Illustration by Matt Collins

Owning and operating a business can make it seem like the whole world is on your shoulders.

You’re constantly being pulled in all directions from selling to servicing to billing to managing. And that doesn’t even include the other pressures of everyday life.

“I’m always in that mindset because it’s all on my shoulders,” says Brian Honeyager, who owns a U.S. Lawns franchise in Lawton, Oklahoma. “If it succeeds, it’s because of me. If it fails, it’s because of me. It’s my game and I want to play it so I’ve got to do it.”

Honeyager has been in the industry for more than 30 years and started his own business 10 years ago. He bought into a U.S. Lawns franchise five years ago, which helped him move from the residential to the commercial market. In that time, his company went from servicing about 240 homes to about 25 apartment complexes, eight hotels and several small businesses.

While the change has increased his stability as far as revenue and growth for his employees, the stress has remained the same. “It’s true for anybody that cares about what they’re doing or has some sort of level of perfection,” he says. “And I’m not looking for 100 percent. You can’t ever get to 100 percent perfection, but you can get things looking nice whether it’s residential or commercial. You just get better and better each time.”

It’s the same for Alan Burke, owner of and landscape architect at Classic Nursery & Landscape Company in Woodinville, Washington, who says things have gotten both better and worse over the years. His 35-year-old business is more solid and he makes more money than he did earlier in his career, but he has more responsibilities so it’s more stress to manage everything.

Even though they have enough people now, putting the right people in the right jobs has been a struggle for Classic Nursery & Landscape.
Photo courtesy of Classic Nursery & Landscape

After making it through the Great Recession, he says it’s much easier now that the banks aren’t as tight and customers have more disposable income. His company had to let close to 30 people go over a four-year period in order to stay afloat, but at least there were no employee pressures because everyone was looking for work then, he says.

“But you trade one thing for another, it seems,” he says. “It’s probably less stressful now. I think folks have a tendency to forget. That was a massively stressful thing, to let go of good people, and bad people,” he says. “And now when I think of that, it’s like waking up from a fever or something.”

Years of working in the green industry have actually made it easier for Gabrielle Dandy-Horn. She says knowing the cycles of the business and knowing what needs to be done each year have made things easier for her at her company, Gardens Remembered, located in Laytonsville, Maryland.

“Each year, if I let (worrying) get to me, it can be so stressful,” she says. “But what I do is, I remember this happens every year and I’m able to deal with it because I do it every year and our crew is able to cope with it. I just know that I look back on previous years and it gives me confidence that I know we can do it. We did it every other year, so that takes a lot of stress off me.”

Dealing with the unknown.

Even just the general nature of the business and its unpredictability pile on the stress. Dealing with everything from Mother Nature to customers’ whims and employees walking off the job, it can be tough to know where the next problem will come from.

“If it succeeds, it’s because of me. If it fails, it’s because of me. It’s my game and I want to play it so I’ve got to do it.” Brian Honeyager, U.S. Lawns franchise owner

“Folks don’t realize it when they’re in their early years thinking about themselves casting wildflower seeds in a sunny meadow,” Burke says. “It’s not really like that. It’s more like digging trenches in the rain in November.”

The weather has made this year particularly tough for Honeyager. The consistent rain left him and his 16 employees struggling to keep up with the grass growth. “It’s just grow, grow, grow, cut, grow,” he says. “And then as soon as you cut the grass, weeds are going so you spray out the weeds and the hedges are growing and as soon as you do that, you have to repeat the whole cycle all over again.”

The ever-changing weather and its unpredictability make it tough for the team at Gardens Remembered to keep finances on track and meet deadlines.
Photo courtesy of Gardens Remembered

But he says he loves what he does and focuses in on what he’s good at. “It’s like the three little pigs. You build the best brick house that you can,” he says.

Coordinating a variety of materials, including living plants, and meshing that with the installation schedules that also works for clients is the biggest source of stress for Burke.

