Landscaping companies that are over a 100 years old are few and far between, and those in their fifth generation of ownership are even rarer, but Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services is both.
This year marks the Lexington, Kentucky, company’s 175th anniversary and it has come a long way from its humble beginnings as a nursery in 1841. Francis Xavier Hillenmeyer founded the company and it has gone on to contribute to some of the notable landscape designs in Kentucky, including the State Capitol and Keeneland Racecourse.
Its current president, Stephen Hillenmeyer, has been involved with the company for most of his life. What started as busy work to keep him out of trouble with his siblings resulted in a blossoming passion for the outdoors and horticulture.
In 1985, when Hillenmeyer, along with his brothers, bought the business from their uncle, Bob Hillenmeyer, the company began to change its focus from a retail and growing operation to landscape services and lawn maintenance.
“We’ve always been willing to change with the times and that’s been a big part of our success,” Stephen Hillenmeyer said. “We are fortunate to be a part of a family that has shown great respect for one another and a willingness to compromise.”
One of the niche markets that the company was able to carve out for itself was equine farm maintenance. Seeing as Lexington is the “Horse Capital of the World,” there are plenty of customers to market to, and Hillenmeyer’s company developed a process to care for these 2,000-acre farms efficiently.
Hillenmeyer Nurseries was renamed Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services in 2000. Hillenmeyer later bought two franchises, Weed Man and The Mosquito Authority, to diversify their services.
“Every generation has left its mark on the family business, changing its course for success in the future,” Hillenmeyer said. “During my time, we’ve faced unprecedented competition. My legacy will be our decision to move to a recurring business model that has better positioned the company for long-term growth.”
Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services employs between 80 and 100 people full time, a number that swells to about 160 full-time employees for seasonal work. To maintain a workforce this large, the company participates in the H-2B guest worker program.
“There’s a lot of risk to it, but we’ve had a lot of success with quality workers who have returned and worked for us for a number of years,” Hillenmeyer said. “The guest worker program is a good program, but Congress is making it harder for us to use it.”
In 2007, Hillenmeyer’s oldest son, Chase, joined the family business after graduating from Miami University of Ohio. His passion lies more on the business side of things and he takes great pleasure in helping develop and grow the employees.
“It’s really fun getting to work with my Dad and my brother,” said Chase Hillenmeyer, vice president of Stephen Hillenmeyer Landscape Services. “It’s a situation that most businesses aren’t able to do. It’s really rewarding and really fun. Getting to see the journey that people go on, to see them start at an entry level job and then become excited about our vision and go places.”
Hillenmeyer’s other son, Seth, is currently the general manager for both Weed Man and The Mosquito Authority.
“I feel really fortunate to have that relationship that has been strengthened by working together,” Seth Hillenmeyer said.
While the company has already beaten the odds with respect to how many generations have kept it going, Chase Hillenmeyer plans to do as his father did and encourage his children to pursue whatever passion they have.
Hillenmeyer credits his company’s success to what he calls the three legs of the stool: employees, customers, and financial stability.
“One of the three legs of the stool, the employees, are the backbone of this organization,” Stephen Hillenmeyer said. “Our effort to grow people and provide opportunities and allow them to progress is very rewarding – to watch people better themselves.”
The goal is to balance the three legs. Good employees take care of the customers, and without the customers there isn’t financial stability.
Hillenmeyer’s advice to other landscaping companies is to establish a vision and mission first.
“The biggest thing is to be clear about who you are and what you want to accomplish,” Stephen Hillenmeyer said. “There are so many things you can do in the landscape industry. Think about what your passion is. Don’t try to be all things to all people.”
Developing core values, a vision for the team to strive toward and communication between the leadership and employees can all help greatly.
“I’ve met some people in the industry who feel that they are stuck in the day to day,” Seth Hillenmeyer said. “You have to be intentional about the work and develop a plan for your company and your people.”