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Fall 2007

Not Just a Column for Landscapers

Things I Learned Along the Way
By Roger Cook

We’ve been producing columns for WorkSaver — and also PRO magazine, an industry publication for up-and-coming landscapers — for just over three years now. The subjects we’ve covered range from being selective when taking on new business (our first-ever column), to staying motivated during downturns, to finding a balance between work and personal life, to working effectively with your suppliers … in all, we’ve covered more than 30 topics.

I’m sure the column has seemed like a landscaping-focused advice piece. After all, I am a landscaper. The funny thing is that the more we focus on general business ownership issues, the more we continue to point out that these are much the same for any small company. An owner of a construction firm is going to have the same issues any landscaper has. In fact, anyone who works with equipment and crews, in a service-related business during seasonal ups and downs, always out there trying to sell value over price and mastering his craft, is in the same boat. As I wrote in one of my recent columns, there probably isn’t a business owner out there who hasn’t looked in the mirror at some point and asked, “What have I done?” And followed that up with, “Now what am I supposed to do?”

Roger Cook

Roger Cook regularly appears on "This Old House" and "Ask This Old House" television programs. He owns K&R Tree and Landscape Co., Burlington, Mass.

All of my columns have common themes: Be honest with your customers, be honest with your employees, and be honest with yourself. Know what you’re good at and stick to it … Enlist others to do the rest. Be selective: find good people to do business with and hire the right individuals. Take pride in what you do and enjoy it.

The rest will come naturally.

Honestly, when we first started doing these columns, I was concerned that we’d eventually run out of things to say, mainly because I don’t really consider myself “insightful.” I’m a businessman who has learned from his mistakes over 25 years (at least I like to think I have). If someone else can benefit from my experiences, that’s great.

I’ve had some people ask if the columns are a “how-to” on starting and running your own business. Not really. Publications like WorkSaver and PRO are good supplements to much of the formal education that is out there today. There is a lot of it — a lot more than when I started in this business. Landscaping and other construction trades used to be like shop class. The kids who couldn’t do anything else gravitated toward something where they could get their hands dirty. Now there are reputable university programs across the country, certification through associations, learning modules and continuing education offered. Someone in construction can truly graduate into the world of business now. And once you get through that, recognizing that there are people out there (like me) who have been through it and learned from it before can be comforting. In fact, I’ve been saying for years that there are guys out there who would be pleased to share their experience with you. I’m one of those guys.

So if you’re a landscaper, I hope we’ve struck a chord with you. Maybe you’ve confronted some of the same things we’ve talked about in the columns and been able to apply something you’ve read. If you’re not in landscaping, I’d still encourage you to have a look at what we’ve covered. These columns are for business people — yes, business people who like to get their hands dirty, but also for anyone who has questions about working with suppliers, crew members, employees, and competing in a world where you can get lowballed. It’s to your advantage to establish longterm relationships with clients, sell value over price and represent an industry professionally.

You can visit and see every article we’ve ever done. You’ll also find a whole slew of stories about contractors in other types of businesses outside landscaping. There are a lot of great contractors out there doing some pretty innovative things … smart businesspeople who have gone through the problems you have and developed solutions. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel, especially in an industry where others are so willing to share their knowledge.

In all, we have a library of more than 30 columns on business related issues. These are some of our favorites:
• Being selective when taking on business — focusing on profitable jobs
• Communicating effectively with customers
• Understanding your numbers and enlisting accounting help when needed
• Hiring and keeping good employees
• Marketing your business
• Seeing the importance of consistency through processes
• Finding and focusing on your forté
• Being “connected” with the right people
• Knowing the difference between gross and net profit and spending money wisely
• Understanding the importance of employees’ pride in work
• Beating lowballers by selling value over price
• Expanding your business among current customer groups
• Planning for the short term
• “Selling” business (as an owner) … doing it efficiently
• Turning over administration of the business to others
• Making supplier relationships work
• Proposing jobs in phases when it makes sense for the customer’s budget
• Staying motivated during a business downturn
• Finding a balance between work and personal life
• Keeping crews busy during winter months

So, from that perspective, maybe I am insightful, (even though I’m not sure my wife and kids would agree with that). And I guess that as long as there are issues to deal with, and as long as I continue to learn from mistakes or find new ways to be successful, I’ll have something to write about. It is an ever-changing game. And in the world of construction, it’s always important to know that it is not only a craft but also a business. We’ve all questioned our path at one point. All the long hours away from the family, headaches with personnel issues and general stress that comes with the responsibility of business ownership can wear on an individual. We’d probably all agree that it eventually becomes worthwhile. The best part is that we can all make money doing something we love. And in the end, no matter what trade we’re in, we can look at a finished project and say, “That’s my work.”

We all have that in common. And it’s proof that practically anyone can be his own boss with the right tools, work ethic, support network and some kind of business sense. We hope these columns are worthwhile somewhere in that mix.

To find these columns and others, along with profiles on contractors who have built successful businesses being their own boss (and tips on how you can be your own boss), visit You can also sign up for a seasonal newsletter featuring links to new columns, an “Ask an Expert” question and valuable industry links.