Who would have thought to start a landscaping business during the longest drought that North Texas had seen in 50 years? Corey Tompkins, Willie Propes and Marsha Newberry did. Newberry, involved in real estate and development back then, had hired Propes and Tompkins to install some water utility lines. The three ended up going into business together, and Signature Contracting Services, LLC was born.
Landscaping isn't always about installing plants. Municipalities and commercial zones have large expanses of grass that must be maintained and mowed. In Texas, fencing and rocks play an important role in commercial landscaping and hardscaping. Many property owners and construction contractors find themselves needing erosion control devices and reclamation services ever more frequently to comply with government regulations. Signature has found its niche in providing complete irrigation, erosion control, hardscape, and maintenance with their in-house resources.
"We started as a maintenance business for larger commercial properties, like business parks and warehouses, then moved into the city work," Propes explained. "The city work allowed us to diversify — to do some asphalt and concrete curb and gutter work."
Their in-house capabilities have grown, with their most recent expansion offering construction products such as erosion control wattles, pit liners and piping for sale.
The young landscaping firm, which holds WBE (Women's Business Enterprise), DBE (NCTRCA) and HUB certifications, currently has contracts for mowing with nine municipalities in the DFW metroplex. Signature has been able to upgrade their commercial mowing fleet including zero-turn mowers to Kubota tractors ranging in size from 60 to 100 horsepower. Their 70 and 100 horsepower Kubotas pull folding-deck (bat-wing) Brush Hogs, while the 60-horsepower models pull 11-foot Land Pride folding-deck rotary cutters.
"The Kubotas give us really good service," said project manager Roger Williams. For commercial customers who want a more manicured look, Williams said that, "The Land Pride gives a lot lower and lot smoother cut. It has three blades whereas the Brush Hog has the two blades." For steeply sloped areas, their DewEze all-terrain mower provides stability for the machine and operator — a safety factor that is always a priority, explained Newberry.
Signature subcontracts for many of the major highway contractors and energy drillers, providing silt fencing, wattles manufactured in their Signature's Grand Prairie yard, and hydromulching.
Chesapeake Energy has also emerged as one of Signature's largest clients. Chesapeake has drilled more than 400 gross natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale in Johnson, Tarrant and western Dallas counties, and has over 2,000 additional sites identified.
Signature has landed contracts with Chesapeake to landscape/hardscape and maintain the pads at the oil and gas well drilling sites and "pig pens" at DFW International Airport, plus perform extensive environmental landscaping in Fort Worth, according to Propes.
For initial drilling at DFW Airport sites, Signature "builds the construction entrances, installs the silt fences and rock filter dams," said Marsha Newberry. After about three weeks, the drilling is completed and a well head, or regulator, is all that remains on a pad above ground. This regulator configuration is what the industry calls a pig pen.
"We remove contaminated soil and do the erosion control around the pads and clean them up," explained Willie Propes. "Then we build a pipe fence and put down a rock base to protect the pipes."
"Rocks were chosen for the landscaping instead of grass because there is so much gas going through these pipes that Chesapeake wants to keep out mowers and even weed eaters that might damage the pipes," explained Joseph Metcalfe, landscape and estimating manager for Signature Contracting. "We eradicate all existing weeds, put down filter fabric around the regulator, and place 6 inches of flex base material. It involves a lot of handwork, but it provides a neat appearance and soil retention."
In some cases, the drilling contractor must clear trees to create a sufficient work site. In an environmental contract with Chesapeake, Signature recently replaced about 280 4-to 6-inch caliper live oak trees and installed a drip irrigation system in a Fort Worth neighborhood after the contractor had cleared the land for the drilling rigs. Skinner Nursery of Lewisville supplied the trees, and Ewing Irrigation supplied the irrigation pipe.
Landing work at the airport, although initially difficult, has helped this young company in more ways than one. All equipment working on DFW International Airport property must meet EPA Tier 2 emissions ratings. Another requirement for contracting at DFW Airport is $10 million in liability insurance. Obtaining the insurance was difficult but worth it, according to Newberry. Just having that amount of insurance at the airport has helped the young company get other major work.
"We just choked up and bought it, knowing that we could get other cities and other work because of that," Newberry said, "and it has helped."
"There aren't too many other places where you're going to see requirements of insurance higher than this, so once you have it, you're pretty much set," Metcalfe added.
"We have grown to encompass bidding and contracting projects all over the United States," said Jason Bell, national operations manager.
Signature Contracting has actually seen their revenues increase during 2008 and early 2009, in contrast to the economic recession gripping the economy, according to Newberry.
"There's not much we won't tackle," said Propes. "We pay attention to what is happening and we follow the trends."
"Failure is not an option," added Corey Tompkins.
The company has also begun to receive federal contracts. Newberry, Propes and Tompkins agreed, "We're going to do real well this first quarter."