By Mike Jiggens
From humble beginnings, a Richmond, B.C. landscaping company has grown
over the past 25 years into one of the area’s most recognizable,
award-winning businesses in its field.
Beaver Landscape Ltd. was founded in 1986 (incorporated in 1988) as the end result of a business originated a few years earlier by two college friends who were looking for a means to make enough money to continue with their studies. Grant Cameron, an original founder and current president of Beaver Landscape, recalled those early days when their fleet of equipment consisted of a borrowed walk-behind mower and an old weed eater, and how their perseverance built the company into one that today is at the forefront of landscape design and was a pioneer in environmental change.
“It’s fun how we grew it,” Cameron said. “We started something called Student Lawn Care.”
Both studying marketing at the time, Cameron said he and his former partner figured mowing residential lawns in the area might be a good way to earn the money necessary to fund their college expenses. Cameron borrowed his father’s old electric weed eater, which required an extension cord in order to operate it, while his partner borrowed his mother’s lawn mower. Borrowing the use of another relative’s old Volkswagen, they set out to drum up business in the Coquitlam area, beginning with a couple of lawns and building from there.
They began by knocking on doors, trying to get as many potential residential customers in a single confined area interested in their services.
As their clientele began to grow, it became time to acquire newer equipment, but the expense of purchasing brand new was still out of the question for the upstart company. Cameron said his partner found an inexpensive, used Sears Eagle side discharge mower at a garage sale, which was still a step up from their original machine.
“We were in our glory.”
Their original weed eater, which had eventually burned out, was replaced by another used machine purchased at a small repair shop. Gasoline-powered and more powerful, the newer weed eater was an improvement over its predecessor, but its required woven mesh line was becoming too expensive to continually replace. The line type had another drawback.
“Once it broke off, it was like a projectile,” Cameron said, describing how he and his partner—who both worked in shorts—had to frequently tend to numerous nicks and cuts on their exposed legs.
Money was still tight at the outset, preventing the business partners from advertising their services through such outlets as local media or the Yellow Pages. Relying on their college-obtained marketing skills, they opted instead to fashion a number of signs using plywood, paint and stencils. The signs, which featured red lettering atop a white backdrop, simply readâ€ˆ“Lawns: Cut, Trim, Edge” along with Cameron’s telephone number. He said his mother was always at home and could field any incoming calls.
The signs were posted everywhere, including such high-profile areas as major intersections. Signage was not legally permitted in such areas, and they were always removed by the municipality. Not to be deterred, Cameron said signs would instead be posted in quieter areas around town. The newer locations were actually targeting the areas they wished to service and were seen frequently by people who went for strolls or who were walking their dogs.
“We became inundated with work,” Cameron said. “We’d get about 35 calls a day.”
The marketing strategy had paid off, and Student Lawn Care, with a staff of only two, was mowing 22 lawns a day.
Days were long, Cameron said, but some serious revenue was finally being generated.
“But when November rolled around, the tap shut off,” he said.
Money hadn’t been set aside to get them through the off season which Cameron attributed to their youthful lifestyle in which they fully enjoyed the money when they had it.
Cameron’s partner eventually opted out of the business. Cameron continued on by himself, but had become a licensed paramedic once completing college and attempted to juggle both professions. Landscaping work continued during the day, while at night he worked part-time as an ambulance attendant.
“I couldn’t do both. Eventually, I had to give up my dream and stay with this.”
Student Lawn Care had eventually evolved into Beaver Landscape Ltd. The company derived its name as the result of a practical joke committed early in the company’s history. The father of Cameron’s brother’s girlfriend had purchased an old 1962 Ford truck to commute back and forth to work during the winter in order to spare his Camaro from the seasonal elements. Cameron said the truck was “ugly” yet was cheap to insure. One night, he and some friends stencilled the words “Beaver Patrol” onto the truck as a lark. Its owner had a good sense of humour, and eventually sold the truck to Cameron. Since the name “Beaver” was already on the truck, and he planned to use it at the time for work purposes, the company adopted its new name.
The demand for work at the time allowed Cameron to hire others to help him. Several of his residential customers were also business owners and hired his services to maintain their commercial properties.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” was his business philosophy at the outset, and it continues to ring true for him.
Having previously burned himself by not providing for the off season, Cameron attempted a bold gambit to eliminate the seasonal aspect of the industry. He initiated 12-month contracts with his customers by amortizing over the course of a full year. He said it was a tough sell, but he was able to convince his customers to pay their contracts over 12 months rather than eight or 10 months.
“It was a bonus because Iâ€ˆcould keep the same crew employed rather than laying them off in November and then trying to find them in March.”
Commercial customers and strata councils worked the arrangement into their budgets.
The strategy allowed a cash flow to exist during the winter months and also bridged the gap between shutting down for the off season and starting up again in the spring.
Fast forward several years.
Beaver Landscape Ltd. grew to a company of 32 employees with both a maintenance and installation division. Today, the money has shifted more in the direction of “makeovers,” Cameron said, which includes such high-end work as the installation of hot tubs, arbors and new back yards.
More recently, Beaver has delved into green roofing, but the technique involved is much different from traditional green roof installation projects. What’s different is the type of soil used. The company uses a product called CitySoil™.
“Our soil is 47 per cent lighter than anything that’s been created anywhere in the world.”
Its comparatively lighter weight means roofs don’t require additional structure to accommodate heavier soils, nor does CitySoil have the same water-holding capacity which also puts stress on the structures.
Some of the best soil scientists in Canada have worked to develop CitySoil, Cameron said, adding it is both clean and inexpensive.
