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A Question of Growth
Interview By K. Schipper of Hardscape Today
HANOVER, Pa. – Ryan Jacobs is finding that hardscapes bring business success … and concerns.
As with many others in the industry, Jacobs began his landscaping career before he finished high school. Experience with two landscape contractors, a stint as a tender for a mason and many, many side jobs led him to launch his own company, Ryan’s Landscaping, in 2007.
The hardscapes – mainly patios and retaining walls with a few water features – allowed him to keep busier longer in the year .
Still in his 20s, the hardscapes have also provided much of the impetus for a growth spurt this year. Now, he’s weighing the advisability of adding a second crew.
The big question: How to maintain the high quality of his work?
Jacobs began working in the landscape business at 17, and his first employer taught him a lot of things he probably would rather not know.
“He wasn’t too good of a guy,” Jacobs explains. “He’d lay out everything and then go off and do his own thing and I’d be there completing the job.”
One homeowner was impressed enough to ask Jacobs if he’d like to finish the job after firing the contractor, but Jacobs – then 18 – felt he didn’t have the experience, or the transportation, to take on the project himself.
“I probably should have gotten into it then,” he adds. “That was when the market was really good.”
Instead, he continued to pick up experience, working for a while with a friend who was a mason, hiring on with another landscaping contractor, and doing other landscape work on the side while spending winters employed in a warehouse.
Then, six years ago, he made his move.
“It started to get nice out and spring rolled around and I decided to pursue this thing,” Jacobs says. “I put an ad in a small paper that goes out around here, and that’s how I got started.”
Initially, he found himself doing a lot of design-and-install of softscape jobs. However, clients kept asking for more, and so Ryan’s Landscaping moved into doing a few hardscape jobs.
“At first, we weren’t the best at them,” he admits. “I learned as we went along; I did research and took classes where I got hands-on training. After that, I really started advertising them more.”
Jacobs says it’s been the last two years where the hardscapes really started taking off – carrying the season with them.
“Last year we were pretty much able to work clear through the year, almost to the end of January,” he says. “We had about a month or so off before we started up again, and it seems like that’s what the demand is for. We’re doing a lot of design-and-install of hardscapes, and not so much the landscapes.”
In a typical year, Jacobs says he starts doing design work for clients in March. He adds there are some distinct differences between those wanting hardscapes and those wanting softscapes.
“For the most part our hardscape customers know what they want,” he says. “We may suggest ideas or some different things. With the landscaping a lot of people just say, ‘We figure you’re the professional; just go for it.’”
“I don’t want to go back and fix little things. I want them to keep on referring us.”
And, even within the hardscape category, there are differences. For a client who wants something more elaborate, Jacobs will use a computer design program – he says he’s really stressing contours, borders and features such as seating walls right now – while simpler jobs get an estimate by measure.
“We’ll go in and do an estimate, to tell them pretty much what they’re looking at,” he explains. “I also give them the catalogs of materials we’re quoting and let them know if they want different materials the price will be different. I try to give them three different options and let them decide which route to take.”
Currently, Jacobs says the area where money seems to have the most impact with his clients is when it comes to water features. His observation is that it’s often brought up during the discussion, with one spouse or the other taking a negative viewpoint.
From there, it often becomes a back-burner item, left out of the final design due to concerns about cost or maintenance. Consequently, he says he doesn’t push them as much as some of his competitors.
“A lot of people think they want them, but they also know there’s some kind of maintenance involved,” Jacobs says. “I try to push pond-less water features, like pond-less waterfalls or fountains. You can get the sound, and it’s not as much maintenance.”
Some of the things that have been big for Ryan’s Landscaping this year include paver patios, retaining walls and fire pits, often with a pop-up grill attached. While he’s seeing more outdoor kitchen work, Jacobs says it’s an amenity that in his area people often find too expensive.
“We give the homeowner the option of purchasing the grill themselves as opposed to buying one that’s customized,” he says. “That can be thousands more, and even if they buy the grill we can build around it.”
Jacobs tries to get his estimate out in about a week. He says he finds estimating hardscape jobs to be easier than for his softscape ones because of the necessity of assembling the plants. Scheduling them can also be easier, for a couple reasons.
