Running A Landscape Business – Part 1

Finally, I arrive at the nuts and bolts in my semi-autobiographical rendition of a life in the landscaping business. I apologize for taking such a long break in posting, but – hey – it’s my blog and I’ll blog if I want to.  😉

Another miscreant – John Bufton – and I were working for the largest maintenance business in Vancouver, BC in 1978 – now known as David Hunter Garden Centers. While together, we had long talks about the world around us and, among other thoughts, we found a mutual interest in trying to go off alone in a business. John, in fact, already had a few “side jobs” where he spent his “off days”, working his butt off for a couple of wealthy contacts, courtesy of his Mother who was in Real Estate. As we spoke, we realized we brought mutual strengths to the idea – John with a local connection and existing contracts and a deep history of lawn and garden maintenance, and me, with abundant experience in estimating and installing landscape construction projects. We made a business plan of sorts – believing a Spring start and the abundant work involving “power-raking” – the removal of thatch and moss built up through the cool, damp Winters of the Great Northwest – which was highly profitable – could supply our financing. From that, we would attempt to form a “base”, a ‘bread and butter’ aspect of the business in the form of maintenance contracts for homes throughout the city.

John’s mother co-signed for a loan to purchase a beater pickup truck, we invested our pay into purchasing hand-outs, prime for Spring labor, which we would distribute door-to-door to likely customers. In February we began, quitting at Hunter and venturing out on our own, dazed but explosively hopeful. Our handouts were a complete success – actually far beyond what we had imagined. In fact, John began complaining about the radical numbers of calls. Nevertheless, it was what we had asked for and so commenced a fairly robust season. After one day we were able to buy our very own weedeater and in ensuing days, we purchased all the maintenance machinery and tools we would need for the entire year. After a week, we were on our way! We were bursting at the seams, happy, tired and full of optimism.

It wasn’t long until we had some landscaping to look at. Over the course of the first month of business, we acquired a $28,000 contract to upgrade a series of apartments managed by one of our newly-acquired maintenance contracts. It required designing and a small hand-drawn idea of our intentions relative to the places and was impressive enough to please the client. Suddenly, we were a 2 crew operation and we purchased yet another beater truck. We entered the Federal and Provincial Era, where we began complying with the standards of employment in general, submitting taxes and deducting them from wages. Within 3 months, we had become “Bona Fide”. It was a heady period, to say the least.

We pretty much did everything right and we certainly could not be faulted for effort. We worked constantly. However, in this success, we encountered the beginnings of our eventual dissolution. The landscaping end of the business had encountered a subdivision of one acre lots during the period of serious economic expansion, house-flipping and people making humongous money as house prices skyrocketed locally. Fortunes were being made and lost over the housing bubble of the late 70’s in British Columbia and we experienced our first loss. Someone decided not to pay – or actually, could not pay. And this after an incredibly busy season. The timing was dreadful inasmuch as we had plowed our money into the business itself. Suddenly, the landscaping end of things realized its inherent risks, certainly compared to lawn and garden maintenance, which was sufficient unto itself, easily done and very predictable.

We found ourselves at odds over directions and John – who had 3 beautiful baby boys – was feeling pressure not only from his wife and family but from himself over realizing the inherent risks in the trade of landscaping. We became poor again, quickly enough, and John expressed his willingness to separate. Aside from it being a literal study in what can go wrong in business, it was somewhat heart-breaking. It felt sloppy and depressing, and this after a year where we were as busy as anyone in the entire town.

I spent most of that Winter in a funk. It was difficult resigning myself to going back to work for someone else, but it seemed the only way to survive. I felt alone and despairing. And then help came from a surprising source.

I got an offer from someone who wanted to help some small business as a silent partner. Our efforts had not gone unnoticed and he lived in the neighborhood of one acre homes which I had had such a difficult time leaving, since literally everyone there hired me as they moved in. He called a mutual friend who highly recommended me as someone who he might be interested in investing in. It was serendipitous, strange and relieving. As a former IRS (Canada Version) agent and an accountant, he was set up to be the most incredibly apt person to help I could have found. As we spoke, I suddenly understood he was dead serious. My heart was a’ flutter.

So with Spring approaching and a couple of small projects underway, John went onward to his life’s work without me. In a year, so incredibly much had happened no one had time to remind ourselves of the actual events – a miasma of happenings complete with small stories, a lot of success, some tragedies and an amazingly eventful series of events.

Ray soon showed up at my place with a brand new 1980, dual wheel 1 Ton Ford truck with a flatbed which raised and lowered by electric motor. It was a dream machine, the envy of the city dump! (Let it be known here and now that the girls liked it too!). Clean and sleek, it could handle the landscaping chores in ways which shot our productivity through the roof.

