Calgary landscaper overcomes early adversity to celebrate 40 years in business this season
By Mike Jiggens
At the beginning of May in 1973, Peter Hughes was hired for another round of summer work by the City of Calgary. By the end of the month, the University of Calgary physical education student was laid off from his summer job.
With few options, he took heed of some advice from his father.
“I didn’t know what to do, and my father advised me to buy a lawn mower and trailer and go work for the neighbours,” he said.
Peter Hughes Landscape was born that summer, and is marking its 40th anniversary this year as one of the city’s premier landscape construction and maintenance businesses, employing 42 people.
During that summer of 1973, Hughes was a one-man operation who maintained half a dozen lawns. Over the next fews years, as his customer base began to grow, a friend joined him in the business.
By the late 1970s, he ventured into landscape construction to complement his growing maintenance service by affiliating with a local company called Engineered Homes which was a leading residential construction business at the time.
Peter Hughes Landscape, a mere four years after it was founded, had two distinct divisions: a continuing maintenance operation and a landscape construction undertaking, the latter of which today represents 80 per cent of the company’s business.
In spite of the company’s overall growth, however, over the course of 40 years, the picture wasn’t always rosy, Hughes said. In fact things were downright bleak in the early 1980s.
The Trudeau government had introduced the controversial national energy program at the time which proved especially unpopular and damaging in Western Canada. Several businesses were severely impacted with some going under. The fortunes of Peter Hughes Landscape took a turn for the worse.
“The bottom fell out of the barrel in my business in 1983.”
Hughes said the 1980s began with his company employing about 25 people, but, by 1983, it was only himself and another left on the payroll.
“In 1984 I had no work.”
The national program was eventually shelved in 1986 and business began to pick up again.
“For those three years (1983-1986), I was pushing a lawn mower by myself.”
Peter Hughes Landscape had marginally weathered the storm, but came out fighting for round two. Without a serious obstacle in its way, the company rebuilt itself and returned to a new era of growth and prosperity.
“We kicked it into high gear again in about 1994. The last 20 years have been fabulous for us.”
In the mid-1990s, Peter Hughes Landscape aligned itself with a developer from the Calgary and Cochrane areas. At the turn of the millennium, the company added snow removal work to its list of customer services.
Although its construction division represents the lion’s share of the business for Peter Hughes Landscape, the maintenance program “is our bread and butter. It provides us with a constant cash flow.”
Hughes said that when a customer is signed on, he is looked after for 12 months of the year. His maintenance needs are served in the spring, summer and fall, and snow removal is provided during the winter.
“That’s (maintenance) the backbone of our business right now.”
About 97 per cent of Peter Hughes Landscape’s customer base for maintenance is residential with most in the high-end category.
Hughes made a business decision in 2005 that has paid dividends for him in the years since. Tired of the inconsistent work ethic of locally-hired employees over the years, he sought out foreign workers to provide the nucleus of his labour force. Working with a recruiter in Guadalajara, Mexico, Hughes hired eight Mexican workers for the 2006 landscaping season. The new employees worked in both the maintenance and construction ends of the business.
“Mexican people we’ve found to be very friendly, very easy going and extremely hard-working.”
The foreign workers proved to be so efficient that their numbers have increased to 25.
After relying on the services of the Mexican-based recruiter for an initial two seasons, Hughes has since handled the task of securing the foreign workers himself, saving the company a significant amount of money.
“Once you hire one Mexican, he’s got 18 brothers and 19 cousins, so our contacts are endless today.”
Hughes attended seminars for the foreign worker program, learning how to apply for the help without the need of a third party recruiter.
The Mexican workers are offered 12 months’ employment, but, because many are married with families of their own, most choose to return home during the off season following an eight-month-long period of work. Some of the workers will arrange to bring their wives to Calgary on a holiday visa for up to a 90-day visit.
“We encourage that.”
Hughes said it was becoming increasingly more difficult to deal with local employees.
“This is hard work and, unfortunately, our workers here in Calgary don’t want to do the hard work, for the most part.”
Hughes has provided four staff houses located within walking distance of the shop to accommodate his foreign help.
“They jump on their bikes and ride to work or walk to work.”
The federal foreign workers program has come under fire of late by both the official opposition and the Alberta Federation of Labour, the latter of which wishes to see the program cancelled so as to promote Canadian employment.
The Conservative government is under “tremendous strain and criticism” in its continuing support of the program, Hughes said.
