Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Mark Ables, president and CEO of Ables Landscapes, based in Hollywood, South Carolina, says landscaping is in his blood. His father, Bob Ables, started the company in 1975 and Mark has worked there off and on for most of his life.
He and his brother got a taste of entrepreneurship in middle school when they started a lawn mowing company called Ready, Willing and Ables. Ables says his father didn’t pressure him into the business and when he attended Clemson University, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do for a career.
“I knew the family business was an option, so I majored in business and minored in horticulture, but it wasn’t until my senior year when my advisor pulled me aside and expressed what a gift it was to be able to walk into a company where a path to ownership was so readily available,” Ables says. “After graduating in 2003, I began on an install crew, learning the trade for several years before I began to slowly take things off my dad’s plate. We created a transition plan, and I purchased the company from him in 2015.”
Currently, Ables Landscapes is on pace to earn $6.7 million in revenue for 2022. Ables says they have growth goals up to ten years out, but they review them annually and adjust as necessary.
“We are more concerned with the bottom line than the overall topline revenue, so growing at the right pace is really important to us, but we don’t see a cap to our growth,” Ables says. “‘Revenue is vanity. Profit is sanity. Cash is reality.’”
Customer Base and Services
Ables Landscapes is a design/build company that serves the high-end residential market in Charleston, South Carolina, with many clients who are retired or have second homes there. Ables says they strive for creativity while honoring Charleston’s traditional style.
“Charleston is an amazing place to work in this industry because people have a special appreciation for their gardens here,” he says. “We are working on homes downtown that were built in the 1700s and 1800s, so a lot of thought goes into how to make a new landscape blend with these historical homes.”
The company sources brick from Old Carolina, which makes handmade bricks that imitate the Old English bricks found in many of their projects. Ables says it’s also fun to work on some of the gardens that landscape architect Loutrel Briggs designed between 1920-1950 and use the bones of what he designed within a new overall plan for the site.
While Ables Landscape does do the majority of their design work in-house, they also work with a few other landscape architects in the area, like Wertimer + Cline.
“We have a great relationship with them and the construction administration goes so much smoother when you know you can trust the people you’re working with,” Ables says. “There are always issues, but we both know we’re going to figure them out together.”
He says pools are their most in-demand offering, but they can be challenging to fit into the historical gardens. They work to choose materials that blend with the space, such as bluestone for the coping and deck.
“However, probably the one thing that gets the most attention is our seasonal color,” Ables says. “There is even a hashtag called #windowboxwednesdays that is full of Charleston homes showing off their trophies and customers will literally tell us, ‘I want to be on #windowboxwednesday, so do whatever it takes!’”
While their maintenance service has always been consistent with taking care of lawns, pruning, irrigation and more, they did struggle with their response time when maintenance customers wanted enhancements. Ables says it was hard to pull their crews off a large job to install two pallets of sod or a couple of palm trees, but it was very important to their clients, who wanted it done quickly.
“We created a separate enhancement crew that could focus on all these smaller jobs and knock them out right away,” he says. “Our installation jobs continue to grow in size and complexity. We do a lot more masonry now than we did ten years ago and it’s such a win to be able to offer both the hardscapes and softscapes both for the customer and us.”
Keys to Success
Over the last six years, other than 2020, Ables Landscapes has averaged 20 percent growth a year. Ables says they prefer to grow at a slow and steady pace but acknowledges that 20 percent isn’t exactly slow.
“I know how crazy it already feels at a 20 percent growth rate, so when I see numbers like 50 percent or more, I immediately wonder if they would trade that for all the stress,” Ables says. “Our whole reputation is based on excellence and when you grow too quickly, it becomes difficult to maintain those high standards.”
This year the company is up 30 percent from last year, which is a result of some price increases and adding a fourth installation crew. Ables says they’re watching the economy like everyone else, but their backlog and pipeline remain strong.
Ables credits the company’s success to C12, reading and their people. When Ables was taking on the company from his father, they worked with a financial advisor who told them of the group C12, which is a business forum and coaching group that meets monthly.
