Transplanting an Entrepreneurial Attitude in a Different Latitude

Turf Magazine, June 2016

What separates a Michigander from a Floridian. . .give up? If you’re Blake Crawford it’s exactly 1345 miles. That’s the distance due south from Grosse Pointe, Michigan, to Naples, Florida. Crawford formerly a Michigander is now a confirmed Floridian.

Here’s how the process works for most folks from the industrial north–but not for Crawford who now runs a premiere (and growing) $13 million landscape company on Florida’s sun-splashed Gulf Coast:

Early each winter thousands of folks from the Great Lakes caravan south seeking the balmy Gulf Coast breezes of southwest Florida. It’s a daunting motor vehicle trek for Michiganders because much of I-75, the highway they travel is, for most of its length, featureless and mind-numbingly boring. However, “snowbirds” stoically suffer this inconvenience early each winter, so determined they are to escape Great Lakes’ frigid winds. By mid April, when the ice and snow is gone (hopefully), they flock back to their northern habitats.

Not Crawford, however. He liked what he saw when, only 31, he left Michigan in 2004 and relocated to one of Florida’s prettiest small cities, Naples (pop. 21,000). He loved the sunshine, the year-round greenery and the soft warm Gulf Coast breezes. But what excited him most was the business opportunity he sensed the region afforded him.

Arriving with plan in mind

“The work was so plentiful that many of the contractors there, in my opinion, felt they could basically snap their fingers and get work,” recalls Crawford, now 43, who, soon after arriving and getting some financial help from his family, went to work. He says he immediately set out to provide the rapidly growing region with a high level of landscape services that he sensed was lacking there.

Turns out his instincts were good. Just twelve years after putting down roots in Naples, Crawford, as CEO and President of Crawford Landscaping Group (CLG), runs one of the premiere independent landscape companies in Florida. His company employs 170 people and serves hundreds of residential and commercial accounts. His firm provides a full range of landscape and property improvement services south to prim Marco Island and north to Fort Myers, the largest city in the region.

Crawford came to Florida with a plan, having carefully mapped out what he wanted to do before arriving. He only moved south after studying service companies (including landscape firms) in southeast Michigan and scrutinizing what manufacturing companies in and around Detroit were doing to revive the automobile industry there.

“It occurred to me that if we came to this market and offered the same discipline that the manufacturing world was implementing, we could create a company that was truly unique,” recalls Crawford. “We could offer a level of service where quality and customer service where the main differentiators.”  In addition to quality products and customer service, Crawford says he also needed to convince clients that his new company was sincere about his third core principle–“always honoring our word.”

Cracking the market with exceptional service

Crawford says he started by providing “exceptional” landscape maintenance services to build a stable base of recurring revenue. He saw that as the best (and probably only) route to establishing win-win relationships with clients that would lead to CLG eventually providing additional property management services to them.

Again, his instincts proved to be correct. From concentrating mostly on maintenance in start-up mode,  CLGis now comprised of six operating divisions: Turf & Horticulture Maintenance, Landscape Design & Installation, Irrigation, Integrated Pest Management, Landscape Lighting and ArborCare.

“From a maintenance perspective, we started out mostly with estate homes and some high-end commercial projects. Then we moved into high rises on the beach, HOAs and COA’s as master communities,” says Crawford. “We service all these of clients except government contracts. We have customers all over the spectrum.”

Crawford credits his company’s growth on his talented management. “I take great pride in our team and its depth of knowledge and experience, from Phil Buck, who’s one of only a few master arborists in the State of Florida to 30-plus year veterans like Mike McNeill, our business development manager,” says Crawford.

“Even at the direct labor level, we try to hire the best. As a result, we have one of the highest crew average wages in Southwest Florida,” he continues, adding that the company’s extensive on-boarding process seeks to place employees to tasks that best fit their job preferences and skill sets. The company will pay for job-related vocational education for employees earnestly seeking to advance within CLG.

“This culture promotes career advancement, higher pay rates, safer work conditions and better care of our tools. We have several employees who’ve excelled from direct labor positions to production manager or account manager,” says Crawford.

