape design and maintenance. Their focus and principles paid off.

Now, Henkel Denmark is a $5 million operation and TLC’s 2012 Landscaper of the Year.

The company’s portfolio includes expansive thoroughbred farms, commercial properties, large apartment complexes and residential homes. Sixty percent of their work is maintenance, and 40 percent is design/build, with Denmark acting as production manager and Henkel, a licensed landscape architect, overseeing design.

Leap of Faith
While the men didn’t expect to be as successful as they are, they didn’t consider the possibility of failure. “We knew how to do our jobs,” Henkel says. “We could design, build and manage landscapes. We could take care of our employees.

Henkel Denmark’s portfolio includes projects ranging from upscale residential to expansive equine farms (below).

“Failure was not an option. It wasn’t on the radar. We didn’t even talk about it. We thought we were 10 feet tall and bullet-proof.”

Capitalizing on their credibility and experience earned while working for other companies for more than 20 years, Denmark and Henkel took a leap of faith and a small business loan to start their company. Although they faced challenging times during the years, perseverance, talent and, most of all, their strong partnership have put them at the top of the game.

“A good partner is like having an extra dose of confidence, a safety net and a reliable, unbiased sounding board,” Henkel says. “I wouldn’t want to attempt this alone, and I doubt I would have made it if I had.”

Serendipitous Paths
Growing up as children and in their formative years, Henkel and Denmark had similar interests but took different paths that eventually led to their partnership.

“Designing and maintaining expansive horse farms was a recession-proof industry, with wealthy customers such as the sheik of Dubai paying the bills.”

Henkel grew up on a small farm in Oldham County, Kentucky, and has always appreciated farm life and plants. In fact, he owns a small property in Bourbon County, Kentucky on which he plans to build a farm when all of his children are in college.

“It’s just big enough for me to farm and hopefully not kill myself in the process. I will probably grow native trees and keep it as a horse boarding operation,” he says.

He received a degree in landscape architecture from the University of Kentucky and worked for more than 23 years at a local nursery where he became the “go-to” landscape architect on some of the biggest equine farms in the Lexington area.

Meanwhile, Denmark’s family lived all around the world. Growing up with his naval aviator father, he was inspired by the forests he saw around the country and decided to study biology at Doane College in Nebraska.

Eventually, he left to surf and work with his brother in San Diego. Then Denmark worked for a landscape maintenance company and later for a large real estate firm that built retirement communities. When his wife became pregnant, they moved back to Kentucky to fulfill their dream of raising their children near their extended families. He took a job at a local nursery and landscaping company where he met Henkel.

On this residential project, the crew installed stonework, plantings, arbors and an outdoor kitchen to encompass the family swimming pool.

Henkel was a landscape architect, and Denmark was groomed for landscape management. “It was a great experience for me,” Henkel says. “I learned from a family that had been in the nursery business for 150 years.”

The two men worked together for seven years until Denmark left to open a branch for an expanding landscape company. He was general manager there for nine months before Henkel came to him with a proposal to start a landscape and design firm in Lexington.

Early, Lean Years
Three months later, the men put up their retirement plans and homes as collateral to secure a $260,000 small business loan and a $250,000 line of credit from a local bank, and went to work. Both had three small children at the time.

“We promised we’d take care of our clients, take care of our team and take care of ourselves.”

The first year, they employed three crew members outfitted in black windbreakers from Target and used Denmark’s father’s truck. Two of the men still work for the company. Their office furniture was purchased from an auction held by the local hospital that Henkel attended with $500 in his pocket.

Maintenance contracts provide 60 percent of Henkel Denmark’s business.

They still laugh as they reminisce about a clunky iron desk and chairs from the maternity floor. The other furnishings were similarly repurposed, a sharp contrast to the comfortable, professional furnishings outfitting the office today.

Although the business steadily grew, they didn’t make a profit the first three years.

“Every time we grew, we had to buy more equipment,” Denmark says. “We were really fortunate to have a great relationship with our local bank.”

Today, Henkel Denmark is located in a former tour bus servicing facility that features modern furnishings, well-lit rooms and integrates external landscape components. They have dry-laid stone, pavers for flooring, landscape lighting to light the hallways and plants in the lobby.

