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May 2005
Landscaping the Ecosphere
By Heather Head

Tony Pope (Countryside Landscaping, Inc.) first met Chip Eleazer when Pope’s neighbors snubbed Pope by hiring Eleazer (Greenlawn Landscape & Irrigation, Inc.) to install their irrigation system. To add injury to insult, while working on the installation, Eleazer's crews clipped a utility line on Pope's property.

Eleazer impressed Pope with his quickness to apologize and repair the damage, demonstrating a commitment to customer satisfaction that the two share. And from the rather inauspicious beginning arose a friendship that has lasted more than a decade and culminated recently in the merger of their respective landscaping companies into a new entity called Ecoscape Solutions Group, Inc.

 

Growing Together

Eleazer and Pope have long relied on each other to help meet the needs of customers, and trust each other based on their shared commitment to customer satisfaction. That commitment has been evidenced by the comprehensive, tailored solutions both companies offer their customers.

In fact, Pope pioneered a trend in the industry in response to a need he perceived to offer both landscape and grading. He had, on more than one occasion, been forced to work with tracts of land that had been improperly graded. And, more significantly, when customers had trouble with drainage or erosion, they were frequently faced with a run-around in which their landscape company blamed the grading and the grading company blamed the landscape.

By providing both grading and landscape, Pope ensured that the quality of his landscaping would not be compromised by poor grading, and, that if a customer did have a problem, he could take care of it for them. Since Countryside began offering both in 1998, many other companies have followed the trend, but Countryside has remained a leader in this area.

Similarly, Eleazer has met needs on the other end of the spectrum, providing customers with irrigation hardscaping such as stonework, borders, and retaining walls, to complement and support their custom landscaping. Using these features in well-planned designs, Greenlawn has perfected the art of turning difficult, erosion-prone embankments into attractive, useable areas of natural beauty.

The merger of the two companies combines their strengths. Whereas Countryside had focused primarily on new home construction, and Greenlawn had focused primarily on custom and commercial landscaping, the merged entity offers customers a new level of customer service – one number to call for all exterior design needs for residential, commercial, new, and existing development.

Eleazer's team will be able to focus even more closely on their core competencies, providing better commercial service, while transferring some of their non-core business to Pope’s team. Pope’s team, on the other hand, will focus on their core strength with residential and grading, while transferring responsibility for custom and commercial development to Eleazer’s team.

The combined result: a stronger focus on customer satisfaction with seamless comprehensive service.

 

Planting Business

Ecoscape’s commitment to customer satisfaction is evidenced by the way the company is run. While both Eleazer and Pope love landscaping and have plenty of hands-on experience, they also know that in order to provide superior customer service and create a stable growth company, they must know and implement best business practices.

On the advice of a business strategy consultant, Pope had created an executive team to lead Countryside. The team, which now consists of members of both former companies, monitors business progress and customer satisfaction and meets frequently to discuss goals and strategies. In addition to regular interaction, they convene annually at a retreat in the mountains for extended strategy sessions.

On the recommendation of this team, Countryside implemented a quality assurance unit last June to monitor and ensure a consistently high level of quality across the company's broad spectrum of services. The unit, which has been carried over into the new company, sets benchmarks for quality and monitors success.

“Customers love it,” says Pope. “They see the quality assurance van driving through their neighborhood, and they know it's there to check on them and make sure they're getting the best service possible.”

 

A Grade Above

As a result of the focused customer satisfaction commitment and smart leadership, Ecoscape is in the 75th percentile of nationally ranked landscape firms, based on a 2004 State of the Industry Report published by Lawn and Landscape Magazine.

And in addition to their steady growth and strong customer loyalty over the years, both companies have seen their share of awards and recognitions. Countryside was recognized in 2000 and 2001 as one of the top fifteen of the Charlotte Business Journal’s Fast 50 and in 2002 was a finalist for the Metrolina Entrepreneur Council Trailblazer award. Greenlawn was awarded Contractor of the Year in 2001 and has been a member of the President's Club every year since its inception.

And customers notice the difference too. Says Alan Wittmer, “Their work was careful and high quality – customer service was far above the norm.”

 

Grafting a New Company

Pope and Eleazer began discussing the possibility of merging their companies nearly two years ago. After their fateful first meeting, they had developed a friendship based on similar interests and untainted by commercial competitiveness. Because each company focused on a different sector, they never felt that either undercut the other’s business.

