Minority Business Of The Year

October 17, 2005
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GRANDVILLE — Mike Verhulst and Bill VanderVelde got tired of funding their bosses’ several-months-long trips to Alaska and Colorado.

Both were managing landscape companies for semi-absentee owners. Verhulst and VanderVelde happened to meet one day in 1998 at a lumberyard. They commiserated over the amount of work they had to do while the owners of their companies were enjoying themselves out west.

A few days later, Verhulst and VanderVelde got together for a cup of coffee and a discussion about starting a business. Seven years later, their company — Summit Landscape Management Inc. — is one of the most successful landscape firms in West Michigan

Verhulst, 38, and VanderVelde, 35, have earned the Business of the Year Award in the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce’s 2005 Minority Business Awards.

Verhulst, whose Dutch last name comes from his adoptive parents, is of mixed black and white parentage. Technically, he owns 51 percent of the company, though he and VanderVelde — who is white — said that they consider it an even partnership. The company’s minority ownership has been advantageous in bidding on jobs for firms that have supplier diversity programs, such as Spectrum Health and city, county and state governmental agencies.

Before any of those contracts came along, the company got its first “big” contract with Lacks Industries. VanderVelde said Summit had already been doing work at president Richard Lacks’ personal residence. That led to the company’s first major corporate client after less than two years in business. Verhulst said Summit still maintains that relationship with Lacks Industries after five years.

Summit’s largest client is now GrandValleyStateUniversity. The company also maintains the grounds — but not the playing field — at Fifth Third Ballpark.

What sets Summit apart from its competition is its ability to tackle all phases of the landscaping process. The bulk of the company’s business now comes from landscaping for new home construction, so the ability to offer all the necessary services in-house is more convenient for builders and homeowners.

“Our goal, which I think we’ve finally gotten to, was to be able to offer start-to-finish service,” said Verhulst. That means Summit can clear a lot for construction, install sprinkler systems, install the lawn and landscape features, and maintain all of its work once the house is complete.

“It’s one phone call,” Verhulst said. “Our clients love it. They absolutely love it.”

Summit’s most recent addition is actually a spin-off company called Summit Tree Service. The company employs a licensed arborist to diagnose and treat tree problems. The company also provides such services as tree removal, stump grinding and transplantation.

After just seven years, the company has between 25 to 35 employees (depending on the season) who are split into 15 crews. There are 20 vehicles and countless pieces of mowing and maintenance equipment. At the end of the company’s first full year in business — 1999 — Verhulst and VanderVelde had earned $240,000 in sales. This year will be over $2 million.

The partners are confident that their all-in-one service plan is paying off. VanderVelde said the company is actually receiving work from its competitors, who hire Summit as a subcontractor to do work they are unable to handle.

“That’s something we didn’t really picture,” he said. “But we’re pretty happy about it.”    

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