Tips from the top: Chris Graeber

I’m one of the few that started from the onset. I worked at a garden center in high school, went straight into landscape architecture at Texas Tech, came out and went into business. That was a long time ago, like 1978. I owned my own deal for 18 years and sold in with the TruGreen rollup back in the late 1990s with Minor’s Landscape Services.

I started and just loved the landscape installation part of it. Even though I have my license and degree in landscape architecture, I’ve always migrated to the operations end of the business. I’ve not been a designer for quite some time.

I think the operations side is financially more lucrative than the design side. If you’re in the design side, you have to build up a pretty large firm of other designers to equal what you can do in the operations side.

Garden Design started about 22 years ago. The company started doing builder work for builders on new homes. It’s still a big chunk of our revenue. It’s probably half maybe or just under half. We also do commercial installations for any commercial projects – mostly private stuff, not the municipal, public, commercial work. We do also do design/build for retail clients working directly for the homeowners. These projects are not always related to builders we work with. We’re primarily in Dallas. We’re also in San Antonio and Austin Texas and in Houston, and we’re actually doing a major, $4 million job in Monroe, La., right now.

I’ve been here about two years and we’ve doubled. The revenue doubled from $19 million in 2012 to just under $41 million in December for 2014. So the growth has been phenomenal the last two years and I don’t know if it will continue with that kind of a pace, but it’s still definitely healthy.

Part of it’s economics. The housing business in Texas anyway is really healthy and so we have a lot of builder work. There is a good bit more commercial work than there used to be. So more than anything, it’s the economy improving the markets. We haven’t expanded our service lines footprint too much other than we’ve pushed more commercial into the Austin-San Antonio market, which previously had just been builder.

We’re an ESOP. When we’re hiring a manager; we’re really hiring a partner. You don’t want to go through that process and then have somebody leave six months down the road.

I think the big thing that will hopefully continue to move forward and evolve is more of the smaller and mid-sized companies embracing technology becoming more professional. This industry, back when I started, was your pick-up truck and a magnetic sign on your door and you’re in business.

Many companies never bothered with licenses and insurance and all the things that you really have to have so hopefully the industry will continue to evolve to be better at the game of business. When they’re as good at that as they are at the game of landscape – you’ll see companies that are started by a guy who is just looking to make fast money and not really looking to have a company that’s going to be a real business. That’s what I see improving over the next five years. I’ve seen it the last five or 10 years. That’s come a long, long ways and it’s still got a ways to go.

Don’t to be afraid of competition. There’s not very many secrets left in the landscape business. Much of it’s been printed in magazines like Lawn & Landscape over the years. We all use the same labor markets. We buy our plants from the same places pretty much and we buy the trucks from Chevy and Ford so the difference is really understanding the business part of it.


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