2009 Landcaper of the Year

Brian Cuccaro and Bryan Weise literally grew up in the landscaping business, mowing lawns in their neighborhood at the age of 12. In fact, the “New Castle” in their company name came from the road both of them lived on at the time. Intent on earning money, the two young entrepreneurs even went beyond their immediate neighborhood, relying on Weise’s dad to drive them before they got their licenses.

They attended a few semesters of college, but the two friends liked their small business. “The money was enticing,” Weise says. They began in earnest in 1994, hired their first employee a year later and incorporated in 2000. The company’s first thrust was maintenance, and they soon found themselves specializing in residential communities, clients the two still have today.

Landscaping became a natural evolution. “Our clients wanted us to do it,” Weise says, “and we realized we were missing a good market.”

More than a two-man show
There have been hard lessons learned along the way, some of which the partners say they could have avoided with some good advice.

“Around 2005, we realized we couldn’t do everything,” Weise says. “The only way to grow the business was to stop wearing all the hats and focus on what we were good at.” Adds Cuccaro, “We were both kind of all over the place.”

For many years, however, it was just the Brian and Bryan show, something Cuccaro cautions against. “Looking back, it would have saved us a lot of grief if we’d had a mentor,” he says. This has been underlined by the knowledge the two gained since hiring industry consultant Dickran Babigian four years ago. Babigian, who now serves as the firm’s part-time chief financial officer, clarified their organizational chart, taught them how to budget, and handles insurance negotiations and sits in on bank deals. The two can’t sing his praises enough. “The first year we worked with Dickran, we were able to save $20,000 on our insurance,” Cuccaro says. “He consistently pays for himself.”

Now New Castle has two other departments besides maintenance: enhancements and construction, the latter started in 2006. The move into construction has been a good one, growing from $200,000 in sales during the first year to about $1.3 million in 2008, representing the lion’s share of New Castle’s $1.9 million annual volume.

The two brought in Tim Overley, a horticulturalist and graduate of Delaware Valley College, to grow the design side of the business in late 2005 and have since hired four additional landscape technicians and another designer in 2008. “Their certifications have helped us tremendously on the construction side,” says Cuccaro, who has also gained Certified Landscape Professional credentials. “We are very proud of our core group. It is a pleasure to show up to work every day with every person in the company.”

Prompt response equals future work
To Cuccaro, New Castle brings professionalism and excellent customer service to an industry he feels is known for poor customer service. “Our strong team takes pride in promptly responding to client issues, returning phone calls and providing estimates,” he says. “These simple things keep us ahead of our competition.”

It also lands them jobs. For example, one client called in unhappy about a birch tree installation, and Weise immediately went over and explained they would address the situation with deep root fertilization. “At the end of the conversation, he said, ‘oh by the way, I want to put in another walkway.’ The additional fertilizer will cost us pennies,” Weise says with a smile, “and yet by promptly responding to him, we got more work. It happens all the time.”

And the two have learned it doesn’t pay to be enemies with your competition. “It’s better to be friendly because you can learn a lot about what does and doesn’t work,” says Cuccaro.

This cordial attitude has also led to jobs, especially when other firms have a full slate and turn to New Castle to fill in. In addition, it prompted a former competitor who went out of business to tap New Castle to take over their accounts.

Finding willing workers
While New Castle has had great success in recruiting crew foremen and supervisors, it’s come to rely on the H-2B program to find laborers. “We once advertised for 17 positions over three days and got only one call,” Cuccaro says. The labor situation became so dire in 2006 that the two owners actually considered leaving landscaping. “We found ourselves weed whacking until 9 p.m. because we couldn’t find the laborers,” Cuccaro says. “H-2B was the solution. Congress doesn’t realize the impact this program has on small businesses like ours. Our H-2B workers are on our payroll and they pay the same taxes you and I pay.”

New Castle had 10 H-2B workers in 2008 and received 14 this year. “For the most part, Americans don’t want these seasonal positions even in this economy,” Cuccaro says. “We’re so grateful to have these guys here on time every morning wanting to work. And the more H-2B workers we add, the more opportunities it creates to add full-time American foremen and supervisors.” Having more laborers also helps the company get more work in the ground, which lets it retain full-time employees during the slow winter months.

All New Castle foremen are required to become certified landscape technicians, and the company is an authorized contractor of EP Henry and Techo-Pro hardscaping products. “We try to retain people who specialize in landscaping or construction,” Weise says. “We don’t pretend to know everything.”

The two divide inside and outside duties. Weise enjoys the field work and Cuccaro manages the office, keeping a sharp eye on cash flow.

Getting the word out
Most of New Castle’s clients are homeowners. “Their work is phenomenal,” says Shirley Gnarl, “and we’ve used them for 16 years, maintaining our yard and putting in pavers. If I call them, they show up right away.”

The company has an aggressive marketing campaign, using postcards and door hangers, all featuring its distinctive groundhog mascot, Digger. The two really believe in the effectiveness of door hangers, which they put up about three times a year in targeted neighborhoods. “What’s funny is that you might not get a response right away,” Cuccaro says. “People will call six months later and say, ‘hey, I’ve got your door hanger from last fall.’ Plus, they’re cheap.” In today’s slow market, the company is also reconnecting with former clients “to try and re-ignite the flame,” as Cuccaro puts it.

A new capabilities display
Cuccaro and Weise have the future firmly in sight. The firm has long outgrown its present facility in town and is building a new two-story office/nursery/
hardscaping complex on a 3.5-acre industrial park site near an Interstate exit. The new place will not only give them some breathing room, it will also showcase the company’s capabilities. “Clients will be able to see and touch the different materials, and look at hardscaping and water feature displays,” Cuccaro says. “They can even ‘tag’ the trees and shrubs they choose.”

“We always need to change as the business changes,” Cuccaro says. “It’s easy to continue running things the same way, but that’s exactly how businesses fail. I’ve come to realize a decision I made a year ago might not make sense this year.”

“I just want to keep growing and keep recruiting great guys to work with,” Weise adds.

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