Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Growing up working on his family’s Christmas tree farm and nursery, Chris di Stefano was instilled with a strong work ethic and a love for the outdoors at an early age. While he knew he didn’t want a career as a grower, he found he was passionate about the landscaping industry.
What started as some fun side projects installing plants grew as more and more people sought out his work. Di Stefano saw starting his own company as a way to carry on his father’s legacy, who had passed away when di Stefano was 12 years old.
“I jumped in headfirst and bought a truck and a trailer and a couple shovels and a wheelbarrow and started to di Stefano Landscaping back in 2004,” he says.
Now as president of di Stefano Landscaping, based in Essex Junction, Vermont, di Stefano serves both commercial and residential clients, including general contractors, property managers, high-end architects and homeowners.
The company provides both design/build and maintenance services. About 70 percent of their maintenance revenue comes from their commercial clients and 30 percent is residential. Meanwhile, their design/build work is split 50/50 between commercial and residential clients. Snow removal for commercial clients makes up about 15 percent of their revenue.
They serve their markets of Vermont, New Hampshire and New York all from one location, but their growth plan is to identify another market to move into within the next three years. Di Stefano expects they’ll max out around $15 million in their local market. The company is currently at $6.5 million in annual revenue.
Di Stefano Landscaping has grown on average by 20 percent each year, and the only time they were flat was from 2020 to 2021.
“During COVID, I took a big risk, and I kept all my staff on,” di Stefano says. “I continued to pay all their benefits. I circled the wagons, and I took a gamble. I thought I saw the writing on the wall that we were going to get through this thing. I saw the money that was getting pumped into the economy, and I saw people were going to be stuck at home. I thought if we can survive this and get to the other side, we’re going really be in high demand.”
The company tightened their belt and stripped everything down so they could continue to take care of their people. When things began to open back up, di Stefano says they stepped on the gas as the demand for their services was through the roof and they had the staff to tackle their best year ever. The company grew by 50 percent that year.
Di Stefano Landscaping is known for their hardscaping work with several teams of expert masons. On the maintenance side, customers choose them as a one-stop shop as they have the capability to do everything from mowing and blowing to trimming and pruning.
Over the years, di Stefano says they’ve added some services and removed others. In the early days, they’d do anything a customer wanted done. Now they’ve paired down their services to what they know they’re good at.
“We know where we provide the most value,” di Stefano says. “We’ve really tried to get clear on what that is and stick to our guns. We also know where we have trade partners that can do a better job.”
While the company doesn’t do their own irrigation, they have brought tree care services, landscape lighting and fencing in-house as ancillary services. He says they decide which services to add by asking if they’re going to be able to do the best job for the client if they bring it in-house.
Keys to Success
Di Stefano credits his company’s success to hiring the right people.
“I’ve been lucky enough to have hired some really talented individuals early on who have stayed with the company,” di Stefano says. “We’ve picked up some other talent along the way and they’ve been probably the biggest reason.”
He says they’ve also established trust where the employees know at the end of the day, the company will do what is best for the whole team.
“That creates a culture of comfort and trust and safety,” di Stefano says. “I call it the circle of safety. We take care of the team, the team takes care of the client and the client takes care of us.”
He says they also have a lot of strong relationships in the market.
“Some of my teams, especially my sales team, they have their own local connections that go back generations there as well,” di Stefano says. “We’re pretty ingrained up here as far as that goes. There are a lot of extremely solid relationships, not just with myself, but also a lot of my staff as well, and I think that’s gone a long way.”
The company has also benefited from accessing NALP’s safety resources. Di Stefano says there’s a wealth of knowledge on NALP’s website and they have attended multiple industry events like Field Trip and ELEVATE.
Di Stefano says their biggest challenge is also their biggest asset: people.
“Everybody’s different and it’s not something you can put into a neat little box,” di Stefano says. “It’s not something that you can systemize as easily as other things. It requires genuine care and genuine ability to be empathetic to each individual on the team and know what their individual needs are.”
The company has 55 employees during the peak season and used the H-2B program for the first time last year.
“It’s a little too risky for me to put too many eggs in that basket, but I really liked it,” di Stefano says. “Our guys enjoyed it. They learned a lot.”
He says their best recruitment comes from their reputation in the market.
“If somebody wants to be in the trades, we’re really doing a lot to try to show them that this is just as good of an option as anything else,” di Stefano says. “We’re doing trade shows or going to job fairs; we’re on social media. We’re just doing everything we can. Most of it, honestly, a lot of our employees are coming from referrals from existing employees.”
Di Stefano Landscaping retains their employees by paying well, offering good benefits and having the best projects to work on with the best equipment. Di Stefano says his team has fun doing what they do.
“We try to keep everybody engaged the best we can,” di Stefano says. “We’re trying every day to figure out how we can continue to retain everyone. I’ve got guys that have been here now for 12 years. I asked them, ‘Why are you still here?’ and they like the culture, they like what we do, and they like the growth. There’s a lot of opportunity that we provide because we’ve had such consistent growth over the last 18 years.”
He says as they’ve grown, maintaining their company culture is hard, but they host lots of events, including monthly barbecues, holiday parties, summer gatherings and bowling parties.
One benefit they added two years ago is their profit share program. Di Stefano says it’s helped with buy-in from the team. He says they’ve shared about $250,000 back to the team already.
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