Learning from the ground up

February 27, 2017 -  By
People First Gelderman was named Employer of the Year by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.

People First
Gelderman was named Employer of the Year by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce.

With no prior green industry experience, Nathan Helder found himself at the helm of his family’s third-generation landscape business with a vision to take it to the next level.

During his first year as president of Gelderman Landscape Services, Nathan Helder decided to purchase three of the company’s pickup trucks that had come to the end of their three-year leases. This was a move unprecedented by Helder’s father-in-law, who had run the company for the previous 35 years, but Helder believed that purchasing each truck for $20,000 was a better investment than leasing three new ones. Within the next year, each of those trucks experienced significant problems—among them a cracked frame and a failed transmission—that resulted in costly repairs, prolonged downtime and lost money.

Helder refers to this decision as his “$60,000 mistake,” and it’s likely a mistake he’ll never forget. Not necessarily because of its financial impact, but because of the lesson he learned from it.

“My father-in-law says that if he would have jumped in and saved me from purchasing the trucks I never would have made another decision on my own,” Helder says. “That taught me that I need to let my people make mistakes too.”

Since taking over his family’s third-generation business in 2006, Helder has made countless other decisions and has learned just as many lessons along the way. Under his leadership, the full-service firm headquartered in Waterdown, Ontario, has doubled in size, opened three new branches and added 70 new employees. The $12-million company now provides 30 percent design/build, 35 percent maintenance and 35 percent snow removal services to a 25-percent residential, 75-percent commercial clientele. But despite more than six decades of changes and growth, Helder says the company has never lost sight of its original mission.

Gelderman Landscape Services seeks out clients who have been frustrated by other companies.

Gelderman Landscape Services seeks out clients who have been frustrated by other companies.

“For the past 61 years, the company’s overarching theme and our tagline has been ‘Caring is in our nature,’” Helder says. “We don’t just cut grass. Caring for people and their properties is what we do.”

Gelderman Landscape Services was founded by Helder’s wife’s grandfather, Jan Gelderman, a Dutch immigrant, in Burlington, Ontario, in 1955. With just $7.14 worth of tools and a 1948 Willys Jeep, the company, then called Jan Gelderman Garden Service, provided lawn maintenance in the spring and landscaping and stone work in the summer and fall. Helder’s father-in-law, Hank Gelderman, took over the maintenance work at age 12 after Jan was hospitalized with severe asthma. In the mid-1970s, Hank purchased the company from his father and focused on growth, adding new services and staff. Hank was proactive and open to new technologies, such as computers and cell phones.

“We’ve been very progressive in our thinking from day one,” Helder says. “Hank was always open to utilizing the best technology available at any given point. He was one of the first people in Burlington to have a cell phone.”

In 2006, Helder expressed an interest in investing in the family company, but Hank instead offered to sell the business to him, trusting that Helder could take it in a new and fresh direction. With a background in animal science, Helder is the first to acknowledge that he doesn’t know much about landscaping or horticulture—and he really isn’t too eager to learn. He spent the first 10 years of his career helping farmers feed their cows in a way that would maximize profitability. A natural with numbers and financial management, Helder also served as his church’s treasurer for many years. After considering Hank’s offer for six months, Helder finally decided to “give it a shot,” and he and his father-in-law implemented a succession plan. Within a year, Helder was officially in the driver’s seat.

“If you’ve ever worked with farmers, you know that your word is of the upmost importance,” Helder says. “I thought my financial experience and my ability to establish and maintain relationships could transfer to any business.

“I basically parachuted into the business and learned from the ground up,” he adds. “But my advantage was that I had no preconceived notions on how to do things—I had no experience here.”

This lack of green industry experience meant Helder started out with a clean slate. He was ready to take Gelderman Landscape Services to the next level, but he says he was careful to respect the company’s long history while implementing his vision. He spent time with the staff and crews to learn not only how the business operated but, more importantly, why. Helder asked questions that no one else would ask, simply because he didn’t know the answers, and he says he relied on the knowledge of those around him.

3rd gen The company was founded in 1955 by Nathan Helder’s wife’s grandfather, Jan Gelderman.

3rd gen
The company was founded in 1955 by Nathan Helder’s wife’s grandfather, Jan Gelderman.

“I know my limitations and weaknesses and have hired people around me to help me with those,” he says. “I learned how to ask questions and I’ve never stopped. In fact, I lead my people by asking questions and having them sell me on their ideas.”

To Helder, these people and their ideas are what really makes Gelderman Landscape Services successful year after year. The company invests in its employees, providing various types of training through Gelderman University.

The company was named the 2015 Employer of the Year by the Burlington Chamber of Commerce based on its excellence in business leadership, community contributions, entrepreneurship, employee welfare, innovation and market growth.

“What I’ve quickly learned is that our staff comes first before our customers,” Helder says. “If we take care of our people, they will take care of our customers.”

Red carpet treatment

Not that the customers aren’t important. In fact, they are a key component to the company’s success. In the past few years, Helder says the company has become “laser focused” on attracting its ideal clients. On the commercial side, these are high-end residential condominiums with residents between the ages of 40 and 75. The company’s ideal residential clients are busy, educated professionals who value a quality landscape and a space to entertain but don’t have the time to maintain it themselves. Gelderman Landscape Services looks for clients who have become frustrated by other companies that don’t deliver on their promises. This approach allows the company to blow clients away with its outstanding customer service. And Helder says the company is not afraid to walk away from customers who aren’t the right fit.

“Our clients knowingly pay more money to have Gelderman on their properties because they see value in what we offer,” he says. “The more we’ve learned to say ‘no’ to certain clients, the more profitable we’ve become.”

The company’s Red Carpet Treatment program includes service and product guarantees.

The company’s Red Carpet Treatment program includes service and product guarantees.

Gelderman Landscape Services introduced its Red Carpet Treatment program about three years ago to emphasize the company’s desire to create partnerships with its clients and provide them a level of service they won’t find anywhere else. The program includes both service and product guarantees. While Helder says this is the way Gelderman has always operated, the company’s marketing firm suggested they capitalize on this approach by incorporating it into its branding efforts. The red carpet concept is displayed prominently on Gelderman’s website—and it ties in well with the company’s red trucks and uniforms.

“At the end of the day, is our landscape that much more beautiful than the others? Probably not,” Helder says. “But the customer has had a great experience and that’s what matters.”

Going forward, Helder plans to keep expanding the company organically and through acquisitions. Since 2012, Gelderman has acquired one company and opened three new branches throughout Southern Ontario. Helder plans to maintain the company’s “slow and steady” 10 percent annual growth while always keeping an eye out for new opportunities and new ways of doing things.

“How big is too big or when is it enough? I ask myself this question all the time,” Helder says. “But it’s not about what I want anymore, it’s what’s best for Gelderman.

“I am a man of faith and I put my trust in God,” he adds. “We never lose sight of why we are in business—and it’s because we care for our customers and we care for our community.”

Photos: Gelderman Landscape Services

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About the Author:

Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.

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