A Spotlight on Industry Stars - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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A Spotlight on Industry Stars

From synergy in acquisitions, safety, strategic growth or sustainability, these industry companies are stand-outs.

Synergy Star

Since Mariani Landscape decided to be the best residential landscape company in the world with their “family of family companies” in December 2020, they have added 12 family-owned companies to their organization. They also created the Mariani Premier Group in 2023, which is a national platform that supports their growing family design-build companies.

Over the years, family-owned companies have joined the Mariani Premier Group ranks as a result of Mariani’s M&A groups seeking out and initiating conversations with hidden gems as well as enthusiastic business owners reaching out on their own.

“Embarking on a path of ambitious growth requires a thoughtful blend of vision, resilience, and strategic thinking,” says Bryan Christiansen, CEO of Mariani Landscape, based in Lake Bluff, Illinois. “It’s a journey that necessitates not just courage but also a commitment to unwavering principles.”

Christiansen says the first step is to be firm in your commitment to excellence. He says excellence isn’t a destination but a fundamental principle that should guide every facet of your operations. Frank Mariani, chairman of Mariani Landscape, based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, says they are committed to excellence and have the same high standards for the partners they select.

“Our belief in the power of synergy is a guiding principle,” Mariani says. “Our partnerships are forged with companies that not only meet our rigorous standards but also bring unique talents and perspectives to the table. This approach ensures that our portfolio is not merely a collection of companies but a carefully curated ensemble, each contributing to our collective vision of elevating the residential landscape sector to new heights.”

The second step is to be willing to embrace change and remain open to unique opportunities that may not fit neatly into conventional molds. While Mariani looks for shared values, the right markets, leadership teams and service mix, they are also willing to make exceptions for companies with exceptional skills and a strong dedication to quality.

“When we have made exceptions, it’s because we are willing to recognize exceptional value beyond traditional metrics,” Mariani says. “Occasionally, we’ve welcomed companies that may be slightly smaller than our typical revenue targets or have a different focus than residential. However, these exceptions are always made for compelling reasons. We are unwavering in our pursuit of the best, and this sometimes means recognizing excellence where it shines, even if it diverges from our initial criteria.”

One example company is Siciliano Landscape Company. While this company is smaller than Mariani’s typical acquisition, their expertise and talent were undeniable.

Some of the challenges the group has faced while expanding their family of design-build companies is ensuring seamless integration of talent, systems, and processes and continuing to leverage the strong reputations of these brands.

“Crucially, each company within our ‘family of family companies’ operates independently in its respective markets, led by experienced local management teams,” Christiansen says. “This decentralization ensures that our brand names remain distinct and tailored to the unique needs of each region while also allowing decisions that affect all of the companies in our group to be made centrally.”

Christiansen also advises putting a strong emphasis on building strategic partnerships that resonate with your company’s values and objectives.

“Above all, remain steadfast in staying true to your core values,” Christiansen says. “Let them serve as the compass that guides your journey to greatness in the world of residential landscaping. Your values are the foundation upon which you build your reputation and forge enduring relationships with clients, partners, and stakeholders.”

Safety Star

Alliance Landscape Company, based in Roanoke, Texas, has been one of NALP’s Best of the Best Safety Award recipients for the past seven years, which is presented to companies that have maintained the “Overall Safety Achievement Award – Gold Level” for three consecutive years.

“It’s a huge source of pride for everyone on the team; we keep a safety wall up in our office for all employees and visitors to see,” says Tony Gile, general manager of Alliance Landscape Company. “We hang up our awards and it’s great to see so many years of recognition from NALP. It makes it feel legit and makes the work worth the effort.”

The company’s focus on safety started from day one when the business was founded in 2011. Gile says they made it through their first five to six years without a lost time accident and only a handful of minor injuries over 13 years. He says the key is scaling accordingly and having more leaders involved in their safety program.

“If you think about how many dangerous machines and equipment we operate on a daily basis to come out of that with only a few cuts and bruises is a good feeling,” Gile says. “We started with about 22 associates in 2011 and have grown to over 80 during peak season in 2023 so the message just stays the same but on a larger scale.”

