Clayton Graham of Sundance Landscape Maintenance in Arizona.
Photos courtesy of Sundance Landscape Maintenance

Three shocking words – “you have cancer” – changed Mark Graham’s life forever. Diagnosed with bladder cancer about seven years ago, at age 59, he decided to step away from his landscaping business to focus on his health. “It wasn’t an easy decision,” he says, “but it needed to be made.”

Even without a formal succession plan in place, operations continued smoothly at Sundance Landscape Maintenance as Mark’s son, Clayton, took the reins. Though only 25 at the time, Clayton had spent more than a decade working alongside his father, both in the field and in the office. In fact, he’d been telling his dad for years that he felt ready to take over the family business. This unexpected change left them no choice.

“There wasn’t a long transition period,” Clayton says. “We went from zero to a hundred relatively quickly. He just let go of the reins and let me take over.”

Initially, they kept news of the diagnosis within the family, so Clayton didn’t really have anyone to rely on within the company. Fortunately, the cancer was caught early, so that was a little bit of a weight taken off Clayton’s back. But still, between his father having cancer and now leading a company at age 25, it was a lot to manage.

“I just felt like I needed to be strong for my whole family ... being mentally strong and just taking the reins and giving him less stuff to worry about so he can focus on getting healthy,” Clayton says.

Applying all the lessons he’d learned from his dad through the years, Clayton navigated the transition into the second generation and doubled the size of the company from $2.5 million to $5 million within three years. Of course, the expansion didn’t come without growing pains or push back.

Clayton Graham took over Sundance Landscape Maintenance after his father, Mark, right, was diagnosed with cancer seven years ago.

Bonding time.

Mark started Sundance in 1982 “with just a pickup, a small trailer and a $500 loan from his father,” Clayton says. At first, Mark offered landscaping services as an extension of his apartment maintenance work, but since he was interested and educated in horticulture, he naturally gravitated toward landscaping until it became his sole service. He incorporated Sundance Landscape Maintenance in 1985.

Initially, Mark maintained apartment complexes and commercial buildings. Then, he landed a large HOA in Phoenix, and later, another in Scottsdale.

He shifted his focus to HOA landscape maintenance, and Sundance settled into this niche.

Clayton began joining his dad in the field around age 10. “I remember back in the day, he had an old dump truck that was a stick shift, and he’d let me sit in the middle of the seat and shift the gears,” Clayton recalls. “I loved going to work with him.”

As Clayton got older, he got more involved in different aspects of the business as he eagerly observed his dad. “He’d take me out in the field and we’d go look at jobs. He’d have me come up with everything that we needed for the bid, and he’d come up with his notes, and then we would compare them,” Clayton says. “It wasn’t necessarily formal teaching or training, but I learned a lot just by spending time with him and seeing how he handled situations.”

By the time Mark received his diagnosis, Clayton was working in the field about three days a week and working in the office every other day to learn the administrative side of the business. He was also taking accounting courses at a local community college. Since Clayton had dedicated himself to learning the trade, Mark felt more confident passing the torch in 2013.

“It was a natural fit,” Mark says. “I felt good about it because he’d spent a lot of time with me absorbing everything he could.”

Mark Graham says he started Sundance Landscape Maintenance in 1982 with a pickup, trailer and a $500 loan from his father.

Building credibility.

Although Clayton could take on his father’s role in the company, his relatively young age required extra rapport. By then, he was already handling many of the company’s long-term clients, so that wasn’t the issue. The challenge was establishing his credibility internally with some employees.

“I had some pushback from the older employees who had been around for a long time, but they knew that I had put in my sweat and done everything they do out in the field,” Clayton says. “Where I had the biggest struggle and the most pushback was the guys who hadn’t been around very long, who just thought I was some silver spoon-fed baby that gets everything handed to me.”

To combat those misconceptions from employees who hadn’t seen him laboring alongside his father in the field for 15 years, Clayton had to get his hands dirty.

“I try to get out in the field and work with the guys occasionally, just to show them that I can do this, too,” says Clayton, a certified arborist, spray technician and Arizona Certified Landscape Professional (ACLP) who doesn’t hesitate to pitch in on jobsites. “I think that has helped a lot with employee morale, because I’m not just telling them what to do; I’m out there in the trenches with them.”

He also had one-on-one conversations with those employees to explain his history with the company, which showed them he had the experience and knowledge to lead the business.

“Usually how it would happen is I would be out on a jobsite and I would jump in and help out with something and or give them some guidance on something and… they would just be surprised that I would just jump in and do it,” Clayton says. “Then they would start asking me about stuff and I would give them the history on how things came to be.”

Clayton also made an effort to increase his visibility with clients, showing them that he’s actively involved in the business.

“I spent a lot of time building relationships with our clients,” says Clayton, who takes clients out for lunch or golf regularly. He even instituted quarterly mixers where the Sundance team meets clients for happy hour, raffling off gift cards and other prizes while they socialize together.