“We understand that our business boils down to people. Our goal is to constantly be building a culture that rewards people in a way that’s consistent with our core values and company credo while weeding out those who don’t buy into our way of doing things,” he adds. Even so, CLG, like most employers in SW Florida, is having to work harder to attract good employees, he admits.

In spite of the limited pool of qualified and eager employees–an issue that’s affecting all contractors his market, says Crawford–CLG management is determined that the quality of the products services he company provides remains consistently high.

“We realize we must maintain a robust quality control process to identify issues and correct them before the client sees them,” says Crawford. “We also take pride in ourcustomer service department that insists that issues are resolved quickly, completely and clients are notified when the issues are resolved.”

CLG Stays Adapts to Regional Trends

The 2008-2009 recession devastated South Florida’s residential landscape design/build business. But that business is coming back, especially the renovation of developer/builder-installed landscapes. This is one of the trends Blake Crawford is seeing in his market.

“Right now, new homes are dominating the large-scale installation market. Developers and builders direct this market, not the homeowner,” says Crawford. “Once the new construction is over, homeowners will want to contract with a design-build firm to design and install new landscaping.”

Another trend gaining traction in his market is the use of technology, including labor tracking, GPS, Google Earth and the use of tablets to speed the development and delivery of proposals during property walk-throughs.

“This way our managers can walk a site with a client, take a few minutes to type in the proposal, present it to the client, receive authorization and deposit, then transfer the information to the necessary department for completion–all electronically,” says Crawford. “All technologies that can streamline operating processes and enhance customers’ experiences are vital.”

Boom to Bust to Boom Again

The dozens of small cities in far Southwest Florida served by Crawford Landscaping Group collectively comprise one of the country’s most dynamic and fascinating markets.

North to south, Crawford’s service market is concentrated on the most developed (and still rapidly developing) region of the area extending about 60 miles long, from pretty little Everglades-hugging Marco Island, located 18 miles south of the landscape company’s 15-acre headquarters, north to Fort Myers (pop. 62,200), the region’s largest city.

Because much of this part of Florida was primarily Everglades and more suitable for gators, mosquitoes and panthers than it was for people, it was the last within the state to be settled and developed. (Note: Indigenous tribes, in particular the Calusa people, had adapted to and lived in the region centuries prior to the arrival of people of European descent.)

In 1885, when Thomas Edison purchased property along the Caloosahatchee River for his winter retreat, Fort Myers was little more than a sleepy village and numbered just 349 people. Edison had to take a steamboat to his property until 1904 when the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad connected the region to the rest of Florida. (In 1916 Henry Ford bought a bungalow estate on property adjacent to his friend Edison’s winter lodge.)

The railroad’s arrival sparked the beginning of a fishing industry in the region. In 1928, the completion of the Tamiami Trail, a narrow road linking Tampa to Miami via Fort Myers, also helped to fuel the first invasion of tourists to the region.This initial burst of growth and development was relatively short lived, and came to a halt as the stock market imploded in the late 1920s.

This boom-to-bust phenomenon repeated itself when the region’s real estate prices skyrocketed in 2004-2006 before the sub-prime housing debacle and recession rocked it, setting off an explosion of home foreclosures, which peaked at more than 20,000 in 2009 alone. At the height of the recession Southwest Florida led the nation in foreclosures.

The pain suffered by home owners spread to home and construction-related industries, and many landscape companies–particularly those heavily invested in design/build and installations–failed.

But not Crawford Landscaping Group. Blake Crawford, its CEO and founder, says his company actually had several of its most profitable years during and just after the recession.

“From day one, our model was to build the best maintenance company in Southwest Florida, and grow a stable base of recurring revenue.” says Crawford. “As we built strong relationships with our maintenance clients we worked on developing and offering other services to enhance their properties.”

Today, the SW Florida economy is in recovery phase, home and property prices are rising again, and developers and builders are back in business, planning and executing sizable new residential and commercial projects.

Few people are happier about the recent direction of the region’s economy than Crawford, whose company this past April landed a $400,000-plus contract to provide a full-range of landscape services to a five-community, 49-acre residential project in Naples.

“The Southwest Florida market is an exciting place to be in