Landscape architect’s advice: Know your costs, job’s worth

Updated Feb 19, 2019
John Russell utilizes stones and concrete on site for hardscaping projects like this one. Photo: Jill OdomJohn Russell utilizes stones and concrete on site for hardscaping projects like this one.
Photo: Jill Odom

John Russell started his company in 1996 as a landscape design firm and has since transformed it into a successful design/build company in Birmingham, Alabama.

Despite having only two employees, Russell is one of the more expensive landscape architects in the city. Even though new competitors appear every year, he knows that his business is capable of avoiding the mistakes younger practitioners will make.

“I’m really good with my estimates,” he said. “I know what my hidden costs are in jobs, I know what the costs are and the most important thing to know to be able to make money is how to capture your costs in your spreadsheet. You’ve got to know, if I’ve got a job and I figure that that job is going to cost $14,000 and someone wants me to do it for $10,000, I’ve got to say no. I don’t take jobs at a loss, ever.”

Here are John Russell’s keys to success:

Be honest

There is a difference between telling the truth and being brutally honest, but Russell knows not to sugarcoat things when working with clients. Because he uses cost-plus pricing, he has to be up front with homeowners when something is going to cost more when they decide to add or change the design.

By keeping them informed throughout the process, Russell knows they won’t be upset when the bill comes because he has told them the truth about the project from the beginning.

Have a mastery of material

Knowing your material means a number of things, including pricing the materials correctly.

“Know your hidden costs,” he said. “(You’re) pricing not to get the job, but pricing what the job is worth.”

It is important to continue to expand your knowledge of landscape design and to improve your skills. If you aren’t competent in installing outdoor kitchens, then it should not be a service you offer. This leads into the next tip to success.

Guarantee your work

The way Russell sees it, guaranteeing your work isn’t just good PR. It serves as a lesson teacher.

“If you have to pay for your mistakes, you learn not to make them,” he said.

By knowing that you have to pay for it if a job doesn’t turn out right, a sense of accountability is established and ensures you don’t attempt things that you know are out of your depth.

There’s no shame in telling a client that you don’t have the skills for whatever they are asking for. It all goes back to being honest.

One project at at time

Most companies take on multiple projects simultaneously, but Russell prefers to finish a job before moving on to the next one. By focusing on one project at a time, he feels he’s providing the customer with a sense of security, in part because they know a licensed landscape architect is monitoring the project all the way through.

Hard-working employees

Originally, Russell wanted to have Americans working for him, but it didn’t work out. In the past, he has even hired some employees with full knowledge of their criminal background, knowing he just needed them to show up and do the work.

“The work ethic is not underlying,” he said. “The reason a lot of people are unemployed or going from job to job to job is that they don’t have a work ethic.”

Russell’s two employees, David Gonzalez and Diego Garcia-Ruiz, have been with him since the early 2000s. Whenever they do an exceptional job on a project, they are rewarded with bonuses. Once they were even given a couple weeks of paid vacation as a bonus.

“I treat my employees really well and I pay them really well,” Russell said. “My business model is sort of based on the idea that I don’t have a lot of employee turnover.”

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