Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Plants Creative Landscapes’ owner Pam Dooley doesn’t look at her company’s size or revenue as a way to measure their growth, but rather their purpose.
“I am always curious about ways to just expand and evolve our work and our purpose and our company,” Dooley says. “Do I want to be $100 million in revenue? No, I’m not at all interested in that. We want to be above average in our bottom line, for sure, but we’re expanding our reach into different markets to where we know that we can expand our purpose. That’s impacting the relationship people have with the outdoors.”
Dooley has been working in the industry since she was young, from summer jobs at local garden centers to a commercial account manager for HOAs.
Based in Decatur, Georgia, Dooley started Plants Creative in 2005 out of necessity when she decided to study horticulture at the University of Georgia.
“It was really just wanting to go back to school, but I had bills to pay,” Dooley says. “I reached out to a couple of friends and said, ‘Can I mow your lawn?’ And they kept referring me and I’m like, ‘That sounds interesting, I’ll do that,’ so it was really very organic.”
Keys to Success
Plants Creative offers residential landscape design, construction and maintenance. Dooley says they are very relationship-focused and they work with clients who really desire not just a pretty space to look at but a space they can enjoy being in.
A small percentage of their customers are commercial properties that are either owned by their residential clients or are very high-touch commercial clients that are relationship- and trust-focused.
As for the company’s keys to success, Dooley says it really comes down to caring about people.
“We talk a lot about just do the right thing,” Dooley says. “Put yourself in that situation. We don’t have to be right; we just have to fix the problem. We just have to do the right thing and just focus in on those relationships.”
Dooley says even when projects don’t go as planned, there’s always an opportunity to get it back on track. She says if they have to leave a relationship, they make sure to not leave it unsettled. Plants Creative works hard to build up promoters and referrals from within the community.
The company offers a lifetime warranty on plants as Dooley sees the value in doing the right thing over the price of the plant.
“That is just always how I’ve run our company,” Dooley says. “I’ve made a lot of mistakes. I’ve learned to say no, but I think the warranty for people just aligns with our values.”
One of the other promises Plants Creative makes is all communications received by 12 p.m. will be responded to by 5 p.m. Dooley says this is an extremely hard promise to keep and they had to create some internal processes and structure to decide who they absolutely had to get back to without fail.
“When you’re growing and you have these strong ideas and values, and you don’t have processes to help guide the team on how to understand to do that,” Dooley says. “We’ve had to really embrace the concept that not all customers are created equal.”
Dooley says it’s important that owners are intentional about building a team.
“We’re extremely committed to the work we do,” Dooley says. “I love landscaping. I love it. I love creating. I love talking with people about it. But more than that, I love people.”
Dooley also says her NALP membership has been tremendous in helping her company grow, taking advantage of the networking, friendships, educational events, HR resources and more. She says they used the Trailblazer program when they were restructuring their maintenance contracts. Trailblazer Michael Hoffman, LIC, with Hoffman Landscapes, came down from Connecticut to help with this.
Taking a Step Back
Before moving to their Decatur office, Dooley says they were leasing a space with a fenced-in yard and a small office. Dooley’s realtor called her out of the blue and said he’d found her a new location and to bring her checkbook. The property was a half an acre corner lot that had been foreclosed.
“It was perfect,” Dooley says. “It was a little small for a landscape company, but I knew we could do something with it. It wasn’t planned.”
When Plants Creative opened the Decatur office in 2012, they were around the $1 million revenue mark and gaining their footing. Dooley says the first couple of years there they struggled, and she realized she needed to join a peer group because it suddenly felt like the real deal.
“I would say after I joined the peer group that’s when I really started planning our growth and revenue,” Dooley says. “That was only six or seven years ago so halfway into the business.”
When they first opened the Decatur office, they had 8 to 10 employees and now they have around 40 to 50 employees. After joining the peer group, Plants Creative began to grow quickly in 2014 and 2015 by 20 to 30 percent.
Dooley says they had consistent growth until 2019 when they decided to take a step back.
“We really reset some things, really revisited maintenance contracts that we had outgrown that we were holding on to because they were revenue,” Dooley says. “But they weren’t a good fit for the customer or us. So, we really worked hard in 2019 and shed a good amount of that revenue, making us stronger moving forward.”
Dooley says it was hard but one of the best decisions they’ve made so far.
In 2020, business jumped back up due to COVID-19 with their design/build division growing 24 percent.
Some of the services Plants Creative has added recently include becoming a Husqvarna Automower dealer and Hydrate, their irrigation division.
Dooley says they started installing Automowers in 2019 and they have contributed solutions to many challenges such as labor, sustainability and healthier lawns. The company is also working to shift their two-cycle equipment to battery power.
“It’s part of that whole sustainability shift that we’re really focused on,” Dooley says. “I think we have a responsibility to educate our customers more than what we’re doing.”
They spent last year figuring out Hydrate, Plants Creative’s newest division. Dooley says they want to be more thoughtful about how irrigation systems are designed.
“Hydrate would be our biggest launch so far,” Dooley says. “That was born out of the belief that smart water usage matters and how it helps with sustainability. It’s also about customer value. We know these systems can save water, which in Atlanta, translates to substantial financial savings as well.”
Hydrate offers several water management packages and they can either install a new system or retrofit existing irrigation systems. Dooley says they are planning to reach out to many of their maintenance customers this year that they know are interested in updating their systems.
While growing her company, Dooley says having processes that help with consistency and quality has been the main challenge.
“You have to flexible when you’re growing and you have to be comfortable with unknowns and change and all of that, but there’s also a lot that you have to give your teams in terms of repetitive processes,” Dooley says. “This is how you do this.”
Dooley says she often tells her staff to make the right decision based on their values but she’s learning they need a little bit more framework. She says they’re still working on developing their processes, but they’ve gotten so much better.
She says they’ve also gained confidence in saying no to work that isn’t a good fit for them. Dooley says her team is young and committed to growth and their future, but they lack some experience. She is looking into getting her team members Landscape Industry Certified.
Plants Creative’s company culture is all about celebrating and getting together after work and having cookouts and gatherings. Dooley says they felt the impact last year due to the pandemic and had to cancel their holiday party.
“We still do some stuff but not to the same level,” Dooley says. “The biggest thing that we can do in our culture as we continue to grow is to just continue to connect people at all levels across the company. This is an opportunity to share ideas, an opportunity to understand why the work they’re doing matters and to know how they’re doing.”
Dooley says they will continue to create programs and opportunities across the board to tap into the brilliance of their people, including those out working in the field.
“I look for people that share our values, people who want to grow,” Dooley says. “I think when you are truly aligned with your beliefs and your values, you can attract those people. At Plants, we truly will give anybody an opportunity that wants to go into the industry.”
Plants Creative also gives back to the community in a number of ways.
“Our team loves the outdoors, we love kids, we love pets,” Dooley says. “We love people who are just looking to make a difference in their community and if their purpose and our purpose can meet up, it’s an easy decision.”
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