We moved back into the famous one acre lot territory, this time taking no prisoners and designing stuff like mad. We also acquired a couple of small commercial contracts which I had estimated for and with an eye towards moving towards a much larger commercial side of the business. There was big money there. Little did we realize we were attracting attention from larger fish. Well, we worked hard and met some amazing people.

(We did a project for Leslie Nielson’s older brother, redoing his entire back yard and fence, patio and raised bed planters. This was the pre-Airplane, pre- Detective Frank Dubbin Leslie Nielsen, whose other brother at that time was the head of the New Democratic party in the national capital – a major political player. I only name drop like this to mention that each man – who we met – was an absolute gas of a person – just nice as could be and warmly appreciative of our efforts.)

It became this sort of highlight of the season because the entire year was composed of such small successes and this project was a minor one financially but not without major fun. It was a great year and we did about $384,000 in total volume, in 1980 dollars. Extrapolated to now, that’s about $750,000. People were noticing and our reputation had become excellent.

Winter in Vancouver is a fairly bizarre thing. While I spent later years not missing one day of week day work, generally we shut down the landscaping during December to mid February. Say 2-3 months. It is actually welcomed by owners and planners as it gives a period to take a breath and assess directions and processes. Oh yeah – and have a beer.

During this down period, I got approached by another interested party who had money, bulldozers, back hoes and whose home I had worked on laboriously dynamiting trees, scraping 10 acres of land and then decorating it up in my own trademark ways. Mario – an Italian with toys and attitude – approached both Ray and I with a deal: Bid on the largest work in the Province and he would help finance the delayed payment schedules, provide machinery for the work and actually attend work every day like a working partner. Inasmuch as he was a home builder and a successful one, his record was pretty impeccable for profits. To Ray and I, it was a near no-brainer. Onward and upwards. So we two became 3. The only caveat was that we would need projects to work on, lol. If I could supply a contract, Mario would join. Suddenly my onus became clear. I had to acquire contracts.

For the next 45 days, I spent every waking hour in front of blueprints, estimating them. I would visit literally every major construction company in Vancouver and surrounding towns, asking to be put on their bid lists and begging for blueprints from which to draw and submit estimates. Finally, I got a call.

I visited this business – a $20 Million a year construction firm who was looking at new landscaping companies because of some unfortunate events with others. My price interested them but my approach interested them more. They allowed me to explain my history, assessed my principle partners and awarded us an $84,000 contract to begin in a few weeks. I drew up a contract, showed it to Ray and Mario and suddenly we were a viable business. We began the contract the day we could start, with Mario unloading his bulldozer and us pushing dirt which was partially covered in snow. For the next 60 days, no one took a day off and we put in 12 hours per day whereupon we finished to an immensely-pleased client. We hired one other person and no more, lol. We did it all.

In the meantime, I was still fielding calls and bidding projects. We were awarded another one – this one far larger – which I failed to even look at. In fact, the day we were to begin, as we were toting our equipment jobwards, I suddenly realized – along with my partners – that I hadn’t the remotest idea where it was! Both the other guys were shocked – I had been so thorough with the other ones. I became nervous, lol, as we approached the place. But as we arrived, the project supervisor came out and introduced himself. Word of our competence had spread and he was asking if we felt we could somehow manage to take on some extra work, prior to the landscaping.

“Duh”, was my reply. 😉

He wanted us to build retaining walls out of pressure treated 6″ x 6″‘s, at 5 different locations on the site, each of them over 100′ long. Each location required 3 walls of 3’ high apiece. It was an enormous undertaking. He asked for a price and we huddled. Between the 3 of us, we came up with a figure and he gave the go ahead after a brief call to his office. Suddenly, we had 3 months of very profitable work ahead of us. It was a dream.

 

Baseball Stories – Twice Told Tales

In late May of 1966, Owensboro Senior High School hooked up with a crackerjack Shelby County team in the semifinals of the Kentucky Boys State Baseball Tournament for what would end up being One For The Ages. It remains legendary for me and those who participated – as well as establishing various still-unbroken records, now some 50 years later. One would have to believe that, having won the State just 2 years prior, in 1964, Owensboro would be rated as a slight favorite. We had two absolute Ace pitchers in Wayne Greenwell and Danny Howes, each of which had ERA’s one needed an electron microscope to find, each under 1.00. Each had improved their games from “already very good”, to plain dominant.

