One landscape company’s climb back to the top

September 9, 2019 -  By
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The Todd’s Services leadership team. From left to right, Jeff Walz, Doug Murphy, Josh Robinson, Sherry LaButte-Birk, Kurt LaButte, Mark Becker and Kevin Birk. (Photo: Todd's Services)

DREAM TEAM The Todd’s Services leadership team. From left to right, Jeff Walz, Doug Murphy, Josh Robinson, Sherry LaButte-Birk, Kurt LaButte, Mark Becker and Kevin Birk. (Photo: Todd’s Services)

Todd and Kurt LaButte, like many in the landscape industry, started young with a couple of push mowers, mowing neighbors’ lawns. Todd, being the older of the LaButte brothers (he was No. 5 of eight children, and Kurt was the youngest), named the company Todd’s Services.

“We started in 1979, my brother and I,” Kurt LaButte says. “It was unique because we lived on a chain of lakes on a river system, so we’d use rowboats and stuff. That’s how we got our push mowers around and got to our clients before we had driver’s licenses.”

Kurt and Todd’s mother and father joined in the budding business, answering phones and fixing equipment, respectively, and their sister Sherry (now Sherry LaButte-Birk), a couple years out of high school, began working full time for the company in 1985.

At the time, the LaButtes were forced to move their business out of their parents’ house, and operations relocated to a tiny trailer on an empty lot down the street.

The LaButtes’ hard work led to the incorporation of the company in 1986. “Just learning, growing up, trying to mature and figure out what we wanted to do and figure out the business,” Kurt LaButte says.

Todd’s Services hit its stride in 1990, when the company built its offices in Hamburg, Mich., which is still the facility that houses the business to this day. With Todd serving as president overseeing sales and Kurt as vice president managing personnel and production, the company grew. Todd’s Services acquired another company, began to get heavy into new construction and purchased more equipment.

The company peaked in 2007, with about 90 employees and just under $12 million in revenue, mostly in new construction, which was booming just outside of Detroit.

The hard times

The Great Recession of 2008 struck and when the housing bubble burst, Todd’s Services 2009 revenue dropped to $4.5 million — 40 percent of its peak revenue. Kurt LaButte says having to restructure, lay off people and try to look at things in a different light was difficult, and the financial burdens weighed heavily on the brothers as the leaders of the company.

On the second day of the 2010 season, April 13, Todd LaButte died by suicide.

The founders of Todd’s Services, Todd (left) and Kurt LaButte, at the opening of their headquarters in 1991. (Photo: Todd's Services)

BUILDING BROTHERS The founders of Todd’s Services, Todd (left) and Kurt LaButte, at the opening of their headquarters in 1991. (Photo: Todd’s Services)

Even with the grief they were going through as a family and as a tightknit company, LaButte-Birk remembers that Kurt sprung into action that day.

“He immediately went out and met with everybody in the company and tried to find out if people were going to be leaving or not, and they weren’t — we didn’t lose anybody,” she says. “Believe me, they didn’t have to stay. In the landscaping industry, they could have gone and got jobs all around us. And they all stayed. I wouldn’t have faulted, honestly, any of them for leaving.”

Josh Robinson began at Todd’s Services in 1989 while he was in middle school. His first job was washing trucks, and over the years, he worked his way up to the position he holds now as sales and design manager. He had already been at the company for 20 years when the recession hit. Robinson thought it was always a great place to work, and he stayed loyal through the hard times. After Todd’s death, he credits Kurt’s approach to rebuilding the business as another reason he wanted to stay.

“If he had shown signs of weakness, or giving up or handling something without integrity, I would have been out of there,” Robinson says. “He showed strength, poise and integrity — he did the things that he needed to do to keep this place going. That’s what kept me confident that we could pull out of this.”

Reaching the summit

“We were a key player in the industry, and we just got walloped really bad,” LaButte-Birk says. “It felt like we were climbing a mountain, but we wanted to get back up on top of that mountain again.”

Now, as the sole leader of the company, as its president and CEO, Kurt LaButte immediately began trying to understand the sales and operational side of the business — a tough task given that in 2010, he didn’t use a computer.

He got up to speed on technology and developed a management team out of the longtime employees, including LaButte-Birk, vice president and office manager; Josh Robinson, sales/design manager; Kevin Birk, master plumber/service and fleet manager; Jeff Walz, production manager; Mark Becker, purchase/scheduling manager; and Doug Murphy, business development manager.

From there, Kurt LaButte’s goal was to make Todd’s Services more resistant to economic forces by diversifying its service offerings. The team added commercial lawn and snow, reconstruction, more design work, plant installations and more irrigation installations to its mix. The company included retaining walls and brick pavers on its list of installation capabilities, and not just in the new housing development markets. Currently, the company’s average job prices at $13,000, and at 750 to 800 mostly residential jobs per year, the company is working hard — but not overly so. “We used to work a lot of hours,” Robinson says, “but now a family-friendly atmosphere is more of a draw because competition for workers is so steep.”

Kurt LaButte’s sons (from left, Austin, Keegan, Mikal and Zakary) are or have been involved in the business. (Photo: Todd's Services)

NEXT GEN Kurt LaButte’s sons (from left, Austin, Keegan, Mikal and Zakary) are or have been involved in the business. (Photo: Todd’s Services)

Todd’s Services began to track its numbers and purchasing more than before and became focused on its bottom line. It began a relationship with consultant Jeffrey Scott in 2013 and joined one of Scott’s peer groups. As a result, Todd’s Services is much more open about its numbers and adopted a consensus management style rather than a single management style, Kurt LaButte says.

“That helped,” he says. “Monthly meetings, growing our financials, open-book management. (Employees) see the numbers where prior, they never did. It was what Todd and I shared. We work off a budget — we never did that before.”

The company’s approach to management and budgeting has changed its outlook for the better. This year is its 40th year, and it’s poised to cross the $13 million mark. Kurt LaButte’s sons Austin and Mikal work full time for the company, and his sons Zakary and Keegan have worked or currently work summers.

After all the ups and downs of Todd’s Services over 40 years, Kurt LaButte finally feels a little freedom to look toward the future of the company.

“I’d like to stay in this chair until our 50th anniversary,” he says.

Abby Hart

About the Author:

Abby Hart is the managing editor of Landscape Management. A native Clevelander, she spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was operations manager of a global hospitality consultancy. She also worked as managing editor of Illumine, a health and wellness magazine; and a marketing specialist for B2B publications. Abby has a degree in journalism from Boston University’s College of Communication.

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