Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Blue Claw Associates, Inc., based in Osterville, Massachusetts, has experienced explosive growth over the past four years. They’ve gone from having two employees in 2018 to 59 on staff currently.
However, this isn’t owner Ian McCarthy’s first foray into the landscape industry. He bought his first landscape company in 1996. He was an accountant at the time. One of his clients was getting ready to sell their landscape business to a father-son duo when the father died, and the deal fell through.
The client offered to sell the company to anyone for $50,000. Bored with doing the bookkeeping for other businesses, McCarthy and two others at the accounting firm went in and bought it. He says his background in accounting gave him a leg up from the start.
“Seeing all the different companies run made me want to go in that direction,” McCarthy says. “Over the years, I’ve made a lot of landscapers jealous because they usually start out mowing lawns or digging holes and they struggle to understand accounting and I had that already in the beginning.”
He went on to buy another landscape company based on Cape Cod in 2001. After investing in a minor league basketball team in 2006, McCarthy sold both of these businesses. While he enjoyed managing the basketball team, which moved several times, he ended up returning to Cape Cod to be close to family. In 2016, he re-entered the industry working for Bob Maffei Landscape Contractors on the senior management team.
He had a reunion with some of his former employees and they encouraged him to start a company again. So Blue Claw Associates was formed. The business caters to high-end residential customers, and they are known for their masonry and stonework. Blue Claw is on track to do $8 million in annual revenue this year.
Key to Success
McCarthy credits his company’s success to their partnerships with landscape architects and designers, having a skilled workforce to tap into, and their market.
He says when he bought the second company in 2001, they often dealt with periods of high demand and then lulls. He says there was no consistent way of knowing where the next job was coming from. McCarthy was approached by a business developer from ValleyCrest, who helped them develop relationships with landscape architects from 2003 to 2006.
“He taught me all the techniques and the do’s and the don’ts,” McCarthy says. “It’s very unique because it’s their client that they’re entrusting you with and they will make sure you don’t embarrass them. You don’t point out a flaw. You don’t criticize the plan. You don’t try to upsell the design, all those kinds of nuances.”
McCarthy implemented these practices when he started Blue Claw as the Boston area is a big hub for landscape architecture.
“Once you get in with them, they all are sending you their plans,” McCarthy says. “So you’re just inundated with projects and bids.”
Because of his past company, McCarthy hasn’t had as much trouble finding the skilled labor he needs.
“Rather than just flying blind and hiring guys and seeing how they do, I could hire a crew of guys that I already know how good they are,” McCarthy says.
He adds that word of mouth has attracted a lot of their employees, aside from those who worked at his first landscape company. He says he’s had a number of masons reach out after seeing Blue Claw’s work posted on their Instagram account.
“People now are seeing the growth and the trucks and everything,” McCarthy says. “So that seems to be people like to hitch their wagon to success.”
For the most part, Blue Claw is able to keep their employees on year-round as they can do a lot of the masonry work in tents over the winter.
McCarthy also credits the market for their growth. Since COVID, everyone has wanted to add fire pits, pools, patios and other upgrades to their backyards. The majority of their clients’ properties are second homes, which makes things easier as the client isn’t always there.
“I would say the challenge is you got to have it ready for when they arrive,” McCarthy says. “And then when they’re there, they usually have a lot of demands and requests in that short period of time.”
McCarthy says he joined NALP to reconnect with a lot of industry peers and network with more members across the country as it is a leadership organization. He recently attended the NALP Field Trip at R.P. Marzilli & Company. He says it helped him realize they’re probably stretched a little thin on their construction work and need to reconfigure. He also wants to dial into NALP’s training offering for his team.
Starting out, Blue Claw only did construction only, but then they added a maintenance division. McCarthy says previously, they just did maintenance part-time on Fridays. Since hiring a maintenance manager, they’ve gone from having zero to three maintenance crews. The more the maintenance crews are out working, the more calls Blue Claw has received.
One notable aspect of their maintenance division is they are all-electric. Blue Claw rolled this out in 2019 on Nantucket and in 2020 for Cape Cod.
“I knew we were going have to do maintenance,” McCarthy says. “I could see that electric was coming down the pike and I wasn’t sure I wanted to invest in a whole bunch of gas equipment knowing that it would change in a few years. I wanted to give a reason why we were different than other contractors.”
With more people working from home during the pandemic, McCarthy realized that quieter equipment mattered to their clients.
“Since mid-last year, we’ve had people say they’ve been doing Zoom calls and didn’t even know the crew was there,” McCarthy says. “So I think a lot of people are starting to appreciate and then the neighbors see us working somewhere and then they call.”
Last fall, Blue Claw also started a pool company as it was impossible to line up pool subcontractors. McCarthy says it’s been a learning experience. He says he opts to add crews as needed and they haven’t turned down a job yet.
“When we get a project that’s outside of our current footprint of employees, it might not start for a month or two,” McCarthy says. “So, we go out and recruit within our network because a lot of the guys that work for me worked for my first company, and they’re still in the area. We try to bring in sure things instead of just gambling with who walks in the door.”
He says he always tries to grow until they’re busting at the seams before bringing on an overhead person.
“It wasn’t until December of 2020 that I hired my first office person,” McCarthy says. “We ran three years where I did all everything, books, payroll, billing, and it was out of my house. In 2020, we got an office and hired an accounting lady.”
McCarthy says he maintains the company culture as they grow by having weekly meetings between maintenance and construction.
“I’m in the fight with them,” McCarthy says. “Sometimes I’m project managing, sometimes I’m doing sales or sometimes I’m doing proposals, estimates, etc.”
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