June 7, 2024
Big lessons from small companies
By Kali Pearson

At Landscape Ontario, we regularly feature the award-winning companies behind some of Ontario’s biggest projects. But with more than half of our members running companies with fewer than 20 employees, it’s time to shine the spotlight on some of our small but mighty member companies, who have some serious wisdom to share.

Emily Keown: Invest in the best  

portrait of a woman smilingEmily Keown’s roots in landscaping run deep. Her dad was a landscaper, her stepfather is a landscaper and she grew up working in her mother’s garden centre in Dwight, Ont. When her brother Tom founded Fivepoint Landscaping in 2019 on the same property, she soon joined him and is now vice president. Keown says they are big believers in building a sense of pride for their team — and leaning on top consultants to fill in where they lack expertise.

With only 10 full-time employees, Fivepoint does it all — from landscape design, building and maintenance in the summer, to snow and ice removal and property maintenance for seasonal residents in the winter. At their summer peak, the team can expand to 30 or so — but Keown has no intention of getting any larger.

While many companies struggle to attract employees, Keown says that thanks to their investment in branding and equipment, talent comes to them. “We have the newer blowers and the newer excavators and we take care of our things very well,” she said. “We also invest in really nice hoodies and even though it sounds silly, I think all that matters to staff — looking cool. I think to the new generation they all value name-brand clothes and nice cars and that’s just how they’ve grown up.”

Once a new employee gets in the door, Keown invests heavily in safety and training. She also insists that everyone do their part to keep the office and equipment squeaky clean. “As owners, we look after our vehicles and we're very particular on things,” she said. “I think that trickles down.

If we notice someone has left something dirty, that person is usually the first one back on Friday afternoon to wash the trucks. But it’s all in good fun.”

This also helps maintain an environment of safety and efficiency. “We don't knock on wood. We don't have a lot of WSIB or health and safety issues. If there’s MTO [roadcheck] we know we aren’t going to be off the road for an hour or get a ticket,” Keown explained.

Keown is also adamant about investing in the services of expert consultants and modern software. Both, she says, have been essential to their growth, efficiency and profitability. “For the first few years, we just used plain old Quickbooks and Excel. I really upped our game when we started using LMN and looking at budgets and putting a strategic plan in place.”

After seeing an article in Landscape Ontario magazine, she reached out to business coach Nathan Helder.  “A lot of small businesses may look at it like it's crazy money, but it's so worth it because where else can you get someone else's expert and honest opinion on your baby?” It also saves an enormous amount of time. Whether it’s Helder sharing financial wisdom or their HR consultant drafting contracts, dealing with claims and lending support when employees need to be dismissed, Keown says it’s worth every penny.

“I was always told to hire what you're not good at. As entrepreneurs, we are really good at ideas and thinking outside the box to do things better or faster,” she said. “But when it comes down to the business side of it, we need a little extra help.” Using consultants also means Keown and her brother can continue to be more hands on.

“We don't have the intention of growing any bigger,” Keown said. “We really like the team we have right now. We really like that the people like the management — and everyone seems to come back every year.”

David Milne: Focus on what truly matters

man wearing a baseball cap and smilingAnyone who has had the pleasure of meeting David Milne will know he wears his heart on his sleeve. In fact, one Landscape Ontario member interviewed for this story suggested Milne’s heart is so big it might actually take up both sleeves.

This explains a lot about how Milne defines success — and what has made Quercus Gardens in Toronto, Ont., thrive for over 25 years. “My motivation is not money at all, which maybe sounds weird coming from a guy who owns a business,” he said. “My motivation is to do the work we love, let my staff make a good living and pay my bills.” Milne also considers ‘hugs from happy clients’ a success metric.

Milne left a position with a large landscaping company to strike out on his own when his son was born. “I was managing a couple crews and putting in tons of hours,” he said. “I’m blessed that my wife led a more corporate existence and I happily took on the stay-at-home dad role. But I still wanted to do [landscaping] work because it makes me happy.” As a sole operator, Milne knew it would be more efficient (and profitable) to serve a smaller geographic area, so he distributed flyers in two densely populated and affluent neighbourhoods.  

Before too long, there was so much work that Milne and his wife decided to put their son into daycare and expand. But while Milne was happy to add a few employees, he never wanted his business to grow too big. “I have this personal philosophy that the more keys in my key chain, the more complicated my life gets. And I'm really trying to find a way to make my life as simple and easy as possible,” he said. “Last year I had nine people and I was stressed out horribly. This year I have five and life is way better.”

Milne loves mentoring his employees, but has no interest in micromanaging and doesn’t hesitate to let people go if he isn’t able to take them to where they want to go or if their values don’t align. In interviews, he tends to ask about their taste in music, whether they like camping or other personal interests that may indicate they share a connection — and that they have the artistic mentality and passion for the environment needed to work at Quercus.

Milne gives his people lots of support and creative freedom. “I think that's part of having a successful team,” he said. “When you're on their case all the time, that doesn't allow for people to express themselves. How can they bring their best work to the table if they're afraid they're doing it wrong?”

He is also adamant about paying living wages, being a supportive human and offering a stipend that employees can use for healthcare expenses. “I think that as an industry — as a society — this has to happen across the board,” he said. “Do what you can to help out your staff. I can’t offer a profound amount of money, but it’s what my little company can afford to do.”

 Milne also operates from the heart when meeting new clients. “I have to connect with them instantly. It's important to me,” he said. “I like to get into their home. I like to look at the art on their wall. I'll ask them about the music they're into, because I need to be able to relate to them on a certain level.” The information he gathers also ensures he creates designs that resonate.

