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All in the family

  • SIMA
- Posted: July 20, 2016
By James E. Hornung Jr., CSP, CLP

HornungFamily (292x300)
The Hornung family has been at the helm of Elbers Landscape Services since 1980.
In the snow removal industry, family-owned businesses are quite common. In fact, according to Forbes magazine, 90% of all North American business enterprises are family businesses and provide 62% of total U.S. employment. And yet, only 30% of family businesses will pass the reins to the next generation.

A little history
Elbers Landscape Services in Buffalo, NY, started by Henry H. Elbers in 1919, is my family’s business. My father, James Hornung Sr., started working at Elbers as a landscaper in 1972, and eight years later, he and my mother, Beth Ann, purchased the business. Although many advised against buying the company, believing the price was too high for what he’d be getting, my dad saw the value in purchasing an existing business with brand recognition and a solid client base. 

My parents were in their late 20s when they purchased Elbers and just starting their family. My dad ran the business with a handful of employees and my mom kept the books and managed the retail side of the business.

In 1988, my father moved into groundskeeping and held head groundskeeper positions with Buffalo’s Triple A ballpark and the City of Buffalo Parks Department. From 2008 to 2011, he also served as Erie County Commissioner of Parks, Recreation and Forestry. He was still heavily involved with Elbers while my mother and Peter Schmit, an Elbers employee for 30-plus years, handled the day-to-day business.

In his blood
There was never any grand plan that I (or my sister, Autumn) would join the family business, but I grew up - and loved - spending time with my dad at the ballpark and in area parks, so it was a natural path for me. My first job at Elbers was sweeping floors and watering flowers. Once I had my driver’s license, I delivered Christmas trees. In 2004, I received my bachelor’s degree in business administration and management from Canisius College and came to work for Elbers full time.

People often ask me if it’s difficult working with my parents (it’s not) or what makes our family business successful (a lot of things). My parents and I have agreed on how we wanted to run and grow the business while preserving the Elbers brand. My father’s reason for purchasing the business was simple: provide for his family, his employees and their families. Now married with a family of my own, I carry on that mission.

The Elbers name has been around for nearly 100 years, and we know it’s an asset. Our customers associate the name “Elbers” with the name “Hornung,” so it’s very important to us to reinforce that brand.

Complementary differences
One of the reasons we work well together is that my father and I approach the business from different perspectives: he comes from the horticultural side, and I come from the business side. Over the last few years, he’s become more risk adverse, whereas I’m in the stage of my life and career where I’m looking for ways to expand the business, keep up with technology and, in short, take risks to grow the business. While my dad and I share the same vision and typically agree on where we want to go, sometimes we don’t always agree on the best way to get there. That’s when our wives step in and arbitrate! And while my dad is much more easygoing, I definitely can be more aggressive and more adamant. We complement each other in this and many other ways, which brings good balance to the business.

I inherited my parents’ strong work ethic, their integrity, honesty and the importance of treating employees, customers and vendors respectfully. We’ve been very lucky in that we have many long-term employees who share that “family” mentality and have enthusiastically supported Elbers through the years.

We’ve grown Elbers into a 12-month business requiring more employees with a variety of skills. In 2003, we created Great Lakes Athletic Fields and, today, Elbers Landscape Service employs close to 60. We still service several clients we inherited when my parents bought the business. That says a lot. We never take that loyalty for granted.

Growth in innovative directions
Over the years, I’ve taken on more responsibility, and expanded on what my parents created. I’ve brought new ideas to the table and have been instrumental in expanding our landscape design business and securing large-scale projects. I’ve gotten our company involved with many organizations, in addition to SIMA, that brought exposure, contacts and recognition for Elbers. 

Today, I lead all phases of the business: sales, the office, the grounds staff and the retail side. I am the primary decision maker; my dad decides what he wants to be involved in…or not. It’s simply been a natural shift as I am progressing in my career and he is winding down.

I have a business degree, but a lot of what I have learned has come from watching my dad and learning on the job - just as he did at this stage of his career. I am always eager to talk to other business owners and ask them about their procedures, challenges, etc.

Have there been challenges? Absolutely. There are challenges with every business. Our biggest challenge is having all of our eggs in the Elbers basket, knowing this business provides for a lot of people. There are significant risks and rewards as you grow any business. But, fortunately for us, we’ve always been able to overcome any obstacles. Running a family business does not have to be a contentious situation - that’s not healthy for anyone, least of all the business itself. Family comes first, and I think the respect we have for each other plays a huge role in Elbers’ success.

Behind-the-scenes support

My wife, Karen, supports me 100% - just as my mom supports my dad - and that has always been a major factor in our being able to successfully maintain focus on the business. We know family businesses are not always truly a happy family affair, and we know how lucky we are. We’ve purposely cultivated a family culture versus a corporate or business culture.

I know there will come a time when my parents will no longer be involved in the company. We’ve looked to the future. We have it outlined, and we know where we want to go. A formal succession plan is a long, involved process that can be quite expensive and hampered by many legal issues that just don’t apply to our business. I’d say we’re about 60% there with a formalized plan. We have communicated with our bank and insurance company, putting many practices - such as key man insurance - in place. The staff knows I’m the day-to-day go-to guy. My parents will stay involved in the business as long as they want and will be provided for when they decide to retire, with the same objectives for Karen and me. 

When my sister and I were kids, we were equal in the business. As I’ve become more involved and taken over more of the management, the equation has naturally shifted. Autumn has never had a desire to be involved with the business, and my parents and I have never pushed her. She’s a gifted schoolteacher and a wonderful wife and mother, and we respect her choices. But she and her family are very much a part of our succession plan.

Will there be a third generation to take over the business? Autumn and I each have three young daughters, so it’s possible the Elbers brand will be around for quite a long time. But, as my parents never put pressure on me, I won’t put any pressure on my daughters. In the meantime, all of us at Elbers will work together as a “family” to provide the best service we can for our customers. 

Jim Hornung Jr. is president of Elbers Landscape Service, a former SIMA board chair and member of the Snow Business Editorial Advisory Committee. Contact him at
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