CoCal focuses on educating its employees to provide them not only industry knowledge, but support for a better life overall.
Photos courtesy of Jesus “Chuy” Medrano

The outdoors and working the land are simply part of Jesus “Chuy” Medrano’s DNA. The owner of CoCal Landscape in Denver was raised on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, where his family grew corn, had apple orchards and tended to cattle and horses. “We used to do everything that farmers do to make ends meet,” he says.

When Medrano came to the United States in the early 1970s to find work, he ended up taking a job in a factory that made electric motors, but couldn’t stand being cooped up for 10 hours a day.

Medrano, with his characteristic wide-brimmed ranch hat, cowboy boots and 44 years of experience has helped grow CoCal to one of the largest Hispanic-owned landscape companies in the nation at $18 million in revenue. He is also the founding president of the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance. Medrano is closely involved with the Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado and National Association of Landscape Professionals.

It hasn’t always been easy. Medrano brought his company back from the brink of bankruptcy during the Great Recession – it was doing $45 million in sales and the construction market fell out. His former partner Tom Fochtman describes Medrano as “a leader of people.”

“He’s the kind of guy who can light up the room because he’s warm and has a great sense of humor – he’s highly respected,” Fochtman says.

Growing his own.

Fochtman remembers meeting Medrano for the first time. He had flown from Chicago to interview at ValleyCrest in Denver, where Medrano was already working. Fochtman had a landscape architect degree and Medrano was an expert in the field. Fochtman was on a jobsite during an interview with some higher-ups and saw Medrano lying in a parking lot with his arm 3 feet deep fiddling with an irrigation break. “The manager, as we pulled up, said, ‘This is a really good guy. He has a lot of potential,’” Fochtman says.

Medrano recalls when Fochtman was relocating to Denver to take the job. He ended up having to pick him up after Fochtman has some car trouble. “We kind of hit it off. I liked him and he liked me, and we began working together as co-workers, and it went from there,” Medrano says.

Eventually, both were seeking greater opportunity. That’s when the conversations started about going into business together. “I wasn’t going to do it if he wasn’t my partner,” Fochtman says. They nicknamed each other “maestro,” which means teacher in Spanish.

“He taught me everything to do with the field,” Fochtman says. “And I taught him how to walk jobs and sell services, and I helped him with his English.”

They brought English classes to the workplace along with financial classes. The training went beyond the job; it was about creating a better life. Today, Medrano says training is an enormous focus at CoCal. The company dedicates every Friday in the off-season to four-hour training sessions. It’s a partnership and the team is equally invested, Medrano points out. “Everyone who has a job here has an opportunity to make it a career,” he says.

Many members of Medrano’s own family have chosen that path. CoCal is working on its fourth generation in the business; and Medrano’s son, Jody, now serves as president. His daughter, Marisol, works at the company, as does son Carlos. Medrano’s brother, Manuel, has worked at CoCal since day one. There were 560 people working at CoCal during the height of the company, before the Great Recession. “Every one of them was out there making money for us, and we felt like we really needed to take care of them,” Fochtman says.

That meant providing company loans to workers from time to time, and even going to court with a team member if there was an unjust claim, Fochtman says. “A lot of this was Chuy – and I learned it from him.”

Medrano says he has guys who have been working with him since the 1980s. “I remember back, seeing them buy their first home, become Americans, have their first child, graduate from college,” he says. “These are proud moments for me.”

Reinvention post-Recession.

“Anything that is growing can get sick, and then you have to restart or grab energy from somewhere and get going on it,” Medrano says.

In 2011, the construction industry fell flat and the company lost half of its revenue. “We closed the door on the construction division and we let the maintenance division carry us through,” Medrano says. At the same time, Fochtman was ready to part ways. “We needed to get divorced,” Fochtman says. “I wanted to do things differently in the company than he did.”

It was a tough time for Medrano.“Not only did my revenue go to hell, I had to come up with money for a down payment to buy out my partner and then deal with the Recession,” he says.

But Medrano’s loyal people and longtime customers stuck by him. He moved to a four-day workweek, but employees wanted to show up Friday anyway. “The loyal ones didn’t care, they still worked even though they were not going to be paid,” he says.

Medrano paid back every hour they had worked without compensation during the Great Recession and then some once the company stabilized. And CoCal did recover with a renewed focus on maintenance. Now, CoCal is about 300 employees strong with revenues of $18 million. In 2011, Medrano helped found the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance. He noticed at all the industry conferences he attended, none of the seminars were offered in Spanish, so he organized with some others to change that.

“Now we have about 500 members from all over the country,” he says.

Medrano’s advice to anyone in the industry, and particularly those starting out: Get involved in associations. And, surround yourself with advisers. “Don’t risk what you worked so hard to build,” he says.

In spite of all the building, Medrano takes time out to enjoy hobbies and his family. He has been married to his wife since 1975.

Medrano is “living the dream,” Fochtman says, proud of his former partner’s success. “He is one of the great leaders in the industry.”