When Lawn & Landscape magazine last talked to Bland Landscaping for a cover story in 2014, the North Carolina-based business was making $14.9 million and was coming out of a tough period.
Back in 2006, brothers Kurt, far left, and Matt Bland, right, had to step up as owners of the business sooner than anticipated after their father, Tom, who was majority owner at the time, needed to take an extended leave of absence to care for their terminally ill mother. Only a few years later in 2009, the Bland brothers faced the Great Recession and had to make big organizational changes to the business in order to stay profitable.
“While 2008 was our best year on record, by 2009 we had big declines in revenue,” says Kurt, CEO. “So, we shut down a department and then hunkered down to turn it into an opportunity to restructure.”
Bland Landscaping focused on growing as a commercial maintenance provider in North Carolina, which helped the company steadily grow its revenue after the recession. In more recent years, Matt says he and Kurt have made goals to expand the business into South Carolina and potentially Georgia through both organic growth and acquisitions.
Conversations of growth are nothing new to the Bland brothers. Matt says he recalls joking with Kurt on achieving $50 million in revenue when they were high school students helping their father – but the two had serious conversations about growth a few years ago as they considered the industry’s market conditions. The brothers knew they wanted to become a bigger player in the South.
“We knew we wanted to be a company that has the resources and strengths of a national provider and take on larger books of work,” says Matt, CFO and COO. “We also wanted to remain focused and have a local footprint.”
Yet in order to grow to that scale, they needed help. So, Bland Landscaping decided to find that help from a private equity firm.
Over the years, Bland Landscaping had been solicited by several private equity firms and strategic buyers, but it wasn’t until recent years that they considered a partnership. Bland Landscaping has experience growing organically, but Matt says they thought a private equity company could help them grow more strategically – especially as the brothers noticed a lot of consolidation happening within the industry.
“We were looking for someone who could help us learn how to grow strategically and potentially look at acquisitions,” he says. “We’ve considered acquisitions in the past, but we have limited experience in that – it’s a different beast than growing organically.”
Matt says one of their consultants had recommended they connect with Prospect Partners. Bland Landscaping looked at a few other private equity firms, but Prospect seemed to be the best fit.
Although Prospect Partners hasn’t backed any landscaping businesses before, Kurt and Matt liked that they had a lot of experience with strategically growing companies.
When Bland Landscaping met with Prospect Partners at their offices in Chicago to discuss formalizing a partnership, Kurt says it was a make-it-or-break-it type of moment for him.
“That presentation to them determined if they would give us millions in help,” Kurt says. “Fortunately, we were lucky, and they gave us an opportunity.”
The partnership officially formed in 2017. Matt says it’s been a good fit so far. While employees expressed some concerns after the initial announcement – such as who would be in charge and what would happen to the offices – Matt says those concerns faded after no changes occurred to day-to-day business.
“We just brought in an investment partner; we didn’t become someone else’s brand, and that’s the big difference,” Matt says. “(Prospect) values us as operators and the fact that (Kurt and I) are continuing to be the front of the company, keeping the same brand.”
Kurt and Matt plan to use Prospect Partners’ insight for changing their long-term strategies. With the new partnership, both brothers say they feel more ready to expand to become a bigger player in the South.
We wanted to be a company that has the resources and strengths of a national provider. Matt Bland, CFO
Bland Landscaping has come far from its beginnings – Kurt and Matt’s father Tom had initially just started the business to “put food on the table.” Today, the company has pushed past $21 million in revenue and has six locations.
With the help of Prospect Partners, Bland Landscaping expects to achieve $25 million in revenue in 2018 and gradually expand southward through acquisitions and organic growth. Kurt and Matt weren’t sure how their dad would react to the news of having a private equity partner, but both brothers say their dad was supportive of that decision.
“He’s happy that now we’ve got a partner to help us grow the business because he understands what’s happening in our industry – he’s seen it happen before,” Matt says. “We wanted this partnership to make sure we were ready for industry changes and can make changes in our growth plan easier. We like having more choices now instead of sitting stagnant, and our dad very much understands that.”
Strive for steady growth
Landscape Services Inc. (LSI) experienced steady growth since it opened in 1988. The Stacey family started the business with a handful of team members to provide maintenance and installation services to customers in Nashville, Tennessee.
President Doug Stacey says the company always tries to “grow responsibly” – not too fast but not too slow – with a steadfast focus on continuing to provide quality service to customers rather than cutting corners.
