January 1, 2017
John van Roessel
John van Roessel

Love the small jobs, too

JOHN van ROESSEL, owner of JVR Landscape in Calgary, Alta., is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s horticulture and landscape architecture program and has worked in the green profession for 34 years. Over the past five seasons, van Roessel has brought two talented team members into an ownership partnership, demonstrating an innovative approach to management and transition planning that has benefited his company.

How has the profession evolved during your career?

I look at some of the young people that start their own businesses after a few years of experience, and I think it’s a different world than it was when I started in the early 1980s. The speed of growth now is just way faster. My expansion was gradual, and I think growing from one employee to two or three happened within the first 10 years. But I was still working as the foreman most of the time, and I had a lead hand who was really just the person in charge when I wasn’t there. I did all my sales meetings, accounting and designing in the evenings. So there were long hours back then.

It might be because of the evolution of labour. Back then, it was rare for a smaller company to own large equipment. Now, someone starting out knows they are going to need a skid steer and an excavator, so they’re in a different world because you need so much business to support your overhead, and you need to have financing in place. There are advantages to both growth models, but for me, it was really about taking into account the needs of the people I had on staff at the time.

Why did you decide to bring on two staff members as business partners?

I felt they were good, key people and I wanted to spend time and effort on training and keeping them. I thought about people I had in the past, and I had learned I can’t just keep paying people more money and expect them to stay. And so I decided the best way would be to actually bring them into the business and to make them partners.

Many in the industry can relate to how draining it can be, to get where you have trained someone to be that master foreman, and they leave to pursue another opportunity. Especially as you get older, you realize you just don’t want to go through that again.

I was fortunate to have a couple of employees that were really motivated, and just good people, and I told them that honestly, this would be my last kick at the can, so to speak. So we had a round of meetings and a golf trip to Mexico, and decided this was the right move. After about five years, I am now a 50-per cent partner and the two of them are each at 25.

How has the transition worked?

We created a plan with minimum and maximum time periods for when they would gain their ownership stakes, and we’ve now completed the first part. We are going to be looking at the next phase, and figuring out what that will look like.

It has taken a lot of patience, in terms of training, but nothing I hadn’t expected. Overall, it has been a really positive experience. I couldn’t have asked for better people to work with, and I feel like bringing them into ownership created real excitement and drive on their end. And in fact, they got to the 25 per cent level sooner than anticipated, because we have enjoyed a few successful years. And again, their drive to be part of a successful company has been the main reason why it has worked so well.

What’s the most important lesson you have passed on to your mentees?

I always say there are three things you have to do as a landscape designer: Listen, listen and listen to your clients. I’ve heard from so many customers that other people just want to sell product. They don’t really listen to the customer, to find out what the customer wants. So I think that’s one of my strengths, being able to transpose what they’ve told me into a plan that works with their budget. Not all customers here have unlimited budgets. So, being able to adapt a big plan and scale it back into something that fits is a challenge, and not every landscaper wants to do that. But it doesn’t matter to me; I love the small customers and I love the big ones, too. Sometimes the small ones can be better projects and better customers in the end.