Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
The landscape industry was accessible, attractive and profitable to Patrick Murray from an early age, as he had a passion for the outdoors and an entrepreneurial spirit.
Murray’s childhood best friend, Kenneth Deemer, helped him run his small lawn business while he was attending college. The two traveled to Australia together and worked for different landscaping companies there. They were told by several people to consider going into business together.
“We’re really good at working together and really good at making money and we actually really loved working together,” Murray says. “So that’s how we turned our weekends of helping each other out into an actual enterprise.”
When they returned to the U.S., they both finished up at school before going all in on Local Roots Landscaping, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
The company’s main customer base is high-end residential customers, and they currently do 70% installation and 30% maintenance work. Murray says they are striving to get a 50/50 split between the services but acknowledges it will be a three to four-year process. They also serve commercial clients offering installation and maintenance services.
Local Roots is on track to earn $8 million in annual revenue this year. Murray says the company’s big hairy audacious goal is to grow to $20 to $25 million with a 15 to 18% profit margin.
“Efficiency and net profit are obviously a lot more attractive,” Murray says. “I think autonomy and smoothness of operations definitely supersede just the size of the company. Obviously, when you scale, you get that oftentimes, but I know a lot of companies who are doing $15, $20, $25 million and they’re not making money, so that’s not ideal.”
Keys to Success
Murray credits Local Root’s growth and success to their people, their tenacity and his and Deemer’s vulnerability as leaders.
He says they’ve made a point to hire the right people and place them in the right seats as well as getting rid of the wrong people who are in those seats. Murray says they have an absolute sense of tenacity and don’t let people tell them that certain things are impossible due to past examples.
“I think it’s been our own journey to figure out and explore,” Murray says. “We’re not being stupid. You want to be wise and listen to people, but I think oftentimes for a lot of people in our industry who have been here for a while to be negative and say, ‘This doesn’t work that way.’ We take that as a challenge in most cases. Not to prove people wrong, but honestly, as a game, it’s kind of fun for us.”
That tenacity is what is driving the company to break into snow management this winter. Murray says after avoiding this service for years, his team challenged him and Deemer by saying, ‘You’re always telling us to have no limits and take this department to the moon, and you’re telling us no, we can’t do snow.’
Another key is how Murray and Deemer are willing to admit when they have made a mistake or need help. Because of this vulnerability, they have fostered a lot of trust in their company. They also are willing to reach out for resources and know they don’t have to do this all alone.
One of the lessons Murray has learned along the way is that just because the people you pick and the plans you make don’t always work out the way you imagine, doesn’t make you a bad leader.
“I want people to know that as a leader, we don’t know everything and we’re going to make mistakes,” Murray says. “It’s okay to say I made a mistake. I’m going learn from that versus living in that mistake and living in fear of making it again.”
Murray says as an NALP member, he appreciates the relationships he’s been able to form, both learning from and coaching others.
“I have a big heart for young entrepreneurs who are probably going through super similar stuff that I have gone through,” Murray says. “It’s like a very important thing for me to be able to help them to navigate those waters.”
Dealing with Growth Spurts
Once Local Roots got past the startup growth, there was a lull under the million-dollar mark where they didn’t know what they were doing.
“From that point, we realized, ‘Hey, we want to scale’ and then just scaled and we would double and triple and double again since 2020,” Murray says.
He says their desire to grow also happened in tandem with COVID’s boost to landscape businesses.
“We had systems in place,” Murray says. “We were hiring like crazy, buying equipment like crazy. We were ready to go. They say luck is a mix of preparation and good timing. We got lucky, but it was definitely preparation and the right timing for sure.”
Over the last three years, Local Roots has experienced major growth spurts. Last year they had 85% organic growth, going from $3.4 million to $6.3 million. Murray says these growth spurts tend to take a toll on people.
