No Ka Oi Landscape Services grows with maintenance services


How one family-owned business keeps pace with change on a fast-growing Hawaiian island.

No Ka Oi Landscape Services has come a long way since it was founded in the 1970s as a side project for husband-and-wife team Frank and Abby Santos.

The Hanapepe, Hawaii-based business, whose name means “the best” in Hawaiian, got its start in 1977 when Frank Santos was working in the restaurant industry; he and his wife decided to offer some of their interior plants for rent to commercial properties.

The couple noticed their customers also had large lots that needed upkeep, so they added maintenance to their business offerings. In 1982, Frank Santos obtained his contractor license and the couple started to provide installation services, as well.

Since then, they’ve committed themselves to their company, partly learning the business on the job but also seeking help from the local university extension and equipment suppliers.

“We always seek out knowledgeable people who are willing to share information,” Abby Santos says. “We have some good vendors who are really helpful, including our equipment suppliers and chemical suppliers. They’re great partners.”

Their efforts and a focus since 2010 on commercial maintenance have paid off. In 2014, Frank and Abby Santos were honored as the county of Kauai’s 2014 Small Business Persons of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The company also has seen annual revenue increase 55 percent in 2012 and 15 percent in 2013. No Ka Oi has about 60 employees.

Move to maintenance

During the 1980s and 1990s, No Ka Oi Landscape Services grew consistently. By 2000, the team noticed some changes on the laid back Hawaiian island of Kauai. New businesses were emerging and construction was up. Frank and Abby Santos paid close attention to financial reports in the local newspapers and listened intently to speakers at chamber of commerce meetings. Between 2000 and 2010 Kauai’s population grew nearly 15 percent, according to the Hawaii Department of Labor & Industrial Relations. The Santos’s due diligence was worth the effort. No Ka Oi grew along with the island, but challenges arose. For example, the island has a limited number of skilled workers qualified to handle installation projects, Abby Santos says.

In 2010, the couple decided to transition the business to primarily commercial maintenance services. It phased out most of its plant-rental business because it was not profitable, Abby Santos says, and it also began to scale back its installation services. Maintenance provided the consistent business the company needed to capitalize on the new construction. Plus, she says, maintenance had become the company’s strength.

Now, approximately 80 percent of the business comprises maintenance; 20 percent is installation. Some of the company’s primary maintenance offerings include mowing, pest control, coconut tree trimming and irrigation service. About 90 percent of the company’s clients are commercial accounts. It’s not opposed to construction work, but the focus is on maintenance. 

“We’re looking at construction projects that segue into maintenance because we’re so good at it,” Abby Santos says.

As business picked up, the Santos team invested in new equipment, including excavators, a hydromulcher, mowers, trimmers and several trucks. Reinvesting in the business is a critical part of the company’s growth, Abby Santos says.

“We put everything back into the business,” she says. “We live frugally ourselves and invested a lot in equipment and people.”

The No Ka Oi team also intensified its marketing efforts. The company has been active in social media, including Facebook and blogging. The blog offers tips for commercial clients, including ways to “transform your Kauai resort” with four key landscape maintenance tasks. 

The company is not the least-expensive landscape contractor in town, Abby Santos says. That’s why informing the customer about the company’s value proposition is important. 

“When people ask us about price, we try to give them our whole story,” Abby Santos says.

Continuous improvement

The company will continue to grow along with the island, Abby Santos says.

“Another surge in construction is coming, so we want to be prepared to take on more maintenance accounts,” she says.

Kauai County will experience a job-growth rate of 15 percent between 2010 and 2020, the fastest among Hawaii’s four counties, according to the state’s labor department. Many of those jobs will come from the construction industry, which is expected to grow 23.2 percent during the 10-year period. 

No Ka Oi is preparing for the next construction boom by stepping up training for its workforce. It began an online training program in June to ensure its workforce is prepared to handle a business spike. The program includes modules that focus on various aspects of proper landscape maintenance practices.  

The company also has implemented an incentive program for the company’s crews. Bill Arman, a landscape industry consultant at the Harvest Group, helps No Ka Oi judge crews based on their performance. With the help of Arman, a former ValleyCrest executive, the company audits the crews quarterly and recently completed its fourth contest.

The judges rate the crews on the quality of lawns, ornamentals, trimming, irrigation practices and safety. The top three crews receive a bonus. The program helps management determine which areas might require additional training, Abby Santos says. So far, the program appears to have helped the company improve its overall quality of service.

“According to Bill, it takes six times before everyone gets it,” Abby Santos says. “We’ve done this four times, and we’ve seen scores rising dramatically, and customers are loving it.”

Photos: No Ka Oi Landscape Services

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