Watch Us Grow: 2021 Industry Standouts

These four business leaders built their revenues with smart strategies.
Connor Zielinski, Juan Carlos Esparza, Mark Stuhlsatz and Mario Argentina

Last year was a challenge for green industry professionals for a host of reasons. For many, the biggest challenge was keeping up with the rush of new jobs, balancing current customers and maintaining crews.

The industry standouts program celebrates those service providers who have not only had a successful year but implemented new strategies to make the most of it, from marketing efforts to delegating effectively. The companies featured include large and small firms, and they range from brand-new to well-established. That diversity of background shows that it’s always the right time to plan for growth.

We hope the stories of Connor Zielinski, Juan Carlos Esparza, Mark Stuhlsatz and Mario Argentina help fuel your company’s next steps toward becoming an industry standout.

The Cold Caller

Connor Zielinski, president of Irri Design Studio, Kissimmee, Florida, never expected to be working in irrigation design. After college, he decided to pursue design in AutoCAD and stumbled across a listing for an irrigation designer.

“Never in a million years had I thought about designing for irrigation,” he says. “I just fell into it and loved every second of it. I’ve just been enjoying it ever since.”

Over the course of the last nine years, the 26-year-old Zielinski developed his skills as an irrigation designer but still always felt the urge to run his own business. Just at the tail end of 2019 before the pandemic started to get notice, he made the move to create his own company.

“It was probably the worst possible timing,” he says.

At Irri Design’s start, nothing was more important to Zielinski than bringing in new customers. So he employed one of the oldest methods for connecting with potential clients: cold calling. He dedicated a good part of each night to browsing online maps and searching for companies that might need irrigation design work, tracking down contact information and emailing them. He estimates that he sent about 40 emails each night for about two months at the height of the process. He eventually developed his own email template that he used to reach out to companies in business hub areas that he thought would be good locations such as Dallas or Los Angeles even beyond his Florida contacts.

“At that point every firm or landscape designer was an option,” Zielinski says. “I refused to fail at this.”

A lot came back saying that they do the design work in-house or already had a consultant.

“But a lot also came back and said, ‘We would love to work with you. We’ve been trying to find someone. Here’s a project,’” Zielinski says. “I got denied a lot, but it worked out way better than I expected.”

The moment he received his first positive response, it motivated him through the challenge of rejection, he says.

“That created a buzz for me and an adrenaline rush,” Zielinski says. “For all these emails I’ve sent, this one worked. And if one can work, why can’t the others?”

Even as the company becomes more established, Zielinski still dedicates some time every day to sending out cold call emails to potential clients, he says.

The majority of the new clients who are helping the company develop already had design services available but were impressed with his boldness in reaching out. One of the things he was able to use to set himself apart was his versatility as an irrigation designer just beginning his own company. “If someone emailed me asking for an estimate for a project, I would drop everything that I was doing and reply to that email instantly,” he says. If he wasn’t able to answer it directly, he would at least let the person know he was working on the response and when he’d be able to get it to them.

He pushed for fast responses not only in communication but in delivering solid design work. Overall, the increased number of available jobs and an overall employee shortage due to the pandemic worked in his favor, he says. It gave him a chance to reach a larger range of potential clients than he had anticipated.

“I base my entire business off of communication,” he says. “It’s the thing I focus on the most because my clients absolutely love it.”

Even as the company grows, he intends to develop those communication guidelines as best practices for his team.

“When I have full-time employees, I will be implementing this into their skillsets as well so we can carry this throughout the business,” he says.

Another skill that serves him well as a small company is the ability to delegate, he says. He’s developed a rapport with the contractors he uses for some of the design work and lines the jobs up with the designer who has the appropriate skill set. This allows him to focus on business development while still following up on each project and doing a thorough check of the design work to make certain it fits the company’s style. In a sense, he sometimes thinks of himself as a coordinator of these projects.

Though Irri Design saw a solid amount of growth in the past year, it’s already doubled that growth so far this season. “I don’t see it slowing down. Maybe I’m optimistic,” says Zielinski. “I have projects lined up for probably the next year and a half.”

