By Leslie McGuire, managing editor
Richard Cohen loved doing yard work as a kid and now he’s turned a childhood dream into a reality. Not only that, he’s very good at it. With over 25 years of experience in Orange County, Calif., he should be. Even more important, over the years he’s won over 80 awards for his projects. That isn’t all, however. Richard Cohen Landscape and Construction has a maintenance division and a masonry division. He does high-end custom residential installation as well. How does he do it? He provides a total landscape service and pays a tremendous amount of attention to the details.
Plantings include lavender and day lily on the left, Hemerociallis phormium in the back, and bougainvillia, the red ice variety, on the right. The trees shading the path are Pinus halapensis.
This high level of craftsmanship and attention to detail is what makes his firm an award winning company. Licensed, bonded and insured for the client’s protection, their services include custom designs, sprinkler systems, custom masonry, sod, specimen trees and shrubs, pools, spas and custom woodwork.
One of the most important aspects of running a maintenance business is being fully committed to enhancing and maintaining the value of the customer’s property and using a stringent quality control system. Their experienced staff routinely scrutinizes the monthly ground maintenance tasks. There are two supervisors on site that oversee the three to five man crews. These supervisors regularly communicate with the property managers so they know they’re getting personal attention. Unlike most landscape contractors, Richard Cohen’s communication system includes a level of internal weekly inspection forms with quality checks and balances. In addition, the reports are provided with every management service bill submitted. They provide site condition reports, a description of work performed, as well as showing where necessary repairs were made and a quotation for any extra work that needs to be done. Property walkthroughs are conducted on a quarterly basis with management personnel unless such a walkthrough is requested more frequently. The documentation resulting from these meetings is also provided for the clients records.
This worker is detailing out the plantings by removing weeds and cultivating. This process is generally done on a monthly basis, or as needed. Fertilizers are also applied on a schedule. Planter beds get fertilized every eight weeks and turf every six weeks.
Another very interesting facet of Richard Cohen’s marketing of his business is the number of awards he wins. “I enter all competitions, not so much because I want to have a lot of awards in my office, but because winning the awards is a great marketing angle,” says Richard. “That way, every client I take on knows that every job I do is well done—not just one or two.” In the areas of maintaining and managing properties, as well as peerless workmanship on masonry, carpentry, grading and drainage, irrigation, lighting and planting they continue to strive for—and achieve—excellence. About two-thirds of their business is in commercial and residential installations that also include renovations of existing landscapes. The remaining is in commercial landscape management and maintenance. Cohen’s commercial division was also singled out recently for its high quality work by winning three CLCA maintenance awards, including a first place in the overall maintenance category for Plaza Pointe in Laguna Hills, California, a first place in the office/industrial category for Acacia Adult Day Services in Garden Grove, Calif. and an outstanding achievement in the retail category for the Laguna Design Center in Laguna Hills, Calif.
Richard Cohen has built his business up over the years by keeping ahead of the industry and staying on top of every aspect of that business while continually adding to his knowledge. He started after college as a journeyman electrician (something his family thought would be a better way to make a living) and kept at it for ten years. However, he’d always loved landscaping, and when the environmental movement took off in the 1970s, it changed the whole landscape industry. Contractors were forced to add landscaping as part of their housing projects, so inevitably, landscaping became an integral part of the planning process for all new construction and tract homes.
Cohen’s maintenance won the CLCA Large Retail Maintenance Award in 2002 and the CLCA Commercial Maintenance Award in 2000 for the Laguna Design Center.
The fountain and interior courtyard are resplendent with color masses of ever-blooming roses, iceberg roses and purple leaf plum trees.
“As an electrician, I had experience reading blueprints and a knowledge of construction techniques which was invaluable,” says Cohen. “By the time I started my own business, I’d tried to learn as much as I could. I was like a sponge, going to every seminar or class, reading every book and article I could find. I started with custom residential installations work, then got an opportunity to do a commercial installation and then take over the maintenance.”
The company, which has 60 employees, does about 20 projects in residential and commercial construction a year. They regularly maintain over 80 projects. The margins on maintenance are small, but maintenance steadies the cash flow thus enabling him to keep regular crews. Maintenance is a very competitive business. Most of the money made in maintenance comes from enhancements and repairs done on an as needed basis. When the supervisors see that something is coming up, such as replacing the irrigation valves, they will first give the client a rough estimate of the cost to arrive at a verbal agreement. Maintenance is key to keeping the property values up. “It’s upsetting to see a beautifully completed installation a year or two later that has deteriorated. It’s also just plain wasteful for a company or a homeowner to spend a sizable amount of money and time creating a lovely setting then skimp on what is required to bring it to its full potential.”
