In the Media - NZ Landscaper Magazine Feature

"Onwards and Upwards" - a feature article in the NZ Landscaper Magazine
Graeme and Michelle Hopkins started Hamilton-based Groundcover Landscaping 20 years ago and have never stopped looking for ways to improve. From digital marketing to going the extra mile to look after staff, Graeme and Michelle leave no stone unturned in their quest for success.

You can’t guarantee success in any business, but having a firm grasp of the fundamentals certainly helps. A head for numbers, and an appreciation of how important they are, has helped Graeme create a long-running business that continues to evolve.

“After finishing high school, I saw a job in the local paper for an estimator for aluminium joinery. I knew I was alright with numbers, and I was interested in working in the construction industry, so I thought I’d give it a go,” says Graeme.

He got the job and enjoyed the role for six years – until his desire to travel was too strong to ignore.

“Michelle and I went on an OE to England and I started doing some garden maintenance and small landscaping jobs to pay my way. I loved the work and really caught the bug for it! When I returned to New Zealand, I found a job with a local landscaping company in Hamilton, which I loved. About four years later, I had the opportunity to work on some projects on my own and I saw how different things could be.”

Striking out on their own

That experience led to Graeme and Michelle starting Groundcover Landscaping in 2004 and, with Graeme's head for pricing, he knew exactly what to charge for each job – a skill that even seasoned landscapers can struggle with.

“My background gave me the skills to know what I had to include in the price to make sure everything was covered, such as vehicle and machinery expenses, as well as other bits and bobs you could miss if you looked purely at labour and material costs.”

Estimating correctly is a vital part of the business. In fact, it’s so important that it pays someone to do it full-time.

“Our estimator Paul has been with us for 16 years. He started on the tools as a landscaper before progressing through to the estimator role. We work together very closely, as we’re meticulous about how we quote. We quote what materials we plan to use for the job and then we break our labour costs down into its different components. I find that helps ensure our sitework is as efficient as possible, because our guys have a time target to work towards.”

Always improving

While the landscapers have targets, so do Graeme and Michelle – to them, every day is a school day and an opportunity to improve their processes!

“After a job, we have a foreman’s meeting to see what went well and what didn’t. We always provide Paul with any estimating-related feedback, so he has all the intel he needs to produce the most accurate estimates – that way, we’re not setting guys up to fail when they’re doing the work.”

Groundcover Landscaping now has 16 staff, including landscapers, gardeners, a project manager, an estimator, a garden maintenance manager and an office manager/marketing assistant. His back-office staff are just as important as the ones working on the ground; Graeme says without them, everything would come grinding to a halt.

“Having those committed roles means you’re keeping customers happy by dealing with things promptly. There have been times it feels a bit overhead heavy, but we know it’s the right thing to do for the business.”

Investing in people

Like many in the industry, Graeme says the business recognises the challenges around staff retention.

“Recruiting has been hard for us. We do a lot to make our business a good place to work to ensure we keep our staff. We have training plans for everyone, so they can see where their future lies and how they can get there. It’s also a big focus for us to be as good an employer as we can be.

“As well as offering progression through the ranks, we’ll also have regular team days and bring in speakers to talk to staff about their life skills, so we can upskill people in all areas – not just in work-related places.

“For example, we’ve had a nutritionist and a mortgage broker come and speak to the team. The nutritionist taught the team how to fuel their bodies well for the physical job they do, as energy drinks alone don’t cut it! The mortgage broker session was really useful and, since then, one of the team has gone on to buy a house, and another staff member has started that process.

“We were really pleased that we could help them on that journey.”

In line with this commitment to improvement, Groundcover Landscaping started offering formal apprenticeships two years ago.

“Previously, we had senior landscapers who would teach as they worked with junior staff members but, as the industry has shifted focus towards formal qualifications, we’ve moved with it. I think it’s brilliant to add theoretical knowledge to practical skills, which helps our staff understand both why and how to do something.”

Groundcover Landscaping currently has four landscapers and two gardeners in formal training – one foreman doing Level 4 Landscape Construction, three landscapers working through their Level 3 Landscape Construction and two gardeners enrolled in a Level 3 Horticulture.

Residential experts

Groundcover Landscaping does mostly residential work, and Graeme says they stay away from the commercial space, partly because of the pressure to finish work quickly, not properly.

“We also tend to stay away from group home landscaping,” explains Graeme. “I like to do a one-stop shop for our clients and handle their whole project.”

Groundcover Landscaping “does a bit of everything” from paving and decking to concreting jobs and lawns, working with a preferred group of subcontractors when required and four main designers, who recommend Groundcover to their clients.

“We have our key relationships locked down and it benefits everyone,” says Graeme. “Also, because we pick up referrals from four different designers, there’s always plenty of variety.”

His relationships extend to key suppliers to ensure Groundcover Landscaping only uses quality products from trusted people such as Kiwi Timber Supplies, SSL Distributors, Ardmore Nurseries and Leafland.

Active marketers

The company is active on Facebook and Instagram, both of which drive interest and awareness. Links on social media take prospective customers to a fresh, modern website that helps convert interest into solid enquiries.

“Having professional photographs of finished projects is important for us because our work is all about visual appeal. We know we operate in a crowded field, which means we need to get our name out there in as many ways as possible.”

Graeme says having an up-to-date website with an active blog that shows they know their onions, posting regularly to social media, and running print advertising campaigns such as leaflet drops, helps Groundcover Landscaping stay ahead of the competition.

Another way, especially in the Waikato, is to be a member of an accredited professional association such as the Registered Master Landscapers (RML). Graeme says they've be been an RML member for about four years and joined for that reason – to show potential clients that his outfit takes its work seriously.

“Being a member gives our clients peace of mind and we’re proud to be accepted into the organisation. We display the RML logo as part of our company profile because we want people to know that we take our work – and their project – seriously.”

Surprise job

While long-established relationships bring consistent work, sometimes jobs can come out of the blue. In one case, a client had found Groundcover Landscaping on Instagram and paired them with Christchurch-based design company Xteriorscapes, which is also an RML member.

“They suggested to their client that they approach a fellow RML member to work on the project, so being part of the network has delivered job opportunities we’d have missed out on otherwise,” says Graeme.

“Despite only seeing the property in photos, Xteriorscapes produced a great design and it was really cool to collaborate with them.

“The job itself was great to work on, too. We put in decking, outdoor entertainment and kitchen areas, a covered pergola , porcelain pool paving and coping, aluminium and glass pool fencing and a custom screen using railway sleepers and corten steel panels.

“On another part of the property, we installed a secluded deck for a hot tub and an outdoor fireplace. The job took six weeks and was a real highlight for us.”

Pivoting as required

Graeme and Michelle are always looking for new ways to grow or improve the business and recently purchased garden maintenance company Waikato Garden Care.

“We always wanted to do garden maintenance, but never had a specialist in that area, so we’d pass on those jobs. Now we have another service we can offer our clients – it was a no brainer.”

That business decision is expected to help Groundcover Landscaping smooth out any bumps in the economy, while a continued affiliation to the RML showcases his and their team’s professionalism, skill and pride in the excellent work that they do.

Article written by: NZ Landscaper Magazine - Issue 25

Stay updated

We'll send the latest resources straight to your inbox.