Although Tom Powel doesn’t have a formal education in landscape design, he has made a successful career of it. In eight years, he’s built his business to the point where he can devote his time to working with clients and designs, and his crew handles the majority of the heavy work. But Powel is actively involved in each project to ensure client satisfaction.
“The five-year failure rate in the construction industry is second only to the restaurant business,” said Powel, a former dairy farmer. “I don’t think it’s wise to think there’s a ready-made market. The biggest challenge in switching careers has been learning about sales and marketing.”
Although Powel didn’t have a sales background and never had to prepare an estimate, he knew how to manage a business and do a budget. Powel says that to learn more about the business, he attended hardscape seminars took classes to learn the intricacies of design and execution, and relies on industry forums to keep up with industry trends.
In a typical season, Powel’s business, Outdoor Additions LLC, is only shut down for about six to eight weeks. He uses this time to evaluate marketing, operating procedures and growth. “We usually finish up a project around the holidays,” he said, “ and we’re typically up and running by the end of February. This year we’re behind.”
During the short downtime each season, Powel also makes sure that his equipment is ready to use. Powel has a modest capital investment in equipment – a skid steer, a dump truck, a one-ton dump pickup truck and a trailer. “We move a lot of soil and stone base,” said Powel. “The patio base is six inches of compacted crusher run, so it doesn’t take a big job to be moving 22 ton increments of stone.”
When appropriate, Powel uses silt fence during excavation. He recycles all of the concrete and demolition material he removes during a project. Powel noted that growing environmental concerns about rainwater runoff from patios and decks, means that he might be using more permeable surfaces in future residential landscaping.
Most of the inquiries Powel receives are from people who have visited his website. “My only marketing is through the website and two home shows,” he said. “About 40 percent of business comes from referrals, but it takes a couple of years to get to that point.” Powel believes that internet searches are replacing referrals. “I’ve had three jobs in the past 12 months where the people who called me could see my work from either their front or back yard, but they didn’t know that I had done that work. I’ll get calls from their neighbors and think that it’s a referral, but it isn’t.”
When he’s working with clients during the planning process, Powel makes a point to explain that the hardscape process is messy. He explains that the project is a construction site, and that there will be dust, dirt and noise until the project is complete. Powel uses time-lapse videos on his website to help clients understand what the process involves.
For the most part, potential clients call and sometimes have a design in mind and know what to expect as far as pricing. Other clients don’t really know where to start. “It’s a real learning process for some homeowners,” he said. “I try to throw out some numbers to help them see what it might cost.”
For creating designs, Powel uses Google SketchUp, a 3-D modeling program. “I’ll start with a simple design,” he said, explain that it’s easy to learn the basics of that program but a little harder to learn the details of 3-D modeling. “Clients usually have a rough idea of what they want, and I’ll ask some key questions like how they want to use the area, do they grill out a lot, how much do they entertain?” After completing a proposed design, Powel prints out the 2-D version of the design, then uses his iPad to share the 3-D version of the design with the client.
Powel says that there are advantages to being able to show a client a 3-D model of a proposed project during the planning phase. “I explain that something like a split level patio is at 36 inches, which is typical countertop height, then they might step down to the lower level where it’s 42 inches and works for a barstool,” he said. “They can see it with the 3-D, but with only a 2-D drawing, that doesn’t come across as well.”
When it comes to explaining costs, Powel says that it’s easiest to work with clients who know their budget. “They’re the most knowledgeable about materials and cost,” he said. “The question always becomes ‘can we make it bigger’ or ‘can we put a grill in’, and the answer is yes, but is it in the budget? Some things may seem small but they add a lot of cost in the budget; and some things don’t cost that much but add a lot to the utilitarian aspect.”
Because Powel doesn’t have experience with plants and prefers to concentrate on hardscaping, he relies on people like Frank Vleck of Wakefield Valley Nursery for appropriate plantings. “I’ll put in the hardscape, then someone like Frank follows me and within the next few days, it looks like it’s been there forever.”
Vleck, owner of Wakefield Valley Nursery, tries to provide the right plants for the right place. “Sometimes Tom will give me a sketch of what he’s doing beforehand, and I can work from there,” said Vleck. “I try to use plants as a transition between the lawn and the outer areas of what Tom has done.” Sometimes he already has it finished and sends me a picture of the finished product, which make it a little easier.”
Vleck says that most people want plants that require no maintenance. “There’s no such thing as ‘no maintenance,’ but we can give them color, survivability and low maintenance,” he said. “I try to work with them and find out about color preferences and favorites, and work from there.”
Although many landscapers will put in a lot of plants so that the project looks as if it has been complete for a couple of years, Vleck tells people that the landscape may look like there aren’t enough plants at first. “I don’t want to overplant and have it become crowded in two or three years,” he said. “I like to use a mix of evergreens, flowering shrubs and perennials; with annuals for the first few years to add color and fill in space.”