Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Founded in 1969, Himmel’s Landscape and Garden Center was originally a small produce stand in Pasadena, Maryland.
When the Himmels’ daughter Linda married Steve Watkins, he joined the business and started selling annuals and hanging baskets from the stand as well. By the late 70s to the 80s, Watkins had built greenhouses and was selling everything from nursery stock to sod and mulch.
Passing the Baton
The business took off in the 90s and was a landmark of the town by the time Elizabeth Elliott started working there when she was 17.
Elliott quickly developed a great rapport with the customers because she passionately loved plants. Watkins noticed this and took Elliott under his wing.
“I was really lucky because he taught me several things,” Elliott says. “He developed my confidence in putting an order together. When I expressed an interest in landscaping, he showed me how to do a landscape design. When I told him I wanted to start my own landscaping company, he taught me how to build an estimate.”
After working at Himmel’s for several years, she started her own small landscaping company, Sunnyscapes.
“Sunnyscapes was a small landscaping business and it grew faster than I was prepared for,” Elliott says. “I was a 20-year-old young mother, and it was scary.”
Because she felt the business was too risky at the time, she decided to find an office job that was a better fit for her and her young family. She got a part-time job at community college that eventually became a full-time opportunity.
After 12 years working in higher education, she got a job as a fundraiser for a nonprofit organization. She got to travel to places like South Korea, the Philippines, and Northern Ireland for her job.
“I had a job where I had a lot of autonomy, so I was able to create my own position, which helped me to understand what I wanted to create for my employees,” Elliott says.
Despite having been out of the landscape industry for years, Elliott remained in contact with Watkins and in her early 30s she expressed her interest in buying the business from him when he retired.
“I told him, ‘Look, I love Himmel’s and I really think I could turn it into something special,’” Elliott says. “So, I told him I wanted to buy the business and he chuckled, but he took me seriously.”
After spending 20 years in the corporate world learning about marketing, communications and leadership styles, things all came full circle when Watkins called Elliott about buying the business.
While it took a year to work out the logistics and financials, Elliott became the owner of Himmel’s officially on August 1, 2018.
Keys to Success
Himmel’s current annual revenue is a little over $2 million and Elliott has a five-year plan of increasing their revenue by 250 percent and adding a small secondary location.
She credits the company’s success so far to their improvements and rebranding, her mission-focused employees, and the addition of landscaping services.
Previously the company was called Himmel’s Farm and Garden Center when she bought it. Elliott changed the name as she wanted to have that sense of tradition but rebranded with a new logo, mission, vision, core values, website and marquee.
She also made visible and noticeable changes to the facility by adding a patio, pergola, and sitting wall to make the garden center property to create a welcoming and inviting environment.
As for her mission-focused employees, Himmel’s mission is to help their neighbors build a better, healthier and more beautiful world.
“My employees really demonstrate that mission in their relationships that they build with customers and their approach to sales, their approach to community activities and the events that we host,” Elliott says.
When Elliott purchased Himmel’s it did not have a landscaping division. She added this side because it was her passion.
“Plus, I knew business-wise that it made sense because it’s a retail garden center and people are coming to us with their questions and with their needs,” Elliott says. “What a natural way to meet their needs by offering the services right there in-house.”
Himmel’s serves Pasadena homeowners and is growing to the surrounding communities like Annapolis, Washington DC and Baltimore. On the retail side of business, they are trying to serve more of the local landscape contractors.
“The landscaping is really taking off,” Elliott says. “I think that next year the landscaping is going to take over as far as revenue and sales.”
Due to the pandemic, Himmel’s experienced incredible growth after a few months of uncertainty. As the company has grown, one of Elliott’s main challenges has been stress management.
“I’m learning the art of saying no and I’m learning to delegate,” Elliott says. “I’ve hired some great higher-level management this year. We’re in the process of handing over a lot of my daily tasks to my management team.”
In 2022, Elliott is focused on growing strategically and sustainably. As an NALP member, Elliott says she’s benefited from the education and mentorship resources.
“It’s knowing that I’m not alone, there are resources, there’s education for my employees,” Elliott says. “Meeting people and finding leaders to look up to and follow have been really effective for me.”
She also likes participating in the Women in Landscape Network group on Facebook.
“Being able to see those posts and read issues that I’m dealing with and follow those issues, to respond and share my own advice and to just meet new people,” Elliott says. “It’s been a great resource for me.”
Since purchasing the business, Elliott has grown her team from four employees to 33. Part of her five-year plan is to have no more than 50 employees.
“I don’t want to sound like I’m limiting but the growth has been so explosive that there have been times of chaos and feeling like I’m not in control,” Elliott says.
When it comes to recruiting, Elliott says they’ve had great success recruiting from within. She will often ask current employees for suggestions from their networks. Himmel’s has several family units who work for the company now, including a father, daughter and brother-in-law.
She says they both hire and retain their employees through their company culture. Himmel’s has a company culture of integrity, respect and communication.
“I have let employees go who have been in leadership positions for belittling other employees and for bringing about a negative, divisive factor,” Elliott says.
Recently they have also implemented the FISH! philosophy which has four components – be there, play, make their day, and your choose your attitude. This applies to how team members should deal with one another and customers.
Elliott does a number of things to keep morale up on staff including hosting staff outings such as company picnics and bowling. She says it’s also about the recognition – telling the employees they are appreciated and their work is important.
“We keep our employees because we care about them, because they know their work is about something bigger,” Elliott says.
When Elliott worked for the nonprofit and in higher education, she realized it was really important to do something that part of a bigger thing.
“We’re not here to just sell plants and landscape jobs,” Elliott says. “We are working for a greater purpose. Every single employee that I’ve hired, we’ve talked about this mission and our vision, they really buy into it and they feel like their job is special, and that’s why they stay with us.”
One of the ways Himmel’s goes about building a better, healthier, more beautiful world is by engaging in Bay-friendly practices.
“We are all surrounded by water and what we do impacts the Bay,” Elliott says. “We really try and educate and demonstrate that we’re trying to improve Bay and the health of our local precious environment.”
Elliott says they aren’t against the usage of ornamental plants as they serve a purpose in the landscape as well. However, they will give native plants as an option as often as possible.
“I’m just really proud of the way my employees care about the mission,” Elliott says. “Having a business that is mission-focused and we give back as much as we can and it’s contagious and I tell my employees, ‘The more you give, the more we receive.’”
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