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A Day In the Life: Back To Nature

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In this edition of A Day In the Life, we sit down to speak with James Ulmer from Back To Nature in Blacksburg, Virginia.


Q &A with James Ulmer from Back To Nature

LMN: How did you get into the landscape industry?

James: Started doing odd jobs in high school from mowing yards to small design and build jobs. Liked the industry and got accepted into Virginia tech horticulture landscape contracting program. Proceeded to do landscape work and meeting clients in the Blacksburg area during school. Also had some internships with some companies out west.


LMN: And how did that lead to starting a successful company in Blacksburg, Virginia?

James: While attending school and doing jobs between classes I started getting busier and busier. I ran the company out of my apartment complexes and random parking lots. The demand that I was getting from my clients, it was hard not for me to decide to take it full swing and seek out a long-term location for the business and make this my career.


LMN: What barriers have Back To Nature Landscaping had to overcome to achieve the level of efficiency and productivity it’s at today?

James: Keeping up with growth has been the hardest thing for us to do. We are one of the fastest growing landscaping and construction companies in our area. With growth means finding great people and having our processes and efficiency keep up with that growth. We just finished our 3rd full year in the industry, and I’ve never done this before; I am reinventing the wheel as we go and learning from our mistakes.


LMN: What advice would you give to any landscape tradesman or tradeswoman looking to start their own business or company?

James: Find systems from the start (LMN!). Don’t be afraid to pay your employees what they are worth and develop an order for them to see, so they grow in your company and know what their future looks like. Attend tradeshows, classes, ask questions and surround yourself with people that are better than you. Be open and transparent with your employees, so they know what the goal is for the company. Share with them your numbers, so everyone knows how the company is doing. Invest in equipment; equipment is more simple and accessible to manage then a crew is.


LMN: What systems and processes do Back To Nature Landscaping have in play to manage their people and create a positive company culture?

James: LMN, weekly meetings with managers. Daily meetings with crews, Lean landscape systems, 5’s, Quarterly profit sharing, reviews, recognized birthdays, Christmas parties, company parties through the year. Breakfast coffee every now and again. Paid company training.


LMN: In an industry with high employee turnover, how do you retain and recruit good talent that’s in it for the long haul?

James: Find people that have the same vision of us regardless of experience; We want people that want to be a level player within the business. We are developing excellent company culture and want everyone in our area to want to come work for us; we want this to be fun and to be the best. We have developed a career opportunity path for all positions, so entry-level members know how and what to work for to get raises and move up in the company. We are beginning to see we are getting know in the area with people in our industry that have been here for 20+ years wanting to come work for us. We want to be a big family here and have fun and make money!


LMN: In landscaping, teamwork makes the dream work, how do you create an environment & culture where your employees thrive?

James: Same as above & constant feedback and letting them know how they are doing and what they need to work towards. Find out what their passion is and try to create a path to get them into that position.


LMN: Most company’s see growth as their goal, but talk about some of the expected pain points when scaling a landscape company?

James: We have had tremendous sales growth in the past few years 150,000 in 2014, 750,000 in 2015, 1.3 in 2016 and 1.7 in 2017. Our systems and processes haven’t been able to keep up. We are planning on not adding more crews until we get at capacity. We are developing new methods, and procedures to obtain more efficiency, and we are training and investing in our people. We all want to be the best and need to get to that point before we make another big jump.


LMN: How do you see your company evolving and keeping up with a fast-paced industry?

James: If we can get out ahead of the recruiting curve, and find qualified team members, our growth opportunity is endless. We are continuing to attract customers who believe what we believe, and we’ve really only scratched the surface of that population. Also, by working smart through technology, we’ll continue streamlining processes that will continue to make us competitive in the market.

We don’ necessarily want to be the biggest company. We want to be the best in our area, Best knowledgeable employees, best landscape practices, best company cultures, best designers, best customer service. We are developing the best company, so our client doesn’t even think about calling anyone else, and employees don’t even think about leaving while new ones are always wanting to jump on our train.

We are far from perfect yet but are striving to be and will get there soon.


LMN: Where does Back To Nature Landscaping want to be 5-10-15 years from now, what’s the long-term vision?

James: Making it easy for our clients. We want to take care of their entire landscape and make it black and white for our clients by giving them a menu of services to sign up for at the beginning of each season, turf care, mowing, bed maintenance, leaf and snow removal. When they need to revamp their landscape or add outdoor living space or deck, they call the same company. When they want to remodel their home, they call the same company. We believe that if they call us for one of our services we can earn and keep their respect and they will be our customer for life and we can take care off all their needs under one roof. No more calling six different companies for all your needs; deal with us, and you will get the same service all around.

It is difficult to scale this type of company, but with the right people and systems we can accomplish anything.


LMN: Looking back on where you started and where you are today, is there anything you would do differently?

James: Would have slowed our growth and allowed our process and systems to keep in line. Had to do either way though.


LMN: Was there any one particular person that inspired you in your career?

James: My Uncle Tom/partner investor has inspired me in my career. All my employees inspire me there is something that all of them are better at than me in this industry, and I look up to them and ask questions. It’s hard to say no when they are the driving force for growth and desires determine reaching the next level. If current employees want to be a manager one day, they know they need to train the people below them, and they can move up the company ladder.


LMN: What’s the end goal for you, what do you want your company’s legacy to be?

James: We want to be the best. I want both customers and employees to look back and know we changed their lives or outdoor space for the better. I want to leave an impact on our community. We are not perfect, yes we have screwed up, but we do our best to make it right in the end no matter what.