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Summer 2004

Landscaper Roger Cook: Things I Have Learned Along the Way

Roger Cook

Roger Cook

Making Supplier Relationships Work

Roger Cook is well known for his regular appearances on “This Old House” and “Ask This Old House” television programs. But he is also an everyday landscaper. As owner of K&R Tree and Landscape Co., Burlington, Mass., he enjoys “digging in the dirt” for a variety of customers in the Boston area. In this WorkSaver column he shares some of his experiences from 20 years in the landscaping business.

There’s an old saying that I am reminded of when I think about my suppliers—“a disaster on my part doesn’t necessarily make an emergency on their part.”

No matter how well you plan, there are times when you need something right away. It could be a load of sod or a part for your loader. If you have a good, honest relationship with a supplier, he will go out of his way to help. If not—if you always shop around for the lowest price—you may indeed face a disaster alone.

Over the years I think I have done a good job of developing solid relationships with my suppliers. It’s something you have to work at, but the payoff is very worthwhile.

One benefit is you don’t waste time. I make sure I know what a supplier can do for me and that they know my expectations. Here are some of my thoughts on working with two groups of suppliers—nurseries and equipment dealers.

Nursery specialization

I use 15-20 different nurseries. That may seem like a lot, but each one of them has a specialty. It could be ground cover, perennials or trees. Because they specialize, product selection and quality is generally better. Product availability is also important. For example, one nursery may have a certain type of tree available only in the spring, but I may want to plant in the fall. So I have to match product availability to my needs.

New nursery

When considering buying from a new nursery, the first thing I do is visit the yard. I want to observe the stock, see how clean and organized the place is, how employees handle materials. What I don’t want to see: trees and plants being tossed around, with broken branches and stems.

Equipment dealers

Make no mistake—the dealer is key to any equipment purchase. Of course the name and reputation of the manufacturer is important, but you must be certain the dealer is going to be around to stand behind the product. If you need advice or a part, it doesn’t matter who built the equipment. You need the local dealer’s help. You don’t want to have to call an 800 number.

Equipment selection

Don’t over-buy or under-buy. Make sure you know what you need and know what the machine is going to do. Demo it based on your needs. If you do hillside work, test it on a hillside. Make sure you have sufficient horsepower.

Rent or buy

If you are just getting started in the landscaping business, consider renting or leasing a piece of equipment for six months to see if you really need it. If you use it every day, buy it. When I started I spent $3,000 renting a Bobcat skid-steer loader. The next year rental cost me $10,000. That’s when I decided to buy my first Bobcat loader. It was a used 743.

If you need to get started with a used loader, make sure there is someone to back it up. Best bet: Buy from a reputable dealer. They are going to stand behind it. If you buy a used machine from an individual, you better be a good mechanic because you are buying someone else’s maintenance practices. The unit may look good, but did the owner really take care of it?

Working with suppliers

Other important factors:

  • Be honest. Let them know if you are shopping around for the best price. Don’t play games. Landscapers and their suppliers are a relatively small group. Don’t damage your reputation.
  • If you need financing, let them know. That can affect the deal. Check to see who will give you credit. Find out if the supplier can get you pre-approved.
  • Make sure your suppliers have a consistent line of merchandise. I don’t want to buy something and go back a year later and discover that they don’t carry the product anymore.
  • Talk with others in the business. Most state landscape associations will provide names of members who you can call for advice.