A former high school math teacher who graduated with a degree in philosophy, Doug Delano puts a lot of emphasis on education. He believes in the power of knowledge. So when he came to landscaping as a later career—getting hired at Ruppert Landscape—Delano threw himself into learning as much as he could. However, in 1998, when Ruppert sold to TruGreen, Delano says he was a stay-at-home dad for a while with his young children. But he missed landscaping. So, in 2002, he and Bill Hardy (who had hired him at Ruppert), started Level Green Landscaping to offer Washington D.C., Maryland and Virginia commercial landscape maintenance services.
“Our mission has always been really simple: Just do the right thing,” Delano says. “It’s the golden rule: Treat others like you want to be treated. So, if you want your customers to pay you in a timely manner, then I believe you should be paying your vendors in a timely manner, too. If you want to have great employees, then I think you need to treat them really well. It’s simple stuff. Bill and I have always believed the key to a successful company is trust. So we work really hard to build trust with everyone we work with—employees, subs, vendors and customers.”
While he’s always had a clear picture of what it would take to build a reliable company, Delano never imagined the company would be quite this successful. This year, Level Green is on track for approximately $23 to $24 million—and it continues to grow.
We recently caught up with Delano to find out more.
Company: Level Green Landscaping
Headquarters: Upper Marlboro, Maryland
Year founded: 2002
2018 Revenue: $19.1
Year Founded: 2003
Client mix: 100% commercial
Service mix: 50% maintenance; 40% enhancement; 10% snow removal
Business motto: Just do the right thing
What is your proudest moment in business?
One of the things that makes me the proudest is seeing Level Green Landscaping employees be successful. This is in business but also in life: whether they’re starting a family or buying their first house or building a pool. Those are things to me that are much more satisfactory than material possessions we acquire. Of course, the company’s growth is exciting, but what that means for our people is more rewarding.
What is your biggest business challenge?
People. Whether it’s managers or front line workers, people remain a challenge. I think our industry is not perceived well by many and therefore doesn’t always attract the quality labor we’re looking for. But we’re trying to change that. We have a management training program we bring kids out of college and set them up to work their way into management positions. We also provide assistance toward paying back their college loans. It’s only $100 a month, but it’s something. We have also developed a special website for hiring through the help of Landscape Leadership.
What motivates you on Monday mornings?
I have always enjoyed working; So much of it has to do with the people. I enjoy being at the office. I enjoy interacting with people that work at Level Green Landscaping. There’s a book out there, “The No A**hole Rule,” and I think it is full of lessons everyone should live by. You don’t want people working with you who are a**holes. Life is too short. You want to enjoy working with people. That’s always been a focus—and for that reason, I really do like coming to work. No extra motivation is required.
What worry keeps you up most at night?
I don’t usually have trouble going to sleep but a worry might wake me up early and I can’t get back to sleep. I would say it’s probably our growth. I’m concerned about growing the right way. My biggest fear is losing our culture. As we get bigger, are we going to lose what’s made us special? The biggest challenge is keeping that culture you tried to nurture and that made you successful. One thing I personally do to try to retain our culture as we grow is have lunch with one or two managers each week to touch base. As we continue to grow, I become more separated from the day-to-day activity. But just getting out there and talking to account managers, operations managers, branch managers and salespeople does make a difference. I think it is important to see how they feel and what troubles they are having.
Who is your business mentor or idol?
I have two. One would be my father in law. When he was in his early 30s he and his wife sold their house and bought a small, 10-mile rail road. They had three young children but picked up and followed a dream. Then, he sold that, got another one, and another one—and he really ended up being successful. He worked hard, he saved a lot, but I think he’d also say there was a lot of luck involved. A lot of life is working hard but you also need some luck; Being in the right place at the right time. My father-in-law offered to set me up in his business, but I turned him down. I couldn’t imagine not owning my own business, but I’ve learned so much from what he’s done.
My second one is one of my brothers. He and his wife started a country store that is so much more than that—it’s one of the largest country stores out there. It’s called The Country House in Salisbury, Maryland. They are so successful and also so happy to run the business and they’re just really inspiring.
What is your favorite business book?
I have a big library here in my office so it’s hard to pick just one—but I’ll tell you what I’m reading now. It’s called “Let my People Go Surfing,” and it’s written by the founder of Patagonia. His philosophy is interesting and I’m enjoying it. But I don’t have a favorite book. I try to read often and to glean something from every book I read. In fact, I take the same approach to visiting other landscape companies. Bill and I spend a lot of time looking at other businesses. If we can get just one idea that helps us, even a little, then it was worth any money we spent. I often find that different companies have different ways of reaching the same solution—and there is a lot to learn from that.
What does it mean to you to be a landscape professional?
To me it means education. I have a degree in philosophy and since starting in the landscape profession I have been doing a lot of reading. I read garden books. On my business card it says head gardener—an idea I got from Valley Crest. I like the idea of gardening having more than one meaning—whether it’s helping people or plants grow. I have a lot of self-taught knowledge about horticulture—from books and from taking classes. I think it’s important in our industry that we understand horticulture; That we try to bring that expertise to our customers.
What does it mean to you to be a NALP member?
Again, a lot of it comes back to education. My partner Bill and I have been going out yearly to NALP’s LANDSCAPES event at Louisville and we appreciate the educational opportunities there. We also work with Bruce Wilson, as part of the NALP peer group he leads. And we attended the Workforce Summit in February in Alexandria. I think as an industry it’s important for us to work together toward a common goal. I think that’s what NALP is doing. They are focused on the challenges that we face and helping come up with ways that we can collectively solve them.
Where do you see your business in five years? Where will you be?
We have a five-year business plan laid out and we hope to be twice our size by then but still in the Baltimore and D.C. markets. Between $40 and $50 million is our goal. Of course, we hope to be able to keep our culture intact. We are also working on succession planning should something happen to Bill or myself. We both have sons in the business and, in the long-term, they may be involved in the company’s growth. However, my plan in five years is definitely to still be working with the company.