By Stephanie Skernivitz
Greatest Story Never Told 2014: 1st runner-up
Though it may be a stretch to say William Renda of Creative Landscapes in Wallingford, CT, thrives on adversity, the tough times certainly have reshaped his perspective.
Adversity has a way of crystallizing parts of life that may have otherwise remained hazy.
“With all the loss I’ve been through, you learn very quickly what is important and what is not; you look at reality differently,” Renda says of his life experience, which is dotted with tragedies and unfortunate circumstances. It started at age 9 for Renda, when he was blinded in one eye after a child threw a rock at him. It left him sidelined from sports and most extracurricular activities, leading him to search elsewhere for fulfillment as a young boy, ultimately finding his place on his dad’s garden tractor.
At first his dad resisted his efforts to clean and wax the tractor, even disciplining him for intervening. But his mother noted Renda’s talents to his father. Soon, Renda’s neighbor became his first mowing client. One customer became two, three, and then eight. Then the snow started flying and he soon had winter jobs to manage as well. By age 16, Renda was running a business.
A used plow attached to a truck helped Renda work his “magic.” He started adding commercial accounts to his portfolio and along the line met his wife, Sasha. Along with marriage came fourfold business growth and a baby girl, Rachel. Mixed with the highlights came the devastating news of a lung disease that would cut short their dreams. Sasha succumbed to the disease after an 18-month battle.
“At that moment I was a single dad with a 2½-year-old daughter and a business to run. I had no social life and didn’t get much sleep.”
Already reeling from the loss of his wife, Renda took another hit when he found out the bookkeeper he had hired to help him had embezzled $149,000 from his account.
“It was Christmas Eve and I had taken the day off. I went to the bank to withdraw $350 to shop for my daughter. I know, typical guy, waiting until the last minute. But I knew there was plenty of money in the account. Yet when I went to take that out, the teller said, ‘I can’t do this, you don’t have enough.’ I said, ‘Are you kidding me? There’s a lot more than that.’ She told me I bounced a $5,000 check. I said, ‘If I wrote a $5,000 check, I’d know it,’” he recalls.
“Being a single dad who just lost his wife recently, you are looking at this child you have to take care of and now you are even more scared and terrified,” he says.
The bookkeeper took advantage of another company as well, taking $270,000 before being caught. That was 14 years ago.
A lot of life has happened since then. He got back on his feet thanks to Alan Steiman, who became his mentor. After meeting Steiman at a Snow & Ice Symposium and realizing he was “bigger than life in the industry,” Renda was amazed that Steiman had taken an interest in him.
He says their business philosophies revealed that they had a lot in common. Steiman would always check in on the phone and ask, “Keepin’ up with it, kid? What’s your game plan?”
“People were buying Alan, not his equipment,” Renda says. “Now they look at me and it’s similar. You get personal with these people, you care about their families,” he explains.
Renda faced loss again in 2008, when his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Six months later his only sibling, a sister with Down Syndrome, passed. Steiman passed away in 2010. Renda says he deeply misses Steiman’s mentoring and greatly mourned his loss.
“I found myself very alone with an 11-year-old, my elderly father and my business to take care of. Compared to some of the personal challenges that I have beaten, a breakdown, a blizzard or a salt shortage are easy,” Renda says.
“Now I believe my clients look at me and see someone who is not out to be a multimillion [dollar] company, one not in it for money.” After all he has endured, he says, “I want to go above and beyond all the time. To see the look on their face when that happens is amazing.”
He cites a recent example of one of his biggest clients, whose owner died in April. “He was a very old guy who made a huge impact on me. He made camps for kids [and] boys’ and girls’ clubs. When he passed it rattled me. On the day before his funeral, with only six or seven hours’ notice, we mulched and cleaned the place, doing a memorial garden free of charge.”
Today, his business remains comprised of nine sizable commercial industrial accounts, all located within 1/8 mile of each other. “It took a long time to pull this off (having accounts close in proximity). The actual accounts were a goal,” he says.
Lessons learned from mentors, a culmination of losses and unwanted circumstances, and the challenges of being a single parent have all helped Renda run his business well and strive toward balance in his work/family life, raising his 16-year-old daughter and helping to care for his 95-year-old dad.
Of course, balance is tricky for Renda. “If I have balance, it’s very hard, because in this snow industry you are married to your business. It supports your kid, puts a roof over her head. When my accounts call, I’m the one who jumps up and goes.”
At the day’s end, if he could tell people his life lessons in a nutshell, he says it would go like this: “What you put out in the world comes back to you every time. Run it honest; run it clean; have character and don’t be a character.”
- Mentors in the snow industry can help you build a stronger business.
- Don’t sell snow services…sell relationships.
- It isn’t easy, but strive to find a work-family balance.
Stephanie Skernivitz is a freelance writer based in Cleveland. Special thanks the Caterpillar for sponsoring this year’s Greatest Story Never Told contest.