In our first game, we played perennial competitor and tournament rival Paducah Tilghman and beat them 1-0 behind a perfectly awesome pitching performance by Danny. The ballgame had the standard key moments but, in the last analysis, it was a game for pitchers who grossly over-matched hitters on both teams. For ball players, these games have their own elements of fascination. Like Major League baseball’s World Series or Playoffs, every single pitch thrown is an epic story. Moments of pressure are completely constant. It is a game of nerves.

I recall a beautiful late Spring Kentucky day, a bit warm but sunny with little if any wind. To call it “baseball weather” would be insulting to the Perfection of the day. Played at the University of Kentucky’s home field in Lexington, the field itself was especially well-groomed and, for an infielder such as myself, very true, at least during early innings until the dirt got chewed up a bit by the spikes worn by base runners and crossed by players entering and exiting during inning changes. Predictable ground balls are an infielder’s dream, while the sordid realities of bad bounces plague a shortstop’s night dreams like a platoon of Steven King clowns.

Shelby County had won the state basketball championship that season, just a few months earlier. Featuring future college All American, Mike Casey, who played shortstop they also had speedster Bill Busey and Ron Ritter, a hulking big sucker who could throw BB’s. Inasmuch as Ritter had won their first ballgame, they went with lefty Tom Hayden for a while.

As soon as the game got underway, there was action. Busey was the ballgame’s second batter and he hit an impossibly hot, worm-burning ground ball by our third baseman, down the line almost immediately into foul territory and which diabolically kept rolling, even beyond the fence which ended around 5 feet to the left of the line. Well, the ball was ruled “in play” even beyond the fence, a curious and unique local rule we were not familiar with and which Jack admitted he felt guilty for not advising us of. Our left fielder, Landy Lawrence temporarily gave up on chasing it down until Jack began screaming from our dugout to pursue and play it. By the time he corralled it relayed the ball to me and I threw it home, Busey easily slid under the tag for the first run of the game, now 4 minutes old. It was frankly bizarre and just a singularly freaky score. But it sure would matter.

Irritated, Greenwell proceeded to begin what became an absolutely overwhelming performance, mixing his sharp-breaking and exceedingly accurate curve ball with enough speed to startle hitters into submission.

In our next at bats, I led off with a sharply hit single to left. I had learned to steal bases, having found more speed than ever my senior year and gauging pitcher tendencies to an extent that I was about 95% successful on my steals during the season. I think I was thrown out once and even then, it was because a second baseman literally blocked the base. That I “got even” later is another story.

So I stole second base early on in the count. With the lefty on the mound, I had always found it incredibly easier to swipe third base. Plus, many pitchers were simply not accustomed to players stealing third. I went ahead and did so right away, so we had the tying run in position right away. This would happen 2 more times. I got on base 2 times more by the 5th inning, stole second and/or third and waited there – for “Godot”. I never scored.

I remember being on second base after one of the steals glancing at Casey at shortstop who was smiling as if he had some hidden joke. It caught my eye.

“You’re stealin’ third, aren’t you?” he asked.

“Next pitch,” I smiled back. He laughed hard. I took off and made it. I looked back with a grin and he pointed at me. I think he swore, but I can’t be sure. (We met after the game and exchanged laughs and family introductions. Mike was a good guy.)

Meanwhile, both pitchers were excellent. While we hit their lefty hard, we could not group any hits together enough to even score a run until, finally, Greenwell hit a towering shot with a runner on second that bounced over the fence, 380 feet away. Alas, we had finally broken through and scored the tying run. But, with that blast, Wayne caused a pitching change, bringing the hard-throwing Ritter in who caused us no end of tribulation. He shut us down that inning – he shut me down for the rest of the game – and produced very little room for optimism. He was throwing aspirin tablets up there.

We continued on past the regulation distance of 7 innings with neither pitcher yielding anything whatsoever. Wayne was simply nasty, but so was Ritter. Each potential threat was usually disposed of with strike outs, in fact.

In the 17th, Casey hit this diabolical blooper between me and center-fielder Billy Wellman. We collided, grotesquely – the hardest “hit” I’d ever felt in baseball –  a total surprise –  and my worst collision ever. I had the ball in my glove but the collision jarred it loose and Casey ended up with a double. A sacrifice bunt on their part later which led to a bobble, then an uncharacteristically bad throw by Bobby Hupp, plated a run and they scored again on another error – we blinked first.  Speaking of my experience of tight games, these were games which we typically won. We had so often waited for another team to break. This time it was us. Jack;s comment after the game: “We usually win games like this, but this one was not in the cards.”

5 and a half hours after the first pitch, we departed the field darn near in tears.