“They’ve got a great model for building better businesses for a better purpose and it’s the one thing that has helped me the most,” Ables says.
Five years ago, Ables says a friend challenged him to read a book a week. Because he spends so much time in the truck driving, he traded sports radio for audiobooks, where he mixes business, faith and fiction. He says they all help him grow as a person.
He says the ability to train, delegate and raise up new leaders has had a direct impact on their growth.
“For the last five years, I was both owner and the director of our installation division, but we hired someone last August to take over that role and it has allowed me so much more time to work on the business versus in it,” Ables says. “We are relatively small, but our leadership team is so solid that it has me really excited to build on our foundation.”
Ables says they joined NALP for better access to training resources and events. Recently, three employees from the company attended the NALP Field Trip to R.P. Marzilli & Company in Boston. Ables says they came back inspired and encouraged after being able to see behind the curtain of another successful high-end residential company.
“I think the Field Trips will be a part of our natural cadence because you pick up one or two or three things from every company you visit and it potentially speeds your own company up by five or ten years,” Ables says.
The company is also taking a group of team members ELEVATE as a way to build camaraderie.
Over the past six to seven years, Ables Landscapes has moved from a smaller mom-and-pop company to one with 56 employees. Part of the reason why the company has grown their staff is that they moved from only recruiting when a position is open to always advertising job listings.
“We average around $3,000-$4,000/month with Indeed, which is expensive, but not compared to being shorthanded with employees,” Ables says. “We also offer an ongoing referral program of $1,000 for any employees who bring others in and for the first time, we also offered a $1,000 sign-on bonus this spring.”
Ables Landscapes also uses the H-2B program, and they’ve had the same 10 workers come for the past seven years, aside from 2020. He says while the program has its share of frustrations, they’ve found it absolutely worth it and their H-2B workers are part of their family.
As the company has grown, they’ve implemented more systems. Ables says in the past, they were lacking in the training area. They simply would put new people with their crew leaders to get them trained. Sometimes it went well, and sometimes it didn’t. They’ve put more intention in their training to define what excellence looks like.
“If you don’t know, you don’t know, so we have to teach them what our acceptable standards are,” Ables says. “We have also created an internal training class that we’re calling the Ables Landscapes ‘Master Craftsman’ class. This is our first year and we had employees apply and then selected seven of them to go through a yearlong curriculum where they come in early for one hour each month and we do a deep dive into the different topics we’ve selected. So they’re getting a lot of cross-training between divisions and rounding out their horticultural skill set.”
Ables Landscapes’ core values are to deliver wow through service, foster growth and learning, seek excellence daily, be humble and commit to integrity. As they’ve grown, they maintain their culture thanks to their Dream Manager, Morgan Behrens, who Ables brought on two years ago since reading the book The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly.
Behrens serves as a life coach for the team. She meets with employees every six weeks for a dream session where they discuss life goals, whether it be getting a driver’s license, rebuilding their credit or buying a house. She works behind the scenes to help make the connections for Ables’s employees who either don’t have time or don’t know how.
“We view the Dream Manager position as one of the key ways we serve our people, but one of the cool benefits is that it naturally builds buy-in and loyalty, which has led to less turnover,” Ables says. “Morgan spends about 75 percent of her time wearing her Dream Manager hat, and the other 25 percent of her time is spent on recruiting.”
Meanwhile, the company’s mission statement is “to glorify God by connecting people to something beautiful.”
Ables says when they worked on their mission statement and asked what is their why, he had a strong conviction that God put him in a position to be a steward of the business.
“I understand that mixing business with religious beliefs can be tricky, and I’ve seen a lot of people do it poorly, but for me, my faith isn’t segregated like that,” Ables says. “It directs everything I do, especially the way I lead our company. We have our mission statement on our website and printed on our invoices, and we’ve never had anyone object or complain about it, but I understand that is a possibility and I’m open to having that conversation.”
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