We’ve made it, and so can you: Women in landscaping share success stories

May 17, 2021 -  By
Focused on solutions Pam Dooley (center), owner of Plants Creative of Scottdale, Ga., says having employees like Maka Provost (left) and Hollie Arnold (right) engage with clients has made a big difference for her business. (Photo: Plants Creative)

Focused on solutions Pam Dooley (center), owner of Plants Creative of Scottdale, Ga., says having employees like Maka Provost (left) and Hollie Arnold (right) engage with clients has made a big difference for her business. (Photo: Plants Creative)

Being a woman in the landscape industry now is different from what it was like when Deborah Cole started in the industry in the 1980s, but something that hasn’t changed is the endless possibilities.

It’s just a little bit easier to see them in 2021 than it was in 1981. Cole, founder and former president of Greater Texas Landscape Services in Austin, Texas, along with Pam Dooley, owner, Plants Creative in Scottdale, Ga., Callan Dudley, general manager of Southern Landscape Group in Evington, Va., and Amber Fox, director of human resources at Grunder Landscaping Co. in Miamisburg, Ohio, share the lessons they’ve learned along the way in their careers and how women — and men — can join the thriving green industry.

Determined to succeed

Cole has had a front seat to watch the industry transform in her 35 years in the green industry.

Cole helped grow Greater Texas Landscape into a $68.5 million business, which came in at No. 23 on the 2018 LM150 list of the largest landscape companies before BrightView acquired it in 2018.

Cole didn’t know much about landscape companies when she graduated with her master’s degree in landscape horticulture from Texas A&M, but when a friend approached her to start a business, she jumped in headfirst.

“Landscaping is an art and a science,” Cole says. “Over time, I realized that I had the art down, I had the science down, but I had no business expertise other than a good gut instinct. I didn’t have any people training. It was not on my radar to own a business, but once the opportunity came, I’m always a big yes person.”

When her business partner parted ways after three years, Cole was on her own but determined to succeed.

“I never felt ‘I can’t do this,’” she says. “I never felt like this is something only for a man. I never, ever, ever had that feeling. My attitude was, I’m going to show up the way I am and do the best I can and not worry about other people.”

She says she experienced isolation when she attended her first Associated Landscape Contractors of America meeting. The association is now the National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP). She says she walked into a room of all men, and she knew she stood out.

“That was the first time I ever felt that there was something a little different,” she says. “It’s not that they did anything to make me feel that way. It’s just little groups of men talking to each other, nobody particularly welcoming.”

Cole says one key to her success is always believing in herself and never allowing her gender to influence her self-worth as a business owner. She also says it was important for her to seek out education in the areas where she needed it.

“When we got into the maintenance side of the business, I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about lawn mowers,’” she recalls. “So, I signed up for a lawn mower repair class. When I decided we need to buy some skid-steer loaders, I took a skid-steer operator licensing class.”

Cole says one regret she has during her time in the green industry is not taking an active role at the national level with industry organizations. While involved at the state level with Texas Nursery & Landscape Association, she never took the opportunity to serve on a national committee despite being asked. That’s why Cole says she’s such a big proponent of NALP’s Women in Landscaping Facebook group. She is proud of how the group has grown into a network of industry allies.

“I thought, ‘There’s no excuse not to succeed 30 years ago, (but) now, there’s really no excuse because there is the support,’” she says.

To other women in the green industry, Cole shares this advice: “Don’t let yourself feel less than. There’s absolutely no reason. When you walk into a room of people that you don’t feel worthy of, just stop it. Stop it right there.”

Relationships matter

An accountant at heart, Callan Dudley was recently promoted from accountant to general manager of Southern Landscape Group in Evington, Va. Southern Landscape Group provides lawn care, maintenance, lighting and design/build services for 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial clients.

Dudley says the NALP Women in Leadership Facebook group and Southern Landscape’s peer group have become vital parts of her success.

“I’ve grown in my career 10 times over in the last month or so due to some unforeseen circumstances,” she says. “This industry is the most giving, friendly environment that I think I could ever be in. I know if I reached out to anyone in the (Facebook) group, they would get back to me.”

She says having a solid relationship with Southern Landscape Group’s owner and President Mark Maslow and industry peers have helped her succeed.

