Landscape architect's business rocks
Profits take back seat for many entrepreneurs with artistic bent

Most businessmen get big smiles when talking about markets, cash flow projections and cost controls. Rudy Ruben smiles when he talks about backyard waterfalls.

"I get a real thrill out of designing and building them," Ruben, president of New World Landscape said. "Sometimes I'll see a rock that would look nice on a waterfall, and I'll haul it home, even if I don't have a specific project for it."

Although New World Landscape is incorporated and operates on a for-profit basis, the company does not have what many MBAs would regard as a traditionally desirable business model: one of unending growth and expansion.

Like a lot of creative professionals, such as craftsmen, artisans, photographers and painters, the design aspects of Ruben's projects often take priority over the business side. His challenge -since he needs to make a living - is to strike a balance between the two.

Ruben has been in the landscape trade for more than three decades. He graduated from a three-year program at Niagara Rocks Commission School of Horticulture in 1971, where he got the training that he says is essential to his profession.

"These days you give a guy a shovel and he calls himself a landscape architect," Ruben said. "But many people spend a lot of money on their garden designs. To get a job done right you can't just hire anyone."

According to Ruben, the waterfall and pond portion of a landscape project can cost between $3,000 and $20,000. But Ruben uses his skill in these specialized areas to attract ancillary work such as decks, patios, and rock gardens.

He does most of his work directly for end-customers, but often contracts out his services to larger builders. At one time New World Landscape had almost a dozen seasonal employees. But now Ruben found that with so many helpers, he was losing creative control of the projects he was taking on. Today staff is down to just two: Ruben and one summer intern, but quality is up. Annual sales run at a modest $100,000 to $150,000 depending on the year, due to his stay-small philosophy.

"It's hard for a fussy craftsman to supervise a lot of people," Ruben said. "You always think you can do it better yourself."

According to one of Ruben's clients, that do-it-yourself attitude brings a lot of benefits.

"He is totally into what he is doing," said Lynda Taraborelli, a mother of four and wife of packaging machinery entrepreneur Louis Taraborelli, who just had the entire backyard of the family's Beaconsfield home redone by Ruben. The project included a rock garden, patio and a large waterfall that flows into a large, heated pool.

Waterfalls and ponds are inherently hard to design, because so much depends on finding the right combination of rocks and stones that fit together naturally and create a good water flow. So a large element of trust is involved when hiring a builder.

"There was something about him that made me feel right away that he was the right guy," Taraborelli said.

Her 17-year old daughter Christie couldn't be happier with the result, especially the waterfall.

"I love the sound of the flowing water," Christie Taraborelli said. "Sometimes even I sleep with the windows open, just to hear water."

According to one industry expert, the Taraborellis aren't the only family that is spending money to make the most of their backyards.

"There is a big frenzy of waterfall, pond and stream construction going on in U.S. homes," said Glen Curtis, of Plantenance, which supplies landscape architects with the pumping equipment to make them. "And a lot of that demand is spilling over into Canada."

Although the Taraborelli invested a considerable amount of money into their backyard, it was well worth it, Lynda Taraborelli said.

"We come out here almost every night during the summer, and we do a lot of entertaining here," Taraborelli said. "We had two groups over just this week."

The Taraborellis are part of the "cocooning" trend among North Americans, particularly increasingly affluent baby boomers and retired folk, who are opting to invest more and spend more time in their own homes, a trend that's clearly helped feed Ruben new clients. But like many artisans, he's not greedy, and is happy to simply have a few projects to work on.

"I guess I'm not a very good businessman," Ruben said with a shrug and a smile. "When I am finished with a job, I often tell my clients: "thank you for letting me play in your garden.""

 

Sidebar: Ruben's rock-solid management philosophy

o Use specialized waterfall and pond construction talent to attract customers for other services such as deck, patio and rock garden landscaping
o Keep business small, to eliminate supervision hassles and to ensure a better focus on each client and project
o Choose clients carefully and refuse them if the chemistry isn't right.
o Put in extra effort into each job taken, even if it means occasionally putting in un-billable hours, in order to spur word-of-mouth sales
o Source out good rocks year-round and store them, even if they are not needed for a particular job, so they will be available when the time comes.

 

Photo caption: According to Rudy Ruben many Montrealers are spending much more time in their homes, which makes the investments they make in visual elements of landscaping such as waterfalls and ponds, far more cost effective.

 

Fact Box:
Company Name: New World Landscape
Web-site: www.nwl.ca
Owner: Rudy Ruben
Founded: 1976
Services: Landscape architecture specializing in ponds and waterfalls.
Employees: 2
Sales: between $100,000 and $150,000 a year
Phone #: 450-455-4127

 

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