2023 LM150: How the growth of Mariani still keeps things all in the family

Frank Mariani (Photo: Tim Klein Photography)
Frank Mariani (Photo: Tim Klein Photography)

On his way to visit a client in one of Chicago’s wealthiest neighborhoods along Lake Michigan, Frank Mariani drives past a small building and points.

“That was my first building right there,” he says.

That was almost 50 years ago. A lot has changed for Mariani since those humble beginnings.

“Pretty soon we’ll be in every wealthy high-end residential area in the country,” he says.

He means it. In 2022, Mariani Landscape added seven family-owned residential landscape companies from around the country. This year the company has already added five more, including Southview Designs of St. Paul, Minn. — a company that ranked No. 80 on this year’s LM150 list with annual revenue of $39 million. 

All of this activity has launched Mariani Premier Group — the new name of the platform of companies — up the LM150 list. The company reported 174 percent growth from 2021 to 2022, ranking first place in percentage growth year over year. Mariani’s reported revenue of $286 million places the company at No. 11 on the list.

A future for everyone

A change at Mariani Landscape first started to come about five years ago, when Frank Mariani Jr. told his dad he liked working in the company but didn’t foresee himself ever wanting to lead it.

“I said that’s not a problem, but I want to make sure that our associates — 52 of whom have been with us for over 25 years — have an opportunity to still work here if I get hit by a train or retire,” Mariani Sr. says. “My plan is to work until I’m dead because this is not work for me. I love it. But I wanted to make sure there was a future for our associates, whether Frank Jr. or Frank Sr. are here or not.”

Mariani looked into creating an Employee Stock Option Plan for the company but didn’t like it. (“It didn’t really work for me,” he says.) Then a friend in the industry who runs a large company approached him. This friend was working on a deal with a private equity group. Perhaps the two companies could both work with the private equity group and become partners? Mariani was more than interested. He was ready.

And then a pandemic hit and the deal went away.

“I totally understood, because this particular private equity group had businesses in entertainment, so they were getting killed and didn’t know what to do,” Mariani says.

Mariani told the group that he was in no hurry, but he did want to make sure his team was taken care of. Around a year later, the company he was hoping to partner with was bought by a different private equity group. The original private equity group came back to Mariani and told him they had recovered from the pandemic and were ready to make a deal.

“We made a deal in no time,” Mariani says. “And I was off to the races.”

Best of both worlds

Mariani’s vision is to create the leading residential landscape company in the country and then the world by only partnering with the best companies. Mariani says he knows who those companies are through his years of experience in the industry and his involvement with the National Association of Landscape Professionals and its previous iterations over the years. He says people who are his friends run many of these companies.

“I would go to them and say, ‘Do you see the advantage of joining together? It protects your team,’” Mariani says. “If they care about their team, they need an exit strategy, because eventually all of us will get older and want to retire or die. This was a way to ensure that our family of companies have a plan as ownership ages.”

Additional benefits include priority access to suppliers, business management systems, HR information and a recruitment platform.

“Our goal is to quickly help our family of companies take full advantage of our group services,” says Stephanie Blanco, head of integration at Mariani. “We have been running dozens of roundtables, workgroups and learning sessions that are helping the family companies elevate and expand their service offerings.”

Mariani says the success of the overall plan depends on the acquired companies maintaining their unique identity while gaining these assets.

Mariani Premier Group hired Bryan Christiansen as CEO because of his experience in acquisitions. Previously, as a senior vice president with Affiliated Computer Services, he helped acquire 114 companies — and allowed each to operate individually with its own profit and loss statements.

Christiansen references the Star Trek movies when Captain Kirk and Spock battle the Borg.

“What we often see in the ‘consolidation play’ is the acquiring company acts like the Borg, and everyone must assimilate,” Christiansen says. “When they assimilate, they lose their personalities. They lose what made them so powerful in their markets.”

Christiansen says Mariani Premier Group’s key to success is each acquired company gets to keep its unique personality.

“Frank is creating the best of both worlds,” Christiansen says. “He’s getting the best of the best when it comes to landscape skills and client experiences, and what we’re doing is bringing the best of the best when it comes to scaling companies and allowing them to maintain who they are.”

What it’s like to work at Mariani Premier Group

Noel Street is nearing her one-year anniversary with Mariani Premier Group, working as a project manager for the bid/build department. She says it’s exciting to work for a big company that is growing.

“This is a big step up from my last job,” she says. “The projects are bigger, more exciting, more grand.”

Street says it’s a fun, supportive culture at the company.

“Everyone is really friendly and happy to help you, or teach you when you need to learn,” she says.

CEO Bryan Christiansen credits the company’s friendly culture to the man with his name on all the trucks: Frank Mariani.

Whenever Mariani sees one of his trucks on the road, he’s sure to give a smile and wave.

“When I first met Frank, I was pretty sure I was going to love working for him, and I do love working for him,” Christiansen says. “He’s full of energy. When you talk to him, what comes across is that he’s doing what he loves. His energy is palpable. It rubs off on people, and it’s energizing.”

The sky is the limit

Mariani stresses that he doesn’t want just any company. He only wants companies with a winning culture or those ready to work to become the best. And he has turned away companies that wanted to join the Mariani Premier Group.

“I have turned down buying, acquiring, partnering with companies that have huge revenue and EBITDA,” Mariani says. “But they have a culture that is, in my opinion, cancerous.”

So, what does the future hold for Mariani Premier Group?

“The sky is the limit,” Christiansen says. “There is a desire from all the family companies to continue to grow, to continue to increase the number of companies that can participate and receive the benefits. We’re bringing to the market something that hasn’t been seen before.”

Mariani says he will continue to move forward with his goal of building the best residential landscape company in the country.

“We’re not driven by the dollars,” he says. “We’re driven by the people and the companies and the markets we want to be in.”

Read more LM150:

To view the complete list, breakdowns and company profiles, check out a PDF version here.

Photo: Seth Jones

Seth Jones

Seth Jones is is editor-in-chief of Landscape Management, Golfdom and Athletic Turf magazines. A graduate of Kansas University’s William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Seth was voted best columnist in the industry in 2014 and 2018 by the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association. He has more than 23 years of experience in the golf and turf industries and has traveled the world seeking great stories.

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