We mounted a tiny rally in the bottom of the 17th with Tommy Jones getting a hit but Ritter did his work and struck the last 2 players out. Our deflation was total. It was an empty sensation, especially in view of what Greenwell had accomplished on a strictly individual basis.

In my lexicon of Impressive Baseball Accomplishments, I’m not sure anyone will ever top what Wayne did that game. He must have thrown 200 pitches, for one thing. But of primary interest is the fact that he struck out 27 batters in a State Championship ball game.

27

Remarkably as well, he walked two batters – the same guy twice – Intentionally. No more.

(Actually, Owensboro has had a pitcher strike out more in one game, believe it or not, and it also came with Jack as head coach. Bobby Woodward once struck out 31 batters against Greenville in a massively ridiculous game where the opposing pitcher and a future Major Leaguer struck out 23 himself. It was a 14 inning game.)

The Shelby County game was the longest game – still – in Kentucky High School State Tournament History. The strikeout total is so overwhelmingly record-setting, there is no one close for second place. These days of 100 pitch limits so fashionable in the modern game, Wayne would have been gone in the 7th inning. I mean, 27 strikeouts is 81 pitches all alone!

The defeat was a bitter pill. Exhausted, Shelby County was beaten by Ashland in the Finals.

It’s somewhat ironic that the most iconic game I ever played in was a loss. The elements which took us so far over so many long years all played into the fact that we were there – vying for a State Championship at the highest levels – and with the amazing performance by Wayne Greenwell on a strictly individual basis which we now get to tell our grandkids about.

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Beckly Creek Park – Part Deux

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A gorgeous day made my Sunday morning sabbatical in Beckly Creek Park an absolute pleasure. The wildflowers show I missed. in earlier Spring carries some regret, but I’m somewhat on time for the next chorus of color in the vast wildflower patches punctuating the park as a border to the road through.DSCN1361[1]

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The wildflowers come in swaths and literal pastures extending for distances in this stunningly well-prepared place.

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So I decide Hell, I can take iff into this forest and wander a bit. It has a great entryway, lol.

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Under the canopy everything changes – the air is cooler and fresher. Walking becomes a pleasure, looking for the next photo opportunity.

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Beautiful bursts of bright sunlight are hugely contrasted as they light up the forest.

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As always, at least when walking with me, if there is some creek to look at, chances are excellent I’ll do the looking. 😉  It was really brilliant this morning from this perspective of a post-holocaust flood of sorts. 😉

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But further down took my breath away.

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A look in the other direction, same creek, lol.

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Pretty sweet.

 

 

More on Louisville’s Newest Park(s)

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The Parkands of Floyd’s Fork is a gorgeous conglomeration of other parks: Beckly Creek Park, at the entry on Shelbyville Road, begins a park-touring Odyssey designed for all 4 seasons of Nature in an incredibly beautiful Kentucky at its best. The entire $120 Million donated effort is nearly complete, having begun in 2012 the process of removing invasive species and replacing them in great huge, gorgeous swaths with local wildflowers and grasses. The volunteers who performed so much of the early work deserve world class applause. The result of everyone involved’s hard work is a real sense of Perfection.

This park has recently become a center of my medical rehabilitation from a crazy cosmic series of physical injuries. The gorgeously heavy early Summer air supports the jungle -like growth which is a Kentucky forest in Summer. Consistent downpours and spectacular thunder and lightning effects long into the night, sometimes still rumbling in the morning, make for a green environment in ideal growing conditions. Forests are incredibly dense, often featuring unique species such as Kentucky Coffee Trees, the common but lovely state tree, The Tulip Poplar, Hickory and the stately, huge and colorful Sycamore’s who lighten the already-rich environment.

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And, of course, the park is named for the creek which passes through – sometimes raging, sometimes still – the creek is the heartbeat.

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I was lucky enough to be around while smaller creeks feeding Floyd’s Fork took on a serenely luscious look.

001Visiting the creek often in other locations every trip I make, I discover an old Sycamore snag protruding out as foreground for a still-life of calm riverhood.

DSCN1333[1]The history of flow rates and rushing water is easily enough spotted, even – or especially? – when the water recedes..

DSCN1331[1]Even having lowered, the water level still satisfies the gurgling reputation and surprises with its volume.

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The most remarkable part of all is how the hundred miles of bike trails – a cyclist’s paradise with an eventual circling route around the entire city – follow the creek itself. Paddlers, kayaks, bicycles, fishermen – all are welcome and pretty much all return like me to savor this bountiful Natural Feast.

Next post, we will visit the Interpretive Center, the great playground and the stone work of some breathtaking specialists in a park which spared no expense in meeting craftsmanship excellence.

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