Classic Nursery & Landscaping is a 10-acre retail nursery that also supplies a landscape design/build division with about eight crews in the Puget Sound area with a revenue of between $2 to $2.5 million. He says just getting things done in a timely manner can be the biggest challenge.

“I tell people that we’re not only dealing with the vagaries of wind and soil and water and electricity, we’re also bringing out living materials and placing them in a way that hopefully aligns not only with what the wife wants to see, but what both partners have agreed on so it’s rife with problems,” he says.

“I just know that I look back on previous years and it gives me confidence that I know we can do it. We did it every other year.” Gabrielle Dandy-Horn, co-owner, Gardens Remembered

For Dandy-Horn meeting deadlines is also one of the hardest parts of the job, besides the financing. “It’s mostly getting to the clients in the time that they need us to be there,” she says.

Gardens Remembered has been around for 18 years. She and her husband Steven didn’t have any business experience when they started their garden and landscaping company but through perseverance and horticultural knowledge, they’ve made it work.

The company, with its three full-time employees, specializes in intensive garden care but also does lawn mowing and snow removal, keeping them busy year-round.

The ups and downs of seasonal work make keeping the finances on track tough for Dandy-Horn though. Income goes up and down due to the changing workload and balancing the checkbook can be a challenge.

“It’s month by month with us and January was awful,” she says. “We have a certain amount we have to meet each month and for three months in a row we were way below that.” But the company had a great June which brought their figures up, plus they’ve added some new clients which has put them on the upswing.

“Once you’re in the green industry, you’re a part of it. It’s a way of life.” Chris Pegnia, co-owner, Busy Beaver Lawn and Garden

But for them, they stay in touch with their clients and stay involved with their needs on a regular basis. It’s the coordinating that becomes difficult, especially on special occasions like house showings or parties.

Good help is hard to find.

Honeyager has been around the block a few times, but he still struggles with the same things many contractors do – finding and keeping good people.

“We’d have a party out there but we basically went from working out of my garage to chasing close to a million this year.” Chris Pegnia, co-owner, Busy Beaver Lawn and Garden

“You end up training them and they leave or make a gross error in judgement as far as doing something against company policy,” he says. For example, he keeps cameras in his work trucks and has caught all kinds of infractions.

Classic Nursery is in the unique situation of having more people than they need this year, but one of the biggest problems is finding employees with the right talents to succeed at the job in the design/build sector. “They need to be hard workers,” Burke says. “They need to be able to lift and do detailed, constructive, creative work and they’re not necessarily just mowing and blowing as they are in some other aspects of the industry.”

He says his company is hiring in a less structured way than they would like because it’s so difficult to find workers, and it means that not everyone is the best person to be in their current position. “I think things have changed over the recent years with folks who are actually willing to work outside and do that kind of work, so that’s always posed the greatest problem,” he says.

Growing pains.

For Chris Pegnia, rapid growth, along with the perennial issue of finding and keeping good employees, have been his major problems. Pegnia and his girlfriend Liz Bonadonna run Busy Beaver Lawn and Garden in Hamburg, New York, which has grown from a startup to a nearly $1-million operation in just five years.

“And it used to be fun back then,” he says. “We’d have a party out there, but we basically went from working out of my garage to chasing close to a million this year.”

He says on a scale of one to 10, his stress level has gone from one to 20 since the operation started booming. “Liz and I never fought one time when we were first dating to basically exploding all the time,” he says. “It’s absolutely more money, more problems out here and the stress has definitely gotten really big.”

But he also says that he and his partner have put so much into the business that they treat it like their baby.

So he’s determined to make the business a success, no matter how hard he has to work. He says he, his brother and Bonadonna all work about 80 hours a week and don’t take paychecks. “I’ve been in the industry since I was 14 and I’ve thought about it every night when I went to sleep,” he says.

