Every year Landscape Management recognizes the top 150 landscape companies ranked by revenue. The top five companies for this year are the same as last year, but just a little bit farther down on the list at No. 14 is HeartLand, whose revenue change from 2018 to 2019 jumped up by 189 percent.
HeartLand is a central service organization based in Kansas City, Missouri. It was formed in 2016 with the express purpose of acquiring landscape companies that work in four-season markets. Currently, HeartLand serves markets everywhere from Denver to Virginia to Pennsylvania.
“HeartLand’s growth was powered by a combination of organic growth within our operating companies and also by adding new companies to our portfolio during 2019,” says Bill Dellecker, chief development officer of HeartLand. “We expanded from serving three metropolitan areas across the Central U.S. to seven during 2019.”
He adds that HeartLand’s significant growth in 2019 was a culmination of several years of focused effort to build a scalable platform and identify companies that align with their vision of the future.
“It was an outcome of a focused process rather than an event,” he says.
Dellecker says HeartLand was able to manage this huge jump in growth by assembling their team first, securing the right financial sponsor and investing in the people and systems necessary to accommodate for their growth.
“By not interfering with local operations, but instead focusing on the systems and integration aspects, we are able to handle rapid growth,” Dellecker says. “We’re not trying to homogenize our local operating companies.”
Rooted in Relationships
Unlike most companies that acquire other landscape businesses, HeartLand preserves and enhances the brands it acquires and respects each company’s heritage and operational nuances.
“It was the strategy all along to identify and partner with companies that have strong brands in their respective markets,” Dellecker says. “We’re very focused on acquiring market-leading companies, companies that have very strong and long-standing reputations. We believe there’s significant brand equity in those local brands.”
The companies that operate under HeartLand include Signature Landscape in Kansas City, Missouri, Keesen Landscape in Denver, Colorado, Columbia Landcare in Columbia, Missouri, Hillenmeyer Landscape in Lexington, Kentucky, JML Landscape in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, Heritage Landscape Services in Bristow, Virginia, and Landscape Concepts Management in Chicago, Illinois.
All HeartLand companies offer comprehensive grounds maintenance. They serve a diverse spectrum of commercial properties, including corporate campuses, office complexes, healthcare facilities, industrial, retail, government properties, multi-family and planned communities.
“While the property types are different, we like working for such clients because they all value landscape services as an essential part of their own economic value proposition,” Dellecker says.
HeartLand has a dedicated in-house mergers and acquisitions team that focuses on building relationships with prospective owners. They seek companies that have a cultural, operational and financial fit with HeartLand, who also have room to grow organically.
“It’s all about the people for us,” Dellecker says. “We partner with a company because of the combined strength of their team and the portfolio of clients they serve. While our work is maintaining commercial landscapes, we are really in the relationship business. Our central belief that HeartLand is ‘Rooted in Relationships,’ both internally and externally, is more than a tag line for us.”
Dellecker says the time from identifying a prospect that’s a good fit to a transaction can take anywhere from several months to multiple years.
“It really depends upon when an owner is truly ready to take that big step and how many considerations there are to work through in order to design a structure that works for both the owner and for HeartLand,” Dellecker says. “Yet the acquisition isn’t complete when the transaction closes; that event kicks off the opportunity to engage with local operating company teams, explore the combined opportunities that lie ahead and learn how we can best help them advance and grow.”
As for how much the leadership of these acquired companies remains involved, Dellecker says it’s typically a case by case situation, with some owners looking for a retirement option where they can pass the baton. Even if they aren’t handling things on a day-to-day operational level, Dellecker says the owners are still involved in the general direction of the businesses as strategic advisors.
HeartLand University of Excellence
While picking the right partner company is the first critical step, Dellecker says to create real value it is essential to dedicate the resources that will result in efficient integration and facilitate growth.
“We provide opportunities for our HeartLand companies to become better versions of themselves,” he says. “We offer integrated business systems and a whole range of shared services (human resources, finance, technology, etc.) but we preserve the brand and unique local service delivery aspects of each business.”
One of the main methods HeartLand invests in its people is through HeartLand University of Excellence. It serves as an inter-company network for all its landscape professionals to learn new skills and enhance existing ones. Dellecker says they understand that talented people will join their companies for a job but will stay for opportunity.
The university provides a wide range of courses and interactive experiences. It is led by professional training and development staff.
“We host both in-person training sessions, when that is practical, and also offer multiple courses in a virtual environment,” Dellecker says. “HeartLand University of Excellence develops our people and enhances our shared culture.”
Dellecker says that recruiting and retaining seasonal workers has always been a challenge so they use a multi-faceted approach to attracting employees. This includes offering services across all four seasons so they can maintain a larger year-round workforce and having high retention at the management level.
“We use the expression ‘People First’ in describing how we think about our employees,” he says. “The first of HeartLand’s five guiding principles is focused on being ‘Human.’ We do love plants, but we cultivate people to serve people. By focusing on them first, we know that in turn they will take exceptional care of our clients. It’s a self-fulfilling circle of success.”
Cohesion Across the Country
Dellecker says the company is aware of the challenge of creating cohesion amongst the different acquired companies that all have their own branding. He says they put a lot of effort and energy into having effective communication across HeartLand.
“We take a team of teams approach when it comes to building cohesion,” he says. “At a leadership level, our leaders engage with us frequently, and with one another frequently so we’ve created an internal network across these companies is very strong. We’ve coupled that with proactive sharing of proven practices at an operational level across our companies.”
HeartLand University of Excellence was expressly created as an internal environment for sharing, learning and development. In January, there was a Leadership Summit where all the company leaders gathered in Kansas City and had sessions around leadership development.
When COVID-19 hit, they reinvented HeartLand University of Excellence to operate as a virtual platform.
“We’re very aware that being so geographically spread out we have to make conscious efforts and steps to connect our companies,” Dellecker says. “HeartLand University of Excellence is the conduit for doing that.”