Dudley says work/life balance is a challenge for many professionals. She’s determined to master it. She’s also grateful that family time is a part of Southern Landscape’s culture.

“Family is extremely important to me, as well as my success in my career,” she says. “I will do whatever it takes to keep the balance and be successful in both aspects. It’s all about creating expectations. Of course, things are going to pop up. It might be a client emergency that needs attention, and we handle it, but at the same time, we’re all trying to have a good work/life balance, separating from work when we are home.”

A source of pride for Dudley is seeing her employees succeed. A longtime employee, Liz Maddox, was recently promoted to landscape management production manager and has taken the role head-on.

“She knows all of her clients, she knows how to run our equipment and she’s running that division and is doing a hell of a job,” Dudley says. “It’s a big deal because she has earned that respect. She has that relationship with her team members. That’s why she’s so successful. In a male-dominated industry, you have to have that respect and build strong relationships.”

Find your niche

“This is an amazing industry, but the work we do is pretty similar,” says Pam Dooley, owner of Plants Creative Landscapes in Scottdale, Ga. “We take care of lawns. We take care of plants. We build amazing spaces. There are thousands and thousands of companies doing it.”

Dooley encourages landscape business owners to set their businesses apart from their competitors by finding a different way to do something and then run with it. Plants Creative offers residential landscape design/build, irrigation and maintenance services in the Atlanta area — a competitive market. To differentiate itself among competitors, Dooley put an emphasis on relationships and employees who are engaged with clients.

“They attract customers who value service over price and team members who are creative, outside-the-box solutions providers,” she says.

Dooley is also a strong proponent of servant leadership. Key traits of her leadership style are her generosity and empathy. She says her employees have responded to this part of the culture at Plants Creative.

“When you show up in service of (employees), it is well received by others,” she says.

As critical as it is to develop a servant leadership culture, Dooley says she believes it’s also important to have a solid leadership team that balances her strengths to make the company stronger as a whole.

“Having people in your company who complement and hold you accountable to those weaknesses is so important,” she says.

Dooley says one of her weaknesses was her lack of focus on the financial side of her business. This became clear to her when industry consultant and LM columnist Jeffrey Scott asked her, “How are your numbers?” Dooley replied, “I have no idea … I mean, they’re fine.”

Scott told her if that was her answer, her numbers likely were not fine. Dooley has since joined one of Scott’s peer groups. Since then, she realized that while her strength in horticulture helped catapult the business in the beginning, paying attention to her firm’s financials has helped Plants Creative experience double-digit growth.

“That was a huge turning point for me and my business maturity,” she says. “I am so growth-minded. I love growing top-line revenue, but I’ve also matured into, ‘OK, let’s just really focus on the smallest pennies so that we can also impact our bottom line.’”

Opportunities abound

Amber Fox, director of human resources at Grunder Landscaping Co. in Miamisburg, Ohio, says the green industry found her, and not the other way around. She joined the company as the “director of first impressions,” an administrative assistant position, and she has helped Grunder Landscaping perfect its approach to hiring in her current role.

Fox says all team members want to work for a company that is transparent and shows it cares about them as people first and team members second. Grunder Landscaping, which provides landscaping, hardscaping, and maintenance services for 60 percent residential and 40 percent commercial clientele, aims to do just that.

“Our mission statement and our core values are very important here,” she says. “We focus a lot on just being a team.”

Fox says it’s a challenge to find good team members, and Grunder Landscaping puts an emphasis on how the candidate fits with the company culture.

“You have to stay true to your hiring practices and your core values,” she says. “I always tell (the managers) not to settle.”

Fox says there are so many opportunities for women and men of all backgrounds in the green industry. She says those aspiring to enter the industry should recognize all the potential avenues to explore, and she says it’s OK if a candidate doesn’t know exactly where the green industry will take them.

“If you’re not sure if you like maintenance or if you like design, interview the company,” she says. “It’s not just about the company interviewing you. You have to make sure that the company is a good fit for you. Find someone willing to help you grow into that ideal position that you want.”

She says she’s excited to see so many more women in the industry now in many different roles, and she hopes this continues.

“There are a ton of opportunities in this industry for anyone who wants them,” she says.

This article is tagged with , and posted in Cover story, Featured, From the Magazine, May 2021
Christina Herrick

About the Author:

Christina Herrick is the former editor of Landscape Management magazine.

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