At least once a year, Clayton visits each client at their property to make sure they’re happy. He also encourages clients to call him directly if any issues pop up.

“I always make myself personally available to all of our clients,” he says. “It’s one of those things that really goes a long way.”

Of course, results helped win employees over. After about 60 days, the business was running smoother than it had before.

“People weren’t having to ask over and over for equipment and things like that,” Clayton says. “I got it to where it was a well-oiled machine.”

But for the first couple of years taking over, his focus wasn’t on growing the company. The goal was to keep the company operating at a steady pace.

“Then, once I felt comfortable operating the business and learned how to deal with certain situations from employees and clients and felt confident enough, that’s when I started going out and really pushing and doing sales and that sort of stuff to grow the business,” he says.

“I’m not just telling them what to do; I’m out there in the trenches.” Clayton Graham, Sundance president

Marketing growth.

One way to grow the business was to invest in marketing.

Before he committed his career to the family business, Clayton thought about going into marketing or graphic design. So naturally, when he took over Sundance, one of his first initiatives was ramping up the company’s marketing efforts.

First, he started attending trade shows for his community management clients, put on by organizations like the Arizona Association of Community Managers and the Community Associations Institute.

“The first year we did trade shows, I ran into a lot of my dad’s old clients. They thought we’d gone out of business, just because my dad hadn’t been marketing,” Clayton says. “The biggest part of our initial growth was just getting back out there and having a presence.”

Then, Clayton started advertising in community management trade magazines to reach more HOA clients. He also launched Sundance’s first website, got involved on social media and started sending monthly email newsletters about seasonal maintenance issues and services.

But the most effective marketing has been leave-behind brochures – and the goodies that accompany them.

“We printed up some flyers and notepads and pens, so every couple weeks, I’ll make the rounds to different management companies and drop off a box of donuts, some notepads, pens and brochures,” Clayton says. “Believe it or not, we get more (responses from that) than anything else we do.”

“Don’t micromanage people you believe in.” Mark Graham, former Sundance president

Moving up.

Unfortunately, that much growth triggers growing pains. As business picked up, Sundance’s yard seemed to get smaller and smaller.

In fact, the company’s property did shrink over time. It was a full acre when they first bought the land, but after the city widened the street and developed a neighborhood next door, easements reduced the property to about three-quarters of an acre.

“It was extremely tight trying to cram all our trucks and equipment in there,” Clayton says. “We had to be very diligent with how we moved things around the yard, and we really had to focus on safety.”

The business soon outgrew the on-site office and moved to a separate location away from the yard. That put a bigger strain on Clayton, as he hustled back and forth between the office and the yard daily, “losing a bunch of time in between,” he says. Communication suffered as a result, dragging morale down with it.

“Moving off-site was tough because there’s a communication barrier when you do everything through phone or email. There’s no personal interaction,” Clayton says. “There’d be weeks at a time when I wouldn’t see my field employees, which didn’t help morale. I’d go out to the yard and I’d be trying to load something heavy into my truck, and employees would just walk by me.”

Then, Clayton found the solution on an old junkyard nearby on an acre and a half. He purchased the property in February 2019, sold the old location, and overhauled the space to make way for Sundance’s growing operations.

It took a full month to clean up the property, which equated to “eight 40-yard roll-off dumpsters filled with trash, and then two more full of scrap metal,” Clayton says, “not including all the old junk cars we towed away.”

Thankfully, he had some assistance from his father, who rejoined the business with his cancer in remission to help Sundance move to the new location.

“It’s been an awesome change because now we have plenty of room to move around,” says Clayton, who’s especially excited about the on-site dump area where trucks can load trash directly into 40-yard dumpsters. “We’re able to save a huge amount of production time, because trucks can get held up for hours at the dumps. Having that here has also allowed us to save money on fuel as well, and direct dump costs have gone down $40,000.”

“That division has grown like crazy because it’s one of those things I’m passionate about.” Clayton Graham, president

Charging forward.

After staying steady around $5 million for a few years, Sundance is on track to break $6 million this year as Clayton continues to hone the company’s services.

“Since becoming a certified arborist, I’ve put a lot of focus into our tree care division,” he says, which offers services from trimming and mapping to removals. “That division has grown like crazy because it’s one of those things I’m passionate about.”

Clayton says even during COVID-19 the company has been busy, and it’s only a lack of quality labor stopping further growth.

Looking ahead, Clayton sees ongoing growth potential in tree management as housing communities continue to enhance their treescapes. “They keep planting more trees, and trees keep growing, so it’s one of those things that will always need maintenance,” he says. “That’s going to be a constant.”

Mark, now 65 and nearing retirement, is impressed with the growth that Clayton, 31, has already achieved. The key, he says, was simply letting go and giving his son the reins to drive growth.

“Don’t micromanage people you believe in,” Mark says. “You have to trust them and have confidence to let them do their thing. Everybody has their own management style, and his seems to be working pretty well.”

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio. Editor Brian Horn contributed to this story.