The Network

By Todd Erickson

I am the owner of a very small landscape design + build company that was formed almost 5 years ago. I don’t have a business partner, an architect or designer on staff, a superintendent or foreman, an office manager or even a receptionist… I thank God my wife is able to manage the books and legal stuff for us. We have 4 hard working employees and I still personally run their payroll each Friday morning, after working on designs until 12-1 AM. We basically have 3 nice trucks, 2 trailers, a couple of commercial grade lawn mowers, a handful of 2-cycle pieces of equipment, a sod cutter, a palm dolly, wheelbarrows and tons of handheld tools like clippers, loppers, rakes, and shovels. We’ve dreamt of owning a Skid Steer and a mini excavator…but I’m still kind of in the mindset that they’re like owning a boat. I’ve been a fisherman all my life and still hold to the mentality that it’s better to have friends with boats than to own a boat. I’d rather pay for the fuel, buy the ice and drinks, purchase the bait and even offer to purchase upgraded equipment for their boat. At this time, our business does not own or even lease any fancy office space or a field for a small nursery.

The national headquarters, for Campus Landscape, is in a 400 ft² bungalow style man cave in my backyard. Our trucks, trailers and gear are all parked and located in a Public Storage facility 1 mile from my home. Our corporate hotline, classic… it’s my cell phone.

Now that you’ve been given a humble glimpse behind my curtain…

History

After spending 20 years in Information Technologies, Design and Real Estate Appraisal industries I decided to follow my artistic passion into designing and building landscape packages. I’m intentionally leaving out tons of details to keep this story short…but know that while I was appraising homes for 10 years, I also educated myself about Florida horticulture through research, walking fields, walking and talking with growers, taking classes and was involved in tons of landscape design-build projects, as an out-of-control hobbyist. Eventually, I was nicknamed Palm Tree Todd, hence the Facebook username.

Before I migrated my way out of corporate America and into the flooded landscape industry of Central Florida, I knew and understood that somehow it would be extremely important to stand out from the crowd and be very different from your average group of contractors. We would need to break through and get noticed amongst all the white noise and dozens of landscape or lawn trucks at any given stop light during the lunch hour. Our brand (image, logo, media), creativity, quality and craftsmanship needed to be noticed and recognizably different than the bulk of what’s out there. Ultimately, I needed to develop a team who could consistently deliver quality products and services that would surpass what the common consumer has come to expect from average landscape contractors.

I knew that one day I wanted to design a big, beautiful and exotic landscape packages, but I also understood that big jobs don’t just fall into your lap or happen overnight. I would also need to employ men to help me install the designed projects. When I launched the business, I quickly discovered that landscape design + build work, in general, would not come quick, at least not fast enough to support my family and a 3-4 man team. Which is why I’d begun to think… “How can we attract larger scale projects and commercial maintenance accounts that could financially support my landscape crew and business expenses when not completing installations, and also help sustain my family and its monthly debt?” The solution was to create…

A Big Reputation

We needed a name that wouldn’t sound like all the rest, one that wasn’t reused 10-20 times across the state or country. One that could have a website that wouldn’t be confused with another business. We needed a logo and clean uniforms so our appearance would resemble the national landscape companies. The ones who tend to have all the large commercial work. After a couple months of brainstorming the name Campus Landscape was born and registered. Our initial logo was a horrendous creation that I had placed together using some cheap software package in a matter of about 4 hours. It was poorly designed to appeal to the landscape maintenance industry. But, it worked, once we wrapped the trucks and trailers…the calls began to come in. People would say stuff like, “We saw one of your fleet trucks” (what fleet). Or “we really love your trucks”, trailers, clean gear (it was new then). We developed all the social media sites, a startup website using Wix and got our business listings setup across the web. We ran Google Ad campaigns for the first couple of years that were extremely successful. We have done everything we can over the past 5 years to ensure 100% customer satisfaction so that they would be happy and refer us in conversation to future clients. What we didn’t expect was that we would obtain a 5-Star rating on so many review platforms, with well over 150 reviews to date. It wasn’t long before the public and local news media began noticing all the online hype. Bigger quality jobs and leads began coming our way.

Soon enough I got the call, from an old friend in real estate who was listing homes for professional athletes. He wanted to meet, walk the property, develop a quick plan so that it could be completed and ready for professional photography and market listing, asap. Upon visiting the site, I immediately I noticed all of the deferred maintenance, the overgrown and mature species, rotten trees/plants/pergola, and how dead, dark and crowded everything appeared, kind of creepy really. This place was a mess, nothing you’d want to take pictures of, and they wanted to sell it for top dollar? Higher than any home in the area had previously sold for. Hmm…

The Challenge

Design + build a resort-style Mediterranean landscape and lighting package around a $3M lakefront estate home that was going up for sale asap. The listing agent told me that he needed the house “to look and feel like the potential buyers were visiting the J.W. Marriot/Ritz Hotel”.
Four years ago, I had no designer, no freelance designer and no exposure to an application that could transfer my ideas into a beautiful 3D presentation. Today, my team and I complete all of our designs using Structure Studios VIP3D. I have included a before photo of the view from the 2nd-floor balcony across the pool and the original presentation that I delivered to the agent and the athlete’s advisory staff for approval. You can laugh when you see it, but this mockup design took forever to create using only Paintshop Pro (to crop, cut and paste) and its drawing/marker tools. I did my best with the skills and tools that I had at the time☺

