Upgrade Landscaping

HIGH SCHOOL BUSINESS GROWS INTO ONE OF GEORGIA’S LEADING LANDSCAPING FIRMS

Oct 5, 2009

Downtime not a worry with Komatsu equipment and dealer support

Chris Cox got an early start on his career. As a junior at Forsyth County High School (now Forsyth Central) in Cumming, Ga., Chris hired some friends to do small landscaping projects, primarily for their school teachers and administrators. By the next year, Chris’ senior year in high school, he had four full-time employees.

“I spent my nights and weekends getting jobs and my crew would complete those jobs while I was in school,” he recalled. “The school administrators were great. They let me carry a pager and make calls as necessary during the day to take care of the business, which was really a company by that time.”

Despite a fair amount of success, Chris wasn’t sure he wanted to continue in the landscape business after high school graduation. “Owning a company is a risk, and I wasn’t sure I wanted that. I started college but I kept the business going and it continued to grow and make money. Eventually, working full time and going to college full time became too much for me so I quit school and committed myself to the landscape business.”

Today, Chris’s company, Upgrade Landscaping, is one of the leading landscaping firms in the Atlanta area. Based in Cumming, Upgrade employs about 55 to 60 people and works throughout north Georgia. The company’s list of services extends far beyond the traditional planting of trees, laying sod, building retaining walls and creating water features.

“For the large homebuilding company or developer, we can go in on the front end and do clearing, grading, erosion control, flood control, drainage and irrigation — giving them a turnkey property,” said Cox. “Then, on the back end, we can also do all the beautification items like gardens, waterfalls, pathways, stairs and lighting for the individual home or business owner.

“We offer one of the most complete lists of landscaping services in the Atlanta area,” he added. “For example, we specialize in water reclamation, which is the tanking and filtering of rainwater from impermeable surfaces like roofs and concrete surfaces, for later use in an irrigation system. Following several drought years, water reclamation is becoming increasingly popular in the Atlanta area.”

Certified Landscape Professional

Cox takes a lot of pride, not just in being able to do all the landscaping services that Upgrade Landscaping offers, but in doing them right. The company has taken the time and spent the money to become certified for the work it does.

Upgrade Landscaping’s certifications include National Pollutant Discharges Elimination System (NPDES) for erosion control; National Contract Management Association (NCMA) for retaining wall building; Certified Pavement Installer for paver work; and state certification as a chemical applicator. Cox is also a Georgia Certified Landscape Professional (GCLP).

“It takes a fair amount of time and commitment to be certified in all the services we offer,” said Cox. “GCLP in particular is a really big process with a lot of testing, but we believe in continuing education. We think it’s worthwhile as a way to keep up-to-date on the latest techniques, as well as state and federal regulations. We also do it because we want our customers to know they can rely on us and trust the work we do. Our goal is to deliver the highest quality work and total customer satisfaction on every job. Training and certification help us do that.”

A team effort

Helping Cox oversee projects for Upgrade Landscaping is General Manager Jessie Callaway.

“In addition to Jessie, we also have 11 crews, each headed by a working foreman,” said Cox. “For the most part, we promote from within, so every foreman has been with me at least five years, and most of them much longer than that. Mario Vasquez has been with me for 16 years, and Moses has been here for more than a decade. Those guys, and all our foremen, are phenomenal — very knowledgeable and hardworking. I’ve always done my best to take care of the people who work here because I’m nothing without a good team.”

Also part of the team are Chris’ mother, Madeline Cox, and his brother, Roland Cox. Chris says Madeline, who keeps the company’s books and manages his real estate company, GEC Properties, has been supportive of and instrumental in the company from the beginning. Roland, a tax attorney, serves as outside counsel providing business and legal advice.

Komatsu equipment and service

A little more than a year ago, Cox decided he wanted to significantly improve his equipment fleet and wanted better support from his equipment dealer. He started researching equipment, which led him to Komatsu and Tractor & Equipment Company.

“I looked at every brand and dealer in the region and kept coming back to Komatsu and TEC,” said Cox. “Komatsu has a great name in large equipment, but they’re not nearly as well-known for the utility-size machines that we use. But I did a demo and the more I looked into them, the more I liked them.”

In March of 2008, Cox made the decision, buying ten Komatsu CK30 compact track loaders and two Komatsu PC35 compact hydraulic excavators.

“Our Komatsu machines have worked very well,” said Cox. “We’ve found that both the track loader and the excavator have better control on slopes than the machines we were using. That’s important to us because around here, we’re working on slopes every day on nearly every job. The Komatsus also do a great job of loading our tandem dump trucks.”

While Cox has been pleased with his Komatsu units, he says he’s been equally pleased with the support provided by Komatsu and Tractor & Equipment Company.

“Dealer support was one of the main reasons I went looking for a new equipment supplier, and I’ve definitely received outstanding support from Tractor & Equipment Company. Any issues that have come up, TEC and Utility Division Manager Scott Deitz have been there for me to make them right. And Komatsu Utility (headquartered in nearby Newberry, S.C.) has also stepped in to provide assistance, and that meant a lot, having the manufacturer take that type of interest in us.

“In our business, downtime is awful,” he added. “But thanks to Komatsu, Scott and TEC, we don’t worry about it anymore. They do our maintenance and our service work. They provide loaner machines if necessary. They’ve been there for us every step of the way and have been great to work with.”

Still optimistic and looking to grow

As might be expected from somebody who started his company as a teenager, Cox is still looking to grow and diversify his business. And despite a slowdown in the amount of work in the past year and a half, he’s optimistic about the future of Upgrade Landscaping.

“I see this as kind of a clean-up time in our industry. The businesses that survive are going to come out better than they were before. I’ve always plugged almost everything I’ve made back into the business or into GEC Properties, which I think has helped us withstand the recession better than some other companies. We’ve also learned how to operate leaner in almost every aspect of the business, and in doing so, we’ve become more efficient.”

Cox says as long as Upgrade Landscaping continues to meet and exceed the expectations of customers, he believes it will be just fine.

“I call it under-promising and over-serving. On every job, we try to put our signature on it and build it to a level that many of our competitors can’t or won’t do. With that attitude, I think we’re in good shape to withstand the slow economy, and we’ll be ready to hit it hard when things do turn back up. And yes, I am optimistic that will happen, perhaps beginning this summer or fall.”