A desire to work outside. Camaraderie with fellow employees. The wealth of opportunities for growth. Continuing a family legacy. Their reasons vary, but next generation of green industry professionals Hunter Petit, Jeff Elshoff and Brandon Walters have one thing in common: a strong motivation to find their niche and leave the industry stronger and more vibrant than they found it.
Building on experience
Being the boss is always challenging, but at 22 years old, leading a team of landscape professionals with years of experience under their belts comes with a unique set of challenges. As the vice president of Petit Lawn Maintenance in North Royalton, Ohio, Hunter Petit has quickly learned that the key to his success as a manager is constantly seeking out opportunities for knowledge.
“When you have guys who are 30 or 35 who run crews and have been doing it for years, it is hard to take direction from a young kid,” Petit says. “All of my guys know that I’m constantly learning, and I’m not afraid to be wrong. I give them respect and they give me respect back, and it usually ends up working out.”
Once he turned 16, Petit began to spend his summers working for his father, Matthew, in the landscape business that he started in 2004. As he laid mulch in large apartment complexes, he says he was intrigued to learn more about the business and the opportunities available to him in the green industry. After a semester of studying horticultural science at The Ohio State University, Petit realized that following in his father’s footsteps was the path he was most excited to pursue.
“I went full time in 2018 and that’s when I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” Petit says. “I love working outside. The people I work with are fun, and the more I got involved, the more I liked it. There are a lot of good people in this industry, and there is a lot to learn.”
Though he didn’t pursue a formal education in a college setting, Petit says he is constantly in search of new knowledge and skills, and he regularly attends seminars sponsored by state and national industry associations.
“I am pretty involved with the Ohio Landscape Association and go to pretty much every class that they have,” he says. “Recently I started taking some of my employees to the education courses with me, and they like that because it shows them that I want them to learn more things too and that I’m not just trying to be the smartest guy in the room.”
Petit says one of his favorite managerial duties is sharing his knowledge with new hires. That willingness to train the right candidate also helps to compensate for the labor shortage, a term that Petit now understands firsthand.
“Now that I’m involved with the business, the labor shortage is real and surprising,” he says. “We make it a point to say that we love guys with no experience because we are happy to teach our way of doing things. There are people who came in with zero experience and within two years, they are running crews and loving their jobs, and that’s my favorite part.”
As he continues to expand his knowledge and experience in the industry, Petit says he is hopeful that more young people will recognize the merits of a career in the green industry.
“It’s not very well known that there are a lot of opportunities for growth in the landscape industry,” he says. “I wish there were more efforts to better educate the youth because this is an industry where you can advance really far without having the burden of college debt.”
Building a network
Jeff Elshoff wasn’t old enough to drive when he started his first landscape maintenance business, so he paid his sister’s boyfriend to drive him from job to job until he got his license. At one point, he was maintaining nearly 30 lawns and steadily gaining new customers through word-of-mouth advertising. He knew he loved to be outside, so when he entered Michigan State University, he majored in environmental engineering.
“It didn’t take long to realize that that wasn’t necessarily going to be the case with engineering, and someone down the hall from me was in a two-year nursery management program,” says Elshoff, 29. “I talked to him, met an advisor and ended up entering the four-year horticulture program. Before that, I don’t know if I realized that there was a full career path in the green industry.”
An internship at a large firm specializing in landscape design for high-end homes quickly opened his eyes to the possibilities and challenges of the green industry.
“I knew I didn’t want to do maintenance my whole life, but the internship changed my perspective,” Elshoff says. “It wasn’t just installing plants and mowing lawns. It was challenging, there was problem solving and working with people. It combined a bunch of things I really enjoyed.”
After working for a couple different companies following graduation, Elshoff decided to pursue his dream of owning his own company. Three years ago, he launched Twin Bay Landscaping to serve the Traverse City, Michigan, area. In the first year, Twin Bay completed $700,000 of work. This past year, it completed just over $1.2 million.
“There has been a lot of growth,” Elshoff says. “We are in a unique market where there is a really small community but there are a lot of high-end homes, a lot of second homes. In my time with my last company, I had built good relationships with suppliers and some builders in town, and through those relationships, getting work hasn’t been an issue.”
