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Entrepreneurs
Business Observer Thursday, Feb. 19, 2009 12 years ago

Branching out

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A tree entrepreneur looks to survive the market by relying on his strengths and size.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

An entrepreneur looks to survive the market by relying on his strengths.


Like hundreds of entrepreneurs and executives on the Gulf Coast, Darrell Turner can see the current downturn with eyes of experience.

Actually, Turner once had to cut back so much at his tree nursery and landscaping company that his payroll went from $250,000 a month to $100,000 a month in 90 days. Revenues evaporated, equipment was sold and two of the company's three offices, the ones in Naples and Miami, were shuttered.

But that contraction, which occurred in early 2000, wasn't the byproduct of an economic downturn. It was instead Turner's own doing, as he decisively followed through on the 'spend more time with my family' promise so many other business executives and politicians make but don't live up to.

Says Turner: “Bigger wasn't better.”

Nonetheless, while going to his daughter's soccer games and volleyball practices, Turner began to rebuild the company, Bradenton-based Turner Tree and Landscape.

He focused on projects in a 70-mile radius of Bradenton and, partially due to the housing boom, got the company to the point where it came a few million dollars short of the $20 million in annual revenues it was hitting during its late 1990s heyday.

The past 18 months however, have been the true test of Turner's business resolve. Due to the recession, the company has gone through another major contraction, losing 90 employees from a base of what was 170 in late 2007.

Revenues are down, from $15 million in 2006 and 2007 to $9 million in 2008.

Turner, however, isn't giving in. He's executing a series of strategies designed to grow the business, both in acquiring new customers and maintaining current ones.

In general, the plan revolves around the basic business concept of relying on a company's strengths. For example, Turner is capitalizing on the vast reach of his tree farms, which cover 1,200 acres in Manatee County, spread over six nurseries.

The company has about 200,000 trees on its farms, including an inventory of more than 20,000 live oaks. Its crews will do just about anything tree-related, from relocation to removal to transport projects.

Turner is using the company's super-sized tree numbers as the base of what he calls his “Recession Recovery” program, where he upgrades every new project. For example, if a client, either residential or commercial, orders 10-foot trees, his crews will plant 12-foot trees at no extra charge. All the company's projects are getting similar upgrades.

To Turner, it's akin to a tire dealer throwing in the fourth tire for free. “It's a bonus for our clients,” he says, “and hopefully a way to help propel the economic recovery that builders and developers expect this year.”

Turner is also doubling the one-year irrigation warranty period the company provides, to further boost goodwill among his clients and potential customers.

Turner is also relying on the strength of the company's client list to carry it through the market slump, as the sales crew has been contacting current customers to inquire about new services. That list spreads wide, from many of the
Gulf Coast's top housing communities to a range of governments and municipalities.

The two-page list of Gulf Coast places that have Turner Trees in the yard includes several schools, the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport and a trio of Holiday Inns.

And past that list, Turner has turned up his already busy networking schedule. He says he now goes to at least three networking events a week and tries to meet and chat up at least two new people every day.

The stick-to-your strengths business model has been a success so far, at least on a small level. The company has seen a slight rise in new projects going back to the last three months of 2008, when it brought on 45 new customers. And it has already added another 15 clients in 2009.

Those jobs, including beautification projects for the Pittsburgh Pirates spring training facility in Bradenton and Riverview High School in Sarasota, range in value from $8,000 to $750,000. Those and other jobs have pushed the company's 2009 revenue projections to $10 million.

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