This is part one in a two-part series. The sequel article will publish on TLC tomorrow.
Like many landscapers in the industry, Dave Doyle started out running a lawn mowing company.
Doyle attended Colorado State University and was majoring in engineering but eventually changed to horticulture business management. After graduating, he was planning to take a job in greenhouse production but also had the opportunity to buy a mowing business with 85 residential mowing accounts.
“I really felt like I had nothing to lose at that point,” Doyle says. “I was getting out of college and said I’m just going to give it a shot. And of course, it evolved quickly from there.”
Doyle started his business with one truck, trailer and mower in 1999 and what started out as Summit Lawn and Landscape has now shifted to Summit Hardscaping, based in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Summit Hardscaping is a smaller landscape company with a very close-knit group of eight employees, but this is how Doyle and his wife Cara like it.
“We are reaching that sweet spot as we call it,” Dave says. “We feel like the trick is then incentivizing our employees to feel like they still have somewhere to go, somewhere to grow to, so yes, we’re still just reaching what we feel like is our sweet spot. Having tried to be bigger and then smaller, we’re just about to that point where we feel comfortable.”
The pair could be called the Chip and Joanna Gaines of the landscaping industry with their open, friendly nature and their desire to please their customers with unique projects that suit them.
“I’m big on if we’re going to say we’re going to do it, we’re going to do it and follow through,” Dave says. “Furthermore, if problems come up, instead of seeing them as problems, I’ve always said we’ve got to see them as opportunities. It can be a non-profitable situation but in the end, their referral, their word, their reviews are far more important sometimes than the bottom line.”
Dave and Cara have known each other since high school and then reconnected at Colorado State. The couple dated for eight years before getting married and they have now been married for 15 years.
While Dave handles the design work, Cara’s responsibilities including managing the billing and running the company’s social media accounts and blog. Dave says he loves working with his wife.
“I think, in general, it’s 90 percent positive because you’re committed to each other,” he says. “You’re committed to a direction and we’re committed to the business. It feels nice to know that we have each other’s backs. I thinks there’s a connection there to know that I can really go to Cara and say, ‘I need some help figuring out some clients, please help me,’ and she can do that. And so, there’s a commitment to make it work no matter what.”
“I know what his strengths are, his weaknesses and vice versa and we’ve honestly through the years figured out what each other is good at, and so the other person can help pick up the slack if that’s the case,” Cara says.
They both agree they have to make a point to separate their work life from their home life, but this can be a little bit more of challenge for them since the 3-acre former dairy farm that serves as their base of operations is also their home.
“We weren’t necessarily seeking out a dairy farm, per se,” Dave says. “But we needed that acreage property. I needed a big workshop. I liked the idea of having everything at home.”
Dave transformed part of the property to into a demo area with different structures including a pergola and pizza oven to help clients better visualize their options.
“People generally really like it,” Dave says. “It has that character that people really love when they’re hiring a local company. It’s a craftsman-oriented project and when they see a hand-built property it really just seals the deal.”
As the years passed, Dave wanted Summit to be seen more as a legitimately skilled trade, so he began pursuing more certifications and noticed that hardscaping seemed to have more reputability surrounding it.
“People are hiring experts to do hardscape installations, whereas sometimes people still see the landscape industry as just anybody can do it,” Dave says.
Nowadays, about 60 to 65 percent of Summit’s jobs are hardscaping projects and just about every landscaping project includes some element of hardscaping to it as well. Dave says they mostly service the middle to upper income residential market and are looking to move more into commercial market on the landscaping side of things.
“We still really like the hardscaping side in the residential world,” Dave says. “We find that we do a little bit more craftsman-oriented projects, so that really fits well with the high-end residential market and when somebody wants something unique.”
In 2012, Summit dropped its mowing services, as Dave felt his heart was more in the installation side of things. Also, this year will mark the first year Summit will not offer snow removal services.
Cara explains that none of their employees cared for mowing or plowing, but instead they will spend November and December prepping the ground for more hardscaping projects and then they are off for the month of January.
“I’m not just thinking about the bottom line for us,” Dave says. “We’re really conscious of what our employees think, is this in line with where they want to be and just taking good care of them. We also give them some time off in the winter time. They certainly appreciate having that downtime. It’s a real recharge for them.”
Building a culture
This focus on what the employees think about potential jobs is part of the reason the Doyles have been able to retain their staff.
Summit strives to provide stability for its employees so they will be more willing to stay.
“They’re critical to our success and that’s part of the reason why we’ve really grabbed hold of the ones that we have and really are trying to nurture their needs as well as ours,” Dave says.
Cara says that they are flexible with their crews and this often means more to them than a paycheck. Dave says his favorite thing about his job is his independence and what he has managed to build.
“Not just physically building, but building a culture,” he says. “So, for me that’s by far the most rewarding. Seeing happy people, being able to really sense what’s going on with them and then delivering, that for me is the biggest reward.”
Some of the little ways the company creates a desirable culture includes hosting employee parties and making sure the office is stocked with treats like candy, water and energy drinks for the staff.
Summit always has a midsummer gathering and this summer, the employees got to put the pizza oven in the demo area to the test making their own homemade pizzas.
Another aspect of Summit’s employee culture is accountability. Employees who perform well and manage to come in under budget on projects are rewarded with bonuses.
“That being said, if the customer’s not happy and they’re back servicing something, that goes right back on to that time, and so it’s also taken away from another project and it’s kind of a double whammy, if you will,” Dave says. “Their accountability is through their time. And, of course, are they on track or not throughout the project? That’s something that I am pretty particular about is staying on time because as the schedule books out as far as it does, it’s like a rock in the pond. If we can’t get off of a project, then it ripples through the whole year.”
Check back tomorrow for part two of this article, where we’ll cover how Summit Hardscaping takes advantage of social media and shares its keys to success.