Landscaping industry’s fragmentation complicates its ‘image’

Nino SitchinavaNino Sitchinava

Of all the market analyses that capture at least a sliver of North America’s landscaping industry – a herding-cats challenge on good days – the data point that causes the most consternation for good landscape contractors is “low barrier to entry.”

There are lots of landscaping companies and not all of them are good.

Nino Sitchinava, principal economist for Houzz, says fewer than 5 percent of U.S. landscape contractors that do at least some residential work have more than five employees. “It’s very much a small-business type of industry,” she said, “and there are also important regional differences.”

Yet, the industry’s best companies are among America’s best companies. And not just the huge outfits. No doubt many landscaping businesses with a half-dozen people are making a decent living doing good work.

It’s that good work, I think, that makes landscaping an industry whose practitioners tend to love what they do. Total Landscape Care’s pages are chock-full of evidence that the variety of projects taken on is pretty much infinite. The results, meanwhile, are often stunning.

Which is the real story of the landscaping business, albeit one complicated by the industry’s low barrier to entry.

Like it or not, the fragmentation of the landscaping industry makes it extremely difficult to capture economic nuggets that apply to the whole of it. And Sitchinava cautions that regional differences – for example, the much longer growing season in the South and West – should remain top of mind when researching the industry as a whole.

In addition to Houzz, the National Association of Landscape Professionals tracks the green industry, frequently surveying its members, and those insights are probably among the most reliable big-picture indicators.

While surveys indicate reputable companies’ concern about fly-by-night operations, NALP leadership long ago cut to the chase and acknowledged the landscaping industry’s “image” falls far short of the reality.

The head of communications for Stihl’s North American operations, Roger Phelps, who is also a volunteer member of both the NALP and NALP Foundation boards, says boosting the industry’s image is a priority. Phelps knows there are lots of great stories to tell, but I suspect he also recognizes the industry’s low barrier to entry means fly-by-nights will always be around to keep the public-relations fires burning.

There’s an irony here. While I can’t cite economic data to prove it, I’m convinced the industry’s fragmentation is the source not only of its PR problem but also its charm. Because so many of the smaller companies are doing good work, and because so many of the large companies use to be small companies, the landscaping industry is crowded with variety on every front. In the United States, it accounts for nearly a million employees and almost a half-million businesses, according to IBIS World estimates.

For all of the so-called “mow-and-blow” operations – and there are thousands of them clearly (many of which are operated by good people charging fair prices) – it’s up to the sizable landscape contractors to carry the banner for their industry. On that front fortunately, there is every reason for optimism.

I may have gushed about NALP in a recent column, but only insofar as the trade association (however competent its staff) is obviously a reflection of its members. Of all those good stories that Phelps and his fellow NALP members have to tell, it’s the people in the business – in their professional achievements (which make for the best photography you’ll see here) and, perhaps even more importantly, their collegiality – who bode well for creating a positive image of landscaping.

“When people ask me why they should join the (New Jersey Landscape Contractors Association),” the NJLC’s executive director, Jody Shilan, wrote in an email column recently, “I tell them straight up that it’s because of all of the other members.

“The knowledge base, experience and camaraderie amongst our members are second to none. What’s even better is that they are all willing to share their experiences with you to help make you a better and more successful contractor.”

Shilan’s observation is anything but isolated. He could be talking about landscapers I’ve met from all over the place.

Granted, a wealth of good people may not count as statistically significant in an economic analysis, but they’re the reason the industry at its best is anything but fly-by-night. I believe an abundance of good colleagues – people who appreciate what it means to create beautiful outdoor spaces – is also why landscapers love what they do.

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