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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 14, 2014 4 years ago

Tree glee

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A landscaping business on a significant growth spurt, surpassing $2 million in annual sales, tackles some common business conundrums. First up: delegating management-centric tasks.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

For a business Tammy Kovar thought would never amount to more than a hobby, Biological Tree Services has sure grown into a fast-growth company with a bushel of challenges.

Primary among the current issues at the Sarasota-based landscaping and tree recovery firm is something that confronts many business owners in any industry: the right exit strategy.

Kovar, CEO of Biological Tree Services, runs the business with Operations Manager John Forrest. Annual revenues have doubled since 2012, from $1.2 million to a projected $2.4 million in 2014. The firm has 30 employees, up from 18 a year ago, and recently moved into a new 7,000-square-foot facility north of downtown Sarasota. The firm spent $30,000 on renovations at the building, a onetime machine shop, work that includes new floors and tiles.

Yet during the growth spurt Kovar, 52, and Forrest, 54 had an epiphany: They foresee a time in the near future where they would scale back and delegate more to employees. Maybe even sell the firm. “We need people to replace us,” says Kovar. “It's exhausting doing what we are doing.”

The firm currently has a dual exit strategy. On one side it seeks to find and train young leaders within in the firm who can develop into future owners, a work in progress Kovar says is “not an easy task.” It also targets $5 million in annual sales, a figure Kovar says is a starting point to lure interested buyers in the landscaping industry.

Another obstacle at Biological Tree Services, also one common in many industries, is to find the right employees to keep up with rapid growth and new opportunities. Forrest says the firm could surpass $10 million in annual sales if it took everything that came in the door. But he worries quality and attention to detail will suffer if the firm takes on too many projects without the right employees. “We want people who want a career,” says Forrest, “not just a job cutting grass.”

The right employee threshold is also hard, admits Kovar, because she requires employees to not only be talented and passionate, but to have an environmentally friendly approach to work and life. That's why Biological Tree Services calls its employees sustainable landscape ambassadors. “You have to live it,” says Kovar. “It's like a pledge. If you don't have it, you are cut from the team.”

The firm initiated an expensive, yet important recruitment tool last June, when it started to provide 100% of health insurance for all employees. The move, says Forrest, through Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida, will cost the firm about $150,000 a year. “I want people to be healthy and not on the verge of losing everything,” Kovar says. “If I'm going to have it, they will have it.”

Kovar founded Biological Tree Services in 2004, after she worked in sales for a landscape supply business. Her firm did $110,000 in sales the first year and $220,000 the second year — all while Kovar worked her real job during the week. She spent weekends driving to clients in a van with a spray rig on the back. Says Kovar: “It just kept growing and growing.”

Now Biological Tree Services has about 150 accounts a month, 85% of which are residential. Other accounts are split between commercial and municipal work. Kovar, in addition to future ownership issues, also wants to take the firm past pure landscape work. That ranges from butterfly garden assembly to pool service to setting up hydroponic vegetable gardens. “There are so many different ways to accessorize,” says Kovar. “And no one else is doing these things.”

Follow Mark Gordon on Twitter @markigordon

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