Landscape business owners from Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, Idaho, Washington, North Carolina and Wisconsin traveled to the mountains of Italy to discuss how they could make their businesses stronger as part of an Aces Wild peer group event. (Photo: LM Staff)

Landscape business owners made the trip to Italy to discuss how they could make their businesses stronger as part of an Aces Wild peer group event. (Photo: LM Staff)

Outside a glass door, the wind whips through the mountains of Tuscany, Italy, making the olive trees bend. A chef stokes the wood in the stone pizza oven. It’s a half-hour drive down a one-lane gravel road to get back to civilization, a town called Rufina.

Inside, 14 men sit in an 800-year-old stone room. There’s scattered exercise equipment; the room is now a workout facility.

What would the priests from the 1200s make of the yoga ball and kettlebell? Or the dozen-plus Americans talking about snow removal, construction costs and human resources?

The discussion is rapid-fire, with advice, insights and the occasional difficult question.

“I’m going to have to hire someone better than me someday; this has always been my goal.”

“Someone has to be accountable. If two people are in charge, then really, no one is in charge.”

“Across the board, March is the right time to raise prices.”

“If we have two guys doing the same job, they always end up going after each other.”

“You breathed heavy … is that an epiphany, or a previous experience coming to mind?”

These landscape and lawn care business owners from around America are part of the Aces Wild peer group. They traveled all the way from Alaska, Colorado, Missouri, Georgia, Idaho, Washington, North Carolina and Wisconsin to the mountains of Italy not for a vacation, but to discuss how they could make their businesses stronger.

Let me back up a minute

For months, I kept getting invited (perhaps recruited is a better word) to attend the Aces Summit 2023 event in Banff, Alberta, Canada. Aces Summit is an annual event for all of the Aces peer groups to meet and network outside their existing peer groups. My most recent offer: if I was there, I could host the happy hour at Banff Brewery, one of my favorite breweries in the world (and a place where I need to pick up a new T-shirt because I’ve lost mine somewhere along the way).

I was interested, but it always comes down to time. Time is valuable, and I have to be selective when saying yes and saying no to trips. As much as I’d like to make a return trip to the Canadian Rocky Mountains and beautiful Banff, could I afford the time out of the office?

I was leaning toward yes because it is a big part of my job — to travel, to be present, observe and report.

And then, on Oct. 3, I got a text message from Vince Torchia, vice president of The Grow Group:

I have a better one for you – (James) Cali has a spot open on the October Italy trip. You could come Friday and leave Wednesday or stay the whole week.

My response:

WHOA! How about I call you tomorrow to discuss?

Call me old-fashioned, but when someone invites this guy to Italy, that follow-up is a phone call, not a text.

From that text on Oct. 3, to less than three weeks later, I found myself sitting next to my wife in the mountains of Tuscany, Italy. It was Oct. 21 — coincidentally, our 17th anniversary. Much to her chagrin, I toasted the occasion with a group of people I mostly just met.

Sightseeing included a tour of Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. (Photo: LM Staff)

Sightseeing included a tour of Basilica di Santa Croce in Florence, Italy. (Photo: LM Staff)

The whole nine yards

For the next five days, these business owners didn’t just meet but lived together.

Now, this wasn’t difficult by any means. The host location, known as the Estate of Petroio, is luxurious and spacious — it’s a 900-acre estate and attendees could spread out among four buildings. Take any of those buildings and place it in a suburb of Charlotte and you’re talking about a multi-million-dollar home. The previous guests include movie stars and film directors, one who left behind a room packed with unopened cartons of cigarettes and told the owner — smoke ’em if you got ’em.

For these five days, Aces Wild members were in constant communication with some scheduled, some organic. During a four-hour hike up into the mountains and back to the estate, attendees bonded as they traversed the rocky terrain, touring an olive oil factory and the many vineyards as they made their way to the village of Acone.

Our second of two scheduled winery tours got waylaid when one of the attendees started talking about his accounting software … and offered to give his comrades a tour of the software. Suddenly, attendance quickly dropped for the winery tour when many stayed to see if their colleague had a secret sauce they should be using at their own company.

It’s these types of interactions that have helped Todd Christianson, owner of Titan in Anchorage, Alaska, grow his business, he said.