Gile says their biggest challenge with safety is when they get busy in the spring with new associates and busy routes. He says they lean on their foremen to keep an eye on things as well as having account and operations managers visiting properties.

“I believe it starts with the foreman,” Gile says. “They need to be a quality individual that buys in and understand what the goals are. Managers can help with safety meetings, but our foremen are with the associates in the field all day, every day. We are very lucky to have a strong core of leaders at ALC.”
He adds that treating employees with respect can help with buy-in. He says they also make safety personal to crew members. They aren’t preaching safety for ALC’s sake.

“Our goal is to make sure everyone goes home to their families and homes safe,” Gile says. “That is our priority. We also try and reward associates who are leading by example. We do a lot of ROWs and areas with lots of pedestrians and I often get calls thanking me for the ways my guys adjusted to the situation or shut equipment off as they approached people walking.”

Gile says part of the reason their safety culture is so strong is because they are family-oriented and their staff looks out for one another like family.

“We have several team bonding events throughout the year and these are not always well planned out events that cost lots of money,” he says. “We often have small cook outs at the shop at lunch or after work, guys playing cards in the shop at lunch. Some of the most productive meetings we have are when people feel comfortable and speak openly. We have our core safety program posted for people to see, and hold weekly Tuesday safety meetings with the entire team.”

While there are always going to be some employees who don’t buy in or feel safety is their top priority, Gile says surrounding them with associates who do can help.

“Have a meeting over some breakfast tacos or on a job site to discuss real-life issues or situations,” he says. “No company is perfect and we understand that, so it’s not our goal to reprimand or write up associates over every instance. We attempt to take those situations and make them a learning opportunity.”

Strategic Growth Stars

Every year, Landscape Management lists the industry’s top 150 revenue-generating firms and two of the companies in the top 10 this year are Sperber Landscape Companies, based in Westlake Village, California and HeartLand, based in Kansas City, Missouri.

Notably, HeartLand started in 2016 and reached the top 10 out of 150 in 2022. Sperber was founded in 2019 and reached the top 10 in four years.

“We are grateful to all our people, who have put so much heart and dedication into making this success possible,” says Jeff Berg, CEO of Sperber. “At the same time, it represents a great responsibility for us to constantly innovate our landscape model to address evolving customer expectations.”

Both of these companies say that this ranking is a result of their efforts to continually improve. Ed Schatz, CEO of HeartLand, says they’ve grown steadily by putting their people first and adhering to a shared purpose that resonates with their team members.

Berg agrees that other companies looking to grow or advance in the top 150 need to plan with their people and their customers at the center.

“While growth seems like a universally positive thing, we’ve seen many companies collapse when they haven’t adequately prepared their infrastructure for it,” Berg says. “Build a solid foundation for your company with your customers top of mind…making it easier to validate investments in systems and talent.”

Another risk with growing is growing without a purpose. Berg says while there isn’t necessarily anything wrong with growing for growth’s sake, having a clear ‘why’ can help mitigate growth risks and success is more probable.

“Sperber has very clear growth goals and concrete reasons behind those goals,” Berg says. “We ultimately see growth as a necessity that allows us to provide our employees with the very best work environment and broad opportunities to further their careers and provide for their families.” 

Schatz adds you need to be crystal clear about why your company exists in the first place beyond making a living. Their company is committed to doing the right thing every day, including who they decide to join their team.

“Thinking about making a difference is more inspiring and much more fun,” Schatz says. “When that happens, healthy growth follows.”

HeartLand is able to maintain the essence of their company as they grow by following their guiding principles. Schatz says these keep their priorities in focus and test their daily decisions. He says these principles are:

  • Human. We do love plants, but we cultivate people to serve people.
  • Exceptional. Our best efforts energize everything we do.
  • Accountable. We own the outcomes in our relationships with each other and our clients.
  • Respectful. We believe in the Golden Rule.
  • Trusted. Clients know they can count on us to keep their best interests at heart.

