BrightView president sees opportunities ahead in 2021

March 2, 2021 -  By

Thomas Donnelly, president of BrightView Landscape Development shares lessons the company learned in 2020 and insights for 2021. In this Q&A from BrightView, Donnelly talks about the road he sees ahead for the Blue Bell, Pa.-based landscape contractor, the opportunities and challenges for the landscape development sector, where the emerging trends are occurring and offers examples that highlight solutions.

Thomas C. Donnelly, ASLA president, BrightView Landscape Development (Photo: Business Wire)

Thomas C. Donnelly,  BrightView Landscape Development (Photo: Business Wire)


Q: Let’s talk about the construction sector since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in spring 2020. Some sectors did well but what have you seen in the markets and sectors you serve? 

TD: Things weren’t quite so rosy on the commercial side of the development ledger because some sectors we work with were particularly hard hit. Where we saw the most significant impact of the pandemic was with some of our amusement clients. They had to shut down operations, so they’ve slowed some projects and deferred other improvements and enhancements into 2021 and 2022. Our hearts go out to the many folks in the leisure and hospitality industry who lost jobs because of the pandemic. We are anxious to see the industry come back with a roar once the pandemic eases.

Q: Where are the bright spots that you saw? 

TD: We are seeing significant activity in the larger residential development category. We’re seeing masterplan community work of significance in places like Texas, California, Arizona, Nevada, Colorado and Florida. We’re seeing significant activity in a large scale.

 Q: What shifts did you see transpire in 2020 as the market and developers adjusted to the challenges?
TD: Some places began limiting the number of workers that could be on a particular job site, but it really became a whole new work environment with social distancing and an emphasis on worker health, as well as safety. It’s a very significant shift in thinking. And our people had to comply not just with the protocols we’ve established, but also help the general contractor improve their protocols. Everyone has to look out for the health of each other.

With government approval of several vaccines to immunize people against COVID-19, it is my hope the worst of the pandemic will be over soon. Because BrightView serves larger commercial and institutional clients, the company takes a long view — not just in 2021, but into 2022 and 2023 — in order to develop the best plans and proactively plan for the future. Today, we are focused on growing our capabilities, increasing our workforce, training people and investing in the future in order to be flexible and take advantage of future opportunities in new workplace environments.

Q: What property types are benefiting from the pandemic?  

TD: There are fundamental changes transpiring in business as a result of the pandemic. Among them include the development of more warehouses and distribution centers to serve a growing e-commerce market, all of which will need landscaping because cities like to see well-presented industrial facilities now too. Meanwhile, the office environment is changing as at least some parts of the workforce return there. I think there’s going to be a more collaborative-type campus environment, with indoor and outdoor amenities. The landscape industry will benefit significantly from the opportunity to get employees outdoors.

Q: What do you see ahead for the economy and industry? 

TD: There’s no question the road ahead is going to be challenging and the continuing pandemic will result in a cautious approach to real estate development growth. Experts predict the economy and construction industry will surge in the latter half of 2021. Economists note after the initial drops in economic output in 2020, the economy experienced a “V” shaped recovery starting in the third quarter. It was encouraging to see how quickly the economy repaired itself, yet we all recognize there’s more work to be done to get through the issues.

The construction industry was hit hard. It was one of the first industries to experience a drop. Economists report the sector experienced a 14.6 percent loss of jobs from February 2020 to April 2020 and the industry lost 3.3 percent of jobs overall from February 2020 through January 2021. Interestingly, while unemployment remains high in the U.S., we need people. We are actively hiring in the field today in all markets. Consumer demand remains high and we believe there is pent-up demand building that ultimately will drive the need for construction services.

The continued availability of vaccines is expected to provide a lift to the economy in the second half of the year. That momentum should build into 2022 and fuel demand for construction services.

Q: What are some of the impacts you expect to see in the coming year?

TD: One of the areas we are closely tracking is the availability of construction materials. We have a large procurement team that has a nationwide footprint and deep relationships with the vendor community, which helps us meet supply challenges. Interestingly, today one of the biggest competitors we have for plant material is homeowners who are working remotely and electing to make improvements to their yards. Big box retailers are selling plants faster than growers can keep up with demand. A strategy we are deploying to meet the challenge is to grow contracts. We are contracting to grow plant material for specific projects two to three years before the install work is scheduled.

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