Sunday, August 27, 2000

Growing revenue

Landscaper took free advice to make his first business venture a success

By Jenny Callison
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        As the saying goes, a seed must send down roots before it can sprout. The same might be said of Steve Lichtenberg's business venture.

[photo] Steve Lichtenberg, a landscape architect who recently started his own business.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        With a bachelor's degree in landscape architecture from Ohio State University and several years experience in the field, Mr. Lichtenberg felt the time was right to start his own landscaping company.

        “I worked in the Reading parks during high school and college,” he said. “After getting my degree, I worked for a Cincinnati design/build firm as a design sales rep for seven years. Then I decided to improve my satisfaction and returns, I needed to get out on my own.”

        Mr. Lichtenberg knew how to cultivate plants and shrubs, but not necessarily how to grow a business. He heard about a workshop at the University of Cincinnati's Raymond Walters College presented by the Service Corps of Retired Executives. He attended the session and decided to sign up for free business counseling offered by the organization. SCORE assigned counselor Brien C. Hope to assist him.

        Said Mr. Lichtenberg: “Brien worked with me for a couple of months. I had landscaping background and experience, but did lack the business skills to come up with and execute a plan. He helped out quite a bit.”

   Owner Steve Lichtenberg said that about half of his company's work is landscaping for new construction. The other half involves reworking gardenscapes, maintaining plants, cleaning for spring and planting annually.
    His designs don't stop with bulbs, shrubs and trees. Landscaping features can include lowvolt lighting, water features, stone walls and walks, and patios. Costs for his services range from a few hundred dollars for a clean-up or spruce-up to several thousand dollars for design and installation.
    Mr. Lichtenberg is a member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, Ohio Nursery and Landscape Association, and Homebuilders Association of Greater Cincinnati. The company can be reached at 791-7755.
        “I could see right away that he was qualified in his field,” Mr. Hope added. “He was enthusiastic, but needed a more realistic business plan — he needed to hit the facts a little more. Stephanie, his wife, was putting his finances together on the computer. I told Steve he needed to know the numbers cold.”

        With Mr. Hope's help, Mr. Lichtenberg examined various start-up contingencies. He pruned his equipment list, opting to lease some equipment until at least his second year in business. He looked at the advantages of contracting for labor rather than putting staffers on payroll.

        “We reduced the total amount of money needed to start by having him phase in,” Mr. Hope explained.

        Mr. Lichtenberg also got help from his father-in-law, David Schuller, a business owner, and from Steve Schnicke, his brother-in-law.

        “Steve owns a custom home building business, and deals with a lot of the same issues I do, such as scheduling workers,” said Mr. Lichtenberg.

        So, with a solid business plan, a $30,000 line of credit, and an advisory network in place, the entrepreneur launched his venture at Cincinnati's Home and Garden Show in February 1999.

        “We had a very good response, about 20 appointments from contacts made at the show,” he said.

        The year continued to be successful for the budding enterprise. Total revenues were about $300,000, compared with the $210,000 that Mr. Lichtenberg had projected.

        Revenue wasn't all the company earned in 1999. Lichtenberg Landscaping picked up a silver medal at the Cincinnati Flower Show in Ault Park, and a third-place award for Favorite Landscape at the October 1999 Citirama. The company's design and installation work has produced continuing relationships with home builders and a number of referrals from happy customers.

        There have been some growing pains, however.

        Mr. Lichtenberg said that one major challenge has been keeping up with the design demand. He estimates that 65 percent of his time is spent on job sites, which limits his time to nurture the business through sales and design work.

        “My goal is to let go of some outside work so I can emphasize sales and design planning,” he said. “I have a good foreman and a good crew. I need to delegate more to them.”

        The labor shortage has also hampered the company's growth.

        “Our business has grown so quickly but finding experienced employees has been a challenge,” he said. “I have found myself at times being "extra hands' on the job versus on the design board.”

        But Mr. Lichtenberg's enthusiasm hasn't waned. He's purchased all the equipment on his immediate wish list and is ready to move the company's office out of his Montgomery home. The root system that his SCORE counseling helped him develop has anchored Lichtenberg Landscaping for future development and enabled its owner to make the most of his talents. In February, the company secured 30 appointments at the Home and Garden Show. The entrepreneur's initial forecast for 2000 sales revenues was between $400,000 and $450,000.

        “We're at $300,000 already. I think we're on target, maybe a little ahead,” he said. “Typically, things are slow in August, then they pick back up in the fall. Last year, we were able to work into December.”

        This summer, SCORE named Lichtenberg Landscaping its client of the year, citing the venture's growth, favorable financing and early pay-off of its debt.

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