“(Zach is) all about exposing his kids to different parts of the world and different kinds of lives,” says Kristen Fefes, executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. “Until you get to know him, you don’t know how deep he really runs. It’s really impressive.”
Photo courtesy of Zachary Johnson

The industry is evolving, and more and more companies are seeking out employees with horticulture degrees that they hope will carry on the green industry legacy. In order to achieve this, industry members need to take the time to guide future industry leaders.

One person doing so is Zachary Johnson.

Currently, Johnson teaches a program at Colorado State University – a program he took when he was a student there. That previous knowledge, as well as his industry experiences, provide him the chance to give his students a unique look at what opportunities are out there for them.

As part of the program, Johnson has a class called Professional Landscape Practices, which he started with the late Todd Williams, former president of Terracare Associates. Every week, the class invites industry professionals to come do a guest lecture on a variety of landscape topics ranging from landscape design to finances.

“It’s a way for students who have been in the philosophical, theoretical world learning about these things, to hear from business owners,” says Kristen Fefes, executive director of the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado. She knows Johnson through the ALCC, which he’s been a member of for more than 20 years.

Fefes says real world experience for the students is something the ALCC board has been trying to work on with the university. Because of this, the ALCC helps fund the program.

“We think the outcome is so important,” she says. “And so is the idea behind it.”

“While university study is important, it’s just a piece,” Johnson says. “I think it’s cool to get that perspective from people who have been out and done that. It benefits the students.”

This program is his brainchild, and it earned him ALCC’s Person of the Year Award.

“I’ve had the occasion just here and there to be around him in his classroom or see him interact with his students,” says Becky Garber, communications director with the ALCC. “It’s very clear that his students respect him and it’s just fun to watch him interact with them.”

Peer focused

Education in the industry shouldn’t just be limited to students, and Johnson is playing a role in that.

In 2014, the PLANET Academic Excellence Foundation named Johnson Outstanding Educator of the Year.
Photos courtesy of Zachary Johnson

Next Level Network is one of Bruce Wilson’s peer groups that Johnson is involved it. Each year, a handful of professors come to the annual meeting and have the opportunity to educate members on how to better recruit students and new employees.

“We work with them and help them understand that each generation is a little different,” he says.

Fefes credits Johnson with sometimes being the voice of reason at association board meetings.

“I think he is one of the smartest people in our industry,” she says. “He’s incredibly thoughtful, meaning he really thinks through things.”

“While university study is important, it’s just a piece. I think it’s cool to get that perspective from people who have been out and done that. It benefits the students.” Zachary Johnson, professor, Colorado State University

When a topic is being discussed, Johnson will often focus on the other side of the conversation or ask the group if they were really talking about the bigger picture and how it would affect members and the industry.

“We teased him sometimes around the board table of being the contrarian,” Fefes says. “At ALCC he was not always out front in the most vocal way, but he did it from behind to make sure the right discussion was being had.”

Sustainable partners

Johnson also chaired a group with the ALCC that started a program called the Green Strategies Program. “It’s a program where companies and businesses can actually become what we’re calling sustainable partners,” he says.

Each year, participants go through a series of classes, with different presentations on design, construction and maintenance ideas to make projects more sustainable.

Johnson is an avid bicyclist, sometimes taking his bike with him when he travels.

“It’s a way to really look at our profession in a way that demonstrates that we do good things,” he says. “The reality is a lot of things we do aren’t good for the planet. We drive around trucks all day long, we drive around mowers all day long. At the end of the day, there’s a lot of offsets in terms of what we’re doing.”

He says the key idea to the program is to improve a company’s bottom line in terms of fiscal importance, and in terms of environmental practices.

The Green Strategies Program is part of the ALCC, but Garber credits Johnson with taking the lead starting it.

“Zach has had a vision for quite some time to promote our industry doing things in terms of its practices,” she says. “And promoting those things (that are sustainable) to companies and clients.”

For the program, the first step was to create a blueprint for how to become a sustainable company, specific to Colorado. Johnson directed and facilitated the document into writing, and his involvement in the program earned him his second Person of the Year from the ALCC in 2015.

“I think it’s remarkable that Zach’s vision has actually resulted in building a wave of momentum within our industry and within our membership that really looks at and cares about sustainability,” Garber says. “It’s not just marketing; it’s serious. We want to do this. We want to do more and get this message out to our clients and help them understand it.”

Out of the office

Just because Johnson can’t be found in his office at CSU, doesn’t mean he’s not on the job. This fall he’ll be traveling to Costa Rica to help students work on a project to design wetlands that help clean up water.

“Costa Rica has a reputation as a pristine place,” he says. “(But) the water just gets drained out to small streams.” They plan to clean up that water by designing simple wetlands so it’s done sustainably.

The university also sends him to different campuses around the world, including one being built in Mexico.

Johnson says he loves to travel, and his family – including his wife, Ellen, 13-year-old daughter, Juno, and 11-year-old son, Leo, – travel a lot. He’s also an avid cyclist, something which connects him to the environment he cares about so much.

“I was in New Zealand and took my bicycle down there,” he says. “It’s amazing, you see things so much differently. When you’re in a car it’s one speed, but a bike is a different speed.”

Fefes says that his travels serve a double purpose: work and the thrill of showing his kids other cultures.

“Until you get to know him, you don’t know how deep he really runs. It’s really impressive,” she says.

Garber agrees.

“It’s just been great to be on the sidelines and watch him develop from the young designer who is learning the ropes to now being this imminent person within the university and the industry,” she says.

“We don’t often get to see that: someone cross all those lines in their career.”