Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Ever since Alex Romo was a kid, he wanted to start his own company. He is now the president and general manager of his company Green & Clean Landscaping, Inc. based in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“In Mexico, my family was struggling all the time,” Romo says.
If Romo wanted candy or a new toy, he had to figure out a way to make money. So, he started his first business when he was 9 years old selling chips.
“My grandma taught me to make chips with potatoes and oil, but I bankrupted that company two weeks later because I made good money, but I never invested in oil and more potatoes,” Romo says.
After that, he started washing cars with his little brother. He says moving to the United States from Mexico was hard for him. Eventually, he got a job at Costco, where he worked for 12 years, eight of which were in a management role.
Cutting Meat to Cutting Grass
During his time at Costco, Romo learned the basics of how to run a business from handling inventory to pricing and scheduling crews. He says he also learned important concepts like “the customer is always right” and how you must take care of your employees first.
When Romo was 21, he got a job with ValleyCrest (now BrightView) working in the summertime while still working for Costco. He says he found himself very happy working in the industry, being outside surrounded by good people and learning new things. He also saw a lot of potential that sparked his entrepreneurial spirit.
“It’s a huge industry where you can learn a lot and it’s not just cutting grass,” Romo says. “It’s planting and learning about plants and irrigation and designing and hardscapes. So, I was amazed by how much I can learn in that industry.”
Despite making close to a six-figure salary, having health and retirement benefits and his first child on the way, Romo decided there was no right time to quit Costco. He chose to slowly transition out, going from full-time to part-time. Eventually, he quit Costco a year after becoming an hourly employee.
Romo says the pressure was on to find steady clientele and a loyal family of employees for his new business. He realized he could not grow beyond a certain point without the proper equipment, but he struggled to get a loan.
“My personal bank was hesitant to loan me money for the business and I received only rejection letters from other banks and the Small Business Association (SBA) for the first five years,” Romo says.
His wife Katy helped him on the administrative side with invoicing, drafting contracts and ensuring they had the proper insurance coverage.
Over time, Green & Clean accumulated the necessary equipment by taking profits from jobs and reinvesting them in the business.
Another challenge Romo is dealing with is finding the workforce he needs.
“As I continued to grow from the one-man-show operation, I learned that to retain my employees I had to offer them what the competition was not — just as Costco provided the best wages and benefits in their industry — I strived to give my employees pay they could not find elsewhere and provide them with opportunities to learn about hardscapes, pesticides, and irrigation.”
Romo became involved with the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance (NHLA) which gave him the opportunity to meet people who are bigger than him and teach him best practices, such as how to talk to customers more professionally, techniques to grow the company, and how to promote people from the inside. Now that NHLA is part of NALP, Romo says he plans to use all of NALP’s resources and programs that are available.
“They have a huge amount of programs that I’m really interested in from pesticide to irrigation,” Romo says.
He says he’s taken advantage of various training opportunities to motivate his employees and provide proper training for skills and development. Romo says wants his employees to be able to increase their potential.
He compares the importance of employee development to the story of an eagle that was raised among chickens. Believing he was a chicken as well, he never soared in the sky.
“Similar to the eagle raised as a chicken, many small business leaders, particularly Hispanic and minority owners cannot develop their businesses and employees without the proper tools and training,” Romo says. “I teach my employees that they are eagles, not chickens.”
He says he works to teach his employees it’s not just his company but it’s everybody’s company and everyone is growing together.
Keys to Success
Green & Clean started officially in 2011 and has gone from Romo and one other employee to 15 employees. The company earned $2 million last year in revenue and Romo has a company goal of reaching $5 to $10 million.
“To get that point, I got to have a system that really works for me and that’s where I am right now,” Romo says. “I’m trying to develop and customize the systems that I need to get to that point.”
The company has experienced steady growth over the years. Romo says he doesn’t want to grow too fast, as it’s risky. Starting out the company just did maintenance work, but now they have six divisions including maintenance, hardscaping, irrigation, snow removal, sweeping and illumination. His main customer base are commercial clients like shopping centers, but he also does residential work on the hardscaping and irrigation side.
Romo says he added sweeping to his services when he saw a need in the industry. He says he bought a truck that sweeps parking lots, taking a chance and now that service opened the door for him to win more contracts and be more efficient.
He says he added the other services in response to customer requests and because they have very high net margins.
Romo says his keys to success are quality of service, professionalism and communication with clients.
“We try to do everything we can to please our customers and we don’t do anything we wouldn’t do for our family,” Romo says. “We always try to go the extra mile. That helps a lot when the job is done. You can see the difference when you do it sloppily and in a hurry or when you take your time and do it right.”
Romo doesn’t want his crews to rush or cut corners just to finish things faster.
“I want my customer to be happy and I want him to recommend Green & Clean and if he has another project he will call us right away,” Romo says.
Romo says he balances putting his employees first and believing the customer is always right by communicating.
“Sometimes my customers want us to do something that is wrong,” Romo says. “We have to tell them, ‘Look sir, we know what we’re doing. This is what we need to do it. The right way to do it is this way.’ Honestly, I’m not forced to do the job so if I know that the job is going to be wrong, I hate to say it but I’ll tell the customer ‘I’m sorry, I cannot do it because it’s going to be wrong.’”
When his grandmother asked him why he was leaving a perfectly good job at Costco to follow a dream, she asked where did he picture the company at its peak.
“After pausing to think of a clever response, I told her: ‘NASA will hire my company for its first landscaping mission on the moon!’” Romo says.
Since then, Romo has told many other people about his plan to one day be landscaping on the moon.
“When I tell people about going to the moon, they tell me I’m crazy,” Romo says. “I’m crazy because I know what I want and sometimes being crazy is what people need. We want to get big and dream. Everybody complains about everything they have but stop complaining and dream big and do it and don’t be afraid to say it.”
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