Krisjan Berzins doesn’t want his crews at Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape to be jacks of all trades or drive all over the city. Since starting his company almost 20 years ago, he’s seen plenty of other contractors’ crews attempt to juggle multiple services at once, only to become masters of none, and sit in traffic to do it.
“A lot of companies will send a crew (to do) a little bit of everything,” says Berzins, president and CEO. “There are certain benefits to that. It is more efficient, potentially, to provide five different services at the same time. You could make the case that you’re reducing travel time and load time. But unless you have a special way of doing it, generally, most companies fall under that ‘master of none’ category. They’re doing a little bit of everything, but not really doing it very well.”
“The amount of calls, emails and billing questions can be a heavy administrative burden. That becomes overwhelming for a lot of companies and they go to commercial (work) because they can’t handle it. But we stuck to our niche because it became what we were known for. As much as I contemplated going the same direction (as other companies), it seemed silly to move away from what was working.” – Krisjan Berzins, president and CEO, Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape
Instead, Berzins, who runs the company with his wife and vice president/COO Mayra, prefers to let each crew specialize in what it does best. His lawn care technicians focus solely on fertilization and weed control because they’re licensed specifically for that. They don’t handle mulching, pruning or mowing. They leave that to crews specialized in those tasks respectively.
“We have crews that just specialize in pruning shrubs,” he says. “You think, ‘While they’re there, why wouldn’t they cut the grass and clean the gutters?’ Because they’re really good at pruning.”
That means some customers may see several different crews performing various services during the week. Berzins realizes that this approach seems terribly inefficient, but he makes it work by keeping his service area extremely small, minimizing travel time to maximize his trained, tenured team of specialists.
“It only works for us because we have a tight service area,” he says. “We’re in a very dense market in Fairfax County, (Virginia,) where we can reach a million residents in 15 minutes. I don’t think that works in every market, but that’s how we keep the quality of our service up.”
While Berzins is able to use his business model because of the density of his location, there are lessons you can learn from the way he operates his company.
“The concept of specialized crews, even if it seems less efficient, is a valuable one,” he says. “Build a crew based on what they do well and keep them busy doing that type of work. Also, folks shouldn’t always think that the bigger the property the more profitable it will be. Our bread and butter is medium and small properties. Because of the way we have our crews set up and the type of machines that we use, large properties, typically, are less profitable for us.”
The shift to specialization.
Back when Berzins first started Kingstowne with Phil Williams, their approach wasn’t so specialized. To make extra money during summer breaks from college, the former high school football teammates started going door-to-door in their neighborhood utilizing Berzins’ lawn mowing experience from the Mount Vernon Country Club grounds crew, along with his father’s walk-behind mower. They incorporated as Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape in 1997.
“Folks started asking, ‘Can you prune the bushes? Can you put mulch down?’” Berzins says. “As clients started to ask for additional services that we felt comfortable with, we decided to give it a try.”
While mowing is still Kingstowne’s most popular service, the company has since sprouted other divisions offering aeration, pruning, fertilization, weed control, landscape design, hardscape construction and more. Kingstowne serves residential customers almost exclusively, except in winter, when it performs commercial snow and ice removal.
The company also offers holiday lighting as a Brite Ideas distributor and operates a subsidiary called Kingstowne Painting & Home Services for handyman work like pressure washing and gutter cleaning. When it comes to difficult technical work like high-end custom carpentry and masonry, Kingstowne subcontracts specialized tradesmen to supplement its crews.
“Back (then) if a customer said, ‘Can you guys do this?’ we’d scratch our heads and say, ‘Yeah, I guess we can,’” says Berzins, who bought out Williams’ share to become sole owner in 2008. “Now that we have 18 specialized crews, if a customer requests something that we’re not good at, we just won’t do it. We’d rather be really good at one or two things as opposed to being mediocre at everything.”
Problems with perfection.
Using specialized crews can be a challenge with both customers and employees.
Occasionally, customers will complain about crews showing up so much in one week, and will ask why the mowing crew can’t also pull weeds. Berzins will explain the company’s focus on quality and how they have a separate crew for lawn care.
“We go out of our way to explain how things works,” he says. “I can count on one hand the number of customers who cancelled because we don’t do everything at once.”
