Landscape Company Plows Ahead

October 10, 2003
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HOLLAND — A new name made its appearance this year at the top of the Business Journal's list of commercial landscape companies.

It's that of Steel Enterprises, a company established 15 years ago, which last year billed $1.2 million from landscaping — more than any other firm on the list that was willing to disclose such information.

The firm's founder, Sean Steel, said he started the company right out of high school.

"Well, actually," he added, "I had about a two-week college career and decided that wasn't for me. I'd always done yard work as a youngster, so .... "

He told the Business Journal that it was a surprise to be at the top of its list in terms of billings, but that it really doesn't give him any sense of comfort.

"This is a very, very competitive business," he said. "And I make it a point never to get too comfortable.

"The secret to this work is customer satisfaction," he said. "You can't ever do enough to keep your customers pleased."

At least, he said, it's the type of business where the landscaping firm has ample opportunity to establish a relationship with a client in a project's design phase and to continue it indefinitely through construction into what he hopes becomes a perpetual maintenance contract.

Steel Enterprises works with a number of contractors in the design phases of projects.

The project that Steele believes produced the greatest visual improvement was on Ludington's waterfront. That was where the firm subcontracted to Prins Construction on the Harbor Front reconstruction.

The project involved razing an abandoned factory, building a waterfront condominium and landscaping its environs.

"This is where the Badger docks," he said. "And if you haven't been to Ludington in recent years, you ought to go and take a look. It's worth the drive."

Steele did the design, construction and irrigation of the landscaping.

He explained that, as in architecture, coming up with the look of a project is creative and enjoyable. But then come the details ranging from irrigation to foundations.

"The devil is in the details," he said. "Oh, boy, is it in the details."

A subcontractor must first coordinate a design with other designers and with the general contractor, and then comes the pitch to the client. "You show them what you can do and what you'd like to do, and sometimes you get a lot of push-back," he said.

But, once the project is complete, then comes the maintenance phase and the chance to render permanent customer satisfaction.

Steele explained that foliage has a way of demanding regular upkeep. And the best way to keep a client happy is to perform that upkeep in such a manner that the client never becomes conscious of any changes or any decline in visual quality.

Steele Enterprises, its founder explained, basically has two staffs. One, consisting of about 10 people, designs and manages construction.

The other 30 members of the staff, he said, keep busy under contracts to make sure that clients don't notice any changes.

The idea is to keep lawns looking like putting greens while insuring that hedges don't get raggedy, shrubs don't become leggy, sprinklers dampen the grass rather than sidewalks, autumn leaves disappear and next spring's bulbs are planted.

In construction projects, the maintenance staff also hydro-seeds and sods lawns and fashions brick patios and block or stone retaining walls.

Winter brings snowplowing and the process of keeping walkways and parking lots ice free.

Other than Prins Construction, a few of Steele's other clients are the Curtis H. Brown Industrial Park, Zeeland Public Schools, Hydro Automotive and Lakewood Construction.

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