January 3, 2024
Award-winning entrepreneur puts crew members first
By Julia Harmsworth

Sean Christie, owner of Rugged Earth Landscaping in Huntsville, Ont., puts his employees first. It has paid off — he was awarded with Landscape Ontario’s 2023 Entrepreneur of the Year award thanks to their nomination.

Christie grew up in Huntsville and went to university for teaching. In 2015, while working as a supply teacher, he started a small lawn care business out of his Hyundai Elantra to better control his hours and spend more time with his now-wife, Ali.

“Eventually the business started to get busier and busier and required more and more of my attention,” Christie said. “I had to make a choice. I had to choose whether I was going to take on more landscaping and property maintenance work or take on more teaching.”

Now, Christie is the president of a company with a design division, a hardscaping division and two maintenance crews: one for gardening, one for lawn care. He said Rugged Earth Landscaping is “growing quickly” and is on track to have 14 employees in 2024, up from eight employees in 2022.

Prior to opening his own business, Christie worked for a few landscaping companies doing odd jobs. He took his experiences as an employee as critical lessons of how to be a great boss, with a focus on employee satisfaction and retention.

Rugged Earth Landscaping rarely loses employees; it only gains them. Christie focuses on cultivating the highest quality of work rather than packing his crews’ schedules to an unsustainable level. When his employees aren’t rushed, they do better work and clients come back for more.

“I’m employee centric. I don’t focus on the clientele as my highest priority; I focus on my staff as my highest priority and making sure they’re enjoying coming to work,” he said. “In turn, they focus on the client to make them happy because they’re happy coming to work.”

Christie’s favourite part of the job is his staff. He loves playing on a baseball team with one of his drivers — they recently won the Ontario Championship — and connecting with them at staff-wide events like barbecues, holiday parties and trips to the Blue Jays games in Toronto. He works hard to cultivate genuine friendship in the office.

“I love coming in and hanging out with them,” he said. “They love coming to work. It’s a fun business to come to, and everybody enjoys that.”

When asked what winning Entrepreneur of the Year meant to him, Christie said it reflects his positive, fun, non-stressful approach. He didn’t know his crew nominated him for the award, adding it was “a complete shock” when he was highlighted at the awards ceremony.

“I was having a glass of wine and some hors d’oeuvres, and all of a sudden, I heard my name, and I looked up at the board and there’s my head on the projector screen,” he said. “I’m like, ‘What did I do wrong? I have no idea what’s going on right now.’ It was completely surreal.”

Christie first attended the Landscape Ontario awards ceremony as a guest when he became a member in 2020. He made it his top career goal to win one Award of Excellence, which he did in 2021 for construction. Rugged Earth Landscaping won a second construction award in 2023, in addition to Entrepreneur of the Year. For Christie, it was “incredibly rewarding” and “humbling” to see his work — and his team's work — recognized in this way.

Christie hopes to win one award per year and be recognized for his team’s design and maintenance work, in addition to construction. He says such recognition is also a comfort to his clients, who know they’re putting their trust in a company that cares deeply about their work. His past client was “over the moon” when their house got a construction award.

“When we step foot on the site, we’ve got our designers [telling clients], ‘How do we get your house a gold plaque?’” he said.

For young entrepreneurs just starting out, Christie offers three pieces of advice. First, do your homework when pricing so you do not charge below the industry average. Second, be reasonable when formulating project timelines and don’t make false promises to clients about when you can finish work on their property.

Third, focus on the staff as the backbone of your business, because if no one shows up to work, your business can’t function, let alone grow.

“It’s kind of an emotional thing,” Christie said, reflecting on receiving the award. “I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s one of those things where I feel like I’ve done the right thing.”