“A lot of times, when it comes to the landscaping, when people want it they want it,” Jacobs says. “They often have an event coming up and they want to get spruced up. If they can’t get the job in two or three weeks, they go on to the next guy.”
And, he says particularly in the fall, plants take priority just because they have to get into the ground, “then our patio work can continue after that.”
He’s also pleased that his hardscape clients are willing to wait for him and his crew.
“A lot of times we’re three weeks or a month back from the time someone makes a decision to when we can go out and do the install,” he says. “A lot of them say it just means that we’re good at what we do.”
QUALITY OVER QUANTITY
With a budding reputation, Jacobs also says print ads are a thing he’s easing away from. Word-of-mouth definitely helps keep the business going, but he also utilizes everything from social media to yard signs to keep the work coming in.
He says his website not only helps bring jobs in, but makes it easier for his clients.
“They find us online and then they go through our media and search different photos from our social networks,” he says. “They’ll tell me that they like one thing or another or maybe a combination from jobs we’ve done that they see online. They get their ideas and then we come up with a master plan.”
The other key component of his marketing is yard signs, although that probably adds more to the softscape side of the business.
“With landscape build-and-install, you’re often doing something in the front yard that draws people instantly,” Jacobs says. “With hardscape, it’s a patio off the porch or something in the back yard. Fortunately, a lot of the neighbors figure out the hardscape is in the back.”
By comparison, the print ads generate calls from people new to the area. His greatest disappointment has been in his phone-book advertising.
“I’ve had a couple people say they couldn’t find us in the phone book, but they got our name and number somehow,” he says. “It’s pretty much word-of-mouth.”
For now, Ryan’s Landscaping is also focused heavily on remodels of existing homes. Not only is there a dearth of new home construction, but Jacobs says the market for commercial work just isn’t there.
“I usually do two or three jobs a year that are commercial landscape design-and-install,” he says. “However, I don’t recall doing any commercial hardscapes. I’m signed up with a few companies who will contact me when they have a commercial project, but it’s softscape design-and-install.”
On a positive note, he says a great number of his residential customers are moving out from Maryland, although they still work in that neighboring state. The result is more financial stability for the area – and a possible area for expansion later.
“At different times, people ask me if I want to go down there to do job,” Jacobs says. “I get calls and inquiries, but I haven’t crossed that bridge yet; I don’t have that Maryland contractor’s license yet.”
As it is, Jacobs prefers to work within about a 45-minute drive of Hanover. And, he says having his Pennsylvania contractor’s license and being insured are important aspects of his business – for both him and his clients.
“It’s good to know our company is 100-percent legitimate,” he says. “I think it looks better, and also to know that if something happens, it’s completely covered. It should also make the homeowner feel comfortable knowing they’re going with a licensed professional contractor.”
And, while he admits to frustration at unlicensed contractors who underbid him, Jacobs says Ryan’s also gets a fair number of jobs where a job installed by someone unlicensed fails and he has to go in and pick up the pieces.
While getting that Maryland license is one possibility for the future, Jacobs isn’t sure where he’s going to go from here. He says 2013 has been one of growth for Ryan’s in a couple different ways. One has been with some important additions to the company’s website.
“I was getting different questions from customers about things like shoveling their patios or using salt, so over the winter I did some research and put up a Q-and-A area so they can come to the website and get some education,” he explains.
The other area has been in the acquisition of some capital assets, including another truck, mainly related to the hardscape side of the business.
Jacobs would like to add more people – possibly a second crew – but an experience last year has made him a bit nervous about the prospect. He had hired an individual to do strictly lawn maintenance through the company, and it didn’t work out.
“It’s extremely hard to find somebody who’s reliable and responsible enough to take that on,” he says. “And, it’s hard knowing they’re out there, driving your company vehicle and representing your company.”
For now, he says he’s focusing more on developing good processes for the company, training his crew to the quality of work he wants done, and continuing to take advice from others in the industry whom he trusts.
“We’re definitely focused on quality,” Jacobs concludes. “Too often I hear somebody describe a company as focused on quantity over quality. Don’t get me wrong; I have a family to feed, too, but I like people to be happy 100 percent of the time. I don’t want to have to go back and fix little things. I want them to keep on referring us.