Before coming to work for Utopian Landscapes LLC full-time, Terra Phelps, the “handler” (because she “handles it all”) had already been consulting on various jobs and tasks. As the wife of Nikos Phelps, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania-based company’s founder and co-owner, she’d offer design advice or contribute to projects, even though she was working for the federal government full-time. But Phelps was falling in love with the industry behind the scenes. When the opportunity arose to come work for Utopian full-time, she took the leap. Today, she manages human resources, client relations, marketing and design in a role that truly encompasses a little bit of everything. NALP recently caught up with Phelps to find out more about how she tackles daily challenges and establishes work-life balance.
Utopican Landscapes LLC
Company: Utopian Landscapes
Headquarters: Harrisburg, Pennsylvania
Year Founded: 2008
Client Mix: 85% residential; 15% commercial
Services Offered: 40% design/build, 20% landscape management, 40% holiday lighting
Business Motto: Imagine your Utopia
What’s your proudest moment in business?
We recently had an annual sit down with one of our team members. I knew his background story compared to where he is today. He’s one of our best team members who our clients rave about. And I felt so proud. We took a chance on him when he came on board a few years ago. We’ve seen him grow in his personal life and professionally. His story is both remarkable and humbling. It made me realize how special it is to be able to offer a solid position to someone, be here for them and to see what they can become as a result of it.
What has been your biggest business challenge?
Boundaries—which means more than one thing. For one, I work with my husband, and that makes establishing boundaries important. For example, we put a stop to discussing work after we leave the office. Creating that work-life balance—that mental boundary between work and home life—is essential when you operate a business with your spouse.
But also, being a small business, establishing boundaries with team members and clients is also so important. I feel like there are difficult lines to navigate when you want to treat your team like family, but you are also running a business. There must be standards and we must be consistent. I’ve had to adapt. I’ve had to toughen up a lot and to learn to say, “No.” I’m not a confrontational person and I’m also very empathetic so if someone is experiencing a problem, I always want to “rescue” them. But sometimes the best course of action is to let them learn from their mistake—not fix it for them. I’m learning it’s a continuous challenge to navigate.
What motivates you on a Monday morning?
The fresh start to the week is my biggest motivation. We work a 4-10 schedule (four 10-hour days), so on Monday the team has had three days to rest and recover from the previous week of work. That generally means everyone comes in truly ready to work with fresh perspective. As management, we work half-day Fridays. I think having that clean slate and plenty of rest is a great start to our work week. It’s another key to work-life balance for everyone.
How do you tackle daily stress to make it easier to establish work-life balance?
I did a sprint triathlon last year and started figure skating. I found that physical fitness is essential for my mental health and overall work-life balance. When I’m swimming or skating, I don’t have the bandwidth to worry or think about anything else. It’s my way of meditating.
Who is your business mentor or idol and why?
I don’t have one that stands out, but I have tried to learn something from everyone. Whether it’s an example of what I aspire to be or someone who shows me how NOT to be. I have taken bits and pieces of knowledge from each of them and learned that no one is perfect. In my most recent job, prior to Utopian, I served for a Colonel. Despite his high rank, he never treated anyone as though they were beneath him. I learned a lot about how to treat employees from him.
What is your favorite business book?
I listen to Ted Talks when I can. I also find that there’s a lot information in general, out there, in fiction, self-improvement books, and online. Even though they aren’t always industry-specific, I still find parallels quite relevant to running a landscape business. I try to learn lessons from life in general.
What does it mean to you to be a landscape professional?
This industry humbles me, and it thrills me to be a part of it. It is so gratifying and versatile and fun. No day is ever exactly the same. I love and respect so many men and women who work in this industry. But, for us, the ones with their boots on the ground each day, doing the work, are why we’re able to be here. I never lose sight that they’re the ones who have the ability to make or break us. We respect them so much for the hard work they do.
What does it mean to you to be a member of NALP?
It’s a lot like having a VIP membership to be part of NALP. It’s the inside of the industry and it’s filled with people who are inspiring and passionate. I meet so many great people at LANDSCAPES who are always willing to share advice or offer their wisdom about the industry.
Where do you see your business in five years? Where will you be?
This is a business that’s part of an ever-changing landscape, pun intended. I take a step back every six months and evaluate where we’re at—how our team is doing, what are clients are in need of and what we’re working toward. Things are constantly evolving and we’re always looking to fill voids in our local market. What that could mean in five years could be totally different than what it means today. We’re always exploring our options and looking at ways we can provide better longevity for our team members. We want this to be a destination company; not a stepping stone.