“We had to buy everything, every landscape tool. Now we’ve grown to the point that we have a fleet of 35 trucks, 40 mowers and countless tools of the trade,” Henkel says.

Creative approach
Despite their slow profit in the beginning, the company continued to grow. The duo went after new accounts with enthusiasm and determination.

For example, when bidding a job for a rooftop garden for a downtown Lexington law firm, Henkel’s design included two gardens, one formal English style and the other tropical. Playing on the contrasting themes of the gardens, Henkel and Denmark hosted a presentation that first included suits, fine china, scones and tea as the men spoke about the English garden… and straw hats and smoothies for the tropical portion of the presentation.

“We got a real kick out of the creativity of the presentation,” says attorney Bill Lear in an article in State by State Gardening. “I think it is safe to say that Henkel’s sales approach was a first for Lexington.”

They won the project, which included stone raised beds, fountains and arbors. The company also won a Grand National award from the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (now PLANET, the Professional Landcare Network).

Learning the business
Their creativity and strong work ethics could only bring them so far, however. “Although we were leaders, we weren’t business men, so we were blissfully ignorant,” Denmark says.

To improve, they approached experienced industry consultants through the PLANET mentoring program called Trailblazers. “We knew we needed things; we just didn’t know what. So we sought help,” Denmark says.

They learned how to lead a sales staff and how to properly set and measure goals. They visited other businesses and followed advice about eliminating their plant inventory, which was wasting money and space, and learned to buy from local growers who could deliver on a daily basis.

Strategy for Growth
Business began to boom by the fourth year. Periodically, Henkel and Denmark would recognize they could use more expert help and participate in the mentoring program again. “As we grew, we’d hit ceilings of complexity that we couldn’t pierce. We’d pull in all of our resources to figure out what it took to get to the next level,” Henkel says.

Still today, the two continue to work hard at becoming better business leaders. Denmark regularly attends retreats and conferences about leadership, and Henkel works on entrepreneurial skill building through his membership in professional organizations.

Denmark and Henkel also endeavor to grow the business through diverse clientele and projects. For the most part, designing and maintaining expansive horse farms was a recession-proof industry, with wealthy customers such as the sheik of Dubai paying the bills, but it was always important for the company to have a varied, yet specific, portfolio.

For example, in addition to maintenance and design/build work for area farms and large apartment associations, the company also serves residential homes and commercial properties like the Lexington Airport, a project that was bid on by companies across the country.

However, they stick to what they are good at, never overextending themselves.

“We know what to do and what not to do,” Denmark says. “We are a full-service maintenance and landscape-design company. We don’t do parking lot stripping, irrigation or pressure washing. We do provide snow removal, but only for our full-service contracts.”

After the recession hit, Henkel and Denmark shifted their business model to focus more on maintenance rather than design/build, joining such organizations as the Greater Lexington Apartment Association to increase networking opportunities.

Their strategy paid off. Henkel Denmark’s success is reflected in the myriad awards they’ve received during the years, including “Best of Show” in design and maintenance through the Greater Lexington Apartment Association. Other awards recognize them for business landscaping, residential design and maintenance and apartment design and maintenance.

The community recognizes their success as well. In 2010, the company won the People’s Choice Award for Best Company through the Greater Lexington Apartment Association. In 2011, Henkel Denmark was voted Company of the Year in the Crowne Excellence awards through the Greater Lexington Apartment Association.

What stands out most about Henkel Denmark is the partnership between the two owners. Seeing them together is like watching best buddies at a high school reunion. They laugh a lot and finish each other’s sentences as they tell their shared stories. Not only is work profitable, it’s fun.

“People warned us about the dangers of forming a partnership, especially at our age and stage of life,” Henkel says, “but we promised we’d take care of our clients, take care of our team and take care of ourselves.”

Every Friday, they walk four miles together at a nearby arboretum, discussing the challenges of their personal and professional lives. They say it gives them and their staff peace of mind.

“It’s the most valuable time we spend together,” Henkel says. “We help each other with our families and our work. We’ve gone rain or shine, in the dark, in the snow. We usually get lunch or breakfast afterward. We also honor each other, praise each other and thank each other for the support that we can count on.”

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