January 3, 2024
Investing in crews makes a leader
member profileBy Julia Harmsworth

The first thing you notice when entering Burch Landscape Services’ office in Waterloo, Ont., is a wall of framed certificates.

“With our crews that have been here for a year, we start sending them for different certifications,” said owner and president Richard Burch, who believes investing in his staff and promoting careers in landscaping and horticulture is a key to business success.

Burch started Burch Landscape Services in 2001 with the purchase of a Kwik Kerb franchise. He began with decorative concrete edging, but quickly moved into snow removal, property maintenance and landscaping services, which is the company’s main focus today. The company services properties in the Kitchener/Waterloo area.

The company originally served mostly seniors, who Burch said struggled to find a reliable, honest landscaping business to fit their budget. As the years went by, the company progressed to higher income areas and projects, but has kept many of its original customers. One woman in Kitchener, for example, has been a client for 20 years.

“That’s where we thrived: with that generation. As we grew, people saw our work and it just started to take off,” Burch said. “Like most landscape companies, it started off with a truck, a mower, a blower and a trimmer. Then you get a trailer, you get bigger equipment, and you hire people. It’s just grown from there.”

This origin story gave Burch Landscape Services its identity, reputation and values: to be honest, fair and reliable. Through these qualities, it strives to be a leader in work environment, quality of work and industry support.

“Our values are just to be fair with our customers, with our pricing,” Burch said. “We’ve always tried to be that type of company, and do quality work.” Richard Burch at desk

A team culture

At the height of the season, Burch Landscape Services has 10 employees — and Burch strives to foster a positive company culture and work/life balance to support them.

His crews are a team; they join forces to complete projects and lend a hand to each other to meet deadlines, but they also have each other’s backs in a bigger way. For example, if a large snowfall occurs on Christmas, crew members agree that those with young children need to be home first thing in the morning, so those without get up for the early shifts.

“Work is important, and they all understand that, but family is also very important,” Burch said. “When I was starting my business, I went eight years without a vacation. My family life suffered. I missed some important memories. I don’t want the same for my staff.” landscape photo

Earning certificates

To retain qualified employees, Burch invests in them. He guides younger staff through the ranks by giving them more responsibilities, and frequently sends them to educational courses and programs, most of which are through Landscape Ontario (LO).

Last year, two long-time staff members participated in LO’s GROW program, which helps professionals build on their skills. The staff have also taken small engine repair classes with Conestoga College,
and courses run by industry vendors including Unilock and Techo-Bloc. This winter, three staff members are also embarking on LO courses.

“I always think it’s a good day when you’ve learned something new,” Burch said. “If you can’t keep learning stuff, you get stale. If you can learn something and teach it to other people, everybody gets better along the way.”

Constant investment in building his team’s knowledge and skills motivates the crews to do better work. It also makes the company an industry leader in not only workplace dynamics, but quality of work. Burch said his crews are inspired to look at their work and think, “Is this the best we can do? How can we make it better?”

“When you demand quality from your people, you need to give them something that they can build on,” Burch said. He often gets compliments from customers on his staff, who he firmly believes are the root of the company’s success.

Completing courses also allows crew members to educate customers on horticulture matters and assist them on design projects. For example, if a customer wants a specific kind of tree, but it’s unlikely to thrive in their yard because of the sunlight or soil, a crew member can clearly explain why it may not be the best choice and offer a productive solution. house on a lawn

Supporting the Waterloo Chapter

Burch has been a member of LO since 2008. He said the association has helped the company greatly — not only through offering certifications and seminars, but through its community, advocacy work and networking opportunities with other members.

“We’re all in the same industry, and we all have the same problems. We have the same goals; we have the same successes. It’s neat to converse with everyone and bounce ideas off each other,” he said.

Burch sat on the Waterloo Chapter Board from 2010 to 2016, where he was a director and, later, vice-president. He helped organize baseball tournaments, golf tournaments, school greening projects, a family fun day, and the annual Fall Freeze Up dinner and dance, which he cited as a highlight of his board experience. He was “voluntold” to emcee the event, a role he’s now filled for 14 years.

“You get more out of LO than you put into it,” he said. “You meet new people [and] you feed off of them. Sometimes they’re mentors, sometimes they’re colleagues, sometimes they’re competitors, but you all work together.”

This sense of community not only made his career more fulfilling, but helped his company grow. When fellow members get calls about jobs that aren’t in their wheelhouse, they send them Burch’s way. Likewise, if he gets a request for a job he can’t do, he gives the customer the names of a couple of colleagues who can.

Burch is inspired by his peers’ projects. He particularly enjoys celebrating them at LO’s annual Awards of Excellence ceremony. He hasn’t missed a Congress trade show in over 10 years; his badge from the 2022 event hangs behind him at his desk.

“You always get to see some new things, new equipment, innovative equipment,” he said. “And then, seeing everybody. It’s a good way to reconnect, and it gets you thinking about spring.”
backyard landscaping
front of house
front lawn

Finding motivation for the future

Aside from meeting people through jobs and LO, Burch finds satisfaction in creating things. He enjoys the quick gratification of the work — how the curbs or gardens his crews install can transform a property in a matter of days.

“You can see what you’ve accomplished in a short period of time. From tear-out to the final drop of the mulch, it’s fairly quick. I like that satisfaction when you’ve completed those jobs,” he said. “I enjoy when we get to use our skills and make a beautiful garden.”

Looking forward, Burch wants to see the landscape and horticulture trades be given the same respect as skilled indoor trades, like plumbers or electricians, and be held to the same industry standards.

“I think the general consumer needs to know there’s a lot of knowledge and training that goes into our industry,” he said. “You can’t cut all plants back at the end of the year; you have to know which ones you just prune the dead blooms off of, or that you leave until spring. There’s knowledge behind all of it.”

Burch said it’s difficult for educated, trained professionals to command a higher pay rate when there are unqualified companies out there charging cheaper rates — which he said is inevitable, because certification is not required by law.

Burch predicts that coming off the COVID-19 boom, the economy will dip in the next year or two, resulting in fewer jobs for landscape professionals. He believes this hiccup will separate good companies from the “not-so-good,” in terms of management, quality of work and level of expertise. Then, business will climb again.

“Our industry’s always growing,” he said. “Grass never stops growing, shrubs never stop blooming. People want their places to look nice.”

Burch also expects more people to invest in the outdoor appearance of their homes. Given the colossal cost of houses and mortgages, people are less likely to spend on a cottage or vacation, so they’ll want their homes — their new weekend retreats — to be a personal oasis.

As for his own future, Burch is preparing for retirement and working on a succession plan. He’s enjoyed his time in the profession, especially the people he’s met, and is almost ready to put his feet up. Until then, he wants Burch Landscape Services to keep growing, improving its company culture and being a leader in the industry — and maybe adding a few more certificates to the wall.rock waterfall