“We knew what we were signing up for,” Murray says. “We set the tone that this is going to be a pretty wild year. It’s just having a good read on your people. I can’t say we did it perfectly. We definitely had burnout, definitely had anxiety. There’s a lot of stuff that goes into that naturally. You can’t hide that. It’s really being open and receptive and being willing to cut things off if it’s not going well and you see it’s causing more harm than help.”
Murray expects the company to grow by 30% this year. Local Roots added on irrigation services three months ago. He says they haven’t done a great job of converting their design-build customers into maintenance contracts but they have started to cross brand everything. For instance, now that they offer irrigation, each project bid receives a line item for irrigation installation.
“It doesn’t always work, and it’s there’s only so much time in a day, but we just put that in our people’s ear a lot,” he says.
Recruiting and Retention
Local Roots has 47 employees and Murray says they utilize Paylocity for recruiting.
“Paylocity has this integrated feature that takes our job postings that we create on there and then it publishes them,” Murphy says. “It uses what’s called job target and then that publishes it to 500 job boards, Indeed, Monster, all that stuff out there.”
Paylocity also automates the interview process by setting up virtual interviews. Murray says if they decide to hire that individual, they just press the send to onboarding button.
“We have all the information we need to onboard that employee and start them a week from that,” he says.
They also offer employee incentives like bonuses or vacation time for referrals. Murray says currently they are testing out to see if temporary agencies can provide them with people who match their core values and quality of character. Local Roots has rigid drug tests and background checks for their hires so he is hopeful the temp agencies can help find individuals who meet their criteria.
Murray says they are able to retain their employees by creating an accepting, inviting and loving environment.
“We truly genuinely love our people and express and demonstrate vulnerability when we make mistakes and open that up to them so that they can make mistakes and be safe,” Murray says.
He says his goal is to create a safe place for team members to work where they are valued, they are loved and their opinion makes a difference. Murray explains that making his employees feel loved comes down to being in tune with what they need and how they’re feeling.
“We don’t want to talk about feelings a lot in labor and whatnot, but it’s so real,” Murray says. “Facial expressions and body language tell you quite a bit about a person. I’m very open about saying like, ‘Hey, Mark, you don’t look great right now. What’s going on here?’ Nine times out of 10, they’re like, ‘Yeah, I’m wearing a bit of stress right now.’ I’d say like, ‘Do you want to talk about that stress?’”
Murray acknowledges that this is more on an intangible aspect of their company culture, but they also make a point to pay well, offer a full spectrum of health benefits and 401(k) to their employees. As the company has grown, he says they are able to maintain their company culture by delegating leadership to the right people.
Murray credits Deemer with building the company’s brand and reputation. They are the most-reviewed and highest-rated landscape company in their area. Their project managers and account managers make a point of asking clients they have good relationships with to leave a review. Also, at the end of a project, if they know a customer is pleased with the end result they’ll send them a review link.
Local Roots is focused on giving the client a great customer experience. Murray admits that during growth, it can be a challenge to maintain this.
“It’s admitting to them that yeah, you might have messed up, but we can’t go back and change it, so what can we do from this point forward?” Murray says. “I think it’s the intention that you have and then the accountability that you show. Again, I’ll use the word vulnerability to your clients so that they’re able to see through the darkness of their experience, if it was bad, and then possibly give you a good review, which is kind of crazy.”
Local Roots also gives back to the community by giving at least $1,000 per month to local nonprofits and charities. The company does at least three service projects a year as well.
“We’ll put out a sign-up sheet and say we need volunteers to do planting for a nonprofit,” Murray says. “We’ll get like 15 of our employees that sign up just to come volunteer their time on a Saturday. Nothing makes me happier. They’re literally working for 50 hours a week and then they come for a five-hour Saturday gladly to help, so it’s a beautiful thing to see.”
Because the company’s reputation is so strong, they have also had periods of time where they have an employee waiting list, where individuals who may be overqualified for an opening position are contacted for future roles.
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