Ken Noll’s Garden Kingdom started with a romantic vision but has succeeded with pragmatic experience.
The old grain silo painted to look like a castle at The Garden Kingdom’s office, retail shop and nursery may be what first captures folks’ attention, but it’s owner Ken Noll’s creative vision and marketing savvy that seal the deals and make him a TLC 2012 Landscaper of the Year Finalist.
A landscape architect and licensed real estate broker, Noll and his staff of 28 provide maintenance, design/build, irrigation, landscape and holiday lighting, and snow plowing services to the greater St. Louis area, as well as his hometown of Glen Carbon, Illinois, and surrounding suburbs. Last year, The Garden Kingdom grossed nearly $1 million. While the backbone of the business is repeat customers and referrals, Noll continuously explores innovative ways to grow his business, while retaining loyal customers.
Spreading the Word
Noll says he was always fascinated with the once-dilapidated grain elevator that now houses his business and inspired its name. He grew up a few miles down the road from the structure, and in his childhood whimsy, which still serves him well, saw a castle rather than a crumbling old building.
With the help of his parents, Noll and his wife Michelle purchased the building and surrounding 6 acres in 1997, working seven months to renovate the facility. It took two months just to paint the silo, but the affect was worth it. Driving down Route 157, you can’t miss it or the business.
“Perhaps the most unique and brilliant advertisement continues to be our own landmark, the castle tower. It’s painted to resemble an old castle rook. During the years, people have come to recognize our landmark as The Garden Kingdom,” he says.
The Garden Kingdom was designated as a historical landmark five months after the renovations were completed. It includes 6,000 square feet of covered retail space and offices, two greenhouses, shade houses and hoop houses, as well as display space where hardscape demos are staged for prospective landscape customers to view.
Besides being a bankable landmark that draws curious customers to the garden center and generating new landscape queries, the revitalization of Peters Station, as the grain elevator is known by locals, also captured a flurry of media attention, making The Garden Kingdom the talk of the town. “You can’t buy publicity like that,” Noll says.
Noll doesn’t purchase media advertising. But he does have a robust marketing strategy that includes, among other initiatives, a monthly newsletter and a website (thegardenkingdom.com) that’s easy to navigate and features coupons, photos of staff members, a list of services and vibrant portfolio pictures. He also promotes the company through Twitter (@GardenKingdom) and Facebook and even sponsors a float in the local Halloween parade, which locals say is the largest event of its kind in the country.
“It’s all about connecting with people, networking and being involved with the community,” Noll says.
Learning the Business
While the Kingdom’s “castle” illustrates Noll’s romantic vision, he remains focused and serious when it comes to business, whether he is in the office designing projects, meeting with clients or getting his hands dirty in the field.
“It’s all about connecting with people and networking.”
For one project where he restored the gardens of a historic residence near his office, Noll painstakingly researched the property using old newspaper clippings, property records and original drawings to ensure the new landscape was not only beautiful but an accurate reflection of the property as it was in 1909.
“The client had gone to great lengths to preserve, restore and update the home while keeping it in its original state,” Noll says.
He splits his time evenly between the office and field. When he first started his company (then called Noll and Associates) in 1996, about 90 percent of Noll’s projects were in St. Louis. During the years, as he built his brand, the work shifted and Noll started working on more projects in Glen Carbon and surrounding suburbs. But, one of his biggest mistakes was growing too fast.
“When I first started the Garden Kingdom, we were the new royals in town. To satisfy the demand, I put people in leadership roles who were not ready,” Noll says. “I assumed employees worked and thought the same way I did.
“I couldn’t be in two places at once. The result was work did not meet the standard quality that is expected at The Garden Kingdom. This led to me spending more time putting out fires and correcting than actually moving forward,” he says.
So, he slowed down, came up with a training manual and work guidelines. He spent more time with training and required all potential foremen to work at least two years before assuming that level of responsibility. Even when he hires people with experience, they still have to learn to do things The Garden Kingdom way. Benchmarks are set up allowing the employee to understand his/ her goals. If a laborer wants to be promoted to an assistant foreman, and then eventually a foreman, the employee knows what has to be learned.
To ensure the team works as a cohesive group and there is open communication, Noll holds weekly meetings to discuss business strategy and the progress of current projects.
Although most of his energy now goes into overseeing the daily operation of the business, Noll is still involved in landscape and design sales. He hired a CAD operator to assist in producing designs. “It’s easy for me to grab a napkin, sketch and hand it off to Adam. It’s fast and easy to make changes to plans, and it gives our guys precision plans,” he says. The team recently invested in 3D software that provides clients more realistic perspectives of potential projects.
Rendering his visions to paper is a skill Noll honed at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, where he played soccer and graduated with a degree in landscape architecture. After graduation, he went to work for a large landscape design/build firm in St. Louis as a landscape foreman that employed more than 200 people. “I was a flea on a dog. It was all about the bottom line,” he says.
From there, he went to a much smaller firm, also in St. Louis, where he was able to take on multiple roles and learn the business. “I started behind a desk drawing plans, which enabled me to use my landscape architecture training. Eventually, I was able to install those plans and manage a small crew,” he says. “I enjoyed the multi-faceted role of starting a project and seeing it through to completion.”
The experience provided him with the confidence to open his own business, which he operated from his home for three years before moving to the “castle” property.
“It was tough in that we really didn’t have any space away from work. I would go home and work and wake up and work,” he says. “I had employees and customers coming to my house all of the time.”
After saving and dreaming for a few years, Noll drove his parents, Bud and Jean, to the grain elevator property. “I knew I could build a really cool garden center there. I remember my dad just staring at me in disbelief,” he says. After passionately describing his vision, his parents backed his loan and helped Noll and Michelle develop the property. Jean works in the Garden Center’s office while Bud helps keep the nursery looking good. Michelle, a research technician at the Washington University School of Medicine in the Department of Infectious Disease/Medicine, also works part time at The Garden Kingdom as a buyer for the retail store and assists with marketing.
“The garden center and the landscape business go together like your right and left hand, but not necessarily hand-in-hand. They are part of the same body and work together, but they aren’t always in sync,” Noll says. “When the garden center is up, the landscaping is down and vice versa.”
Since 2008, the retail side of the business has been down and the landscape service side has continued to grow, Noll says.
To compete with the big box stores, the center offers specialty garden accessories such as fountains, bird feeders and statues, as well as unique plants such as dwarf varieties. Many of the plants Noll purchases are used on his projects.
He keeps costs down by maintaining leaner plant inventory and being choosier about the landscape jobs he takes, focusing on projects closer to home to save time and gas.
Challenges by Choice
Life is always busy for the Noll family, which includes four small children. But that doesn’t stop Noll from giving back to his community or enjoying his hobbies. He has donated his services through the Decorated Soldier Program, decorating the home of a local soldier serving in Iraq for Christmas. And last year, he traveled with teammates from the USA Deaf National Soccer Team and qualified for the Deaf World Cup in Turkey. After 10 years of play, he has retired but serves as an assistant coach for the team.
Staying busy on all fronts of his life is a choice Noll embraces. When asked what he likes most about his job and what he finds most challenging, Noll gives the same answer for both.
“I like being busy.” he says. “I’ve been juggling many different tasks, and it’s about learning to find balance.”
To learn how to become a finalist in Total Landscape Care’s Landscaper of the Year program, click here.