Design your dream

After a decade in business, Mike Corsie felt like he was losing out. With two fulltime mowing crews and 70-plus clients who only hired Terrapin Landscaping to cut lawns, Corsie was frustrated that property owners who had worked with his company were going elsewhere for their large design-build projects.

“I felt like I was getting trapped into that category of, ‘Terrapin Landscaping is a lawn-mowing company,’” says Corsie, president of the Kennebunkport, Ma.-based firm he started in 2001, after years of working in the industry for other landscaping businesses.

There was an evident gap between how Corsie wanted Terrapin to work on a client’s property – as a complete solution for maintenance, design projects and more – and how clients viewed the company’s capabilities. Corsie believed marketing and image were the crux of his problem. He wanted to evolve into a primarily design-build firm that could capture significant projects, which earn higher profit margins than maintenance (about 20 percent vs. 10 percent).

“I would be at a customer’s property for maintenance and see a new patio,” Corsie says. “And I’d say, ‘Oh, you did a patio. I didn’t know you wanted a patio. I would have liked to do that.’ And they’d say, ‘I didn’t know you did that.’”

This dialogue concerned Corsie, and it interfered with his growth plans for the company. Corsie always appreciated the recurring revenue maintenance brought in. He built a loyal client list and became a visible player in his area with mowing, but he wanted to flip his crew breakdown and operate two gardening/installation crews and a single mowing team.

“Like any businessman, it’s hard to say no, so the lawn mowing part of the business grew, and everyone saw us out there mowing 300 accounts,” Corsie says. “But you know, no one ever saw us doing the design/build projects. They just weren’t as prominent, so the last couple of years we have been focused on pushing that part of the business.”

Corsie began efforts three years ago to shift the business mix to primarily design/build. The unveiling of Terrapin Landscaping’s new website was in July this year. Here are the steps Corsie took to change his business course.

Trimming back mowing accounts.

Corsie’s weakness is saying no. (He’s not alone – who wants to turn down a potential job?) “Eventually, I was putting so much energy into a part of the business that I wasn’t as interested in,” he says of mowing.

Mowing is an important part of the business, Corsie says. “It’s reliable work.” But crews were so dedicated to maintenance that there was little time to even consider other projects. Corsie had to cut out some mowing before he could grow the design/build side of the firm.

So last year, he selected about 20 to 30 clients that were solely mowing accounts and never asked Terrapin to do anything more. He sent out a letter explaining that he wanted to focus the company’s energy on design/build and hardscape work. And, he gave them a referral to a trusted mowing professional in town. The arrangement worked out because this guy only wanted to mow lawns, and Corsie was looking to pass on some of those accounts.

Then this spring, Corsie mailed out another wave of letters to about 50 more mowing-only clients.

Today, the firm has the most employees in its history, 22, and is running one mowing crew, an installation crew and a crew that flexes between maintenance and gardening.

Investing in installation.

If Corsie was going to sell design/build work beyond the patios and more basic installations the company had been doing the last 15 years, he needed to build up his resources. That started two years ago with recruiting a stone mason, who was working at the time. Next, Corsie went to the bank for an SBA-backed loan to finance equipment purchases. Those included an excavator, skid-steer loader and a larger truck.

“Overnight, we transformed the business from a company that was doing smaller plantings and patio jobs into a company that could handle anything from ground-up site work to large stone walls,” Corsie says.

As for hiring employees, Corsie says letting go of so many maintenance accounts alleviated the stress of keeping mowing crews staffed. “On the mowing side of the business, it had been very difficult to find people who are reliable and who do the job the way you want,” he says. “Every year, I felt like I was having so much turnover in that side of the business. I would finally get to the point where I felt comfortable with an employee and he wouldn’t come back, then I’d have to start all over in the spring.”

Why stress about a part of the business you don’t want to grow? That’s what Corsie says today. He runs one mowing crew, and the split crew spends two days mowing and the rest of the week on landscape crews mulching, pruning and performing other gardening tasks. “Those guys are the type who are up for anything,” he says.

Rebranding the business.

Winning clients’ trust is the key to securing the larger installation jobs, Corsie says. And while Terrapin has a name in the area, he wanted to be sure clients recognized the firm could carry out sophisticated, high-end projects.

Corsie realized he needed to rebrand the company and take a second look at his logo and marketing materials. “The marketing company convinced me that the clients I want are looking for a mature, professional company, and I felt like maybe my logo did not reflect that,” he says.

Breaking up with a logo that has been associated with your firm for 15 years isn’t easy. “I felt like people knew my logo and I didn’t want to do anything completely different. I just wanted to freshen it up and make it look more professional,” he says.

In the end, the green sea turtle that has always been associated with Terrapin Landscaping got a modern facelift and a fresh color palette. A new website is easier for visitors to use, and for Corsie to update. Plus, he’s optimizing his social media.

Meanwhile, a partnership with a local nursery is driving more installation business to Terrapin’s door (see A Well-Designed Partnership), and Terrapin completed its first out-of-town project in Marblehead, Mass., this season. “We work for the owner here and he knew us and trusted us for his other home,” Corsie says, adding that this is another way the company could expand. “I would definitely travel again for a job, and we had a fun time doing it."

2015 has been the biggest year yet for Terrapin Landscaping, with revenues mid-season already matching those of last year. “That has to do with the installation work because it’s a much higher profit margin,” Corsie says. “When you take more energy and manpower and focus on that part of the business, that’s where you can get results.”

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