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September 2009
Logical Landscaping
By Ellison Clary

     Not surprisingly, as owner of a landscape company, Mark Smith emphasizes environmentally friendly practices. His twist is that he hopes to protect the planet through a crusade to eliminate waste.

     During 12 years in business, his clients have bought into the precept that intelligent husbanding of resources results in an attractive environment that not only promotes conservation but enhances business.

     “I like to be known, rather than a landscaper, as more of an entrepreneur providing solutions in the marketplace,” says Smith, who founded Environmental Design Landscape, Inc. (EDL) in his home in ten years ago and serves as its president.

     “Our mentality internally is, if something isn’t working, let’s not do what we’ve always done,” Smith says. “Let’s look at it differently and look for what we can do better.”

     That approach is effective. Soon after he started the company, Smith moved it to five acres off Newell-Hickory Grove Road near the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He has grown EDL to $5 million annually in revenue, with 60 employees and a second location in Greenville, S.C.

     Like many companies, EDL has suffered in the current downturn, but Smith’s business plan has annual revenues exceeding $10 million by 2013. Currently, his company  serves strictly commercial clients.

     Smith believes he can detect a readiness to rise above the bad economy.

     “It’s not really something I can put my finger on,” he says, “and it hasn’t been reflected in our revenue. But I can just feel the timing is right. People are looking for solutions and there is excitement now when you talk about the future. It just feels like the economy is unlocking a little bit. It’s purely instinctual.”

     Right now, Smith can gaze across his equipment, neatly divided between machines devoted to construction and those that perform maintenance, and see that the former batch is relatively quiet.

     “It’s a sign of the times,” he says, “that most of the construction equipment is idle. Construction is installation, new development. If a developer would build some sort of commercial product, we would grade it, design and landscape it with trees and shrubs, and irrigate it.”

     EDL maintains its own equipment and in the slow, cooler months, its workers service all the machinery thoroughly. They do everything from detailing and replacing seat material to rebuilding an engine.

     EDL enjoys serving loyal customers. Many stay long-term, as do most employees.

“I like to say we are a low-turnover business in a high-turnover industry,” Smith says.

 

Growing Client Assets

     “We’ve found that owner-operators and fee management companies are our best clients,” he continues. “They seem to have a better sense of control. Really, what we do is help our clients grow their assets, whether from a management standpoint or by helping them control their expenses.”

     Crosland, Inc. is a good client and apartments division manager Mindy McCorkle praises EDL for its pride in what it does as well as the knowledge of its people. “Mark understands our side of the business,” McCorkle adds. “He pulls lunches together with different people in the industry to share ideas.”

     Lisa Taylor, a vice president of client Greystar, appreciates EDL’s fair prices and tight relationship with onsite property managers. “They are super responsive to issues or complaints,” she says.

     Smith, 47, credits his complement of management and field workers as essential to EDL’s business relationships with companies such as those and others including Duke Energy, Grubb Properties and Charlotte Housing Authority.

     Smith graduated from South Mecklenburg High and took one semester of Electrical Engineering at Central Piedmont Community College. But he naturally gravitated to the landscape business, and after working 16 years with a landscaper and owning 5 percent of the company, he was ready to strike out on his own.

     To build his firm he looked carefully for management. At present, he has assembled a cadre with 157 years of combined experience, led by Joanne Rizzo, chief financial officer and vice president, and Jeff Fandel, operations manager. “We are focused on being a systems and processes organization,” Smith says, “with emphasis on communication, accountability and productivity.”

     For field employees, Smith looks for people who want to grow personally, have a strong work ethic, and are able to embrace change.

     Smith emphasizes being sensitive to the environment. He points to a truck, one of 50 or 60 vehicles the firm owns. It features a device to help it compact waste material. A load might end up on the EDL grounds.

 

Cutting Waste

     “We actually recycle,” Smith says, “and it’s not only what’s in the office or the plastic drink bottles we use or the litter we pick up every day. We compost all our leaves and most of our landscape debris.”

     He points from his mobile office building into a patch of woods. “That’s from years past,” he says of mounds of limbs, leaves and dirt. “We don’t take a lot of debris to the landfill.”

     That’s part of managing and minimizing waste which, for Smith, is the lynchpin of being an environmental steward. He sees environmentally sensitive work in three parts: cost saving, efficient use of existing resources, and protecting the planet.

     All three revolve around identifying and dealing with waste, Smith maintains. And that centers on how to protect a client’s assets.