“The program is unfairly maligned. We’re in the spotlight with our foreign workers program. We need that program to continue.”
Citizenship and immigration minister Jason Kenney, who is responsible for the program, paid a visit to Peter Hughes Landscape in July 2012 to witness first-hand its effectiveness. Hughes said he would like officials from the Alberta Federation of Labour to visit his facilities and field the calls which don’t come in when advertisements for Canadian workers are placed.
Those who criticize the program are the ones who are ill-informed of its effectiveness, he said.
With the exception of sub-contracting irrigation and tree pruning, all other services are provided in-house by Peter Hughes Landscape, including pesticide application. Alberta has a “modified” pesticide ban “which is nothing like that in Ontario,” Hughes said, adding he keeps dandelions in check with Par 3.
Because most of the company’s landscape construction work is done for high-end residential customers, ongoing maintenance work is the usual reward.
“Once we do a high-end construction job, nine out of 10 times we are awarded the maintenance.”
This arrangement helps grow the business, Hughes said, because it can be otherwise difficult to grow a residential maintenance business when there are so many others who, with a lawn mower and half-ton truck, provide sufficient competition. These upstarts, he said, often don’t have proper workers’ compensation, don’t pay GST, and work under the table.
“That’s tough to compete against.”
Although competition is “very intense” in the maintenance area, Peter Hughes Landscape is a recognized leader in landscape construction.
“We’ve set the bar pretty high for Peter Hughes, and we’ve got good word of mouth. We don’t advertise. Our phones ring for landscape construction. Once you’re referred, people feel comfortable with you and business is good that way.”
Weather in the Calgary area can be unpredictable at the best of times. Hughes said next to his work force, weather is the most critical factor for business.
He said a pattern seems to be emerging whereby winter seems to want to “drag on and on” each year, reducing a typical eight-month-long season to seven months.
The 2012 season came to an end sooner than had been anticipated due to snow at the end of October. Snow in the middle of April this year delayed the start of the 2013 season.
“We were not able to get to work in Calgary until April the 20th of this year.”
As of the middle of May, there hadn’t been any rain in the Calgary area for about 17 straight days.
“Some of our projects don’t have irrigation, so that creates a challenge where we have to hand water. Usually you can rely on Mother Nature for a rainfall each week, but right now it’s very dry.”
If a residential property under Peter Hughes Landscape’s care is not equipped with an irrigation system, the company will step forward to provide manually-operated irrigation. Hughes said customers see landscaped areas in a different light from indoor carpeting. They know they are responsible for the upkeep of their own carpeting, but perceive their outside landscapes as something which requires professional attention.
“We work closely with our homeowners, communicating with them the need to water their plant material and their sod to enhance the overall look of their home.”
The quality of the company’s workmanship is the biggest driving factor behind its success, Hughes said. His staff takes great pride in their work, and Hughes himself is hands-on. Achieving top-quality work results in good references, he added.
“If you do what you said you were going to do, that’s key also.”
Peter Hughes Landscape boasts a maintenance renewal rate of about 96 to 97 per cent. A number of the company’s customers have been mainstays since 1987 when the business rebooted itself.
During the winter months, the company reduces its work force to between 15 and 17. Aside from its snow removal service, staff keeps busy with carpentry work in preparation for spring construction. Gazebos, decks and fencing are among the construction components which can be fabricated during the off season.
“Designs become more funky and more innovative. Landscape architects and landscape designers are always searching for different types of materials and a different look. Therefore, carpentry is a big component of a custom landscape job.”
The demand for carpentry work has increased the past five to seven years.
Hughes said he will see what is on the slate for the spring, and staff will construct the necessary components in the winter.
Peter Hughes Landscape is a long-standing member of Landscape Alberta, having won its first award in 1996. The company doesn’t enter every year, but tends to submit a maintenance or construction project for provincial recognition at least every other year.
The company has been nominated three times over the past two years for a national award, but so far, Canada-wide recognition has yet to be achieved.
“If there is something that has eluded us, it’s that national recognition.”
Hughes said it’s the company’s goal to win a national award for either maintenance or construction, and he hopes it can be accomplished before he retires. At 62, he said he looking to finish out the 2013 season as well as next year, but then will likely step aside.
His 21-year-old daughter Aynsley is the heir apparent to continue the family-run company into the future. Currently, she oversees her own construction crew for her father and has been taken under his wing of late to learn the business side of the operation.
“It’s been a long haul, but Alberta’s very prosperous, and it’s been very good for about the last 15 years.”