Before Neil Bales became NALP’s 2020 Young Entrepreneur of the Year, he was following in his older brother’s footsteps at the prospect of working together. Though his brother eventually went into ministry, Bales says he knew he’d found home in the green industry. Most of all, he’s been inspired by the people—including not only clients and co-workers, but even competitors that he says have taught him so much about himself and the industry.
Currently, Bales is a partner in the Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas-based LandPatterns, an architectural firm founded by Marc Dr. Marc Funderburk, ASLA, who is in the process of transitioning the company to Bales.
Though Bales has been with the company for a couple of years, he says he feels like his career is “starting over” in many ways as he keeps learning so many new things.
“It honestly feels like I’m just getting started,” he says of his career. “I’ve been extremely blessed to come here and learn from our founder and my partner. It’s given me a new take on where my career, our organization and our industry can go from here—and I’m excited!”
We recently caught up with Bales to find out more about him, his vision for the industry and how he feels about being Young Entrepreneur of the Year.
What is your business motto?
It’s not so much a business motto as it is my personal belief that I not only do business by but live by. I try to get up each day and hopefully reflect the love of Christ and what Jesus has afforded me in life. That includes the grace and mercy he has shown me through my actions as a business owner and entrepreneur, as well as a husband, a dad and a member of the community. I genuinely hope that people look at me and can see the love of Christ in and through me.
What is your proudest moment in business?
I may not be able to narrow it down to just one moment because I have had a lot of proud moments working on amazing projects, being recognized for the fruits of our labor through national awards, and seeing the people that I work with grow as individuals and as professionals. Seeing others around me grow brings me great pride and joy. That’s meaningful. I love seeing their potential come to light.
What has been your biggest business challenge?
Inevitably, it’s just the people themselves and everything that comes with that. It could mean field staff issues or managing different personalities. Oftentimes, that’s like a puzzle—making sure that I lead by getting the right people in the right seats. We’re trying to identify strengths and weaknesses while playing to the strengths and minimizing and supporting the weaknesses. But people remain a challenge. We’re all created in God’s image, but we are so very different. It’s what makes us unique and what makes this fun but also what makes it challenging.
What business worry keeps you up at night?
Ultimately, I’m a believer in God and Jesus so whether my business succeeds or fails, I’m a child of God and He will sustain me. However, that’s easier said than done in the moment—so I do still have worries that I wrestle with. I have three in particular. One, being people and where will we find the next staff personnel that we need? How will we train them when we get them? And how will we ensure they’re performing to the best of their ability?
Second, we are a cashflow intensive business, so where is the cash coming from? How can we keep that cashflow up to date and current? Making sure we are managing and monitoring receivables and payables while adding to our bottom line is a worry.
The third, which doesn’t worry me as much as it gives me pause, is how will we grow into the future? What technological advancements can we do as an organization and hopefully remain on the forefront? I think about the latest technology and how it’s changing everything from time management to irrigation to job production. How do we stay on the forefront of that and implement it well? I tend to think this a lot. What’s the next great thing and how can we lead in that effort and hopefully blaze a trail toward the future.
What motivates you on a Monday morning?
The things that motivate me are also part of that last question—which is where our industry is going. I’m very motivated in this current time in my life to try and ensure that we’re as profitable as we can be. That when we make mistakes, we take a step back and review and learn from those. I’m motivated by constantly trying to ensure we’re teaching people correctly but also all learning as a team. That we have open dialogue and feedback around these things. Daily fires I come across in this business also motivates me. I was just talking to a staff member about how much I love this industry because it’s ever-changing; no two days are ever quite the same.
Who is your business mentor and why?
I have several. Bill Arman plays an integral part of the growth of this business and has been teaching me a lot. When I first met Bill, I probably couldn’t spell the word business correctly, let alone profitability and margins. But Bill, over a period of five to seven years, has really helped teach me a lot and help me grow. I’m so grateful to him.
One of the other two people I speak to in terms of business mentorship would be a gentleman I worked for in college, Howard Thrash. I worked for an upscale men’s clothing retail clothing store and learned a lot about hands-on small business. He taught me a lot about being driven and refocusing when necessary. I learned so much from him up close and personal.
Then, for my first job out of college, I worked for Andee Bechtold, who was with Longhorn Landscape Creations at the time. She was phenomenal about being an open book. There was never a number she hid or a conversation she hid, and I saw how clients appreciated that transparency. She didn’t mind having tough conversations when she needed to, and she was good about coming alongside and teaching and supporting me in doing the same.
I also have to say that both of my brothers have been mentors to me. I’m the youngest of three. I have worked with and for my middle brother, Connor Bales, though he ended up getting into ministry full-time. He has a landscape architecture degree as his background, so I learned a lot about design from him. But I also learned a lot about how to deal with people; How to handle adversity up close and personal really well and do it with honor and dignity and in a Christ-like manner.
Then my oldest brother, Jayson Bales, is a financial planner. I learned so much about driving sales and how to develop relationships from him. No matter what the sales proposition is, it’s more about the relationship you’re building. If you build the right relationships, business can come from that. But even when it doesn’t, you’ve learned a lot. I also consider him extremely wise and someone who can give pause and consider the big picture. He helped me understand the bigger picture things in life and appreciate what God has provided.
The last person I’d say that has been a true mentor for me in my business—and we’re in the process of transitioning ownership from him to myself—is the founder of the company, Marc Funderburk. He has just been such an inspiration. The way he thinks about clients and their needs is so thoughtful and intentional. It’s always with the clients’ best interest and looking out for them first and foremost. A lot of people talk about that, but not everyone follows through. I’ve also learned a tremendous amount on the people side of the business. I don’t know of anyone who is more caring and loving and compassionate toward people, which is all part of his innate nature. He’s slow to speak and methodical and thoughtful about what he says. To sit under his tutelage has been so rewarding.
What is your favorite business book?
Right now, the book that I’m reading, which has already taught me a lot, is “Systematic Theology” by Wayne Grudem. I also read my Bible every day, which teaches me so much about how I should act in life and in business. Christ came for my imperfections and I try to remember that every day.
What does it mean to you to be the NALP Young Entrepreneur of the Year?
It’s a tremendous honor to be NALP’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year. I just feel so much gratitude because it certainly validates a lot of my efforts and hard work over the years. Hopefully, it also validates others around me for what they’ve poured into me or shown me. I find a lot of pride and satisfaction and joy from this award because it drives me to continue in that entrepreneurial spirit and hopefully pass on my passions to others in this industry. It reminds me why I’m in this business in the first place.
In five years where do you see your business going and where will you be?
I see a lot of growth with LandPatterns in next five years not only on the bottom line but also amongst our people. We want to provide opportunities for our people to grow both professionally and personally. It’s also so important that our people have a good work/life balance. So, in five years, I plan to be right here. Sitting at the helm and walking alongside a team of amazing individuals who are the ones making the wheels go around. My strength is putting people who are better than me around me—to do the job right. I hope to still do that: Put a team of individuals in the field and in the office around me who know how to do the work and do it well. I want to steward this well for Christ and for our organization as a whole.