“(Previous to joining) I was uneducated, I didn’t know any better,” Christianson said. “Marty Grunder, we love watching him speak, he’s a dynamic speaker. I learned a lot from him. I’ve got to say a lot for Jim Cali and Chris Psencik and Jason New, our current coaches. They’re a big part of our growth, having those kind of people around you … I needed a coach. It really changed everything for us.”

James Cali and Jason New founded McFarlin Stanford, a consultancy for professionals in the landscape industry, in 2014. Today the company includes 30 team members and executive coaches spread across the country. Cali said he learns from his 300-plus clients as much as they learn from him, and he uses that shared knowledge to help all his clients learn from others’ trials and errors.

“We’re former landscapers. We knew there was a need for back-of-house, how do you help run a landscape company,” Cali said. “Everything from operations to sales, finance, leadership, HR, the whole nine yards. That niche has helped our clients immensely, and ourselves immensely.”

(Hear more from attendees on how being in a peer group can offer new ideas to help you operate at a higher level here).

To this outsider, it was a shock to see every conversation so focused on business. Other than a few moments of World Series chatter, most of the conversations at the dinner table, on the bus rides and around the campfire were centered on every aspect of running a landscaping business.

“We’ve literally completely transformed our business since (joining) in 2020. We got into Aspire, we’ve used different HR programs, we now use an independent payroll company that we weren’t using before … everything we do has been touched by Aces,” said Levi Duckett, owner of Sunshine Landscape in Boise, Idaho. “It’s exciting. I can’t go talk to landscapers in Boise about what they’re doing or struggling with, they’re just not going to talk to me. When (the Aces Wild) get together, everyone is wide open — we talk about everything. Pricing, insurance, HR, everything in the business and everybody is willing to share whatever, because we’re not competing in the same markets. Which is invaluable.”

In an area known for its vineyards, a winery tour would be a given. However, some Aces Wild peer group members decided to forego the vino for a chance to learn about a new accounting software. (Photo: LM staff)

In an area known for its vineyards, a winery tour would be a given. However, some Aces Wild peer group members decided to forego the vino for a chance to learn about a new accounting software. (Photo: LM staff)

On the road again, but not alone

At the end of the trip, Aces Wild held one final dinner at the Borgo, outside the workout room. Edoardo, the owner of the estate, shook hands and hugged attendees as his ever-present mascot Amelia, a Jack Russell terrier, also said goodbye to the week’s visitors.

McFarlin Stanford gave tongue-in-cheek awards to the attendees, like “most American” and “best dressed.” I’m proud to report that my award was the “Pour me another glass of wine beer” award, and it was well deserved.

My week at Petroio was quickly coming to an end. It was a memorable week for so many reasons. A trip back down that one-lane mountain road to Florence was also quickly approaching.

The distance was far, but the road traveled to Tuscany, Italy, was worth it to me and clearly to the Aces Wild attendees.

“We’re here to help small business operators exist and operate as a bigger, larger business,” Chris Psencik, vice president of McFarlin Stanford, told me. “We allow them to do things, grow things, scale things at a rate that they would not be able to do as a small, boutique operation. …We’re here to help them learn through the power of our peer groups, to be able grow at a faster speed than what you would if you were going down the road doing it yourself.”

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Seth Jones

About the Author:

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

1 Comment on "A firsthand account of Aces Wild peer group trip to Tuscany"

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  1. Hi Seth,

    Enjoyed your little insight to the value of a peer group. Right now in the landscape world, if you are a landscaper and you are not excelling and you are not in a peer group, you have no excuse. There are many good or great peer groups out there out there. I am in Jeffery Scott’s Leader’s Edge Peer group which is also excellent. I have met you at Jeffery’s Landscape Summit in Chicago this summer and I think you have were probably been impressed in the level of knowledge being shared. Same thing with his peer groups. Your story with the Aces peer group sounded very much like a page out of my peer group. While we haven’t been to Tuscany, the feeling you shared of the atmosphere of learning, selflessness, sharing, camaraderie and excellence is very much the same. My group in meeting in St. Martin in the Caribbean and I can hardly wait to be with group in February. For me too the Peer group has totally transformed our company. We are growing and scaling very fast right now and are very profitable. We are still a small business, but are very much become a proffesionally run enterprise organization that can run with out me the owner. We are no longer mom and poppish. In fact, I have gone from one of the worst performing companies in my peer group to this year #1 finacially performing company in our group of 13 companys accross the country. Peer groups really work! Anyhow, I really enjoyed your article and thought it was very appropriate for the times.

    Take care,


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