People power Franz Witte’s flock

Updated Mar 6, 2019
Photo: Franz WittePhoto: Franz Witte

Franz Witte certainly sounds like a distinctive name that customers could remember but for the Boise, Idaho-based landscape company, they were always called the “other one” as it strived to compete with two other nurseries on the same road.

The company’s namesake, Franz Witte, decided to do something silly to get people’s attention and asked his wife to order 100 hundred pink flamingos. Witte’s wife Vicki did as he asked, not knowing the flamingos came in pairs. The minimum order was 120 flamingos, so the couple ended up with almost 250 flamingos.

Going with the flow, Witte decided to proceed with his plan and placed them out in the front yard of the property as a joke. It stuck and soon the nursery was known as the “one on State Street with the pink flamingos.”

“It was marketing genius by accident,” says Seneca Hull, president of Franz Witte and Witte’s daughter.

Now customers can rent the flamingos for flockings of their own.

“It’s crazy how many thousands we’ve sold over the years,” Hull says. “It’s definitely not a revenue stream for us but it’s fun. We had them, and people kept asking so that’s why we decided to do it.”

Photo: Franz WittePhoto: Franz Witte

While the pink flamingo didn’t become the company’s official logo until 2007, Franz Witte has been in business since 1971. The company was started by Witte and a friend of his as a residential design-build business while Witte was in college.

According to Hull, Witte had been working for a builder and when the landscaper quit, the builder made Witte the landscaper. He found it was something he liked and soon built a reputation for himself working in upscale neighborhoods in the Boise area.

In 1976, he bought the property the company is located on today and in the ‘80s he began bringing in plant material.

“He couldn’t find the plant material here in Boise that he really wanted to be able to use on his landscapes,” Hull says. “A lot of high-end, cool specimen type plantings and (he) just couldn’t find what he wanted, so he started bringing stuff in and then people would come in and want to buy it. So, then you have to put a price on it. If you have a price on it then you have to have someone here to sell it and ta-da; we had a nursery.”

Since then, the company has grown to where it does almost everything outdoors, from high-end residential projects to commercial maintenance. Franz Witte began taking its maintenance division seriously around 10 to 15 years ago when certain projects began requiring a maintenance contract to go along with it.

When the maintenance division was added, Hull decided that marketing of the whole company was becoming too difficult and they needed to rebrand everything under one logo and one name to show that they did it all.

Today, the company’s business is around 70 percent commercial work and 30 percent residential work.

Photo: Franz WittePhoto: Franz Witte

“As far as the markets that we aren’t in, there’s not a lot that we don’t do outside,” Hull says. “There’s interior landscaping that could be an opportunity, but right now it’s really just trying to focus on honing our processes and our skills.”

Aside from the flamingos and bright pink trailers, Hull says Franz Witte stands out from the competition through its quality and creativity.

“We’re known for being a company that can come in and do a project that maybe no one else can do,” she says. “We’ve just pushed the boundaries on a lot of different things and are really able to come through for our clients. And I think that’s really what we’re known for. We can do anything and make it cool.”

As for keys to the company’s success, Hull says it comes from having the best craftsmen and employees and a commitment to the community.

Employee focused

Franz Witte employs anywhere from 125 to 140 workers during peak season, while around 60 remain on throughout the whole year, but this varies some depending on the need for snow removal labor that season.

Like many other landscaping companies, finding employees is a challenge. It is particularly difficult in the Boise area due to a local unemployment rate that has been fluctuating between 2 to 3 percent in recent months.

“Anybody who wants a job has definitely got numerous opportunities for one,” Hull says. “It is probably our biggest struggle. We have a lot of work; we just can’t find the people to get it done.”

Because of this fierce competition for workers, Franz Witte focuses on trying to make the company the best place to work between the benefits and education. It also is working on creating career paths, so people know they have a future with the company.

Hull says the company has a lot of relationships with colleges and universities and attends events like the National Collegiate Landscape Competition (NCLC) to recruit and reach incomers to the industry. She adds that the company also supports anything that promotes the professionalism of the industry, so people understand landscaping is a career and not just summer job.

Photo: Franz WittePhoto: Franz Witte

Currently, Franz Witte’s main method of finding labor is from its staff bringing people in. The business also uses BirdDogHR to share postings on the various popular job listing sites. The landscaping company also shares its openings on its own website, and Hull says a lot of their employees have come through their own site.

While the company has not used H-2B in the past, it is planning to try to participate next year, despite knowing the finicky nature of the program and its fluctuating cap numbers.

“It costs a lot just to get approved for the program before you can even bring anybody here and there’s no guarantee that you’ll get anybody,” Hull says. “Just watching it over the years and knowing people over the years who have used it, it’s kind of scary. This year was especially hard for people. I’m hoping that they’re going to make some fixes to that. I’ve been watching and trying to understand whether it’s a time to jump in or not.”

As for retaining the workers they do have, Hull says they concentrate on making it the best place to work. On Franz Witte’s job postings, it tells applicants that it is the company’s mission to be the “coolest” landscaping, maintenance and nursery company ever.

Hull says they changed the mission statement from a generic one a few years ago after asking what it is they are really trying to do.

“We’re trying to build cool stuff and have a cool place to work and have cool people,” Hull says. “That’s what our dream is…to just really have everybody enjoying what they do and being super proud of what they do.”

For Franz Witte, their employees are paramount to the company’s success.

“They are the ones out there that people are seeing and hearing and getting a feel of our company,” Hull says. “They’re our pulse.”

Seeing her employees succeed and grow is also Hull’s favorite part of her job.

“We have one guy who’s worked here for 10 years and he started when he was 15 as a water boy in the nursery, and now he’s the assistant nursery manager and wants to do more,” she says. “It’s just neat to see that.”

Giving back

Franz Witte gives back to the community in a number of different ways, from installing gardens at schools to partnering with city programs to educate kids on how to garden and grow their own food.

Photo: Franz WittePhoto: Franz Witte

Yet one of its most notable contributions is OktoberBreast, a fundraiser event to support breast cancer research and survivors, that takes place in September.

The event started in 2009 when the company was wanting to host an event in the fall. The pink flamingos led them to decide to do something breast cancer-related. The first year they partnered with Susan G. Koman and raised around $2,000.

The next year, through personal connections, Hull learned of two other breast cancer organizations that the business chose to partner with.

Expedition Inspiration is really involved in research and funding research and really trying to further a cure,” she says. “And then Casting for Recovery is help for those who are going through it. So, we tried to hit it from both sides and have a great group of people in both organizations that we put the event together with them.”

The event is hosted at the nursery under a large tent and includes silent auctions, a band and a live auction. For an entry fee of $20, attendees get one glass of beer or wine free. They can purchase more drinks and snacks from food trucks who also donate a portion of their sales.

Last year, around 300 people attended OktoberBreast, and Franz Witte raised over $30,000.

The future

While the eponymous founder of Franz Witte has no plans to retire any time soon, Hull says his role had definitely started to change.

“I don’t think he’ll ever retire but I think he will be less and less present on a day-to-day basis, but he’ll always be involved,” she says. “He’s really trying to let the next generation take it where they think it is going but he’s still trying to keep that vision going and help remind us where we came from.”

Franz Witte likes to stay ahead of the curve and has an assistant marketing director who is responsible for keeping the landscaping company up to date and relevant to the various social media platforms.

Just recently it switched to a phone app for all of its time keeping that goes through the company’s estimating and time tracking systems.

“We really try to stay up to date with technology,” Hull says.

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