And because they shared a commitment to customer satisfaction, they began recommending each other and helping each other on jobs from time to time. When they began discussing merging the two companies, it quickly became clear that they could both benefit.

Pope says he had never anticipated taking on a partner in his business because of the horror stories he had heard about ruined friendships and businesses. And although he and Chip were convinced that the merger was a positive move for them both, they didn't want to rush into it.

So to ensure a smooth transition and prevent negative implications for their customers, they hired a change management company to help with the transition, and spent 18 months planning and preparing for the merger that occurred on January 1, 2005.

Both men say everything has gone surprisingly smoothly, and that they are now poised to offer better, more comprehensive, seamless service to their combined customer base of over 5,000.  And not one customer has complained of any inconvenience due to the merger – on the contrary, they feel customers are reaping benefits already.

The biggest challenge to the merger has been in combining corporate cultures. Because they are now a much larger company, most existing employees have seen an increase in responsibility. But because each of the old companies has transferred non-core responsibilities to the other company's team, many members of the leadership have had their focus narrowed and refined.

 

A Rose by Any Other Name

Having made the decision to merge, Pope and Eleazer left nothing to chance during the 18 months of planning. They spent a portion of that time, with the help of a marketing consultant, running through an enormous number of options to choose a new name. They settled on Ecoscape Solutions Group for several reasons, not the least of which is their commitment to preserving the environment.

“We try to find more conservation-oriented approaches,” says Eleazer. For instance, they choose organic fertilizers when possible, and they design irrigation systems to conserve water. The first part of their new name, “Eco” echoes this commitment.

They chose “Solutions Group,” to show their commitment to finding attractive solutions for their customers and to indicate the fact that they draw on the expertise of a group of principals, not just one person at the helm.

 

The Roots of a Relationship

Though they have much in common now, Pope’s and Eleazer’s backgrounds could hardly be more different. Pope grew up on a farm, riding tractors and exploring corn fields. One of his fondest memories is riding a big 1963 John Deere tractor with his grandpa. The tractor is in the process of being restored. And grandpa – he's still around too, and doubtless quite proud.

After high school, Pope went to work hanging wallpaper. After a short stint working for someone else, he struck out on his own. But he saw little future for himself in wallpapering, mostly because he found his employees were quickly learning the business and then striking out on their own, creating a highly competitive and high turnover market.

So, in his words, “I returned to what I had always loved – tractors and plants.” He purchased equipment, obtained a license, and opened for business as Countryside Landscaping.

Where Pope's pre-landscaping background involved skilled manual labor, Eleazer says the extent of his tractor experience prior to opening Greenlawn consisted of a small riding mower his grandfather gave him to cut yards in his parents’ neighborhood. After obtaining a B.A. from the University of South Carolina, Eleazer spent the early part of his career selling pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to doctors and pharmacists.

The money was good and the travel was fun, but when the market took a sour turn, Eleazer's comfy cushion was yanked from under him. On the day his job was eliminated, he stood for an hour in the driveway of his brand new home, where he had been deposited by the company car they had taken away.

In the months that followed, friends and neighbors helped him out by offering him odd jobs, including hiring him to install irrigation systems for their lawns. He found he liked the work, and even after the market picked back up and he found a new white-collar job, he continued the installations on the side.

“People thought I was crazy,” says Eleazer about his decision in 1998 to quit the cushy job and begin landscaping full time. But he had found his passion, and it has served him well.

 

Paving the Way

Currently, the company employs approximately 130 permanent staff and over 200 during peak season. They expect this number to grow considerably over the next five years, at roughly ten percent each year in the Charlotte area.

Likewise, they posted combined revenues of $13.2 million for 2004, and project more than $15 million for 2005. The expect revenue to grow by ten percent each year in the Charlotte area. Additionally, they are planning to add 8,800 square feet to their nearly 15,000-square-foot facility, which sits on 12+ acres. Other company operations are located in Winston-Salem and Greensboro.

Ecoscape Solution’s growth plan includes continuing to expand into other markets. Specifically, they are in the process of opening a location in Atlanta, and have their sights set on other cities in the Southeast including Raleigh, Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Columbia, among others.

Soon, Ecoscape Solutions will be moving earth for customers around the region, providing even more people with their own patches of heaven on earth.

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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