Barry, left, and Mark, right, launched Burkholder Brothers out of Barry’s house in 1996.
Photos courtesy of Burkholder Brothers

As third-generation entrepreneurs, Mark and Barry Burkholder have a long history in the landscaping industry. But the founders of Burkholder Brothers had to learn for themselves how to grow beyond the family business.

During World War II, John Burkholder started Ace Tree Surgery. In 1965, his son Bill followed suit by starting his own tree company called Acme Tree Service, later supplementing his small team with summer help from his sons: Barry, Eric and Mark.

“Working for our dad was one of the best things we ever did,” Mark says. “We learned the industry, but more importantly, he taught us how to work hard with a good work ethic.”

Barry joined the family business first. After attending Penn State University (his father’s alma mater) to earn a landscape contracting degree, he started a landscaping division at his father’s company in 1992.

Mark was next to earn a landscape contracting degree from Penn State. Just before graduation, he teamed up with Barry and they split from Acme to start their own landscaping company, Burkholder Brothers, in 1996.

“There were no hard feelings; it just made sense to do our separate thing,” Mark says. “My dad’s business was in an area where there were a lot of smaller homes with huge trees. People had to spend money on their trees but when we tried to sell landscapes, they didn’t want to spend any money.”

Expanding services.

Mark and Barry launched Burkholder Brothers out of Barry’s house, 30 minutes from Acme and closer to the high-end residential landscape projects they needed. Eric took over (and eventually sold) Acme. Burkholder Brothers diversified out of the gate. Spotting an early opportunity in sprinklers, they built an irrigation division into the company as a separate brand.

Mark and Barry created their company because they wanted to focus on high-end residential projects instead of the smaller clients their dad’s tree company had.

“When we incorporated Burkholder Brothers, we filed a trade name as Sir Sprinkler,” Mark says. “Back then, there were very few irrigation contractors around, so most of the work we got was from other landscapers. We thought it didn’t look right to have a landscape truck pull up to install a sprinkler system for another landscape company, so we wanted a separate name on our trucks.”

Mark oversaw Sir Sprinkler while Barry handled landscape projects.

“Too much growth, like the year we grew 19 percent, gets out of control. I prefer to be in the 8 to 10 percent growth range per year.” – Mark Burkholder, Burkholder Brothers

“I had my own guys; he had his own guys. It was almost like two separate companies under one roof,” Mark says. “We realized it was counterproductive because Sir Sprinkler clients didn’t know we did landscaping and landscape clients didn’t know we were Sir Sprinkler. It hurt us in the long run because we couldn’t cross-market, so we took a step back and rebranded as one company. We kept the separate names, but tried to reflect the size of our company in our marketing materials.”

They continued diversifying and cross-selling to give clients a wider scope of landscaping services – including pools and spas, landscape lighting, patios, fire pits, pergolas and other hardscapes. The biggest service expansion came in 2007, when they purchased their first mower and entered lawn maintenance, which sustained the company through the Recession, and now makes up 50 percent of its revenue.

The brothers still divide their responsibilities along service lines. Barry focuses on project management, sales and marketing, while Mark, as general manager, oversees maintenance and irrigation.

They employ about 60 people, with 15 in sales, management and administration, and the remaining 45 split between installation (hardscape, planting, sprinklers, lighting) and maintenance. Of those 45, about 25 positions are filled by H-2B workers. While most employees are dedicated to specific services, seasoned crew members are cross-trained. For example, when sprinkler installations lull, Sir Sprinkler’s crew switches to aeration and overseeding.

Growth control.

Burkholder Brothers has grown between 8 and 19 percent annually since 2012. The company ended 2015 with $4.3 million in revenue, and it’s on track to surpass $5 million this year.

“Too much growth, like the year we grew 19 percent, gets out of control. I prefer to be in the 8-10 percent growth range per year,” Mark says. “We shoot for as much growth as possible in project sales because it doesn’t take much more equipment or guys to get more projects done. But on the maintenance side, where there’s lower profits, you’ve got to buy more mowers, buy more trucks, and find guys to do it. That’s where we’ve tried not to grow too much.”

Burkholder Brothers continues to cross-sell and give clients a wide range of service options.

They control growth by closely analyzing their financials, setting clear goals for each department and even opening the books to managers.

“The financial plan is an open book to our guys, and they can see where every penny is spent and made,” Mark says. “Once we started sharing that information, it has really empowered our guys to use that information to make decisions. I see a big difference in the way they think and spend money and track their crews’ hours to minimize overtime. Being able to see that information really gives them a vision.”

Moving up.

When it comes to growth, Mark says the biggest challenge is finding hardworking employees. While H-2B workers help fill seasonal needs, the Burkholders learned that the key to recruiting and retaining good talent locally is providing career path opportunities. For example, all five maintenance managers started out in the field.

“They don’t want to be stuck in the same positions; they want to keep growing,” Mark says. “So, last year we started two locations to give the managers more opportunities to manage and grow their own location.”

After working out of an 8,000-square-foot building on a congested half-acre lot in Aston, Pennsylvania, Burkholder Brothers purchased a 9-acre property with more visibility in Malvern, half an hour away. They consolidated into half of the Aston building and rented out the rest, giving themselves “room for growth out of that location.” Crews there focus on nearby maintenance accounts, with occasional project work from cross-sales.

The project division moved to Malvern in April 2016, with plans to build a design center opening in spring 2017, featuring displays with patios, fire pits and other examples of their work.

The company is partnering with an existing nursery on the property to expand customers’ shopping options.

Though focused on projects, the new location also runs maintenance crews to service nearby accounts, making Burkholder Brothers more efficient as it grows.

“It’s unbelievable how much closer this new location is to where we do the majority of our work,” Mark says. “Our biggest expense is guys sitting in a truck driving around, so it makes sense for us to have both locations to minimize drive times to jobs.”