In a brightly lit office, where the large window is showing the snow falling outside, Ben Antes gets off of the phone with his snowplow and treatment company to answer some questions I had about landscaping. Ben Antes, the founder and owner of Principal Landscape Group, has been taking care of landscapes his whole life. He agreed to sit down with me, so I could ask him questions about his journey to becoming a professional landscaper, and his experience with owning his own business.
I thanked him for sitting down with me, and then got straight to business. I asked him about his journey in landscaping, as this is his seventh year owning his own business, but not his seventh year as a landscaper.
“Will you tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are now?” I asked.
Without hesitating, Ben jumped into his story. “Okay, after college I started working for a local company called Turf Design, and started on a grounds crew there. Then I moved into a supervisor role, and took over the chemical responsibilities of the company. Then I took over all the crews on the major contracts, and then went off on my own after that.”
“Where would you say this interest in landscaping came from?”
Ben thought for a moment, shrugged, and responded, “I grew up mowing lawns and doing landscaping, so [my interesting in landscaping] was always kinda there from a young age.”
Growing up mowing and taking care of lawns, and now to the point where he owns his own landscaping company, Ben has a lot of experience in the field, literally and figuratively. I know some homeowners don’t know up from down when it comes to their lawns, and so I asked him what one thing was he wished homeowners would start doing with their landscapes.
Everyone wants their lawn to look good, but the reality is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
“Have good consistent fertilizer programs. The reason for that is: everyone wants their lawn to look good, but the reality is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So it can take years to get your lawn to look how you really want it to. I look at it as kind of like a nutrition plan. You can take a fad diet, and lose some weight, and look good for a month. Until you drop off that fad diet, and then everything goes back to how it was. Or you can change your lifestyle, and eat healthy, and take care of yourself. So I feel like especially with the lawn itself, that’s the approach to take.”
Ben also mentioned that consistent fertilizing can help homeowners keep their lawncare budgets lower. “[Consistent fertilizing] might be slower, but it will be consistent, and then you keep up on it and it’s not too expensive. So instead of dropping $5,000 to re-sod your lawn, and then not take care of it, you can spend a couple hundred bucks a year, and get your lawn where you want it to be.”
With that in mind, I asked, “What is one thing you wish homeowners would stop doing when it comes to landscaping?”
“Maybe this is a start doing and stop doing, altogether: a lot of people ask for advice, like what do we think would look good, what do we like? What I like doesn’t necessarily matter. I’m not gonna be looking at it every day. That’s what I always tell people, well, you have to look at it every day. So, we should make sure this is something you like.”
“Is that what causes disappointed customers?”
“Sometimes we have people that don’t look at it from that angle, and then you do a job and then they’re disappointed. Which is a shame, because then nobody’s happy at the end of the project. We’re not happy because they’re not happy, and they’re not happy because they may have rushed into a design that they didn’t really like. Homeowners should always remember that we’re here to do a job for them, and give them what they want to look at every day.”
Homeowners should always remember that we’re here to do a job for them, and give them what they want to look at every day.
Going off of that, I asked if that was the most common obstacle that he encountered as a landscaper. Surprisingly, it was something else.
“Utilities. Utility lines everywhere, and cable lines. There’re not too many obstacles necessarily, unless we’re talking about where it turns out the resident doesn’t like something, and then [we have the obstacle of] how to navigate that and make changes.”
When asked how one can prepare for those obstacles, he replied, “You just have to be flexible.”
He continued, explaining more of his process for how to avoid customers being unhappy with their project. “I love when a homeowner is home when were working on something. I like to lay plants out, and have them look at them. They may tell me, ‘Cool, whatever,’ but I’d rather them look at it. They’ve seen our design, but sometimes seeing the design and seeing it in real life can be a little different. I like for them to be involved in the process. Ultimately they’re the ones looking at it. I love for them to be home to see the progress as it happens, and then request changes as we go. It’s a smoother process.”
In addition to appreciating when the homeowner is at home during the transformation process, Ben also enjoys working with the customers on the design for their landscape.
“I always want to know what plants the customers like, etc. And then we can do the design, and send it to them get feedback. I think it would be neat to do designs in person, which is a service I’ve been contemplating doing. Why don’t we sit down for 2 hours and actually design it together? Or even just get the “start to finish” done with them sitting there with you. Because then its exactly what they want, and they can look at all the different plants, and make the different decisions. That could potentially be an easier process than the usual emailing back and forth.”
One question that I had in my mind before coming in for this interview was about having customers in the design process. I believe that people usually have a set vision for what they want their landscaping to look like, and so I asked, “In your experience, would you say most homeowners know what they want when it comes to a design, or do you have to help them along?”
Customers think they know what they want, but it’s important…to look at options.
Ben laughed at this question, and answered.
“I think that customers think they know what they want, but it’s important to take the time to look at options and really think about it, because again, I don’t want to do a job that someone doesn’t like.”
When I asked what he meant by that, he continued. “You like an idea until you see it, and then you might not like it as much as you thought you did when the job is done. I have had customers that know exactly what they want and we just do it–and sometimes that works. It’s kind of like when you’re picking a color to paint your house. You only see a little sample of it, and you don’t really get to see it until its done. If you don’t like it–its too bad, you have this color paint on your house now!”
After discovering what it’s like to work with homeowners, and all the communication difficulty that can happen, I wanted to learn more about what it was like to be a professional landscaper. I started off by asking Ben about one thing that he wished more people knew about professional landscapers.
“That there’s a lot that’s out of our control. But I think a lot of people are understanding of that. Whether it’s the weather, or equipment breakdowns, or the supplier doesn’t have something we need–we can plan as much as we want and make contingency plans, but a lot of what we do is at the mercy of external elements.”
Our goal is to make you happy with your yard, whether it’s done by us or a different contractor.
“Do you feel like people have misconceptions about landscapers?”
He laughed, and initially asked what people’s conceptions about landscapers were in the first place. Then he answered me seriously.
“In my experience, I’ve probably worked with 200 people in the last 10 years. And what do people think? They’re rough around the edges, right? But in my experience, they’re all super nice guys, super helpful, and care about what they’re doing. That’s my perception, and I think that sums up most contractors that care about what they’re doing and want to do a good job.”
I pried a little more, asking, “But you think people see landscapers as a little rough around the edges?” To which he shrugged and replied, “Yeah, and maybe we are,” like it wasn’t a bad thing. And it’s not.
Your landscaper may be rough around the edges, but every good landscaper just wants their customers to be happy. They will work tirelessly to make sure every part of the process goes smoothly, from the design to the finished project. There is one last piece of advice that Ben had for all the homeowners out there:
“There are a lot of good contractors out there, so don’t get discouraged by the bad ones. Sometimes bad relationships can happen with good ones too, but were all just doing our best. Our goal is to make you happy with your yard, whether it’s done by us or a different contractor.”