“I believe when you look good, you feel good, you act good,” says Tony Nasrallah, owner of Ground Works Land Design in Cleveland, Ohio.
All photos: © Mal McCrea

Dressing up was never a problem for Tony Nasrallah.

From a full suit for Sunday church to the ties he wore for every school picture between kindergarten and high school, Nasrallah says he saw the value in looking good early on in life. So, when he started his company, Ground Works Land Design, in 2009, he immediately implemented uniforms that have evolved from a basic T-shirt to slick polos and button-down shirts.

When he brings new potential hires into his office in Cleveland, Nasrallah stresses the importance of a first impression. Fair or not, he says people follow the cliché of judging books by their covers — and those impressions stick for time to come.

“Years later, I’d see teachers who said I looked sharp wearing my shirt and ties,” he says. “I believe when you look good, you feel good, you act good.”

Today, Ground Works doesn’t simply hand its employees a T-shirt and call it a day with their uniforms: Their set of apparel is sophisticated, as they have partnerships with L.L. Bean and Adidas and have uniforms with primary and secondary colors. They even design T-shirts with local artists for employees to wear on weekends or when they’re off the clock, or for big company events like their annual cookout.

“We’ve always kind of approached the industry with a different eye,” said Joseph Stark, the company’s marketing director. “Tony wasn’t grandfathered into the industry or anything like that, so he had no preexisting ideas of a red truck landscaping perception or anything like that, so we were able to do it our own way.”

Tony Nasrallah and Joseph Stark (pictured above) have prioritized uniforms at Ground Works Land Design, which they both say has helped them land desirable clients.

BUCKING THE TREND.

Nasrallah says Ground Works aims for clients who will pay big money for landscaping, so it’s important to dress the part. Showing up in ratty T-shirts and ripped jeans to bid on jobs won’t get you any work, he says. He also says landscapers are not only bidding against other companies in the industry, but the industry stigmas themselves. There’s this prevailing idea that landscaping is a dirty job done by slobs, he says, and he wants to help buck that trend.

“I want to bring class to this industry. People look down on landscapers,” he says. “When you go to high-end restaurants, people are wearing bow ties. Those are the type of clients that we want. We want people who are going to appreciate and respect landscapers who are dressed well.”

To pull it off, the Ground Works team budgeted somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000 for new uniforms. Stark admits the investment is large, but he says they’ve valued the uniforms greatly enough to justify the expenditure.

Bill Smith, a branch manager at Grassmaster Plus in Massachusetts, acknowledges landscaping is a dirty job. They provide their employees six T-shirts on rotation, so they have a clean shirt to wear each day they work, while giving them the opportunity to wash the clothes on Sundays. In total, it costs them about $2,000 annually.

“You open up your closet and you see your work stuff and the stuff you’re going to wear on the weekend. Why can’t we intersect the two things and be really proud of (your company)?” Joseph Stark, marketing director, Ground Works Land Design

“It’s not a business that you stay clean in, but if you start the day clean… the attitude of the technician is better,” he says. “They identify with the colors, with the uniform itself. And customers have a higher comfort level because they see the truck pull up and the guy get out in full uniform as opposed to the ripped jeans, the hood up, etc.”

Smith estimates Grassmaster does 80% commercial work, so he also reiterates the importance of appearance. In some cases, they actually need to follow state guidelines with their uniforms, as technicians handling chemicals need to wear long sleeves. They wear a moisture-wicking pullover with the logo placed on the breast and on the back, plus some dark green hoodies with the logo on the front and back as well.

When his employees show up for work in the morning, Smith says there’s “definitely a look” he gives them, glancing over each to ensure the uniform is straightened out and looks sharp.

“I look at every employee as they come in,” he says. “They’re not allowed to go out without a belt. They have to have the hat on straight forward. There’s no cutting sleeves or opening up the necklines. (The uniform) has to be as given to them.”

For Smith, it all ties into Nasrallah’s principle belief: If you feel good, you’ll act good, which means the clients will pay good. This year, the average project earned $160,000 at Ground Works, and Nasrallah says part of it had to do with the company’s appearance.

“We want people to look at us as professionals, treat us like professionals and pay us like professionals,” Nasrallah says.

A SEAMLESS START.

Rachel Kukhahn has owned her company, Premier Landcare in the state of Washington, for just over two years, but at previous companies, uniforms were important there, too. She doesn’t want any clients wondering who’s creeping around on their porch or standing in their yards – uniforms bring a sense of identity for the employees.

“I like the clean look of it,” she says. “I like that all of my guys are identifiable on site.”

Kukhahn says she’s a small enough company that she can afford to pay for all of her team’s uniforms, which includes five shirts, five pairs of pants, a hat and a coat. Meanwhile, Nasrallah provides all of their team’s uniforms as well, and he says it costs more to recruit and retain employees than it would be buying uniforms, so he wants to keep all of his roughly 25 employees happy. Smith says he purchases all but the pants for the employees.

“It’s not a business that you stay clean in, but if you start the day clean… the attitude of the technician is better.” Bill Smith, branch manager, Grassmaster Plus in Massachusetts

Smith adds that he understands why some companies have their employees purchase their own uniforms – it can bring an emphasis on keeping those uniforms spotless, for example. But he wants to ensure starting at his company is as seamless as possible.

“It’s no money out of their pocket. A lot of times when we get a new hire and they’re starting on the entry level, they may not have the cash to go out and buy something that we’re pretty much dictating what they’re going to be able to get,” Smith says. “It takes some pressure off of them. They view it as a benefit.”

Replacing the uniforms is something else employers need to consider, as the uniforms go through plenty of wear and tear out in the field. Smith says it’s pretty common that he’ll walk past an employee, take off his beat-up, worn hat, and hand him a new one. Kukhahn says even sun exposure is something to consider, as she replaces a T-shirt or two each year from each employee because the sun washes out their “Seahawks-ish” colors of dark blue and green.

But she doesn’t let ripping uniforms become a reason why employees don’t wear them. She says she’s had to talk with her employees several times over the last two years about making sure the uniform looks good before they head out into the field.

“Trying to enforce the uniform is a challenge at times as well,” Kukhahn says. “I’ve heard a lot of excuses as to why they didn’t wear their uniforms, like the buttons fell off all of his pants, or the seams ripped out of all of his pants. It just gets creative. You name it, it’s been used.”

TAKING IT PERSONALLY.

Stark says uniforms have always been important at Ground Works, but now that they’ve implemented the marketing department, they can make it a focus. He’s been on the staff for less than a year, but he’s noticed in previous pictures that the company has made uniforms a “walking advertisement” for several years prior.

“You open up your closet and you see your work stuff and the stuff you’re going to wear on the weekend,” he says. “Why can’t we intersect the two things and be really proud of (your company)? It comes from this idea of blending work and play.”

Nasrallah says uniforms matter so much to him and the Ground Works team because they take it personally – in a good way.

“They’re representing Ground Works when they’re out there, and their representation is a reflection of who I am and the company culture,” Nasrallah says.

For Smith, uniforms are also about having his team buy in to the company culture. It’s somewhat like an athlete wearing his or her team’s uniform for the first time: Though it’s probably a little less exciting than that, it is fulfilling, especially when the employees are proud to don that company apparel.

“I think when we present that as part of our interview that we supply the uniforms, there’s not a big reaction at the interview process,” Smith says. “Once they’re in and we hand them their uniforms though, it just makes you feel like you’re part of the team.”