Zielinski is the only full-time employee of Irri Design Studio, but he works closely with each of his contractors to develop a cohesive irrigation approach and design. As the company has grown, he’s been on the lookout for a full-time employee he can mentor as a teammate.

“It’s tough to find someone who will enjoy the irrigation and who wants to start a new career,” he says. “It’s been fun trying to find someone like myself, though, who just jumped into it.”

The Route Optimizer

Juan Carlos Esparza built efficient routing to give his team more time to work on great landscapes for clients. (Photo: Urbanscapes Landscaping Service)

Focusing on efficiency has paid off for Juan Carlos Esparza, owner of Urbanscapes Landscaping Services, San Jose, California. The young company started in 2018 and already has a total of 18 employees on staff.

Like many in the industry, Esparza’s father was the head of his own landscaping business. Starting in Esparza’s junior year of high school, he worked at his father’s firm during the summers, he says. He started in a maintenance role, working his way up to being a crew leader.

“They gave me the responsibility as a crew leader to take care of the route and do work with my colleagues,” he says.

As he finished college with a focus on business administration, his father suggested that rather than coming back to the business as an intern, it was time for him to look into doing something bigger, he says.

His father referred him to Gachina Landscape Management, where he was brought on first as an intern and then a full-time account manager. As he was learning the job, he kept coming back to the idea of being his own boss.

“I wanted to work for them, but in the back of my mind, I still had that plan,” says Esparza, who is 26. “I want to be that business owner. I want to run my business one day. So I took every step necessary to be where I am today.”

Urbanscapes developed quickly as Esparza prioritized a proactive approach to customer connection, he says.

“Many people don’t believe the massive growth that’s happened. I almost can’t believe it either,” Esparza says. “I think proactiveness is what has helped me succeed.”

Esparza has energized his company’s capabilities by finding new routing efficiency and developing his contract maintenance business, he says.

“Two years ago, the routes weren’t really that profitable. They weren’t efficient,” he says. He restructured the routes to minimize travel time and spoke with clients about how he was optimizing the routes and changing service dates to improve overall response.

“I’ve spoken with clients to say that it makes more sense for me to come out on a particular day,” he says.

While most of his clients were understanding, one did push back to requesting a particular day for service. Esparza conveyed to the client that while it was possible to send a crew out specifically for a 45-minute travel time to the property on the requested day, travel time in the efficient route was only 5 minutes. “When I’ve got only 5 or 10 minutes in travel time, I can invest that time difference into your property,” he says. “From that standpoint, it made sense to the client.”

By really honing his routing into an efficient system, he was able to expand his client network as well, he says. He checked with the commercial properties near his current clients and asked for referrals, and both efforts paid off.

“My clients have really been my business developer,” he says.

Another improvement to his workflow was reorganizing his crews into leaner, more nimble squads, he says. Esparza’s team suggested that change directly, even after he offered to purchase more tools to help the work get done more quickly.

“I told them that I could get them another machine, or whatever they needed,” he says. “They says it wasn’t about the machine.”

Rather than having multiple crews of four members, he found that the teams were able to handle the work more effectively with three. That allowed him to use the remaining crew members as more versatile floaters to travel and help where it was needed most.

“That advice came from the crew themselves,” he says. “I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a very great, hard-working, supportive team.”

Esparza also streamlined processes for his crew by distributing new work orders and customer requests via email both in English and Spanish. “Then they have that info,” he says. “That helps me to be more efficient and organized, as opposed to handing it out in the morning when we’re all at the yard. And then I’m trying to get information out to the crew that I missed or I forget to communicate something while I’m networking with 18 guys at once at 6:30 in the morning.” Instead, the emailed instructions help keep communication open with his crew leaders in scheduling and handling specific requests.

Developing customers into contract maintenance clients was another main goal for him in the past year. Esparza looked at his current clients with established contracts and worked on ways to bring in more revenue. “I wanted to build a network with the right clients that would allow me to leverage them to offer additional services,” he says. Whether that was a water audit or a system upgrade, he pushed to make single-service clients into returning customers.

“When I look at the past, we would do one-time installs, but then we’d never hear back from the customer,” he says. “With contract maintenance, you’ve got that relationship. The opportunity to sell additional services builds up your business by working with them.”

