January 4, 2020
Dave Wright is the new president of Landscape Ontario
“Even though I wasn’t involved in LO, I can remember as a kid, dad going to meetings,” Wright says of his father John Wright, who passed away in 2015. “I didn’t know life without it.”
Dave’s dad was a founding member of Landscape Ontario and served as Hamilton Chapter president (1976), then Waterloo (1979-80), and as director of the Ontario Horticultural Trades Foundation. David’s parents, John and Ruth Wright started the family business, Wright Lawn Care, in the late 1960s.
“I grew up in the business and started doing maintenance when I was 13,” Wright recalls. “One of the things I didn’t like was that it was very routine. Once I got the chance to get into construction, I really enjoyed building things.”
Dave realized in his late teens that due to his height, getting up and down all day at work was causing frequent headaches. With a love for building things, but the need for a desk job, Dave embarked on a career as a landscape architect, completing a five-year education at the University of Guelph.
After graduation, Dave spent a summer working at Grobe Nursery, where he learned all about plant material and how to help customers. He also worked closely with Heritage Stoneworks as a sub-contractor for hardscape installs. “I believe I only worked for LO members,” Dave says, adding that he got “a lot of support” from both Paul and Peter Grobe, and “learned a lot” from Dietmar Bischoff (at Heritage). “They saw the bigger picture. I wasn’t just a competitor’s son, I was someone who wanted to be in the industry,” Wright explains.
Landscape architecture took Dave to Vancouver, B.C., where he worked on some really big projects for some very large clients, including the Vancouver waterfront and the FedEx world headquarters. “They were cool projects, but I realized I wasn’t getting joy out of it. I got a lot of personal satisfaction, but missed seeing the excitement of a customer — you don’t get that when you’re designing a park for a developer that has to pay for it then has to give it back to the city who wants it as cheap as they can.”
9/11 hit, and Dave wanted to be closer to home. So he moved back to Ontario, became a business partner with his dad and set out to expand the design-build portion of the company.
During his time at the helm, Dave has strived to create his own path, both in business and in Landscape Ontario.
“When I joined the company in 2002, John Keenan, my operations manager at the time, had been with the company for 30-something years,” Wright explains. “He was on the local chapter board, and he volunteered me for a position on the board. That’s how I got on to the chapter board. And then I missed a meeting once and got nominated to be the president.”
Working his way up through the ranks, Dave has also served on the association’s Provincial Board of Directors, something his father never did despite decades of volunteering with the association.
In 2006, Dave’s father retired and the business was in full transition. Dave says during those early years in business he took every course that LO had available. He made contacts through the association and a network of competitors he could call to ask for advice. “My association with Landscape Ontario also introduced me to Jeffrey Scott, who has been a big part of our business growth, helping me to go in the right direction.”
Wright also completed sales and business management training with Sandler Training, another partner of LO.
“I used to believe the philosophy, ‘the customer is always right,’” he says, but “unfortunately with the internet, the customer can get a lot of information that may not be right. It’s very important to educate clients and find the ones that fit what we do.”
Like all business owners, Dave learned a lot by making mistakes. He says he used to focus on customers, but has flipped things to focus on employees. “By focusing on employees instead of customers, as an owner, the end result is a better project, a better maintained property, a better design and better built project, and in the end, a really happy client that will keep coming back.” A key for success has definitely been finding right-fit employees for the team.
“I think that’s the most important part. If you build a team of employees who love what they’re doing and love coming to work everyday and you give them great designs to build, great projects to manage, then they can’t help but make happy clients.”
Obviously there are hiccups to manage. With rapid growth, Wright says sometimes communication has suffered. And when new hires prove they are not right-fit employees, the situation needs to be addressed right away.
The great people mantra for Wright even extends beyond his own skills. “If I’m not good at something, I have to hire someone to do it, and do it better than me. If I can do something better than them, then that’s the wrong person for the job. There’s no reason for me as an owner to meddle in what they’re doing and micromanage if they are doing it better than I am.”
Following these beliefs over the years has led the company to the point where Wright says it pretty much runs itself. He does the selling and the contracts, but cites outstanding operations and management staff that have directly contributed to recent success. Today, the successful 50-year-old company has over 30 employees and runs year-round with extensive snow removal contracts.
“It’s a brand new company with an old name,” Wright explains. “Everyone is on the same page with similar ideas and goals. I have two employees who have been with us for more than 10 years, two for just five years, and 30 others.”
What drives Dave and the team at Wright Landscapes to do what they do? “There is some real satisfaction out of seeing a customer who is excited about building a project. Just that level of excitement and going through that design process and wrestling with them about budget and ideas and taking that idea and seeing their faces when it’s built. That’s why I do what I do,” Wright says.
With the company running so well, Dave looks to a future where he can retire from the business and have the time and freedom to concentrate on whatever he wants to do. For now, he loves spending weekends at the cottage with wife Tracy and their two kids. Both his 10-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter are into martial arts and the family has travelled throughout North America for competitions. His daughter is also a world champion.
For his term as LO president, Dave has a few things on his agenda. In addition to the labour shortage, he feels the cost of doing business and the many changing regulations that make it “harder and harder to run a business” are the biggest challenges for the profession. “I remember a day when my dad looked at me and said, ‘I could never do what you are doing now,’” Dave says.
For the association, Dave would like to improve recognition of the profession by the public. “We are regarded around North American and the world among our peers, but the public doesn’t know who we are and it’s been a long-time struggle. We need to build on what we’ve got here, so the public knows who we are, and why we are here.”
With the renewal of the LO building, he wants to build on that energy and take the association to the next level. As with his success in business, Dave says having the association’s newly-updated plan as a guide will help. “It’s all about moving together in the right direction and it’s exciting to be a part of something that is much bigger that we are.”