Sargent's solutions - a change of direction?

Alan Sargent advises on whether and how to expand a small landscape maintenance business while maintaining income levels and job satisfaction.

I have been in business for six years and feel I should expand or change direction. How easy is it to do either?

You are currently carrying on a sole trader business as a grounds maintenance contractor, also undertaking small landscape works. You find these landscape projects interesting and would like to do more but cannot find the time to do both regular maintenance as well as garden builds.

This is not at all unusual - in fact, it is almost a rite of passage for many landscape companies to start out dealing with a diary full of private (or commercial) clients. After a while, these regulars can appear to stifle any artistic leanings you may have and you may begin to feel frustrated with the whole business. You currently work alone but have had offers of occasional help.

While it is easy to say "go ahead" - if you have the talent, make use of it - perhaps a note of caution is in order. First of all, I understand that your business is successful inasmuch as you earn enough money to pay the bills and save a little for the future. You have previously heavily invested in purchasing the requisite machinery for your maintenance company, with decent mowers, power tools, etc.

I understand your dilemma. Should you move away from maintenance towards construction, perhaps selling the equipment to fund other machines, exchanging mowers for cement mixers, strimmers for stone saws, or find funding for the additional tools? Perhaps, if you have the yard space, keep everything just in case you need it in the future.

Carry out an audit

Step back and take a long, hard look at your business. Write down all of the assets, not simply machines and property (if any), but also the value of your work programme. This is not to place a value on the business as such, but the actual amount of hard cash you can say it is worth to you per annum. Your machines, your customers, your turnover - not any fanciful figure you may feel you could get by selling your business.

How much do you need to earn each month compared with your actual income from your existing clients? We have established that you are making a profit and therefore the basic reason for being in business - earning your living - is settled. However, another requirement, that of job satisfaction, is what is causing your quandary.

Identify your market

Examine the opportunities to expand your business, not simply in turnover or output but in the range of services that you offer. There is a big difference between undertaking occasional projects and creating a landscaping business. You will require a wide range of potential customers and opportunities to succeed as a garden builder.

You live in the country, where you are likely to find the right type of potential clients. Indeed, you already have a number of maintenance contracts and these customers may well appreciate the additional services you are planning to offer.

However, landscape works tend to be one-offs and once the task in hand is finished so is your business with the client. Check out your local opposition. Look through the local church or parish magazines and see who else in your area is offering similar skills.

Do not forget that they may be better known than you, although an advert placed in that same publication, informing the readers of your additional talents, may well prove to be rewarding. Simply add the word "landscaping" to your maintenance accreditation.

Also, do not forget to check in with your insurance company - you would be well advised to change the wording perhaps to "landscape gardeners" as opposed to simply "gardeners" and it may be that an additional premium is required.

Taking on extra labour

In last month's magazine (HW, 24 January) I wrote about taking on your first employee, and I would advise you to read that before proceeding further. However, be careful not to use your new labour to carry out the "old" maintenance works while you go off and enjoy the "new" landscaping, because you could well lose your existing customers. There is a good reason why they have employed you in the past and they may not welcome any changes.

Instead, work with your additional labour, whether part-time or full-time, and complete your maintenance jobs as a team first, freeing up more time to take on landscape projects. This way you can introduce your newfound labour to your clients, gradually weaning them into accepting their presence on site instead of yours, while at the same time training the newbie in the ways of landscaping.

There is a danger that your new labour could walk away with some of your existing customers and great care should be exercised in choosing your anointed successor should you be thinking of leaving them alone on site undertaking the general maintenance works. All too often I hear of cases where it becomes "off with the old and on with the new", especially if the customers feel that they have become second best in your affections - plus, of course, the new person will be cheaper.

Growing a company is always a difficult subject. If you are successful, why are you? Celebrate that success. If you are not successful, examine the reasons and take steps to improve productivity - an altogether separate discussion. But please do not simply expand just on a whim, or you easily could live to regret it.

Email your questions to:

Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant. His latest book, The Landscaper's Survival Manual, is available from

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