Looking forward, Esparza is already working on developing his current employees so that some can step up to leadership levels. That way, he can focus on controlling the business’s growth effectively and the management structure will support itself. “That was advice I got from another business owner,” he says. “Any person who is going to help you has to be promoted from within your company. They’ll know what you want in good leadership and the team knows each other. It’ll pay off in the long run.”

Esparza’s father used to offer business advice as Urbanscapes was starting up. But with its current growth, these days he sits back and watches his son work, he says.

“I’m very happy with all of the connections that have helped me out,” Esparza says. “I feel like the support I’ve had has helped me be where I am today.

The Brand Builder

Ryan Lawn and Tree’s bright red trucks are a well-known sight in its coverage areas. The company’s marketing team worked to connect that branding to customer satis-faction through feedback and outreach. (Photo: Ryan Lawn and Tree)

The cherry red Ryan Lawn and Tree trucks have become a part of the Kansas City business culture’s branding landscape across Kansas and Missouri for more than 30 years, but that level of consistency has not stopped the company from continuously aiming for growth. Ryan Lawn and Tree´s growth has been spurred by two factors — a new commitment to making improvements based on customer feedback and increased investment in search engine optimization advertising.

“A lot of our irrigation and lawn service growth in the past year has been enjoying the fruits of our labor and several factors converging at once,” says Mark Stuhlsatz, vice president of regional operations for Ryan Lawn and Tree, who has been with the company for a decade. “We have been around for over 35 years but it seems like in the past year we are getting an even better name. Our trucks have been recognized around the community for years, but I feel like in the past year we have really elevated the experience of people getting to know the brand and the people behind the brand.”

It is a brand awareness that is growing all across the Midwest as Ryan Lawn and Tree has expanded markets in recent years into St. Louis; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Wichita, Kansas; and Springfield, Missouri, to go along with its stronghold in the Kansas City metropolitan area.

“From a marketing perspective we did not do anything too crazy in the past year,” says Stuhlsatz. “We just emphasized the professional clean look of our staff, our trucks and our brand overall. We want people to know that real professionals are coming to their house to take care of their lawn, and that is exactly what we do.”

Ryan Lawn and Tree’s recent expansion into new markets like St. Louis and Tulsa meant that they knew they had to double down on their analysis of the current customer experience.

The company did not want its expansion to cause fewer touch points with its customers, leading to customers feeling that they were working with a faceless corporate entity that did not respond to their personal needs, concerns or comments. “It has been a concern of our growth,” says Brady Smith, marketing coordinator for Ryan Lawn and Tree. “Two years ago we figured out what we wanted to do, and that was to double down on retrieving feedback from our most valuable asset — our customers.”

To formally gauge customer feedback, Ryan Lawn and Tree implemented the Listen 360 Net Promoter Score program that uses a traditional zero to 10 scale to identify how likely customers are to refer the company.

“We started this in February and it gives us a much better view of what people are saying,” says Smith. “We have been able to dig into customer feedback and follow up with the detractors individually, find a resolution and see if they change their score.”

Another valued communication vehicle of customer feedback Smith and the marketing team look at are their reviews on Google.

“If there are any negative reviews, we follow up with them immediately,” says Smith.

Ryan Lawn and Tree currently has more than 900 reviews on Google and fewer than 30 have the lowest one- or two-star ratings.

“After we follow up with the customer, we say something in the comment about how we found a resolution for that customer,” says Smith. They also take that information back to the marketing and operations team to ensure the situation doesn’t happen again.

In the past year an already successful search engine optimization campaign turned even more productive when Ryan Lawn and Tree decided to first lean in on the agency they were using, pushing them to be more strategic and proactive with their tactics, then eventually moving all SEO initiatives and activities in-house so it can receive the day-to-day attention it deserves.

“From an internal perspective we now have an overall direction from a content standpoint,” says Smith. “Our content is more focused to be hyper focused in target areas in our smaller markets. We are glad we have brought all of our SEO services in house where we can live it and breathe it and take advantage of top-of-mind marketing. Agencies are good and serve a purpose, but nobody will ever live and breathe your own brand like the company itself.”