“We want to grow in a healthy manner,” he says.
This past year, LSI achieved $28.7 million in annual revenue with 300 employees working during peak season. The company has seven branch offices in Tennessee, one in Alabama and a few satellite locations in Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia.
Stacey attributes the company’s growth to its commitment to customers and its strong team of employees. In addition, he says the booming Nashville community has helped LSI expand the past decade.
“We’re fortunate to be in a city that’s growing,” he says. “It does help that there’s more commercial growth here as well as a lot of new homeowners’ associations being developed. I would say the last 10 years there has been more market share available to the landscaping companies in this area.”
Although LSI grew to become a multimillion-dollar business, Stacey says the company has remained a family-focused business. Stacey says he and three of his brothers work together in leadership roles and their father serves as chairman of the board.
Retaining customers is another key to growth at LSI. “We’re known from our customers as people who do what we say we’re going to do,” he says. “We’re someone customers can trust that will always do the right thing.”
Stacey says it pays to be flexible with customers, too. He recalls one instance where a customer needed last-minute help for an event. The customer had planned to host a large outdoor event at a college campus on a Saturday, but a heavy rainstorm drenched the area. The customer considered canceling the event, but instead called LSI first to see if the company would be able to rush out to dry the fields.
“In order for this event to go on, they needed us to come over with some high-powered blowers to dry off the field,” Stacey says. “Without hesitation, we went and did that because we saw it was very important to them. And that always stuck out in that client’s mind. We did what we said we would do in a time of need. It was a situation where we were proud to be flexible and follow through for a client.”
When growing a business, Stacey says it helps to have a clear, strategic plan that looks ahead a few years. He advises companies looking to grow to develop a five-year strategic plan with buy-in from several leaders in the company.
“I see some companies that don’t have a good strategic plan,” Stacey says. “Without a strategic plan, people go in different directions and this can be a roadblock to growth. Strategic plans need to be clear so everyone (in leadership) understands the plan. Lack of clarity holds people back.”
Burst of energy
Complete Property Maintenance (CPM) experienced a burst of energy when Shane Humble stepped in as the company’s new president recently.
Humble previously owned a Clintar Landscape Management franchise in Palm Beach, Florida, but when his franchise location was acquired, CPM reached out to offer him a position.
“They’re located nearby and asked if I would be interested in taking over for their president,” he says.
So, after serving out his non-compete agreement, he stepped in to lead CPM in October 2015. CPM had been growing steadily since the early 2000s, but he says it was stagnant for a bit as the president was retiring and he was taking over.
“When the previous president was close to retirement, there wasn’t much emphasis on getting new accounts,” Humble says.
Humble wanted to see CPM grow, which meant making a few changes to the business. One key to achieving growth in the last couple of years was making increases to contracts.
“I noticed we had a lot of clients who had been with us 10 to 15 years who never had contract increases,” Humble says. “So, I made it my mission to renew all contracts with increases to put us where we needed to be in the market.”
This one simple change created somewhat of a domino effect for CPM: it boosted revenue, which helped the company to buy newer equipment and hire more people at better wages and benefits. With more people working for the business, the company also had the ability to bid for more work. More work then leads to even more revenue.
Humble notes that the labor issue is tough in southeast Florida, as landscapers often lose workers to higher-paying construction firms.
“There’s a lot of new construction and homes being built here,” he says. “But by paying higher wages, we’ve seen more people apply to work for the company. There’s been a big morale boost with that and one-week paid vacation.”
Although CPM is taking steps forward with revenue, Humble hopes to make some changes to processes this year as some of its tools are outdated. The company needs some type of landscape management software since it does most of its work on Excel spreadsheets. Humble also wants to make upgrades to fleet vehicles.
“We’re a large company that’s still operating like a mom-and-pop business,” he says. “Customers love that, but we need to make it more current and in this century.”
The company wants to dedicate this year to focus on retaining the 15 percent growth it did achieve last year. Humble also wants to keep the company focused on its niche, serving HOAs and condominiums in southeast Florida.
“I don’t want to spread accounts thin,” he says. “Our focus is on growing niche accounts along with implementing software.”
He adds that a key for growth is taking care of the customers “who got you where you are today,” advising smaller businesses looking to grow always maintain their recurring customers.
“Never forget the customers who have been with you from the start,” Humble says. “Visit with them regularly to say hello, deliver poinsettias at Christmas and do little things to let them know you’re thinking of them.”