With his quick growth, Elshoff says that finding labor is one of his biggest challenges. As he searches for the right people to grow his team, he says he has to be selective in the projects Twin Bay takes on.
“With it being a small community, it doesn’t take long to build a reputation, but on the same front, it doesn’t take long to ruin the reputation,” Elshoff says. “The biggest challenge is being selective and making sure we don’t make too many promises. As we are growing, we are basing our growth off the people we have, growing from within, and making sure whoever we bring on is doing stuff the way we do it, with all the professionalism our customers expect.”
As a young entrepreneur in the green industry, Elshoff relies on his education, his prior experience and the experience of his team to show that despite being a young owner of a young company, he is well-suited for any job.
“When you get into projects that are $200,000 to $400,000 and show up being as young as I am, there is some hesitancy to start, and you can tell that people are wondering if they really trust this young person to have the knowledge to complete this project,” Elshoff says. “With pictures, testimonials and referrals, it doesn’t take long for people to realize what we can do.”
Following an opportunity
Brandon Walters spent summers during high school working for Valley Landscaping, the Virginia-based company his father, Todd, started in 1991. But as an accomplished athlete and avid sports fan, his heart was set on a career in sports administration. After one year at Bridgewater College where he played Division III basketball, Walters made the decision to transfer to Virginia Tech and work toward a new goal — a career in the green industry.
“Once I grew up a little bit, I realized I had a great opportunity,” he says. “I love being outside, I really love working with my dad, and I gave it a shot.”
With a degree in agricultural technology from Virginia Tech and two prestigious internships under his belt, Walters, now 24, joined Valley Landscaping in 2019.
“A lot of people think that if you come from a family-owned company and you’re the son of the owner, you will start in a leadership position,” Walters says. “That’s one thing my dad has been huge on, starting from the bottom and working your way up.”
Walters spent the next four months mowing grass as a crew member, until his promotion to crew leader, where he spent the next eight months strengthening his managerial skills.
“I went to live in Charlottesville for a year, where I worked under Caleb Harlow, who was managing that branch. Having someone else manage me that wasn’t my dad was huge in my development.”
Walters says that the opportunity to truly learn the business from the ground up, and to have a mentor like Harlow, was invaluable. He says Harlow held him accountable while modeling high standards of leadership and working with clients. To this day, Walters says he calls Harlow regularly to ask for advice on everything from managing client relationships to dealing with disgruntled crew members.
When Valley decided to open a branch in Richmond, Virginia, Walters was tapped to run the office as an account manager. Because of the time he spent working in the field, Walters says he is in a good position to understand and relate to the challenges the production staff face. As a young leader, his willingness to ask questions and listen to feedback has garnered favor from more seasoned employees.
“The biggest thing in managing people who have more tenure than you is telling them you don’t know the answer, so let’s brainstorm together,” he says. “A lot of people struggle with saying ‘I don’t know,’ but I feel like I do that on a daily basis. It builds trust and leadership capital, and then people don’t think you’re the owner’s son who is going to come in and boss people around.”
As he settles into his managerial role, Walters says he constantly seeks out opportunities to improve his skills and expand his knowledge. He says he enjoys listening to podcasts and webinars so that he can learn from others who have found success.
“I want to be extremely successful and I know I can’t do that without listening to other people who have been in my shoes before and learning from their mistakes,” he says.
As he looks toward the future, Walters says that both personally and professionally, he hopes to impact people the way he has seen his dad impact others.
“He’s always told me that the most satisfaction he gets is seeing production staff or account managers buy their first home or some other big personal achievement, and that’s the kind of person I want to be,” Walters says. “Profit is important but our people come first, whether that is our employees, their families or our clients. You won’t get any work done if you don’t focus on your people, and you definitely won’t be profitable.”
As he sits down each Friday to go over his calendar for the following week, Walters makes sure he leaves time to talk to crew members, ask if their equipment is up to par, find out how the company can better support them, and make it clear that their ideas and opinions are valuable.
“Growing up as the owner’s son, you always have a chip on your shoulder, you always want to prove yourself, and the last thing I want to do is let the company my father built, fail,” he says. “My ultimate long-term goal is to earn the opportunity to run the company one day. The big thing is earn it — it’s not going to be given to me.”