At the end of the day, Milne is profoundly committed to making a difference in the world — for people and the planet. “We are blessed to be here. The odds of life on this planet are so infinitesimal that I feel that we have to do everything we can to protect that,” he said. “I'm part of the generation that helped screw everything up. I want to be a voice for hopefully making things better.”

Heather Jerrard: Colour outside the lines

portrait of a woman smilingAs sole proprietor of My Landscape Artist in London, Ont., Heather Jerrard loves having the opportunity to get creative every day.

A self-described theatre nerd and type-A perfectionist, Jerrard loves running her own show but realized early on that she couldn’t do it alone.  

Jerrard decided to make the leap into self-employment during the COVID-19 pandemic, when basically no one was hiring. “At the very beginning, honestly, there was no vision. There was no business plan, there was no outline of what it was going to be,” said Jerrard. “I just knew that I loved working in landscaping and I loved landscape design.”

She started talking to her peers at Landscape Ontario, picking their brains one Zoom call at a time. She started reading the books they recommended and learning as much as she could about business and what she could uniquely bring to the table.

On one of those calls, a mentor made a comment that shaped how she shows up in the market today. “I was telling him how I've never really fit in anywhere,” Jerrard said. “I'm too opinionated. I'm too emotional. I feel too much, I care too much. He told me, ‘let your freak flag fly and never apologize for it.’”

 She took that to heart and this essential lesson has helped her to find her own unique way to market and position her company. Rather than present a rigid suite of services, Jerrard has a two-pronged approach that leaves room for improvisation. One side of her website is for homeowners and the other is for contractors looking to fill the need for professional design. She also leaves lots of room for new projects that help her learn, build community or reach new customers — one memorable project was creating an ash scattering garden for a local cemetery.

“I strongly believe that we are not growing and improving if we're not uncomfortable,” she said. “It's in those moments when we feel uncomfortable that we really see personal growth and development.”  

When Jerrard completes a project, the client has a landscape coach for life. This is one of the many ways Jerrard stands out — by continuing to play a leading role for existing clients. She’ll come by or take a call if there’s an issue, and shares insights through her customer newsletters, packed with gardening advice to keep gardens thriving.

“I think it's just important to put yourself out there. I've heard a lot of smaller new businesses say, ‘nobody knows where I am. Nobody's looking me up,’” she said. “Well, what are you doing to encourage people to look you up? Where do people see you?”

Her playful approach to marketing stemmed from that early conversation with her mentor. “I try to be genuine and vulnerable,” she said. “I get business from Instagram because people see me and they're like, ‘I think I'd really like to work with you.’”

While Jerrard has no desire to hire staff, she is hoping to take on co-op students in the next year or so. “Co-ops changed my life and really put me on an awesome path,” she said. “If I can be that one stepping stone for somebody, it'd be "awesome." 

At the end of the day, Jerrard’s mission is the same no matter who she is working with. “I want to spread joy and I want to be someone that people want to work with,” she said. “I want to make the world a better, more beautiful place one garden at a time.”

Welwyn Wong: Elevate the industry

picture of a woman smilingWhen Welwyn Wong started out in the Ottawa area 24 years ago, there weren’t many — if any — landscape designers selling big ticket projects. A lesser entrepreneur may have seen that as a sign the market wasn’t ready. But Wong was convinced there was a niche to be tapped creating breathtaking, higher-budget projects. She just had to help people understand their value.
“I was often met with the people who would say ‘why would I hire you when my grandmother has a beautiful garden and she didn't need a designer?’” said Wong. “I realized after the first year that I actually had to promote the industry. What makes the difference is when you hire a designer to do your landscaping and how vital that service is.”

Wong started to approach the Ottawa Citizen with story ideas, and quickly became the go-to source for gardening expertise, offering homeowners tips and advice for making their outdoor spaces more beautiful and unique.

“I think that then gives a level of trust. People trust that ‘yes, these people know what they're talking about,’” said Wong. “I think it heightens the awareness of what we bring to the table as designers.”

To be fair to the people of Ottawa, even Wong didn’t realize that landscape design was a thing until she saw it in print. As a little girl, Wong spent school holidays side by side with her architect father, dreaming up designs at his drafting table. But her father cautioned her away from the field and she enrolled in a general science program instead. “I floundered around and tried a little bit of engineering and a little bit of art and a little bit of I have no idea,” she said. Her little sister, seeing Wong’s struggle, encouraged her to explore the path she really wanted. “She found this pamphlet for landscape architecture at the University of Guelph and shoved it in front of my face.”

Welwyn Wong Landscape Design is now a dedicated team of three, expanding to five or so in the busy season. She said a big challenge over the years has been retaining staff when there are larger firms that can keep people employed year-long. Through Landscape Ontario, Wong found out about a wage subsidy program that tops up employment insurance over the winter months, which she said has been a huge help. “It's a wonderful program for anyone who wants to try and retain their staff,” she said. The program covers 60 per cent of wages and she budgets throughout the year to bring that up to 80 per cent.

The core team works hard in the busy season and looks forward to having the months of December, January and sometimes part of February off to recharge. She also places a lot of focus on mentoring her team. “I would say that in the smaller firm everyone gets to wear many hats, so you get to learn a lot more about what is involved with running the company,” she said. “You become vital more quickly than I think in a bigger company.”

Sometimes all that education means her employees end up striking out on their own, but Wong takes that in stride. “There are plenty of clients to share,” she said, adding that being part of Landscape Ontario has helped shape this perspective. “I know we're all pseudo in competition with each other, but in the end we benefit. In the thick and thin of things, we all band together and increase our capabilities.”