By Cheryl Higley
About Nate's Landscape Co.
Location: Belgium, WI
Employees: 11 full-time plus 70 for snow & ice operations
Operations team (From left): Assistant Director of Operations Nekoda Hoke, Owner and President Nate Kohn, and Director of Operations Kevin Zirbes
There will always be a better way. For Nate Kohn, owner of Nate’s Landscape Co. in Belgium, WI, that notion has been a constant in his growth as a business owner and industry leader.
Kohn has been providing snow and ice management services full time since 2000, when he caught the entrepreneur bug while studying horticulture in college. Deciding he liked being his own boss and seeing the potential for success, Kohn launched Nate’s Landscape Co. with a focus on landscape design/build, landscape maintenance and snow and ice management. By 2007, the company had grown to three full-time construction crews, two maintenance crews plus additional seasonal winter workers. But the Great Recession in 2008 shook Kohn, forcing him to seek a better way.
“We were tested when the economy took a dive,” he says. “I was still trying to grow my company but realized most of my business was non-renewable. We always had to sell the next landscape design job to survive, and that scared me. I realized that if I was going to invest in this and grow, the only way to do it was through renewable income.”
That renewable income would come primarily through snow and ice management; and by 2012, Kohn had completely phased landscape design/build services out of the portfolio. Today, snow makes up around 80% of Nate’s Landscape Co.’s revenue, with 20% in landscape maintenance.
Eliminating an entire service category required Kohn to restructure the business and craft a strategy that would allow the company to cover overhead solely with snow and ice work. The results, Kohn knew, would depend on making savvy investments in equipment, his team and clients willing to commit to snow and ice management service done a better way.
Investing for success
Understanding that not all potential clients are good ones, Kohn has built his company around customers who require high-end service and understand the value that Nate’s Landscape Co. provides.
“It’s no fun working for someone who views you as a necessary evil and only hires you because they have to,” he says. “Instead, we want customers who view us a partner and know we will make the investments necessary to successfully service their properties.”
Attracting those types of clients requires building mutually beneficial long-term relationships. To cultivate those relationships, Kohn created a service approach called Nate’s Invests. The program provides stability and reassurances for Kohn’s customers; as importantly, however, it provides Kohn and Director of Operations Kevin Zirbes the ability to proactively plan for winter by acquiring and staging the proper equipment and ice management materials; developing comprehensive service plans; and hiring and training people to do the best, most professional job possible.
“With Nate’s Invests, we’re saying that ‘If you commit to us, we’ll fully commit to you,’ ’’ Kohn says. “It sets us apart from our competition - in a way, it eliminates a lot of it because we aren’t competing solely on price.”
Capital investment: This year, Nate’s Landscape Co. will exclusively use front-end wheel and skid loaders with box plows for plowing operations, completing a shift in strategy that will give the company a competitive advantage.
The commitment Kohn has made is an expensive one given the elimination of the landscape design/build business. Thus, reliable, efficient equipment is key.
Kohn says this season will be the first in which the company shifts exclusively to wheel loaders or skid loaders with 8- to 16-foot box plows for plowing services. No truck will be required in the service plan, but they will be available if needed.
Because Nate’s Landscape Co. clients expect a high level of service, Kohn says equipment reserves and tight routes are essential. No route takes longer than four hours to complete (on a standard storm, and the company it dedicates about 15% of its fleet as backups in the event of breakdowns.
“Our service area is spread out, so we allocate equipment to specific properties and hire people in the areas we service to cut down on unnecessary travel time,” he says.
Kohn credits his skid steer and plow dealers with helping him manage costs while acquiring the right equipment to serve his vision.
“You have to be open minded to different approaches. Ten years ago, the idea of a snow and ice management company with no plow trucks would have been crazy; but new technology has made it more economical,” he says. “Our vendors help make us successful. Without them, we couldn’t do what we do. They took the time to listen to us, understood what we were trying to do and helped make it happen.”
Honing in on salt use
In addition to adopting efficient equipment, Kohn has taken a new approach to ice management with the introduction of a liquids program and tighter focus on salt application rates.
The company has begun pretreating salt stockpiles with a colored magnesium chloride product so drivers can see where and how much they are spreading. Spreadsheets for each property show how much product should be spread, how much goes out on the truck and how much comes back.
“We did a lot of research and it has worked well. We have been able to reduce application rates, increase efficiencies and save product,” he says.
A new salt approach: Nate’s Landscape Co. has begun pretreating its stockpile with a liquid magnesium chloride product that delivers more effective melting but also includes a colorant that shows drivers how much they are applying. Photo courtesy of Nate Kohn.
The final piece to the puzzle was to increase the depth of the management team to allow Kohn to step away from an operational role and focus on the big picture. Zirbes is now first-in-command in the field, backed by assistant Nekoda Hoke before Kohn would need to step in. The same holds true for the company’s four area managers.
Together, the managers oversee the company’s 70 winter employees, which service 100% of the clients.
“Our customers hire us because they want us. They don’t want to hire a company who is going to subcontract. That’s pretty important in our market,” Kohn says. “With subcontractors you don’t have control over the quality of work, the equipment and the people who show up. If a sub fails, we would lose that customer and tarnish our name. I’ve never been comfortable with that business approach.”
While Nate’s Landscape Co. is firing on all cylinders right now, that doesn’t mean Kohn will stand pat: “Running a business isn’t easy, but we work really hard to make sure our clients are treated the way they want to be treated. Even though we think we have it figured out right now, there will always be new ideas, new equipment that could be a game changer. We have to be open minded and know there will always be a better way.”
Kohn: Never give them a reason to leave
Nate Kohn, owner of Nate’s Landscape Co., is extremely proud of his company’s 97% snow account renewal rate. For the past several years, that rate has never fallen below 90%.
That rate is a testament to his team, he says, adding that the company’s only marketing dollars are spent on the website and equipment branding. The company spends no money on direct marketing, relying instead on customer renewals, word of mouth and a good reputation. The key, he says, is to never give the customer a reason to consider going elsewhere.
“One idea I instill in all of our managers is that there is always a solution,” Kohn says. “If a customer is looking to save money, we can re-vamp the snow response plan. If they want improved service, we can allocate more equipment and find a new way to make sure it’s done efficiently. The whole thing comes down to building relationships with our customers and understanding their needs.”
Cheryl Higley is editor-in-chief of Snow Business magazine and Editorial and Information Manager for SIMA. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos by Vito Palmisano.