     The ability to select successful plants in the landscape is one of EDL’s specialties. “We want to help them identify their liabilities and control their expenses,” Smith says. As EDL assesses a client’s landscape needs, he adds, “We organize our staff to look at safety, lifecycle, return on investment and curb appeal.”

     He gives an example: “Say you plant a shrub, not really aware of what its maturity size is, three feet from the foundation of a building. It ends up being a 30-foot shrub that has to be pruned often because of its proximity. If the same plant were put in the middle of an area and it never had to be trimmed, it would be low maintenance.

     “As it is, that big shrub next to the building is high-maintenance, making it a liability. So why don’t we just design things right in the first place,” he smiles.

      To help with proper planning, Smith likes to look closely at a property to decide where to emphasize a lush lawn and ornamental plants. He also determines where the property needs only periodic mowing and other maintenance.

     “Certain areas must look nice,” he says, highlighting the property entrance and sections along major thoroughfares. “Let’s identify those areas and treat them accordingly.”

     By the same token, he advises clients to think long and hard about what kind of landscaping other areas need. “If there is not a return to maintain a certain area, then doing anything more than what’s necessary is a waste,” he points out.

     He offers another eye-opening thought: “Everyone says we need to use native plants, but if we take these plants out of their environment and place them in the landscape, then they are no longer native. Even if they grow in the forest, if we take them out and plant them in urban areas, they are not native to that environment.”

     In landscaping, Smith prefers simple plants such as Dwarf Burford Holly and white oak trees. Both combine a pleasing appearance with low maintenance. He also favors camellias and Japanese maples, the latter because they are long lasting and have an interesting structure.

 

Conservation and More

     Smith remembers the drought of 2007 that taught many property owners in the Charlotte area that they don’t need as much water as they had thought to maintain pleasant looking grounds. That promoted water conservation and other forms of conservation. For example, maintenance machines burn less fossil fuel and their tires use less rubber these days.

     “You’re eliminating waste,” Smith says simply.

     The Piedmont Carolinas enjoy abundant supplies of water, but water conservation is going to be big, Smith believes. Using plants in locations where they are most sustainable is a major key, he adds, and injects a caveat.

     “If we run out of water, that’s going to be worse than hot temperatures,” he says. Then he shares what he’s observed about the climate in these parts. The timing of the seasons is changing, he thinks, because Christmas isn’t as cold and Independence Day isn’t as hot.

     “We’ve had very long springs lately,” he adds. “We never had that before in Charlotte. Things are changing. There is a distinct change.”

     He quickly adds he’s not a scientist and he doesn’t know if people are influencing the changes he sees. He’d rather concentrate on correcting destructive habits. “Let’s focus on protecting the planet,” he says simply.

     Smith also is homing in on ways to serve clients better. He and his management team have developed software to help with job tracking and cost estimating as well as with payroll.

     “When we initiate a contract,” he explains, “we load all the information into the software that identifies the tasks and the schedule necessary for the calendar year. Then it builds a work team, depending on what size the task is and what is necessary in a single day.”

     Using new technologies such as this play into Smith’s penchant for innovation. He’s quick to pick up on cutting-edge techniques and processes for greater efficiencies. Smith has served on the board of the Charlotte chapter of Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

     As mentors he lists Jim Rohn, business philosopher and motivational speaker, and Mark Victor Hansen, an author of “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” He’s recently finished a three-year program with Dan Sullivan of The Strategic Coach, Inc., and Charlotte business guru Rob Slee influences him.

     “It’s just my nature to meet people and share ideas,” he says. “I like to learn from people, to be a student of life.”

     Smith also is nearing completion of a book he’s writing called Design With the End in Mind. It details his approach to cutting waste and conserving water as he pursues proper landscape plans for clients.

     Smith, who lives in the Newell community with wife Anita and a son and daughter, likes to give back to the community through organizational service. In 2000, he was president of Carolina Grounds Management Association. And he has accepted the nomination as current president to help change the name and embrace the Green Industry (architects, arborists, landscape-related industries).

     “That’s really what my passion is now,” he says, “trying to help the industry. Sure my business is important. But if I can help the industry to grow, everyone benefits.”

Meanwhile, his own reputation continues to build.

     “Mark is a good businessman and an honest guy,” says Charlie Henley, a relationship property manager at Crosland. “I never hesitate to take his advice.”

Ellison Clary is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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