Jina Rockwell entered the landscape industry by happenstance. She graduated from Miami University with a degree in consumer sciences and earned a marketing MBA from the University of Pittsburgh.
Before starting her own landscaping company, she had a successful career in purchasing, supply chain, marketing, and business development across multiple industry sectors. Now she is the president of Rockwell Earthworks, based in Ada, Michigan.
Rockwell says growing up on a farm she’d always had a connection with nature and always had gardens. From 2013 to 2019, she and her husband Ryan took on a number of landscaping projects at their house including repairing a retaining wall that had fallen, clearing away brush and trees and installing flowerbeds and a new lawn. The couple knew they wanted to start a business and in the middle of the pandemic, they decided to launch their company.
“We said, ‘You know what, we both enjoy it, let’s do this,” Rockwell says. “We started because we liked the outdoors and we enjoyed working with our hands. When we realized that ‘Hey, people like what they see with what we’ve done’ and our family members were like, ‘Oh, that looks really good,’ we realized people could pay for this.”
Rockwell says she always wanted to run her own company. She says Ryan, who handles the engineering/operations, comes from a family of contractors and engineers, so they were able to help provide guidance.
“We have had the good fortune of having family members that have already gone down this path with starting their own company,” Rockwell says.
Aside from Ryan’s family, Rockwell says Pure Michigan Business Connect, the Small Business Administration and Rockford Construction have all helped her navigate launching her business.
“I was able to get with Mike (Verhulst) and talk with him to really understand what are some of the drivers, what are the loopholes, what are the costs structures, things that that I couldn’t get from data,” Rockwell says. “He was instrumental in helping us make sure that we’re going down that right path.”
Rockwell Earthworks’ services include landscape, turf, snow, and erosion control management. She says based on their location in West Michigan a lot of the terrain is hilly and prone to erosion and in need of designed landscape solutions.
“We’ve cut our teeth on that so we knew that erosion control was a good service area because we experienced it, we knew how to deal with it and we could benefit from it,” Rockwell says.
Rockwell also looked at Census data to determine which markets were already full of competitors.
“I used a lot of data research to identify which areas would be the most profitable, and which ones weren’t totally saturated,” Rockwell says.
She also studied the value add that goes on each node of the supply chain to see where they could insert themselves and what customers would be willing to pay.
“When you start looking in and begin peeling back that onion of cost structure, then you can get a really good idea of what your price will be to that,” Rockwell says.
Some of the challenges Rockwell has faced so far include finding labor, getting access to capital and breaking into the commercial market. She says they had to take on more residential clients than they initially envisioned but now that she’s joined some networks, they have put her in contact with commercial customers looking for her skill set.
“Now that I’ve built those connections, I’m able to find the RFPs or the quote or I get an email saying ‘Hey, would you take a look at this,’” Rockwell says. “Whereas the first year, we didn’t have that.”
Rockwell says they want to be about 70 percent commercial and 30 percent residential.
She says some of her favorite things about working in the industry are being able to work outside, problem-solving and seeing the finished project and the client’s reaction to her work. She does wish the general public understood there is more to landscaping than mowing and there’s a lot of science behind their work. For instance, Rockwell says they spend time educating their customers on the proper conditions for turf installation.
“Sure, you could put down sod,” Rockwell says. “But your sod may not take if you don’t have the right soil amendments. Sure, we can put down grass seed, but we have to make sure that the soil is amended to have that healthy root structure, otherwise, you’re going to be disenchanted and you’re going to call us back. It really is a healthy mix between art and science.”
In five years, Rockwell says she wants the company to be more employee-owned.
“I think that would help the folks that we hire to understand that we’re serious about involving them in the company,” Rockwell says.
This article was published in the March/April issue of the magazine. To read more stories from The Edge magazine, click here to subscribe to the digital edition.