Origin stories: Signature Landscapes | The unemployed plant lover


Lebo Newman
CEO, Signature Landscapes

No. 122

Long before Lebo Newman was the CEO of Signature Landscapes, a $14.7 million firm company in Reno, Nev., he was standing in an unemployment line. His only landscape experience was caring for his prized jade plant. Five years after collecting his last unemployment check, he became the partner of a California firm that eventually became part of TruGreen LandCare. This is the story of what can happen when passion is given a chance to thrive.

I thought forever I was going to be an architect. I was always drawing, and when I was doodling, I was always drawing sketches of houses. When I went to school to be an architect, I was quickly disillusioned. I didn’t care for it, so I dropped the efforts to continue that endeavor.

I met a California girl, and we moved back to California. I had been carrying around this little jade plant forever, when I was living back East in Ohio, Massachusetts and Tennessee, and I took my jade plant with me that I’d been carrying around, protecting it from freezing, for 10 to 15 years. When I got to California, I realized they grow like crazy. They get 12 feet tall. I was so amazed about how these things grew, and it made me think about doing something other than architecture.

At first, we lived in Southern California. I couldn’t find anything landscape related, so I worked as a delivery truck driver. We decided to leave LA because I just hated the traffic. When I moved up to Northern California, I didn’t have a job yet. I was collecting unemployment. At the unemployment office, they asked what I wanted to do, and I told them landscaping. They sent me out on an interview with Bill Davidson and his key guy, Dave Hazelwood, at Redwood Landscaping in Santa Rosa. They wanted to put me to work that day. I think they saw a willingness and the interest I had in the industry at that time. It was new and something I wanted to do.

And that’s what we do now. We don’t necessarily look for experience. We look for attitude. Are they interested in the job or are they just looking for a paycheck? Is there any sort of passion for the industry? Is there an attitude of work ethic? We’re more than willing to train people, but it’s hard to train attitude. I love taking a chance on people, somebody who maybe can’t find their way or hasn’t figured out what they want to do in life. Share your passion and it can be contagious. People will pick it up and run with it.

I started at Redwood in 1974 and quickly became a manager in the company. Then I became a partner in ’79 and bought Bill Davidson out in ’89. We merged with LandCare USA in ’98. Then TruGreen came along and bought LandCare in ’99, and that’s when I left.

I did some merger and acquisition consulting for a while. I didn’t need the work, but I didn’t want my mind to go fallow. I kept looking for different companies to buy. I thought I wanted to sell widgets—some product. Through all my mergers and business acquisitions, I never found anything more exciting to me than the landscape industry. I missed the synergy of having employees and having a team. One of my ex-guys called one day and said he wanted to start something in Reno. So I moved from California to Northern Nevada and started Signature in 2001.

“My biggest mistake was…”

“We took on building a building in 2008, right as things were downturning. We kept thinking it was going to be a short-term recession, people coming from California were going to push the Nevada growth, but the market fell off the cliff onto jagged rocks. It took seven years to come out of the recession. The timing of building that building was tough. We created more overhead at a time where we didn’t need that.” – Lebo Newman

Photo: Signature Landscapes

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Dillon Stewart

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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