Former FBI agent and Sarasota County Sheriff’s deputy Bill Walters spent more than a decade talking people down in heated situations and de-escalating potential crises.
Then he switched gears, got into retail management and now, landscaping. But business, Walters has learned, requires a similar deft, but firm, touch, resourceful wit and psychological smarts to get — and stay — ahead. That goes from dealing with dissatisfied customers to corralling employees to work as a team. It’s why Walters, after five years and multiple promotions at Venice-based ArtisTree, continues to rely on his law enforcement training, what he calls verbal judo, to control a situation.
“People get passionate about landscaping,” Walters says. “Some of the things people say to you would blow your mind. I’m able to talk them off the ledge.”
One of several top executives at ArtisTree, Walters is also part of a team aiming to accomplish a Redwood tree-sized goal: Turn ArtisTree, which turns 30 years old in 2020 and specializes in planned community/commercial maintenance and landscape design/installation, from a $20 million business to a $40 million business in five years.
Multiple projects and jobs in the company’s target market of Sarasota, Manatee and Charlotte counties, executives believe, are ripe for taking. One example is in HOAs popping up with the boom in new home communities across the region. To chase more market share, ArtisTree has expanded south, to Boca Grande, and north, to Pinellas County, and it also recently opened a new shop in fast-growing Lakewood Ranch, off State Road 64.
ArtisTree has picked up eight new accounts in 2019 alone, and President Frank Fistner projects the company, with $19.7 million in 2018 revenue, will grow at least 20% in 2019. That’s a big jump from the single-digit or flat growth of recent years. Says Fistner: “Our growth is off the charts — if we can get the labor.”
In the field
Like many companies in service or contracting — recruiting, retaining and rewarding talent is both ArtisTree’s biggest challenge to growth and its No. 1 priority.
Some of the effort there is common, including word-of-mouth, a $750 referral bonus and constant salary surveys so it can be an area leader in pay. The company has an annual training day, which also celebrates the people in the field, and managers take teams out through the firm’s thanks a bunch lunch program, for pizza, subs or wings. “Once we get them here,” says CEO Joe Gonzalez, “we treat them well.”
Other recruiting efforts lean uncommon. One is the H-2B seasonal visa program, which, at times, has provided up to 50 employees for ArtisTree, usually from April through November. But the program, which gives temporary residency to foreign employees who don't take agricultural positions, is politically controversial and could end at any time. ArtisTree is also about to embark on its second big recruiting trip to Puerto Rico. It did that one other time, before Hurricane Maria ravaged the island in 2017, when the unemployment rate was over 10%. That trip resulted in eight new hires.
Walters, who helps the recruitment side, is law enforcement-like pragmatic about the challenge. “Labor and competition,” he says, “are two things that will never go away.”
Beyond labor, there are other obstacles ArtisTree faces in its $40 million quest. That ranges from overcoming industry perception its services are a commodity to finding its place among a crowd when vying for attention with homebuilders and developers.
But behind Walters and his management colleague Joe Mantkowski, who together help oversee most of the firm’s 250 employees, the company is poised to reach its bold goals.
Mantkowski, 38, and Walters, 53, form a unique pair.
Mantkowski oversees design for all the company’s projects, and is the firm’s general manager. He joined the company in 2004, after working for his father’s design landscape and nursery business. Working alongside his dad, Mantkowski picked seeds, dug holes and made deliveries, all before college at USF. Once considered a rising star at ArtisTree, Mantkowski has arrived, especially with his 2017 promotion to GM. “I put in a ton of hours,” says Mantkowski. “I grinded. I really wanted to be No. 1.”
In moving Mantkowski up, Gonzalez emphasized the up-and-comer’s entrepreneurial approach to finding and signing up clients, and his calculated risks — and success — in improving operational systems.
With new clients, Mantkowski set up an enterprise-driven department, where project designers essentially have the autonomy to grow their own book of business and expand what they do for existing clients. The production team, likewise, has freedom to try new tools and gear, in effort to bring down costs and bring up quality.
Walters, meanwhile, was hired in 2013 — without what the company would consider a green thumb. He began his work life in law enforcement but shortly after he made it to the pinnacle, working out of the FBI’s Washington, D.C. head office, he decided to pursue another line of work. The FBI, he says, “was an investigative service as opposed to a proactive law enforcement service. It was a good experience, but after three years it was enough.”
He worked for Target, moving to Buffalo, Michigan and North Carolina. A Venice native, Walters knew Fistner personally, and they kept in touch. When a position opened in the tree division, the company brought on Walters — for his leadership instinct and troubleshooting skills.
“You have skills that travel with you,” Walters says. “When I came here, I didn’t know much about trees and I didn’t know about turf. But the skills I do have are things like how to manage situations and how to manage a crisis.”
While Gonzalez and Fistner remain at the helm of the company, they say the Walters-Mantkowski leadership pair provides them an opportunity to do more big picture tasks for ArtisTree. “Bill has got a great sense of people,” Gonzalez says. “He can really read people in ways others can’t.”
‘Our growth is off the charts — if we can get the labor.’ Frank Fistner, ArtisTree
Gonzalez laments ArtisTree should have and could have already been a $40 million, if not a $50 million company. It was on its way in the mid-2000s, when the company rode the boom to $15 million in sales by 2007. The recession cut the business in half, and even in growing again, the pace has slowed. “We fought really hard to get through the recession and come out on the other side,” says Gonzalez.
The son of a Cuban immigrant, Gonzalez worked his way through college, taking business classes at night. He ultimately held executive roles for Fortune 500 fashion and finance businesses.
A New York native, Gonzalez moved to Venice in 1990, and at 42 and tiring of Corporate America, he bought an air conditioning repair firm for $1 million. A four-employee lawn mowing service that booked less than $250,000 a year in sales was thrown at the end as a deal-sweetener. That company is now ArtisTree.
One key lesson Walters has learned in helping to grow both top line and bottom line revenue at ArtisTree is in equipment. The company prioritizes new and top-end gear, which helps for both retaining employees and adding efficiency. On the latter, the company recently upgraded its lawn mower fleet, with four new 104-inch wide area machines. The move saved the company about eight-man hours a day in labor, says Walters, featured in a recent story on the purchases in Landscape Management magazine.
From initiatives like that to the autonomy Mantkowski gives his department, ArtisTree, under Gonzalez and Fistner, isn't micromanaged — another key to the growth, and what executives hope is more growth. Gonzalez, says Debra Morrow, ArtisTree vice president of marketing, encourages innovative ideas and novel ways of thinking through issues. "He’s not keen on any of us just going through the motions," Morrow says in an email. "Let’s try something new…a commission program, a new piece of equipment, a new media schedule, etc. That’s what makes things so exciting around here."
On the flip side, an obstacle Mantkowski says, is for many HOAs and new home developers, landscaping, while important, “is letter Z on the alphabet of the process.”
Adds Mantkowski: “We are trying to do so many things a month and we have lot of variables in constituencies.”
A worry Mantkowski and Walters share is in big-picture branding and marketing — that the company’s high-end, top-notch work and service is clear to clients, elevating ArtisTree to more than a commodity. “Any company can throw down mulch. Any company can mow the lawn and trim the bushes,” says Walters. “But when there are issues or problems, we are the best company around.”