John Vlay doesn’t hesitate when asked what his toughest challenge in business has been.

“That’s an easy one. It was the recession,” says Vlay, executive vice president of Jensen Landscape Holdings. “I’ve been doing this since 1983 with the same company, Jensen, and I’ve seen the ups and downs of the economy, but nothing like the Great Recession we had in 2009, ‘10, ‘11. It was tough to let people go, even though it had to be done, and it was tough not getting paid by companies that went bankrupt, which we had no control over.”

L&L spoke with Vlay about what he learned during that difficult time.

L&L: Do you remember any specific moments during the recession that stuck with you?

JV: The one thing was we had an outside board member and he was very helpful at the time because he said something that has stuck with me – “You’ve got to cut deeper than you think you have to and you have to do it sooner than you think you have to.”

In hindsight, he was absolutely correct. I think that was a good lesson learned for when the next downturn hits. You just have to go the appropriate amount based on the revenue you project coming in and what your cost structure is. It’s all about right-sizing.

L&L: What advice do you have for someone in a similar situation?

JV: Always treat your employees with respect and know that they’re there to make a living for themselves, their family and to provide a service to the company. We go up and down according to the economy and when people have to be let go, it’s not a personal thing, it’s unfortunately the economy or the way the business is happening with outside factors.

One thing we’ve done to try to alleviate that is being diversified. We service a lot of different markets and our ability to jump from commercial to public works on the construction side, and also high-end residential has helped buffer the downturn in the past.

So, I think because on the construction side we are in – we do public works, we do high-end residential and we do commercial – whereas a lot of our competitors, they will focus on just one of those markets, we can focus on all three.

When the commercial market shrinks, we can bolster up the high-end residential or the public works. That helped us get through the recession better than some other companies.

L&L: Where is that line between being good at many things instead of great at one?

JV: I think we are great at many things. When it comes to custom residential, commercial and public works, it’s really a team approach that we’re ultimately working for the customer, which is the landscape architect, the general contractor, the developer, the owner, the property manager.

The way we look at it is landscape services, whether it’s construction or maintenance, we want to really take care of that customer and utilize our horticultural expertise.

Where we do draw the line is we don’t do smaller residences, single-family homes. We don’t do design work.

We don’t have any landscape architects on staff because we partner with landscape architects that we’ve got 20, 25, 30 years of experience with, and we feel they are some of our best salespeople when they recommend us to work on their projects.

Interviewed by Brian Horn