Montecito Landscape: California dreaming

December 4, 2015 -  By
photo: Emily Schappacher

A laid-back attitude and standardized processes equal success for Montecito Landscape

Most Montecito Landscape projects begin with what Lisa Cullen calls a “descriptive interpretation” of the client’s requests. There’s no need for detailed drawings, she says, because those would only hinder the creative process that drives her and her husband, Chris Cullen, to create the artistic, imaginative landscapes—or “the look” —they’ve become known for during the company’s 45 years in business.

“You start with a concept of what you’re going to do, but as the job progresses, things change,” says Lisa Cullen, who co-owns the Montecito, Calif., company with her husband. “You find a boulder or you just decide to go in a different direction. To be honest, most of the landscape design is done in the ground.”

This easy-going attitude prevails at Montecito Landscape, where the goal is to bring the unique character of Montecito to life for every client. But perhaps the most important goal is to uphold the good reputation the company has earned throughout the years. The company has implemented policies and procedures to ensure their clients get the best.

“In a smaller town, your reputation is of utmost importance and word of mouth is vital,” Lisa Cullen says. “You can do all the advertising you want and put stuff on Twitter or whatever, but without good word of mouth, you ruin your own business.”

Coming from a family of artists, Chris Cullen worked as a sculptor and musician before following his passion for nature and starting Montecito Landscape in 1970. Lisa Cullen, who also has worked as a professional artist, joined the company about 15 years ago.

Today, Montecito Landscape offers landscape design/build services to residential clients. It doesn’t do maintenance, but it does offer complimentary three- and six-month check-ups to do pruning and make sure a client’s landscape or garden is thriving. The company has grown from “Chris and his truck” to eight full-time employees serving clients in Montecito and neighboring Santa Barbara, Calif.

Challenges, Solutions

With record-breaking drought plaguing California for the past four years, the Cullens have witnessed how mandatory water use cutbacks have changed the way many homeowners view their landscapes. Lisa Cullen says her crews have been busy removing lawns and replacing them with drought-tolerant landscapes. This summer’s excessive heat prompted the Cullens to be even more cautious about what they planted and when. Lisa Cullen recalls several instances of advising customers to hold off installing new plant life until the weather cools down or winter, hopefully, brings some much-needed rain.

“We’re thinking of the environment, the customer and doing what we think is right,” she adds. “Also, we guarantee our plants, so if we don’t stay within what’s ethically right to do, it’s going to bite us in the butt anyway.”

Like other aspects of the business, Montecito Landscape’s plant guarantee is a lenient policy to keep customers happy. If a plant dies, the company replaces it. If a year goes by and a client says something just doesn’t look right or hasn’t grown in properly, the company exchanges it for something different. The Cullens even have replaced a driveway that a client didn’t like after it was installed. They are comfortable with “unspecific” guidelines because of the level of trust and understanding they have built with their clients over time, she says.

“We guarantee what we do,” Lisa Cullen says. “Part of why we can have such a generous guarantee is because our customers are the people we choose to work with.”

Montecito Landscape is particular about who it does business with and doesn’t hesitate to part ways with customers who don’t align with the company’s philosophies. For example, if a customer wants to replace his or her natural lawn with artificial turf—a process Montecito Landscape philosophically disagrees with—the Cullens are OK with saying, “We are not your man.”

“I know turning down work seems funny for a contractor, but we’ve been in business for so long that we have to do what’s consistent with our brand and our philosophy,” Lisa Cullen says.

Driven by checklists

Things at Montecito Landscape retain a laid-back, West Coast vibe until you get to Lisa Cullen’s checklists. That’s when consistency, accuracy and routine take over to ensure the company’s standards are met both on and off the job site.

Lisa Cullen created the company’s checklists by modifying ones she used while working as a management consultant and a catering manager.

The step-by-step lists map out each function that occurs within the company—tasks as diverse as scheduling a consultation, making a sale or finishing a job—taking the guesswork out of what’s supposed to happen next. Lisa Cullen is in the process of creating a checklist for the company’s bookkeeper. She says she’s constantly tweaking processes, and she even follows her own checklist during her weekly financial planning sessions.

“There is never a time our office manager doesn’t know what to do in a specific situation, and anyone could come in and pick up that form and be able to do the process,” she says. “It’s on-the-job training that saves you an immense amount of time because everything is predetermined.”

Each checklist takes Lisa Cullen about an hour to create. She first goes through the steps for a specific task herself, then reviews the list with the employee responsible for that task to make sure she didn’t forget anything.

For example, the job completion checklist includes tasks such as wiping dirt or handprints from windows and walls, making sure all plant tags have been removed and ensuring that irrigation heads are facing the right direction. The lists save time and give employees confidence because they don’t have to wonder what to do next, she says.

Since implementing the checklists, the company’s repeat and referral business doubled, which has decreased the need to earn customers through traditional marketing efforts.

Another way the company strives to stay close to its customers and continually improve is with its customer survey process. Upon completing a job, every client receives a survey, encouraging them to provide feedback about what worked, what didn’t and what they liked or disliked about working with Montecito Landscape.

While most of the surveys come back positive, Lisa Cullen says they’ve helped the company make adjustments here and there, such as implementing the three- and six-month follow-up visits. And she’s sure to share the best reviews with the crew.

For the Cullens, it’s all about doing what you love and doing it well.

“We do it because we love it,” Lisa Cullen says. “It has never been our design to get too big because I think you lose that personal connection with the customer, and we like having that personal touch. I guess that’s why we’ve been in business for 45 years.”


Emily Schappacher is a freelance writer based in Charlotte, N.C.

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