When Kate Wright started Bloom’n Gardens in 2005, she “thought it was just going to be some extra mowing on the weekends.” She didn’t know she’d soon quit her job to focus on the growing company, which celebrated its 11th anniversary last year with more than a dozen employees and $1 million in annual revenue.
Before then, she never envisioned starting her own business. In fact, landscaping wasn’t even on her radar when she started college in her home state of Maine with a major in civil engineering. After a year and a half of high-level math classes, she realized it wasn’t a fit, and took a semester of eclectic courses to find her calling. She fell in love with landscape design and changed her major to horticulture.
Her path changed again when she passed by an Army recruiting center where a sign read, “Opportunities for women in the Army.” The man inside must have had a compelling pitch, because 45 days later she was stationed with the Army in El Paso. Three months after that, she married him.
After finishing their service, they finished their degrees – David in microbiology, and Kate in botany, because the University of Texas didn’t offer horticulture. They moved back to Maine, where Kate began post-graduate work in molecular plant pathology and realized she didn’t want to be in a lab anymore. They decided it was time to go get “real jobs,” and moved to Atlanta, where David grew up.
A job ad from a landscaping firm in the newspaper caught Kate’s attention, and she landed a job as an assistant crew leader on a residential maintenance mowing crew. After a couple of years, she went back to school for another semester, before returning to the field with another landscaping company, where she spent eight years working her way through maintenance account management and enhancement sales. There, she found opportunity.
“The company had a policy not to go outside a certain distance, and I had a client with one small property that he’d been asking me to do for years, because the company wouldn’t travel that far and I happened to live on that side of town,” she says. “Finally, my husband and I agreed to mow it, so that’s how it all started. Then that property turned into another property and we were able to hire a guy, and then another guy, and it organically grew from there.”
Last year, Bloom’n Gardens’ maintenance division grew 60 percent from about $250,000 to almost $400,000 – shifting the overall balance to about 45 percent maintenance and 55 percent installation. Most (90 percent) of the company’s maintenance work is residential, including HOAs, which account for half of its maintenance work.
Like Wright’s early growth, the recent spurt came through referrals from a property manager she knows. “He used to recommend us to smaller 10-home communities that might only have a few hundred dollars a month in maintenance,” she says. “We got to a size last year where he felt more comfortable recommending us to large, multi-unit properties with good-sized maintenance costs.”
This year, Bloom’n Gardens is pushing for even more growth, with a goal of increasing revenue another 25 percent. To achieve this, the company is “targeting areas closer to home so we can not only increase our revenue, but decrease our production time,” says Wright, who’s planning a direct mail campaign to target homes in a nearby upscale neighborhood. “We spend a lot of time on the road servicing a wider area,” she says. “We’re not going to discontinue service at those homes; we’re just trying to make sure that our future growth is closer so we don’t have to spend so much time driving.”
While maintenance growth is scalable, “of course, your installs are where you make a lot of revenue,” she says. “I would like to do more installation, but it takes a lot of my energy because I’m the only person in the company who does the designs.”
Until last year, she did all the sales, business management and customer service, too, but Wright realizes she can’t keep doing it all if she wants to keep growing.
“I’ve got to find and develop people in my company that can give customers the same feeling I give them.” Kate Wright, owner
“Realistically, for us to get where we want to be this year, we’ve got to get other people to start taking more responsibility,” she says. “Right now, Bloom’n Gardens is pretty much my personality. A lot of people hire us not because we have the best price, but because they like me. We’re trying to change that, because if my personality is so closely tied to the company, I can’t take a vacation. I’ve got to find and develop people in my company that can give customers the same feeling I give them.”
Cultivating future leaders.
Trust is critical to delegation, so Wright started with someone she trusted: her husband. After retiring from his job in corporate HR three years ago, David began helping behind the scenes before joining the company as vice president of business management. He handles back-office activities and is also spearheading the company’s software transition.
One of the maintenance crew members is also stepping into the role of account manager, taking on more responsibility for customer service and quality control.
“Sometimes you end up with people who have an innate sense of putting customers at ease. He tends to build rapport very easily and create friendships with our customers,” Wright says. “But crews don’t always have that.”
To help with the customer experience, Bloom’n Gardens is doing more formal training and creating procedures. The company is also transitioning to get customers to recognize managers as roles of authority.
“We talk a lot about follow-through, listening to the customer, taking time to go the extra mile, putting yourself in the place of the homeowner when you pull up so you see what they see on the property,” she says.
“We don’t have any scripts we require people to follow, but we constantly talk about how we should be treating our customers, and then I keep my eyes open for training moments.”
For example, Wright’s truck got muddy picking up plants one day, but she couldn’t go through the carwash until the bed was emptied out. She asked a couple of employees to clean the sticks and debris from the back of her truck. They did – except for one stick and a pile of sawdust.
“I brought them over and said, ‘Look, this is why we talk about follow-through. Why would you leave one stick?’” Wright says.
To emphasize the company’s focus on service, Bloom’n Gardens hired a customer relationship manager this spring. The new hire is no stranger to Kate’s personality or David’s eye for detail because she’s their daughter. After earning her horticulture degree and working in the cut flower industry, while managing Bloom’n Gardens’ social media on the side, she decided to join the family business. She’ll send notifications before crews arrive, follow up afterward with satisfaction surveys, and continue to manage social media.
After a winter of training focused on customer service, and several new positions dedicated to managing customer relationships online and in the field, Wright expects continued growth in 2017 – hopefully enough to justify an additional salesperson.
“We’re setting (customer service expectations) in place and training the guys on what to do,” she says. “If we ever want the company to continue to run the way that we want it to run while we’re gone, this has to be our focus.”