From an executive perspective, Stuhlsatz recommends using a company’s market expansion as the perfect opportunity to go back to the drawing board about how they interact with clients, based on real scenarios and real feedback, not on best-case scenarios or best-case customer deliver circumstances.

Ryan Lawn and Tree currently boasts a 85 percent Net Promoter Score, meaning that 85 percent of customers would recommend Ryan Lawn and Tree to family and friends.

“The best marketing is to create raving fans, and that is our goal,” says Stuhlsatz. “It is our focus, and it will always start with our customer response — regardless of the city, it will be the same Ryan experience.”

The Technology Advocate

Mario Argentina used smart lighting services to expand customer options. (Photo: H2O Sprinklers & Backflow)

For Mario Argentina, owner of the Long Island, New York-based H2O Sprinklers & Backflow, the past year has been one of unprecedented growth.

“The last year has been one long highlight for our business, and we are blessed and thankful the combination of these strategies worked at the time where we needed it the most,” says Argentina, who operates a staff of five full-time employees.

Argentina does not attribute his growth to a flashy new marketing campaign, or a new tagline or motto, instead he prefers to organically grow his company and brand through community-building and word-of-mouth client referrals.

“We have forged a good reputation with the supply houses, so they know where to go if they need irrigation and lighting services,” says Argentina. “Sponsorships of local events and teams along with word-of-mouth client referrals have also been a valued part of that growth. We have sponsored everything from little league teams to religious organizations and it has worked out for us.”

Technology has played a role as H2O Sprinklers & Backflow has utilized Facebook groups for its online advertising campaigns. “Joining the right Facebook groups was a large part of our targeted marketing success,” says Argentina. “I used my prior experience working for the water district to build the foundation of my strategy as a business owner.”

Landscape lighting has spearheaded the growth of H2O Sprinklers & Backflow over the past year.

“I only started offering landscape lighting three years ago, and it happened to be a good time because of all the recent developments with LED lighting,” says Argentina. “We offer integrated bulbs that you can change colors from your phone. The ability to beautify a house just by lighting from a smartphone with our fixtures has made it an around-the-year high-demand service.”

The Fourth of July holiday, along with Christmas, are the most popular holidays to showcase landscape lighting and the various lighting showcases across Long Island gave Argentina’s clients an opportunity to further grow business from word-of-mouth client referrals.

“We have come a long way since halogen bulbs,” says Argentina. “We make sure our client is going to like the light setup, so it is virtually a fail-proof process by this point.”

Argentina offers a test kit and let prospective clients live with the lighting for a few days to see if they like the look in the front of their house, the variety of color and the ease of operation.

“After a few days we have an in-depth conversation with them to see if it is truly what they want, and not just a passing mood that could eventually create an issue down the road,” says Argentina. “It is a great touch that people like and about 95% of the time we sell the job. Lighting has changed a lot over the years, so people are very impressed with smart lighting features and functionality. The trial run is a simple, but successful solution, just the way I like it.”

Along with the colorful benefits of landscape lighting, Argentina also sells prospective clients on the functionality and safety provided by smart landscape lighting.

“When people are not home they can control the lighting and make it look like they are home when they are thousands of miles away,” says Argentina. That level of control from a distance is great for family vacations and business travel.

Landscape lighting and smart products provide a higher return on investment than some of the other services Argentina offers at his company. “There is less time to install, and the lighting provides more value because it can make a house look like a million dollars,” he says.

To further increase operational efficiency, Argentina went to a completely paperless business in 2017.

It was a decision that paid off with massive benefits in the last year as the business has grown. With the expansion, a high level of efficiency is already built into operations, allowing for more time to develop sales prospects and maintain a high level of customer service.

“We have no more receipts or forms. We even eliminated forms to the district about our backflow testing,” says Argentina. “The extra time really allows us to treat efont-weight: 400;very home like it is our own and focus on buying the highest quality products, whether it is a smart lighting or smart irrigation product. We always choose the high-quality products because our name is attached to every project, and our reputation will always be the one thing we can control.”

This article originally appeared in Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.
Kyle Brown is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at

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