I’d completed a design and plan for the remodel to incorporate over a dozen large exotic palms and other imported trees, boulders, rock, mulch, hedges, woody ornamentals, tropicals, perennial and annual flowers. This project would also include repairs and modifications to a partially functioning 10-zone irrigation system, sod tear out and installation of 10-15 pallets of replacement sod, 50 + yards of mulch and around 50 landscape lights. The financial proposal that was submitted to the owner’s advisory staff was approved as an $80,000 landscape remodel.

The challenge was that it needed to be completed yesterday because the home needed to be on the market and sold quickly. The listing agent already had the interior staging company moving furniture into the empty home, a professional photo shoot and drone photographers scheduled…and we needed to be completed before they arrived.
The question now is… “How is a small, mom-n-pop size landscape company…that only has 4 employees going to be able to build an entire $80k landscape package within a 2-week window?”

The Solution – Collaboration

Over the past 15 years I have spent countless hours getting to know people throughout the landscape and hardscape industries including: irrigation and lighting contractors and vendors, plant growers, tree farmers, plant and tree brokers, landscape supply outfitters, rock & boulder suppliers, quarry miners, pest and fertilization owner/operators, large tree installers, OTR drivers, directional boring/drilling contractors, concrete and paver guys, and many other landscape designer/contractors and pool designer/builders. I have walked hundreds of fields full of plants, trees and boulders from Georgia down to the Florida Keys. I have studied this industry and continue to do so, in search of unique and high-quality materials, knowledge, and experiences that foster growth.

The completion of the aforementioned project was completed successfully and in time for the professional photo and drone shoots, 4 years ago. To this day, it’s still one of my favorite projects, because I learned a great deal about my business, its capacity, and the capacity we have to complete much larger builds while collaborating with other trusted business partners.

It’s true that the project was designed and completed by Campus Landscape, as seen on our original Google postings and the old website … However, over the years I’ve developed some really great friendships with like-minded business owners who have become part of my extended family. These are my colleagues and peers, not my employees. Yes, I subcontract work to them or purchase materials from them, but they are respected as peers because I value their craft or products as if it were my own.

This project was completed as a collaboration between several local industry leaders including a sod company, a tree broker, a large tree installer, a plant materials broker, an OTR driver, a landscape supply broker for the rock, boulders and mulch, an irrigation and lighting contractor… and was orchestrated by this other unknown, a small business called Campus Landscape (who also subcontracted an additional 6 landscape labor personnel to sling shovels, haul and dump wheelbarrows, during the entire project). Without the collaboration of other skilled tradesmen and the services they provide… Campus Landscape would be limited to what it can offer based on its own equipment, staff, and internal payroll capacities. I can’t speak for all business owners, but I enjoy keeping my overhead as low as possible and being able to take vacations, without shutting down my business or confining potential growth that would yield larger annual returns.

The key to our success story has always been collaborating with a network of top industry professionals … and at the end of the project, the client has been delivered top quality products and services that together created the amazing new spaces that we were all able to help them design and build. Which leads me to our next exciting adventure…

Fast Forward to 2018 – Tributary Revelation

Earlier this year an exciting new chapter in my design + build journey began. Shortly after I began collaborating and talking with fellow 3D designer John Martese of On Demand Design Concepts and professional landscape and luxury pool photographer Jimi Smith, both had asked if I had ever considered joining Tributary. I could write another entire article on this topic already, but I’ll just say that joining Tributary was an easy decision for me to make. It is such an honor to be a part of this amazing group of like-minded luxury pool + outdoor living industry leaders, pioneers, and sponsors.

One of the things that I love most about all of the members of Tributary Revelation and its extended family is how willing they are to share, to teach and guide, and support one another.

Back at Campus… work continues to pour in on a steady basis, way more than we can accept. We spend zero dollars on advertising and haven’t for over 10 months, but we still receive dozens of calls per day to our corporate hotline (wink). The job leads are on a much larger scale than I would’ve ever imagined. I am now routinely being asked to design + build pools, spas, water and fire features, outdoor kitchens, pergolas, lighting packages and just about anything else outdoors. This is all great, but… (back behind the curtain I still have a small business with a 4-man team). The goal for Winter 2018-2019 to continue to develop and expand my network of like-minded business owner/contractors. If you or anyone you know is looking to expand their local business in the central Florida market and would be interested in collaborating with Campus Landscape on constructing Outdoor Kitchens, Firepits/Features, Watershapes/Pools/Spa and anything else that might require a T-square, level or hammer, give me a call, please… I’d love to chat and collaborate. We have several projects right now that need contractors to bid and build and that is not my area of expertise.

Below is the latest video production of our work, including some coverage from the project in this story.

— Todd Erickson of Campus Landscapes