Our Level Up series shares the strategies that help landscape and lawn care companies get to the next level.
Even at the young age of four, Andy Miller knew he either wanted to “draw flowers or grow flowers” when he grew up.
Miller attended vocational school for landscape and floral design in high school. He earned a scholarship as a vocational exchange student to Germany, where he studied on Mondays and worked for a landscape company Tuesday through Friday for a year. He went on to major in horticulture and ag education at The Ohio State University when he returned to the U.S.
While Miller considered owning his own company starting at the age of 17, he worked as the landscape manager/head gardener for the largest private household operation in North America for 10 years.
“Somewhere in there, I realized if I made one bad mistake with any one of several influential people within a supremely political household operation, my job could end,” Miller says. “I realized then that I could still do an excellent job for several of my own clients, and if something went wrong with one of them, it would not mean that I was out of a job.”
He ended up starting The Formal Garden based in Columbus, Ohio, and focused on horticultural and organizational consulting.
“It felt like a better setup to me, and in reality, felt like a lot less stress,” Miller says. “Life is short, and the flexibility to enjoy life and give back in your own ways is more valuable than any amount of money. I always averaged 60-75 hours per week in any salaried position I held, so I figured, why not be compensated for that effort for once? It has never been easy as an entrepreneur, but the peace of mind has always been worth it, that success is completely a result of my own efforts and sacrifice.”
Carving Out A Niche
For The Formal Garden, they have already attained their ideal company size and found a balance. Miller says this is in constant renewal, however, as older clients move into assisted living or pass away. The company’s revenue is around the $750,000 to $1 million range.
His company serves private residential customers and occasionally a client’s business or their corporate office. Their ideal client is someone who enjoys the outdoors and either knows and appreciates plants or appreciates having every detail handled outdoors.
The company’s core services include horticultural services, seasonal color displays and detailed landscape maintenance.
“When I started the company, I decided I would not do mowing or snow,” Miller says. “That leaves a solid 10-month work schedule. We hit upwards of 20 team members in the green season, then scale back to five team members through winter.”
They recently added interior plant care to their services. Miller says when the economy is good, interiors are also good. He says it currently makes up five to seven percent of their revenue. Adding the interior plantscaping was an adjustment, but one team member already had previous experience and another team member has been growing in her interest and involvement as well.
“The coordination of additional services (beyond our direct services) and tapping into our network of related professionals has brought value to clients and they appreciate that as well,” Miller says.
Keys to Success
Miller mostly credits his company’s success to culture.
“We are inclusive and genuinely welcome new members, work to remember and celebrate each team member in some way,” Miller says. “We also share regularly that our purpose in life is not to ‘pull weeds and deadhead flowers.’ But instead, to be able to serve a much larger purpose in making spaces that uplift others, and the more green spaces we have on earth, the better.”
He says he’s able to attract employees through word of mouth, posting online and through college contacts. The Formal Garden’s salary, benefits and flexibility help retain staff members. Miller adds each person believes in the purpose of their mission.
Miller says staying disciplined with their cultural inputs is how they maintain it.
“We have a weekly newsletter brief for the whole team and do full-company meetings weekly around this,” Miller says. “It preserves the culture, keeps everyone in the know, and even though I get antsy as each minute ticks by, know that it works for everyone, including the clients.”
He says one challenge as they’ve grown has been finding individuals with plant knowledge. As an NALP member, Miller uses the technical certifications as a guidepost for his team. He says they have been invaluable for the team members’ competence and confidence.
Another notable aspect is how the company opts to work with referral-only clients.
“We have always started with the mindset we would take care of our existing clients and do everything we could to handle new requests,” Miller says. “We try not to overdrive our headlights and to stay realistic with our capacity.”
Miller says they typically vet the potential client through a couple conversations before taking them on. They also charge for their first visit consultation. He says it’s mostly to insure against clients who do not value their time.
In one instance, he had a husband and wife medical couple ask him for a free design and in response, he asked if he could come to their office, get a battery of exams, receive a diagnosis and if he liked the report, then he’d pay for their services.
“What an arrogant jerk I was, but it did get the point across that I value my own time, knowledge, and true expertise, and so should they,” Miller says.
The Formal Garden also makes a point to give back to the local community through a program they started three years ago. They partnered with an educational organization that serves kids in the city to help inner-city kids develop an awareness of gardening and growing.
“Two of our team members work with them two days a week during the summer months,” Miller says. “Austin is a former school teacher and Leslie is a retired pediatrician interested in nutrition and the environment. We worked with the program coordinator to develop a curriculum around their needs toward ‘green literacy’ and the environment.”
They have also designed and are coordinating the installation of a garden as an outdoor educational and community space in the neighborhood.
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