If there's one thing on the minds of most landscape contractors these days, it's the economy. It's certainly on the mind of Chris Miller, owner of C. Miller Excavating Inc. and Landscaping, an Edgewood, MD-based contractor who works in counties in northeastern Maryland. But, while others are struggling to stay positive, Miller is determined to find ways to get through it. He plans to succeed, relying on three things: his reputation for providing quality work, his core team of dedicated employees, and his versatile compact equipment fleet.
Miller has been in business for 20 years. In addition to landscaping, his company also performs sediment control, water and sewer work, and drainage system installations. Miller says this diversity of services helps the company stay busy, which is beneficial during an economic downturn.
Unfortunately, like many other contractors, Miller has had to downsize his workforce and put off new equipment purchases; however, he is quick to point out that there is a certain amount of labor and equipment that a landscaping company simply can't do without, so he is not planning on cutting back his team any further. He also realizes he must make do with the machines he has — a fleet of 10 units, including a Bobcat compact track loader and two Bobcat mini excavators. Thankfully, having good workers and versatile equipment has helped him build the strong reputation he has, and he plans to maintain that reputation.
"I don't want to compromise the quality that got me to where I'm at," Miller says. "The product I've provided in the past is going to help see me through this economy."
The landscaping portion of Miller's business has primarily focused on installation of landscaping for large builders that construct strip malls and other commercial structures, as well as large home developments. Typically, these installations include planting trees; laying sod, seed or mulch; constructing retaining walls, walkways, swimming pools and patios; and installing irrigation systems. The company also clears snow in the winter.
Because high-quality landscaping products are more expensive, Miller says the temptation for many contractors is to cut costs by using products of lower quality. But, the quality of the product determines the overall quality of a job when it is finished, and Miller doesn't want to sacrifice future profits when the economy recovers by using inferior products now. Instead, Miller is taking a longer view of the current situation.
"There are a lot of landscape companies trying to cut costs by using subpar products on their jobs," he says. "They might save some money now, but later on the customer is going to be stuck with something they're not happy with. I've seen too many companies over the last 20 years try to be competitive or gain more work by compromising the quality of their product, and it usually doesn't have a good outcome."
The same is true of labor and equipment, he says. To create a quality landscape, it takes a certain number of good people, which is why Miller has decided he can't downsize his workforce any more. And, while he's not sure when he'll be able to make any new equipment purchases, he recognizes the machines he has now will play a large part in helping his workers maintain that high quality of work.
In good or bad economies, the type of compact machines Miller owns — specifically his mini excavators and compact loader — are valuable because of their versatility. Loaders and excavators utilize many different attachments, so they perform multiple functions on Miller's landscaping job sites. The machines and the attachments are also used in Miller's drainage, water and sewer work, making them even more productive and cost-efficient tools.
For example, in landscaping, Miller's Bobcat 331 mini excavators are mostly used to construct footers and help build retaining walls. They are also used in the water and sewer portion of his business to dig trenches.
The compact track loader is used in landscaping primarily as a grading machine, and is also used with a landscape rake to groom a lawn and collect construction debris before placing sod or seed. Miller uses an auger on the loader to dig holes to plant trees, and when an irrigation line is installed, a trencher attachment digs the trench for the system, and the auger is used to excavate holes for valve boxes. The trencher attachment is also used on the compact track loader for sediment control, and it digs lines for silt fencing. A sweeper attachment is used to clean up dirt from the streets after Miller's landscaping and water and sewer jobs.
Miller says he likes the Bobcat T190 compact track loader because of the size of the machine and the light footprint the tracks leave on the job, especially if working on or near established turf.
"It leaves a small footprint in the yard, and it has the right power, so we don't need to bring in a larger and heavier piece of equipment," he says.
It's difficult to tell when the current economy is going to turn around, and until it does, landscape contractors like Chris Miller are going to do their best to keep working. While it would be easy to get down about the state of things, Miller knows his competitors are in the same situation, so he can only stay positive, focus on what has made him successful, and find ways to build from that success.
The problem with a recession is it can encourage bad business practices, such as using materials of poor quality and cutting corners. Miller is determined not to operate that way because providing a high-caliber product has kept his business going for 20 years, and he believes it will help him make it through this challenge.
And with his attitude, his commitment to quality, and help from his core team of workers and his versatile compact equipment, he has an opportunity to not only survive, but to find additional success.