May 15, 2008

Conservative planning builds strong business

By Sarah Willis

Starting a service business during a recession meant Brian Miller of Dusty Miller Landscaping had to learn to run his company professionally from the start. “I learned to keep overheads low,” he says. “As a business owner it’s important not to put yourself in a position where you are vulnerable. Buy only what you are able to pay cash for is a good rule to follow.” Now, even in his 18th year of business, Brian only buys new equipment when the company has built up enough cash to pay for it. Expanding conservatively has built a company with a rock-solid foundation.

Dusty Miller initially operated out of Brian’s garage in Holland Landing, but quickly expanded into an industrial unit. “Starting a new company just as a recession hit was tough,” he admits. “But I had a supportive wife who was prepared to scale back our family’s lifestyle to help carry the business — but fortunately it wasn’t necessary. After three years we were able to buy a farm north of the city and we found another company to take over the industrial unit lease.” Since then, Brian and Lynn Miller have worked together as a team and have created a thriving landscape design/build company.

Human capital

Another lesson Brian learned quickly, is that his employees are critical to the success of all his endeavours, and he is quick to give credit to his wife and staff for allowing him to expand his business. By expanding gradually, Dusty Miller now has four maintenance crews, three construction crews and a planting crew working in the GTA. In late spring/early summer he has a crew of eight planting annuals steadily for up to eight weeks.

He looks for professional, motivated people and gives them lots of room to grow within the company. “When you find keepers, you do everything in your power to encourage them to stay. I try to make my employees understand they are not just working for an hourly wage, they should be thinking of a career. Sometimes, instead of raises, I encourage them to start investing in an RRSP — and support them through RRSP contributions.” Employees are offered access to Miller’s group insurance plan after one year, and strongly encouraged to further their knowledge through professional development opportunities. “If any staff member wants to get a CHT designation, we will pay for the registration fee and first test. My landscape designer is working toward his CLP and CLD at the moment, and both my managers have acquired their CHT and are close to completing their CLP,” Brian adds. Feeling part of the Dusty Miller team is an important part of the company culture. The company goes on staff outings, enters a company team in the Toronto Chapter baseball tournament and last year held a golf tournament in honour of Brian’s late father.

Profile of distinction

Attendees at LO’s annual Awards of Excellence ceremony will recognize Dusty Miller Landscaping as a familiar presence at the podium. Brian’s managers picked out the projects they wanted to enter and got their crews involved in the application process. “I’ll buy a ticket for anyone who wants to go the awards ceremony at Congress,” says Brian, “and it’s the crews who worked on the jobsite who accept the award.”

“Years ago I recognized that in order to grow, I had to let go of some of the business operations. I still do all the selling, but now, as soon as a job is sold, it goes to my operations manager, who has been with me since 1994. He obtains all the locates, orders and sources material and schedules deliveries. In a company of this size, I can’t be involved in everything and be effective,” Brian admits. He usually visits a job site once a day, but is always available by radio if needed. “Having key people in place enables me to get more done. It is a challenge to sell enough work to keep 35-40 staff working every day.”

“It was a difficult transition,” he says of not being on the job site all the time, “but it was necessary. My guys make mistakes occasionally, but now they find ways of correcting problems themselves. I have the right people in place.”

One task Brian has not let go is hand-picking all his plant material. Being able to tag all the specimen plants in advance he thinks he will need for a season is key to the quality of his final projects, and ensures availability throughout the season. He has built relationships with his suppliers over the years, and they know he won’t tag more than he needs and tie up inventory that could otherwise be sold.

Value of design

When he started his own company Brian did ‘free’ landscape designs for his clients, however he quickly realized the value he was giving away and has charged for landscape plans ever since. “A great deal of time goes into creating a plan, so all our clients pay for Dusty Miller designs. But I always tell them I will guarantee you haven’t made a mistake by hiring us. You can pay less for something you may not be happy with, which is an expensive mistake.

“We have never lost a customer because of the quality of our work,” he says. “It’s because their priorities change in life — their kids move out, so they don’t need the pool and tennis courts anymore.

“I do have people call occasionally to question the landscape estimate, or their maintenance bill, and I have to justify the higher rates we charge. We have a highly skilled staff who cost a lot to keep on the job site. I remind the client that he called us in the first place, and give him information to help make an educated choice. Most of our new clients are used to a high level of service, but they have to be willing to pay for it.”

Jobsite marketing

Brian is proud that he doesn’t have to advertise his services. “Our work all comes from word of mouth, or because a neighbour has seen our trucks and crews working and likes what he sees. I had one new client call recently because she had spoken with our crew members working on her street and liked their work ethic and friendly personalities.”

Brian has always been a big believer in doing what’s necessary to take his company to the next level. His high-end clients appreciate the clean trucks, professional crews, top notch designs and workmanship, but there’s always more.  Never satisfied with sitting idle, Brian always challenges himself and staff to offer new and innovative ideas, whether it is through design or high level maintenance programs.  You must constantly strive to stay atop the always-evolving landscape industry.

 “Sometimes people don’t know what they want until it’s offered,” says Brian, and cites the idea of using large-scale tropical plants as annuals in southern Ontario gardens. “is a simple way of thinking outside the box.  Not all clients will pay for this luxury, however if you make two sales out of 10 that is still two more than you would have made if it wasn’t offered. Creating wonderful annual planting displays sells us a lot of work, whether it is landscape construction or maintenance.  I believe your eyes never lie.  If someone sees something they like, you will eventually get a call that could lead to a job.”

While finally making time to travel with his family last winter, Brian regrets not being able to participate as a mentor in Landscape Ontario’s Prosperity Partners program this year. But he does offer informal mentoring to anyone needing help.
“This is a great industry to be working in, I enjoy meeting a cross-section of people every day. I’ve met some intriguing people I could spend all day talking to.”

Dusty Miller’s award-winning entry in the residential construction category, $100,000 - $250,000 in the 2006 Landscape Ontario Awards of Excellence Program.
All of Dusty Miller’s employees gather for a training meeting before work every other Saturday morning.