Landscapers go with the flow to survive

With two strikes against it — a drought followed by a recession — the landscaping business in metro Atlanta could have dried up by now.

But it hasn’t.

Georgia’s three-year drought and a watering ban forced the industry, which generates an estimated $8.1 billion a year in revenue statewide, to get innovative, lean and efficient. The recesssion is keeping it that way.

Georgia lost more than 17 percent of its green industry work force before state officials relaxed watering restrictions last month, according to the Urban Agriculture Council, an alliance of growers, landscapers, retailers and others.

The silver lining: By the time big, new real estate developments had stopped coming out of the ground, the industry was poised to deal with the downturn, said Mary Kay Woodworth, executive director of the Metro Atlanta Landscape and Turf Association.

Now, maintenance is the industry’s bread and butter, she said.

“Lots of property is for lease or sale. Property managers want it to look good. On the residential side, people are staying home and fixing up their homes . . . or they have workers in their yards. It’s not as grim for us as it has been for a lot of industries.”

Innovative companies will thrive, experts say.

For example, when the Johns Creek Environmental Campus in Roswell opens this fall, the project will be a good example of ValleyCrest Landscape Development’s approach to business.

The 100-acre facility, odor-free, quiet and park-like, is as much a salute to the landscaping as it is to the technology that will allow the plant to convert sewage into water of near drinking quality. The plants, shrubs and crushed granite pathways will help keep runoff from going into the nearby Chattahoochee River, filter the water and release it back into the water table for use.

ValleyCrest collaborated with the architect, owner and general contractor to create a project that’s easy to maintain, “so that later on they’re not incurring costs to change things out,” said Brian Prantil, manager of the Norcross branch of California-based ValleyCrest.

ValleyCrest, one of the nation’s largest landscape firms with 100 locations, started a strategy two years ago focused on “how we can help owners reduce their total costs,” Prantil said. “The economy is making it an even bigger proposition.”

Streamlining, reducing overhead and becoming more versatile also helps a business, said Aaron Gray, operations manager for Let Us Love Your Lawn landscape management company, which works in metro Atlanta and North Georgia.

“A lot of companies went out of business,” Gray said, because they were not versatile. “We do maintenance, landscaping, irrigation systems, a lot of things. All that helped us.”

When gas prices surged, the company became more selective about the type and location of jobs, he said. Along with commercial and residential projects, it also started picking up government contracts, Gray said, “which helped us out.”

Erica Breazeale, marketing manager for Pike Nurseries, said it was a happy day when the watering ban was lifted.

“We had a very good June,” she said. “We had a profit in June, which was good for us.”

In economic downturns, people tend to stay home, which benefits the retail gardening industry, she said. “They enjoy having their homes look nice. We see a lot of annual colors, tropicals and that sort of thing going out the door. People dress up their patios and porches.” The average sale is around $50, she said, “so we’re not like a car dealer or furniture store with big ticket items.”

An Atlanta icon, Pike was purchased last year in March for $5.2 million by California-based Armstrong Garden Centers. Pike was in bankruptcy when a federal judge approved the sale. The company filed for bankruptcy in late 2007, citing the prolonged drought.

Landscaping is a cyclical business, with or without a drought or a weak economy, said Atlanta landscape architect Edward Daugherty, who’s been in business more than 55 years.

“You learn to expand or contract,” he said. “Business is slower than it has been, but you grow used to that,” said Daugherty, whose projects include churches and institutions such as Atlanta Botantical Garden and Georgia Tech. Companies with a diverse client mix fare best, experts say.

“My clients across the country that are serving the construction industry still find themselves lagging some 20 to 30 percent below the levels we saw in 2007 -- one of the best years we ever had in the construction industry really,” said Tony Bass of Tony Bass Consultants, based in Fort Valley, Ga.

“But the ones that provide landscape maintenance services -- the mowing, trimming weeding, fertilization and lawn service maintenance services are doing wonderful.”