Landscape Entrepreneur Evolves from Planting to Inventing
Mike Mlnarik, owner and founder of Rivertown Landscapes reminisces how he went from digging holes for spring trees to designing spectacular outdoor entertainment centers — with the help from a community bank lending partner.
Over the years, people have asked me what is the secret to my business success. As I have thought about that question, I have come to realize that it probably isn’t one thing, but a combination of many things that come together over time to make you successful in business today. But most critical to getting your business off the ground are those people who were there at the start, who believed in your dream.
By Mike Mlnarik
One person who stands out is Lou Knooihuizen, now a retired Senior Vice President from ChoiceOne Bank. Over 33 years ago, in 1984, when my business partner and I started working in landscaping, he was the person who believed in us. At that time, Lou was with Michigan National Bank. We put our suits and ties on to meet with Lou to get a small business loan that would help us navigate our startup.
I really didn’t know how to tie a tie at that point, let alone run a successful business. We came to him with just an idea, a pickup truck, a wheel barrow and a few shovels. Lou heard our proposal and he gave us a chance, and I am sure there wasn’t too much value in the pickup truck.
In 1998, I sold out my partnership shares in Grand Rapids Landscape, and in 2004 went on to start Rivertown Landscapes. By then Lou had moved to ChoiceOne Bank, and since he took a chance on us back in 1984, I followed Lou to ChoiceOne Bank when I started my own landscaping business at Rivertown.
At ChoiceOne I started working with Jason Parker, who picked up as my loan officer when Lou retired. My banker was new and fresh and I was not so young anymore. I was 46 at that point.
ChoiceOne is a smaller hometown bank and I liked that a lot. Most of our business is from referrals and word-of-mouth. We don’t do a lot of advertising. Our niche is medium to high-end residential. We do some commercial work, too, but those opportunities usually come through our residential customers.
What has really changed in the landscaping business is moving more to design, with the big trend for the last 10 years focused on outdoor entertainment areas. It’s not just about digging holes anymore. It’s about designing outdoor kitchens, swimming pools and hot tubs. Projects on lake front properties, including beach homes on Lake Michigan, are a big part of our business.
We are full service. Rivertown Landscapes takes it from start to finish, getting the permits, designing what needs to be done, hiring qualified staff and to do the work, and doing everything from little projects to big designs.
Starting out, Rivertown Landscapes grew consistently and did well until 2008. Then the bottom dropped out of the economy. With the housing collapse in 2009, Rivertown Landscapes went from five crews to a crew and a half. We were able to downsize in a hurry which wasn’t the most popular thing with employees but we had to do it. We downsized. Our management crew put our work boots on and went to work in the field that fall and the next spring.
We didn’t get close to losing things but with careful planning with our CPA, we were small enough that we could turn quickly. I also brought ChoiceOne into the conversation and asked what would happen if things didn’t work out the way we wanted them to, and we were caught with less than desirable financials and ability to pay. The loan officer I dealt with was Brian Bacon and he thanked me for coming to him ahead of time. We both knew given the state of the economy that it could happen.
As it turned out 2009 was a bad year and we had to go to interest only payments during (3) months in the winter. I got to know Jim Bosserd (former president and CEO) personally and Brian said if I hadn’t been proactive it could have been a different story, but they worked with me. Going to interest only payments didn’t tarnish our credit rating and we got through the winter. We are now back up to four crews strong.
We are gearing up for spring 2018. We have a good relationship with our bank and are doing well. We continue to want to be more than just the average landscape contractor. We want to be special to our clients and offer a product that’s different from the competition so we are always evolving with new ideas and drawings that are unique.
If you keep doing something well and specialize, you can put together an amazing project with a great team. Our team includes Dan Miller, a Michigan State University (MSU) graduate in Landscape Architecture, focuses on spectacular designs. Wendy Hoerner, also an MSU Landscape grad and assists with designs. And Jacqueline Sarach, a horticulturist, is our buyer and nursery manager. Pam Mlnarik does the payroll and Bob VanderVeen is our bookkeeper.
Our team, our family and our bank – These are the keys to our success.