Photos courtesy of Jackie Ishimaru-Gachina

Jackie Ishimaru-Gachina never intended to run the landscape company she and her husband, John, founded in 1988. But after John faced his third bout with cancer and died in 2015, she was left with a choice: step up and run the business, or acquiesce to the countless offers to buy it and cash in on the decades of work.

Ishimaru-Gachina had worked as an adviser to the company and sounding board for John – her official title was co-owner – but had not served in any hands-on capacity. And she had big shoes to fill: John was gregarious and a tireless advocate for his employees, often giving them cash to cover car payments or unexpected medical bills, and giving them their jobs back after they were fired or left of their own accord.

After he died, the company also lost its general manager and a key branch manager, adding further turmoil to an already uncertain situation. Many in the industry assumed Ishimaru-Gachina would sell – a $30-million company in a thriving Northern California market would be a prize.

But she didn’t. She decided to step up, dig in and take the reins of the business, leading it out of one of the most difficult transitions it had yet experienced.

‘A TAILSPIN.’

John passed away in December of 2015. A few months later, in February 2016, the general manager that he had hired and groomed to succeed him in retirement, Craig Van Dorp, resigned over differences on how to run and grow the company. Ishimaru-Gachina stepped in as president and CEO, and then in April, one of her branch managers left as well.

The Gachinas: from left, Dominic, John, Jackie and Michael. After John’s death in 2015, Jackie stepped up to run the $30-million company in part to make sure it thrives until Dominic, 22, and Michael, 25, can take over as leaders in their own right.

Ellen Ely, a human resources consultant for many years with Gachina – and who gave John’s eulogy at his funeral – said the sudden departure of Van Dorp surprised everyone.

“John’s passing wasn’t sudden or unexpected,” Ely says. “What was is that the GM quit. That put it into a tailspin.”

So Ishimaru-Gachina, still reeling from the death of her husband, faced spring at the helm of a $30-million company with almost 400 employees missing two key managers and competitors that wanted to buy up her company and all her talent.

She pulled her senior and middle managers into a room and told them she had decided to step in as CEO, and that she hoped they would all stay on. But she wasn’t sure they would.

“They didn’t know me. Because the most that they had ever heard about me was that I raised two sons and that I rode a horse,” Ishimaru-Gachina says. “You know, there was no mention before of any experience that I had that I could do the job. And so, rightly so, they were skeptical. And so, it really took about six months for them to feel comfortable with me and believe that I could lead this company.”

TRANSITION.

Tyler Stocking, a branch manager for Gachina during this time and today, says middle- and senior-level managers had to work hard to keep crews calm.

“There was a lot of uncertainty. The (management) staff were not scared of losing a job – they knew it wasn’t going to unravel overnight. But the crews felt that more because they don’t see the whole operation,” Stocking says. “It took our staff to calm them down and help them understand that we’re not going anywhere.”

“The most that they had ever heard about me was that I raised two sons and that I rode a horse. There was no mention before of any experience that I had that I could do the job.” Jackie Ishimaru-Gachina, CEO

Gachina Landscape Management in 2015 had 375 employees, and many were getting headhunted. “They were getting job offers left and right from all my competition. From the head all the way down to the field personnel, everybody was fair game for my competition,” Ishimaru-Gachina says. “And so, it really is a testament to John and to the company that they see a future here and that they are willing to stay.”

But that skepticism that Stocking and the other managers worked to assuage extended beyond her employees. Many in the industry assumed that Ishimaru-Gachina would sell the company. She still gets calls from companies interested in buying. But she promised her employees that she would continue the legacy of John’s leadership.

“I said to (the employees), ‘The easiest thing for me to do is just to cash out, take that money, travel and not have … the responsibility of the company. That’s the easy way out. But that’s not what I’m gonna do,’” Ishimaru-Gachina says.

OUTSIDE HER COMFORT ZONE.

But the transition to CEO has not been easy for her. In her new role, she had to become the face of Gachina both inside the operation and in the broader industry. In the past year, she has toured Mariani Landscape in Chicago, attended the National Association of Landscape Professional’s National Collegiate Landscape Competition and joined a CEO networking group in the San Francisco Bay area.

“I’ve had to come out of my comfort zone and make a conscious decision that this is right for the company and this is what I need to do to step up. John was just a natural at this kind of stuff. He thrived on it – loved having his picture taken, loved being interviewed. ... I have always been a background person. But I know what I need to do to keep this company viable and to continue John’s legacy, and so I make myself do these things.”

Jackie Ishimaru-Gachina and her husband, John, started Gachina Landscape Management in 1988.

Continuing that legacy means one day passing the business to her sons – Michael, 25, is currently an account manager with the company, and Dominic, 22, is a horticulture student at Cal-Poly, San Luis Obispo.

And keeping the company viable means continuing its growth. Since 2012, Gachina’s top-line revenue has grown by nearly half, from $20.9 million to $30.9 million last year. Employee retention was 95 percent last year, and the average employee tenure is 9 years, according to the company.

Ishimaru-Gachina has implemented new software for the business, examined its customer makeup and instructed managers to get rid of unprofitable customers, and doubled-down on sustainability initiatives.

Though the last year has been difficult professionally and emotionally for Ishimaru-Gachina, she says that the tasks ahead of her have not been impossible, thanks to her team.

“I’ve learned that with the support of my team, who I think are the best in the business, I can do this,” Ishimaru-Gachina says. “And they believe I can do it, too.”