And Berzins will occasionally hear from a worker who is bored with the service they provide, and will ask to switch, but that only happens about once a year, maybe less, he says.
Last season a “fantastic” mowing foreman was burned out, and during his yearly review requested to be moved, so he was placed to an installation crew. He trained there for a couple of weeks and then became a foreman, but was teamed with an experienced laborer.
“He’s not building patios. He started somewhat basic – mulching, pruning, cleanup those sorts of things, and he had to train some,” he says. “Obviously you couldn’t send him out there day 1. But he is enjoying it because it’s a change of pace. It’s almost like he’d taken a new job.”
While he runs a lean company, the foreman position was ready to be filled because Berzins stays a little heavy on labor side, keeping extra employees to develop. And while he can’t always accommodate an employee’s position request, he does his best to make sure crews are staffed with employees who enjoy what they do and excel at it.
His foremen have a lower base pay than the competition, but receive commission on jobs, so it’s in their best interest to have a crew of motivated workers. He trusts the foreman to let him know if an employee is lacking enthusiasm and could use a change or if they aren’t cut out for the industry.
“If they have helpers who are not productive or not doing what they need to be doing, the foremen are policing that pretty quickly because it’s impacting their income and their level of efficiency, so they’ll let us know pretty quickly,” he says.
A new employee will receive a minimum of about a month of training, but to be on an install crew, the training may last about a year before someone is up to speed. However, new employees normally aren’t placed on install crews. Those spots are given to more seasoned Kingstowne employees.
Support behind the scenes.
Kingstowne’s tight service area is a function of location.
“Our competitors were focusing on huge properties,” Berzins says, “but based on our location, we were closer to smaller properties and that became our niche.”
The “nightmare” of D.C. traffic also encouraged Berzins to limit maintenance routes – generally a 10-mile radius from the office (sometimes further for larger landscaping jobs). “If we had 18 crews sitting in traffic every morning, it would add to our overhead substantially,” he says. “We’d rather service the communities down the street as opposed to ones on the other side of town.”
Kingstowne built a solid reputation by saturating nearby neighborhoods with its specialized services. Most of these properties are less than a quarter acre; some are only 500 square feet. Despite the small size, the volume adds up, as Kingstowne services more than 3,500 properties.
“If you have 10 or 15 of those in the neighborhood, then you can justify it,” Berzins says. “If you’re only traveling for that one, then it doesn’t make much sense.”
While specialized crews are key to servicing a tight geographic area, Berzins emphasizes that behind-the-scenes support is critical, particularly in the residential market.
“The amount of calls, emails and billing questions can be a heavy administrative burden,” he says. “That becomes overwhelming for a lot of companies, and they go to commercial (work) because they can’t handle it. But we stuck to our niche because it became what we were known for. As much as I contemplated going the same direction (as other companies), it seemed silly to move away from what was working.”
Kingstowne has 55 employees at peak and up to 20 of those are non-production staff. One consultant asked Berzins: How can you afford more office staff than companies that gross twice as much? It helps that the company reported its largest gross revenue in 2015, just under $7 million. And it’s also out of necessity because of the approximately 300 properties per day the company services.
Because the company has so many customers, he needs the office staff to keep track of all the invoices and calls he gets. He recently moved to a larger facility, partially because he needed the building space to house all of the office employees.
“We were bursting at the seams as far as administrative space goes,” Berzins says of the company’s former warehouse headquarters. “If we were to hire one more account manager, we literally had nowhere to put them.”
In May, Kingstowne moved to a renovated building on 13.5 acres, about 4 miles from the Pentagon, that previously served as a satellite TV facility. Now the staff has a professional corporate office with room for growth, plus one amenity it never had before: a break room.
“As inconsequential as that may seem, it’s a big deal,” he says. “I’m thrilled that they’ll have a place where they can relax and be comfortable. Their morale is greatly improved.”
As far as future growth goes, he sees the opportunities to add more clients, especially because of the location of the new office.
“We are going against traffic to get to a number of our properties in the morning as opposed to with traffic,” he says. “Most of our competitors are doing the opposite and sitting in traffic to get there. That’s a logistical advantage we have.
“And we’re close to some areas that were perhaps a bit more difficult for us to reach because of traffic now. So yes, I do see some increased growth in the next three to five years.”