Sperber maintains their true core by only partnering with companies that have like-minded values. Berg says when they have great people with good intentions in leadership positions, it trickles down and spreads throughout the company.

Both companies plan to grow organically with their partner companies and finding more businesses to join their operations.

“Our business model, which retains each acquisition company’s brand, is an integral part of our success,” Berg says. “Each company we partner with has a rich history, and preserving the local brand and culture that they’ve built over the years ensures stability among their employees and customers. When we partner with a company, it is because we feel confident in the success and reputation that they have created within their community over decades of hard work.”

Berg says the biggest key to their success has been taking care of their people.

“When our employees are equipped to work safely, feel valued, enjoy their work, and see a bright future, they become Sperber’s biggest ambassadors,” Berg says. “Our clients see and feel the Sperber difference because our employees take pride in their work and love what they are doing.”   

Sustainability Star

Sust, based in Olney, Maryland, became the first American Green Zone Alliance Certified Service Pro in the state and is highlighted as one of the best of the best by AGZA.

“For us, it was great credibility to have a third party beyond us just saying we were great, especially being the first ones here,” says William Zimmerman, owner of Sust.

Anand Shah, founder of Sust, adds that they strongly believe sustainability is coming to this industry and it’s important to work with others who are thinking the same way. He says that AGZA has been a pioneer in the space and has helped them think through standards.

Sust was previously known as Green MowCo, but after they acquired another local, all-electric mowing business, they rebranded. Because they see the future is electrification, they began to experiment and see the feasibility of that type of operation and what is still needed to help others embrace this revolution.
“Primarily, our focus has been that we need to be deep in the weeds on how the business runs to actually be able to find solutions at work,” Shah says. “We have our hands dirty.”

Sust serves 200+ residential customers with three crews on the lawn care side and a landscaping crew. They are looking at a couple of commercial customers as well, so they are able to study the day-to-day challenges their crews face and what customer demands are.

“We’ve been looking at this problem and trying to solve for this problem for a long time now and tried to deliver solutions for folks,” Zimmerman says.

Shah says that over the years of operating all-electric, they’ve discovered that the challenges they’ve faced are solvable.

“The big lesson is this is completely doable,” Shah says. “Anybody in the landscaping business right now could make that change and it wouldn’t disrupt their business dramatically. It just takes a little bit of an open mind and a little bit of innovation.”

While Sust operates as an ultra-low impact all-electric maintenance business, they are also committed to educating others in the industry about the transition to battery power.

“With all these new demands coming on us, and all these new regs coming on us and all this new technology that’s being introduced, what’s the smartest path forward?” Shah says. “From the innovator’s perspective, we feel like that’s an opportunity to learn and help others learn along the way.”

Zimmerman has been a guest speaker at an AGZA workshop co-sponsored by NALP and Montgomery County, where he was able to share his experience so far. He notes that two to three years ago the question was still ‘Is electric going to be a thing?” Now last year the conversation evolved to electric is here, now how do go about charging and how many batteries do I need?

“I’ve seen more momentum from that in the last 18 to 24 months than I’ve seen my entire career,” Zimmerman says.

Shah says they are working to create products that help with this transition, such as a way to charge on the go and reduce the number of batteries you need to carry.

“Our stance on this is there are solutions for all of the challenges people face, whether they’re there today, or they’re going to be there tomorrow,” Shah says. “The task is really to figure out how to make the transition easiest and drop in for operators because anything that’s radical is really going to disrupt things in ways that are painful for everybody. I think that’s a place where we see ourselves being able to really play a role.”

Shah says the key to increasing sustainable businesses is making sure the methods are easy to deploy.

“That’s the way you help change happen,” Shah says. “It’s not radical change, but it’s incrementally solving real problems right in front of you.”

Zimmerman encourages companies to start testing out battery power, even if just with one crew to build your confidence in the equipment.

“If we know the change is coming, whether we want it or not, the sooner that you wrap your head around what it’s going to be like, the more you’ll be able to adapt to it,” Shah says.

This article was published in the November/December issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.

Jill Odom

Jill Odom is the senior content manager for NALP.