On the other end of the spectrum, Dandy-Horn and her husband are looking at retirement and are trying to figure out what to do with their business. They’re both in their early 60s and don’t have anyone in mind to take the reins when they stop working.

Her stepson Josh Horn takes care of the lawn mowing, but since he doesn’t want to take over the business, its future is uncertain.

“We don’t have enough money to retire and both of us have aches and pains from all the years of working in the field and our own garden,” she says.

Finding a work/life balance.

Working with family can make it hard to leave work at work at the end of the day, and many landscaping professionals simply don’t. Pegnia and Dandy-Horn both basically live at work. Pegnia lives at the garden center where he has a fifth wheel camper setup, so he’s never far from work. Dandy-Horn’s home serves as Gardens Remembered’s main office and headquarters.

“It’s always there and we work from our home. That’s where our office is so everybody comes to our living room because that’s the office – along with their muddy boots and they have their meeting in the morning in our living room. And it’s chummy, but I’d kind of like to separate it,” she says.

“You end up training them and they leave or make a gross error in judgment as far as doing something against company policy.” Brian Honeyager, U.S. Lawns franchise owner

For Dandy-Horn, it’s a bit of a blessing and a bit of a curse. It’s stressful but she does love being able to work from home.

But for Burke, it’s the same sort of love/hate relationship with his integrated work/home life. He tells his clients that he works 24/7, but at half speed. He likes to work from home as much as possible because he can multitask, handling the obligations of his personal life and his work life at the same time.

“I can send an estimate on Saturday night but I might meet a friend for lunch on a Thursday afternoon. In that way, it’s become kind of seamless,” he says. “But we’ve had a lot of mouths to feed here and so I can’t really afford to be taking off.”

When home life and work life are so intertwined, it can be hard to leave work at work. A few years ago, he took a trip to Europe with his family and while everything worked out fine, he was still thinking about work.

“As the owner of the company, I spent a lot of time in Provence agitating about whether Mrs. Smith’s lawn was drying up,” he says. “You want to be able to separate those things fully and that’s always difficult.”

To help change that, Classic Nursery & Landscape has been working with a consulting firm and looking at partnering or merging with another company who does more maintenance.

Dandy-Horn is also always on call, which works best for her. Working in the D.C. area, they’ve found that avoiding traffic and starting the day at 9 a.m. works best for them. The crews show up and eat breakfast at the homestead, and then head out once the traffic is gone.

“But we’ve had a lot of mouths to feed around here so I can’t really afford to be taking off.” Alan Burke, owner, Classic Nursery & Landscape

“What works best for us is working that way,” she says. “And if that works better for you and you can make it happen, then do it and don’t let people tell you that you can’t.”

Still loving the job.

Despite the ups and downs, Pegnia says there’s no way he would ever leave the green industry. “We love the green industry,” he says. “Once you’re in the green industry, you’re a part of it. It’s a way of life. So for me, this is what we’re professionals at and what we’re really good at and we’re extremely profitable at it but it is extremely stressful. And growing from zero to a million in five years is definitely painful.”

Despite the severe growing pains, he’s ready to push his business to the next level and says he’s addicted to the growth of Busy Beaver Lawn & Garden. “I like where we’re at right now and we’re ready to push it to the next level,” he says. “It’s like asking a gambling addict if they’re going to quit.”

Burke loves feeling like he’s giving back to both his customers and the environment. Between planting trees, educating customers about pesticides and integrated pest management and bringing back wildlife, he feels like he’s making a difference.

“It isn’t something we do every day but it’s something that we are doing on a continuing basis so in that way, I think it’s good,” he says. “I do take some solace being at a cocktail party and feeling like I’ve got the best job in the room.”

He says the job is always interesting and as he gets older, he wants to be able to look at his life and be able to stamp a meaning on it. “I have to say that planting a tree that can live for 60 or 80 years is a statement and it doesn’t speak to everybody but it speaks to the birds and the bees and everything around us and that maybe is enough,” he says.