Chris Blakely and Taylor Cicala: A strong partnership

The owners of Valleyscape developed the business from its landscaping roots into a successful irrigation and outdoor lighting company.
Chris Blakely and Taylor Cicala

Eight years ago, the idea to start an irrigation company came to Taylor Cicala while he owned a landscape maintenance and installation company in Phoenix.

Cicala was driving on the freeway one day and was passed by a truck with an “irrigation specialist” sign. “I thought, ‘Man, that is really cool.’ I had never even thought of doing just irrigation,” says Cicala, now co-founder of Valleyscape Irrigation and Landscape Lighting in Murrieta, California. Even though he had worked in landscaping since he was a teenager, he always wanted to do more irrigation work. Though those jobs required more technical ability than landscape maintenance, they always paid more.

After selling his Phoenix-based company and moving to California in October 2012, he started Valleyscape. The company did landscape maintenance work because it was easy to get jobs right away, Cicala explains, but the idea of being an irrigation-only company was still in his head.

The following summer, Cicala met Chris Blakely. “I told him how stressed out I was because there was so much going on and so much work,” explains Cicala. Up until that point, Blakely, now Valleyscape’s chief operating officer, had worked in the warehouse and shipping industry but was looking for a career change. Unsure where this opportunity would take him, Blakely offered to help.

The two decided to become business partners. Since then, Valleyscape has grown to have five employees, with Cicala handling finances, marketing and company culture and Blakely overseeing operations and client relations. Soon after going into business together, they made a major decision about the direction of their company: They were going to stop landscape maintenance work and focus solely on irrigation.

After building the business, the company had enough demand for irrigation work to make this change successfully. One challenge they faced was the slow period during the winter months. About three years ago, they added landscape lighting to their services to offset this lull. “It’s such a nice complement to your irrigation because it’s going to get busier in the winter when irrigation slows,” says Cicala. “And then in the summertime, the lighting slows down a little bit when irrigation gets very busy.” Since the two market segments don’t compete with each other, they made a nice fit.

Educating clients

When Valleyscape became irrigation-focused, Blakely says they started taking classes and educating themselves more on products and how they would benefit clients. Doing this not only helped the Valleyscape team grow their own knowledge, but it helped them explain to clients why they used specific products. In turn, this helped those customers see the justification for Valleyscape’s pricing.

Effective communication with clients and ensuring customer satisfaction are a large part of Blakely’s job. One lesson he’s learned over the years is that while irrigation is about the sprinklers, pipes and controllers, the business is more about building great client relationships and understanding their needs.

“When I first started off, I was just excited about the work in itself, but as time went on, I realized that wasn’t the primary focus,” says Blakely. “What I started to learn is that people really care about this stuff. When they call a specialist out to their property, they expect a specialist to do specialty work. As time went on, I started realizing that it was more about the people as opposed to the work.”

Cicala explains that education plays a big part in helping clients. Just in the last year alone, he says they’ve had multiple clients that get water bills that are consistently more than a thousand dollars each month. While the properties those clients own are big, they’re not huge — they’re around five acres and not all the land is irrigated.

“I think some people in our area have grown to accept ‘Hey, that’s what it costs,’ when that’s not true. We’re trying to educate our clientele and educate the public in our area that there is a better option,” he says. “You don’t have to have water running down the street every day from your lawn. And I think it’s our responsibility, and it’s our specialty, to come in and show them a better way.”

One client the company was able to help was Rancho California Water District. The water provider wanted to do a pilot program to see how efficient it would be to switch the sprinkler heads on five large, high-water-usage properties to pressure- regulated sprinkler heads and smart controllers.

Cicala says it was great to see the decrease in water consumption because of the changes they made. But in some cases, they were also surprised to see how the reduction wasn’t as high as they expected. “It gave us some really good insight into what can be done, what we shouldn’t expect with upgrades, and it was just a really overall good learning experience for us,” says Cicala.

Know your costs

A word of advice Cicala would offer other new business owners is to “Be a good student of finance,” especially if you’ve gone from working 100% of the time in the field to running your own company. As a business owner, you need to keep track of those larger responsibilities that you didn’t have before.

“Knowing what things cost is something that a business coach drilled into my head,” says Cicala. “Otherwise, if you’re just throwing numbers out and you don’t know, you could be digging yourself into a hole.” He believes this is where many small companies go wrong. For example, some owners don’t know what worker’s compensation and liability insurance cost, and they aren’t able to recall what parts cost from memory.

For him, this was a skill that he developed out of necessity. In Valleyscape’s early days, after all the bills were paid, he says there wasn’t as much profit as he expected. It felt like they were making money, he says, but he wasn’t sure what was happening to it. This was a wake-up call that made him realize he had to get the business’s finances under control.

One of Cicala’s business principles is “Don’t mess with the money.” He gives the examples of giving unnecessary discounts or not paying bills on time and getting fined. Whether it’s advertising or negotiating with insurance providers for better rates, Cicala is always looking for different ways to save the company money. Some people say if you simply put the time in and work hard, it’ll pay off, but Cicala doesn’t believe this philosophy will always cut it in business. “I think that you have to be smart and you have to be strategic,” he says.

Love what you do

Owning and operating a small business isn’t just about the work and money, something Cicala and Blakely both point out. One aspect of the job Blakely loves aside from the work itself is the people. “We have a special team,” says Blakely. “We’re more of a family than just co-workers, and I enjoy having a peaceful, cooperative work environment.”

In addition to treating your employees well and taking care of them, Cicala says to take your family seriously. “They’re along for the ride too, and they experience the ups and downs with you,” he says. “Don’t take your family for granted and put them aside to make money, because you’ll always have the opportunity to make more money.”

Cicala says he’d tell a younger version of himself to not allow your business to take over your life. “Don’t try to do everything. Figure out what you’re good at doing and just do that,” he says. This might mean hiring other people to do the things you don’t like or aren’t skilled at, like payroll, taxes and administrative work. While Cicala and Blakely both spend time each day in the office running the business, they both still work in the field.

“Both Chris and I have that real draw to be outside and be doing physical work. We find it necessary still to do that, to keep us happy,” says Cicala. “A lot of business coaches and other business owners will say you need to get out of the field. Well, the problem is that’s what I really love doing.”

For Blakely, the decision to go into business with Cicala is one he’s glad he made. He says when you go into business, you have to make sure you do your research and choose something you’ll love. “Irrigation is not about just putting in sprinklers and adjusting a controller,” says Blakely. “What it boils down to is just loving the fact that you’re helping the client to conserve not only water, but also to conserve money. If you love what you do, you’re going to put your best foot forward and give your best to the client.”

This column originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Sarah Bunyea is digital content editor of Irrigation & Green Industry.

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