Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Mulhall’s, based in Omaha, Nebraska, has a core purpose of growing the community’s relationship with the natural world.
The company has three business units: landscaping, garden + home and farms. The garden + home business is a retail-focused operation of garden supplies, plants and patio furniture while Mulhall’s farms is a nursery operation.
Mick Mulhall, president of the company, says they think of their landscape business as a product company. They have three products: landscape management, landscape construction and interior design and maintenance.
“I think our core product, that is the product that best serves the people physically doing the work, is the landscape management product,” Mulhall says.
Mulhall doesn’t have an ideal company size he’s trying to reach, but Mulhall does want to grow the company for his employees.
“I think we’re too small of a company today to do right by the ability and ambitions of the people that work here,” Mulhall says. “So that’s a pretty big driving force for me.”
Currently, Mulhall’s employs around 150 to 200 people in the landscaping side of the business and 400 total employees across all the company’s offerings.
The company came from humble beginnings. Mulhall’s grandfather had been the head groundskeeper for the American ambassador in Ireland and the ambassador encouraged him to move to the U.S.
Immigrating in 1953, Mulhall’s grandfather became the head groundkeeper for Creighton University and began to moonlight as a landscaper. Mulhall says his grandfather loved the work and found a few other people who loved the work as well. They started to landscape together and formed the company. Mulhall’s grandmother ran the books.
Mulhall’s father and uncle eventually started working with the business in the 80s, professionalizing and legitimizing the company. Mulhall had grown up working in this business since he was 13 as he took to the work and enjoyed planting things.
He studied at Notre Dame and was preparing to pursue a master’s degree in landscape architecture when his father called him about a position at the company.
“In our family, it was understood that you don’t ask to come back, you get asked,” Mulhall says. “I knew the industry was for me. Building a career in concert with the natural world as opposed to at odds with it.”
Mulhall took the job at 23 years old and now he runs the business at age 30.
“My job is one of listening and organizing and trying to communicate stuff that people who built this place know,” Mulhall says.
Keys to Success
Over the years, Mulhall’s has experienced mostly steady growth and Mulhall says they’ve never had to lay anyone off. Mulhall says they could grow the business very fast. However, they couldn’t do it properly, with a foundation that’s stable enough for the people who have staked their careers on the company.
“Every time we bring on a new full-time team member, we raise the floor of our duty to this place and that informs a lot of our financial decision making,” Mulhall says.
The company has simplified their offerings over the years as too much complexity isn’t helpful for their frontline workers.
While Mulhall’s has faced challenges over the years, Mulhall says they try hard to stay grateful and focus on the positive things that are happening in the midst of their struggles.
“I don’t think that we’ve ever had challenges that our competitors probably haven’t at some point,” Mulhall says. “I don’t think for a minute that anyone here doubts whether or not this is what we should be working on. And oftentimes when it gets hard that’s the best test for whether or not this is actually the right thing.”
Mulhall says one of their keys to success is simply how much they care about their purpose. He says while they are really good at caring deeply, it’s nice to benchmark their decisions with other NALP members.
“If you really care about something it’s good to meet people who care similarly,” Mulhall says. “I’m really excited to see this emerging undertone of the new version of the story. It’s less about transactions, less about building a business to sell and more about building a business because I love the landscape.”
Mulhall says he uses any and all of NALP’s available tools but particularly enjoys information sharing and consolidation.
“I think the most valuable thing is this community,” Mulhall says. “This idea that there are other people across the country interested in landscaping makes you feel connected and it makes it more exciting.”
A Different Mindset
While other companies may focus on a specific customer base or various business goals, Mulhall’s attention is on their employees.
“We think the most about how do we build a business of and for the people who want to dedicate their careers to this,” Mulhall says. “We really tried to build our business to support our frontline workers.”
Mulhall says they primarily provide commercial landscape management as this is stable, interesting work that they can train employees that is in line with their purpose of connecting the community with nature.
With commercial landscape management, Mulhall says it is trainable, clear and consistent so you can build some predictability to it.
The company’s website says they have a strangely diverse set of employees, bound by their shared purpose.
“We really care about building our relationship with the natural world,” Mulhall says. “If you’re inclusive, if you’re passionate about the work that we do here and you like to have fun doing it, that’s our list.”
When it comes to recruiting and retention, Mulhall says they just promote what they like and retention comes down to treating people well, finding out what they want to do with their career and supporting them on that path.
“Five, ten years ago we weren’t meeting a ton of people who liked what we like,” Mulhall says. “We’re meeting a ton of new people today who do.”
Plans for the Future
Mulhall says he loves coming to work every day and the company is not a means to an end.
“There’s no exit plan,” Mulhall says. “’We’re not trying to grow this fast for five years so we can sell it to a private equity company. We’re just trying to landscape with our friends.”
In the next five years, Mulhall says he’d love to be known for being a landscape company that is of and for the frontline workers. He wants to better support their workers and for his employees to become homeowners.
“I would love to celebrate their work,” Mulhall says. “I think tight labor markets make employers better.”
As for who the company is eventually passed on to, Mulhall says it’s a question of stewardship. While he is incidentally a family member, he says the company goes beyond his family to the legacy of thousands of people who have cared enough to commit their careers to this company.
“This is beautiful work and it really matters,” Mulhall says. “We have a unique opportunity as an industry to really affect the conversation about what it means to live less at odds with the natural world and more in concert with it.”
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