Plantings in the patio foreground include clivia with rathiolepsin behind it.
By the patio chairs are ever blooming roses. The shade trees are Ficus nitida.
Now his company offers a more complete service to the maintenance clients which includes property enhancements and renovation. Included in that are things such as soil prep, grading, drainage, planting and irrigation. They can also include hardscape items such as cement masonry, lighting and woodwork. The maintenance division has the capability to offer more comprehensive renovations on its maintenance properties by using the resources of the construction division. Richard Cohen Landscape and Construction also has masonry crews on staff in their masonry division. The company does not do landscape design in-house, however, they utilize landscape architects and landscape designers to help develop their plans. “The best architect can come up with the greatest design,” Cohen says, “but it will never happen if the contractor doesn’t know how to transform that design into the real thing. We have to take into account drainage, soil, grading and topography.”
The company brochure is a powerful marketing tool for getting new maintenance contracts, however. Richard Cohen also goes out of his way to meet with any potential new clients. “We host luncheons, give out bids, do a mailing and then follow up with phone calls. There are three office people who help out with service orders, billing and estimating. Cohen’s wife, Linda, does the accounting and follows up on everything to make sure there are no mistakes or omissions.
This outdoor amphitheater seating area is part of Saddleback Community Church which won the CLCA Large Office/Industrial Maintenance award in 2004. The turf is fescue grass and the trees at the top are Koelreuteria bipinnapa (Chinese flame tree) while the trees on side are Italian poplars. Mowing the terraced steps is tricky because the mower must be carried down to each level. In addition, there are issues with managing the slope water to avoid over watering or ending up with dry spots.
Cohen says, “I tell prospective clients we will go the extra mile to make sure they can realize their goals for their properties. Property managers don’t always know the cost of things. Maintenance levels can vary anywhere from Disneyland on down. It’s simple dollars for details. The bottom line, however, is trying to raise their property values, because delayed maintenance ends up being far more costly in the long run.”
The firm has some very important promises they make to their clients. Because of their size and the fact that they maintain their staff year-round rather than hiring day workers, they have the ability to respond to emergencies 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A personal management representative is assigned to each client so that a manager who is fully familiar with a client’s job will return calls within four business hours. The firm’s voice mail system will also page and put clients in touch with the proper staff member who can expedite a request and make any last minute changes.
Mowing the smaller lawn areas of dwarf fescue requires a 21" mower. In the lower left corner is variegated society garlic.
Very important to Richard Cohen is the fact that his crews are well-trained workers. The firm provides them with seminars to promote their understanding of job safety and up-to-date installation and maintenance techniques. The firm has a great deal of ongoing educational training sessions. They do a weekly combined safety and mini-training meeting which is run by the supervisors. The construction division meetings are held separately from the maintenance division meetings. The field supervisors are English speaking so clients can rest assured that any communications they have will be correctly understood. That, in addition to owning a complete fleet of heavy duty, specially equipped trucks and landscape equipment ensures that the firm is ready for anything, anywhere, anytime. The equipment is carefully maintained in their own maintenance shop to keep it in the best operating condition.
The Union Bank Square is a five building business complex, which includes the offices of the Orange County Transit Authority. It won the CLCA Small Maintenance Project Over 10 Years Award in 2004. On the right of the sign is Pittosporum variegata with azaleas and pygmy date palms. On the left is philodendrun, and in front are red and white pansies. The color plantings are changed every three months.
Cohen feels that being licensed and bonded provides an extra measure of security for his clients. “Unfortunately,” Cohen says, “There are unlicensed operators out there who have a very inexpensive start up.” They can pick up tools and workers without having to shell out any money on a daily operating budget. Even worse, some licensed contractors pay cash under the table to their workers. They have no payroll, and this hurts the industry.
All in all, the success of the firm is dependent on many factors: Paying attention to detail, keeping the quality of the work up, maintaining a high level of communication with the customers, and staying ahead of the industry with a strong marketing program is in the end, what will make the business a long term success.
Richard Cohen Landscape & Construction has 24 trucks including small route trucks that take crews out, covered vans, irrigation trucks, small and large dump trucks and a large dump truck that hauls the bobcat. There are several ride-on mowers and 10 36-inch mowers for turf care. Each division has a dress code with uniforms. The blue uniforms are worn by the maintenance division, seen at the right. The construction division and supervisors seen back center and to the left, wear tan t-shirts and blue hats. In the front center are the year round office staff which include estimators and sales people.