The nearby Vancouver Convention Centre was constructed with a green roof, but it was built prior to the advent of the CitySoil technology. Representatives of the facility have since contacted Cameron because the building has been experiencing many of the issues associated with a heavy strain on the structures.
Cameron said he finds the incorporation of CitySoil into his company’s green roofing projects to be exciting because it’s something no one has previously used.
“We have a very busy landscape company, and we’re also taking this (green roofing) on.”
Cameron admits to having had no formal horticultural training, and has learned the industry as he’s gone along, paying attention to the foremost authorities. Much of the company’s success—winner of the Richmond Chamber of Commerce’s “Consumers Choice Award for Business Excellence” from 2005 to 2010—is attributed to the people he has hired.
Specialists, including an arborist, a civil engineer and others with high levels of training, are among those on Beaver’s staff. All aspects of maintenance and installation are done in house with nothing sub-contracted.
Experience among staff is the key to a successful landscaping operation, Cameron said.
“Especially when it comes to maintenance because there’s so much more to it than just the knowledge. Experience, I have found over the years, is invaluable.”
Being sufficiently diverse and having the ability to deliver what the customer wants is important, he added.
“They’re going to call the shots, and you have to use your knowledge of the industry to not work around them but work within their needs.”
Cameron said he hasn’t used pesticides for several years, citing the expense as an additional reason to adopting a more environmentally-friendlier approach.
“We’ve found that over the years, with proper maintenance, you don’t really need to spray.”
Moss is a particular issue along the Canadian west coast. It is shallow growing and feeds off the abundance of moisture common to the coastal region. Although ferrous sulphate has proven effective, the moss eventually returns. Cameron said the key to good moss control is to control the soil or the makeup of the soil beneath it to prevent its reoccurrence. Excessive shade and pH imbalance contribute to the problem.
Unlike Beaver’s beginnings, when the company’s original customers were all residential properties, the business has shifted over the years to a present clientele which is heavily commercial.
Some strata properties exist among the non-commercial clientele, but Cameron said they are high-maintenance customers. Some members of strata councils know little about horticulture, he said, adding landscaping companies who service such properties often find themselves the target of blame if a pair of boots suddenly go missing off a resident’s back deck or if a scratch is found on a customer’s vehicle. Because the company is there once a week to maintain the property, it tends to be found guilty by association when such a situation occurs.
“There always has to be a beat-up bag.”
A landscaper’s life expectancy at a strata property is about three years, or maybe five at the outside, Cameron said.
“You can be the best landscaper in the world and have had that place looking so good, but they’re going to get rid of you in three years. As the strata council changes, people come and go as it changes. The first person they’re going to get rid of is the landscaper.”
Cameron said large strata properties take up lots of time and require plenty of manpower, but the contract can be gone in a flash depending on the wishes of the council. Thirty days’ notice is often the only warning time allotted.
Beaver’s commercial sites vary in size from about 2,000 square feet to upwards of 30 acres with customers located throughout the lower mainland.
Management principles have not changed since his early days mowing lawns, Cameron said. A mower and weed eater are still required, no matter the size of the property, yet the contractor must adapt to the situation and needs of the client.
He said the landscaper must be mindful of when and when not to operate machinery. If a staff meeting is taking place at 7 a.m. at a commercial property, it’s important that there be no disruptions.
Similarly, at a strata property, the time for mowing in a particular area may have to be adjusted if a resident is sleeping days after having worked nights.
The entry level into the landscaping business is minimal, Cameron said, noting that if someone has a pickup truck or a lawn mower, he is already halfway in.
“There’s no association or governing body that polices this industry to a point where, if Air Canada lays off 2,000 people, I guarantee you that by tomorrow 1,500 of them will become landscapers, simply because of that entry level into the business.”
New upstarts, as a whole, consume about 68 per cent of the market, he said.
“Having that much market share means they control the pricing and the market.”
Beaver Landscape Ltd. has managed to hold its own over the years, competing effectively against the competition and earning accolades from both its customers and the business community at large.
Due to recent downturns in the economy, Cameron said a number of his customers will be home while maintenance work is being done. Those customers tend to notice whether or not a work crew arrives at the property on time. If a crew arrives late by a half-hour or so, Beaver will receive a call.
“No news is not good news,” he said. “We get so busy landscaping and maintaining. I have to get in, get cut, trimmed, edged, cleaned up and go on to the next one. That’s how we make our money. We’re on a treadmill. The faster we get the treadmill going, the more money we’re going to make.”
Conversely, if a work crew gets tired, the “treadmill” slows down and less money is made.
Cameron said it is important to stay on top with his customers, regularly calling them to ensure everything is OK.
“You have to do some face time with them.”
Operating the business is as much work today as it was 30 years ago, when he and his former partner were cutting 22 lawns a day, Cameron said.
Landscape installation has become an important revenue generator for the company, and is a significant transition from simply cutting lawns. So much more is involved in the installation side of the business and requires the involvement of specially-trained professionals.
“Profit is not a dirty word,” Cameron said.
The cost of downtime is perhaps the No. 1 obstacle in the way of profit for a landscaper. He said he has been able to effectively combat downtime by purchasing new trucks and equipment every couple of years to avoid such setbacks as blown truck tires en route to a job site.
“We found lost productivity was so expensive that it made it worth it for us to actually go out and buy new trucks and new equipment and turn it over consistently.”
He said he foresees growth for the industry in the future, suggesting landscapers are at the forefront of public knowledge for the environmental necessities of the planet.