Landscaping construction industry tries to grow new business

Brad Thompson's three red dump trucks have been parked in front of Brian Clark's Bloomington home quite a few times this spring and summer.

The four-man Brad's Landscaping crew is building boulder walls to replace collapsing timber structures at a 1980s-era home. They also laid natural paving stones on a patio and walkway, built a pump-powered stream and planted host as in the wooded yard.

With the landscaping construction industry in a five-year downturn, this is good work for the St. Louis Park-based company. If the crew gets called back to rebuild a second patio in the fall — which is likely — this job will help make the year.

Thompson, a landscaper for 30 years, said long-delayed projects like those at Clark's home are the base of his company's workload. For the first time since 2007, he is seeing his clients' wallets start to open for outdoor projects.

"People have waited and waited and have problems to solve or want to get something done that they haven't been able to do," he said. "I'm not overly optimistic, but I'm optimistic."

According to statistics from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), jobs in the industry fell12 percent as 7 percent of Minnesota landscaping businesses went out of business between 2007 and 2010. In its biggest boom year, 2007, the industry paid $251 million in wages in Minnesota, $90 million more than in 2000.

While payrolls have decreased by about $16 million since then, Minnesota landscapers have fared better than the general construction market, which has shed more than 40,000 workers — 29 percent of its workforce — since 2005.

Bob Fitch, executive director of the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association, said the decline in new home construction hit his 1,200 members hard. Landscaping for new construction supplied the bulk of the work in the industry. Without it, he said, many companies shed workers and struggled to afford payments on trucks, tractors and other equipment.

"Our fortunes are frequently tied to the construction market," Fitch said. "It's hurt or even put some folks out of business."

Industry adapted to change

Longtime landscapers have learned to be creative in making a living. The outdoor construction season is only seven months long, so landscapers often do much of their business in maintenance such as snow plowing, mowing, plant care and water features. Brad's Landscaping even owns a tree yard in Richfield that sells Christmas trees.

For this reason, DEED does not distinguish between landscape construction and landscape maintenance in the figures it uses to track the industry, said Steve Hine, DEED's research director.

Fitch said the busiest construction landscapers are working in niche markets, such as prairie restoration or building green roofs. For Mom's Landscaping, a 25-employee design-build company based in Shakopee, this meant moving away from plants, shrubs and rockeries. Jim Sweeney, the company's founder, said he expects the 18-year-old company to have its best year ever in 2011, thanks to the expanding outdoor living market.

"Today, I might meet with a client who says he wants a pool and a pool house, a deck and an outdoor kitchen," Sweeney said. "The kinds of things the consumer is demanding are totally different. The baby boomers are the last gardeners."

Mom's is finishing a $1.1 million pool, patio and garden project for a metro-area family that owns a home valued at $850,000. This client, whom he declined to name, is typical in his objectives. Because it is so difficult to sell a home, his customers are choosing to stay put and improve their outdoor spaces, Sweeney said.

While Sweeney's company has suffered a slowdown in work over the past four years, no layoffs were necessary. The worst part about the slowdown was the amount of competition: Sweeney said Mom's was often bidding against up to five other companies for projects.

Now that Mom's has found its niche, this is rarely the case.

"It does appear that the customer is now a little less price-sensitive," he said.

The industry downturn is also noticeable at the commercial suppliers. Steve Hedberg, founder of Plymouth-based Hedberg Landscape & Masonry Supplies, said his business has been declining since 2006. After seeing an average of 17 percent annual growth in its first 18 years in operation, the business had to close two of its five landscape supply yards and cut its workforce from 210 to 110.

Conscious of changes in landscaping tastes, Hedberg now stocks modular stone walls, modular outdoor kitchens and water feature systems in addition to the traditional offerings of soil, gravel and stones. The yards also cater to retail clients by offering do-it-yourself classes and by training outdoor living experts at each location. Hedberg said the changes have made a difference.

"We finally this year for the first time have seen some stability," he said.

Even supply yards heavily oriented toward retail customers have suffered. Gertens, an Eagan retail garden center that bills itself as the largest in the nation, cut its workforce by 20 percent over the past four years. Warren Randolph, Gertens' general manager of advertising and marketing, said everyone in the landscaping industry has right-sized to the changing market.

"I think everyone and their son was able to afford a truck," Randolph said. "It's going to be a slow climb back to where we were."

Along the way, Fitch of the landscape association said he wants to see the industry build the value of its work and products so it can attract not only customers but also a new generation of landscapers as well. Weekly wages in the industry in Minnesota averaged $593 in 2010, well behind the $999 averaged by general construction workers.

"We can't charge perhaps what we should, we could, or we want to," Fitch said. "It's hard to find folks."

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