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Build One and They’ll All Want One, Too!  June 24, 2007

Colette Kuki of Wallace has recently completed requirements to become a Registered Landscape Contractor in the state of North Carolina. She is the first woman in Duplin County to achieve this distinction within her profession. Colette and her husband, Mike Long, own and operate Island Creek Landscaping.

The Longs came to Wallace in 1999 to buy residential property on a golf course with plans to build a retirement home. Colette recalls that she and Mike were very impressed with the landscaped entrance and common areas of River Landing during their first visit to the community. Their plans to build a home led to a meeting with Greg Maready who was the first Horticulturist at River Landing. Greg was instrumental in installing the award winning main entrance and pool area of River Landing. Maready left his employment with River Landing but remained a mentor to the inspired Longs.

The Problem Becomes a Solution

It all started, basically, when their landscaper quit the week he was supposed to do their yard, and they needed a finished yard to close on the loan. Because they had a business license they could get materials wholesale. Along with a borrowed tractor from their builder, they put in their own yard.

That’s when people started stopping over, wanting to know more. Says Charlotte, “So we asked ourselves, ‘What if we did this for a living?’”
They had chosen the lot for their house because there were no houses facing them, which gave them an open expanse. They’d planned to retire and wanted to be near golfers. They didn’t move to North Carolina to be landscapers, but changes financially sent them in search of a new business. It was that first home landscaping endeavor that soon evolved into their full time business.

“Essentially, the yard needed a decision, something that would separate our sod and the golf course sod, because they were two different types,” says Colette. “We wanted something artistic—and it was a perfect place to put in a pond.” Their design became a testing ground for their future jobs. Even now, they use it as a test location for new annuals or perennials.

Practice Makes Perfect

They knew from seminars they’d attended that other landscape contractors were going into water features, and they needed to try it before. Not only was it in view of other golfers, they can also enjoy it from their backyard as well. They looked at vendors online for pond kits and researched a couple of locations that sell landscape and hardscaping rocks. They also did research for a style that would fit their house. Some looked too rustic for the house, some were too unnatural looking in shape, but this one fit right in. Then they put it all together.

“It has all native plantings and we used just the pump, the liner and the filter that came in a kit,” says Colette. “Of course, we had to research the rock and the plantings separately. We decided not to have any fish because there are too many herons. But frogs live in it—just volunteer inhabitants for our pond.”

They incorporated both annuals and perennials in their landscape as a finishing touch. “We use tried and true perennials like the delasperma as much as possible because they work well with the soil type.”

About 50 percent of Island Creek’s work involves re-imaging of yards fixing other’s poor quality or substandard installation work. Mike used this Toro Dingo to redo another landscapers work. That yard was left with pine straw, and had been approved for development. It was unbelievable that it was approved, because nothing was there. Island Creek divided it into three planting beds, adding seven pallets of sod along with two trees and 12 shrubs.

Perfection Tells the Story

Says Colette, “People came by saying, ‘I liked what you did with the so-and so’s house, can you do an upgrade for us?’” And the business kept evolving over time. It took six months until first big job. A builder came to them a couple of months later and asked them to do all their new construction homes.

But in the meantime, people asked their opinion about their yards and they’d started to do small yards—they didn’t even have business cards. “Because we live in the development where we do most of our work, if something goes wrong they know we’re not going to run away. This engendered trust. We never did advertising to get business. It was just word of mouth. The biggest thing they did for marketing was get a logo—done by a graphic artist friend. That and ordering business cards –finally—was the extent of what they did. Now they’ve added T-shirts and caps.

Colette grew up on a vineyard in Southwestern Michigan with parents who taught her their love of nature and horticulture. The love of landscaping grew from sharing yard duties with Mike at each home they shared. Mike and Colette eventually progressed to re-doing the landscapes of homes they purchased and eventually became sought after for landscape advice by neighbors and friends.

Now the business has five employees including Colette and Mike. Everyone but Cheryl is full time. Moysef and Pedro are their maintenance crew. As the company progressed, people asked them to mow their yards. Initially, they resisted because of the tremendous amount of overhead. Ultimately, they had to give in because there wasn’t a quality maintenance company in their area. When they added the maintenance business their growth was overnight. Customers call them regularly for new business or existing customers ask them to add on the service.

Re-Imaging is Hard But Needed

They do a lot of re-imaging of yards because of poor quality or substandard installation work. “It’s more difficult because you’re working with an existing environment,” says Colette. “You didn’t install the soil or beds or irrigation. So you’re working with material that already exists, but because of the economics, you have to work with what you have. It’s hard for the owner, too because you’re having to build them the yard they thought they were going to get in the first place.”

Re-imaging landscapes is about 50 percent of their business. The job could be a little corner or the whole half of the yard. There are certain standards of landscaping that need to be utilized, Colette adds. Basics of understanding water run-off, the plant types needed for various soil types, as well as correct installation of plant materials makes a huge difference in the survival of the plants. “We’ve had to change out plant materials that died because no one put emitters in the tubing of the drip irrigation.”

Small But Happy

They’re small, but Colette wants to keep it that way. “If we had a huge operation with 20 employees, it would be very difficult to keep control. I’m not standing on a pedestal, but that’s why we’ll remain small because we know the pitfalls of having a large staff and losing the hands-on management of the job. Customers know they aren’t going to get a run around.” That’s why Colette likes small businesses. They’ve been in small businesses since the year they got married and everything happens because they make it happen. “Some people may think we have good luck, but good luck is just a combination of preparation and timing. You can be receptive, because you’re prepared.”

They don’t do hardscaping but outsource it to someone they trust. They also make a point of being there on–premise during the process, just in case there are any questions. When they do ponds, though, they put in all the hardscaping. “Landscaping is basically the frame and matting around your house,” says Colette. “Like in an art shop, when you see a print with the right color mat and a knock-out frame, you want it even more.” Some people don’t grasp that there’s an artistic quality that’s very important. They need to find someone to help them understand landscape design.

Why Licensing Registration is Important:

“Becoming a licensed landscape contractor was important for us because we needed credibility, not only for their own sake but for the sake of our current customers that trusted us to do the job as well as for new customers and for getting new business.” In the beginning people trusted them because of the work they’d done. As a profession, getting licensed made them feel as if they’d arrived.

Colette applied to take the test the day that she was eligible. She had to be in practice for three years first. On her third year anniversary she put in her application. And even though their vendors said it wasn’t necessary, in her mind and in her heart she wanted that confirmation. Mike was also already a licensed pesticide applicator. That was a feather in their cap. It has helped them immensely to be able to say they are a North Carolina Registered Landscape Contractor—and the only one in their town. When they announced in the paper that Colette was registered they got jobs from farther away than they expected and they broadened their base.

“I’m very appreciative of our loyal customers who became my references in the application process and who gave me encouragement in the arduous testing process,” says Colette. Along with landscape design and installation, Island Creek Landscaping also provides a complete monthly lawn maintenance division. “This division was created from high customer demand and a need for a multi-faceted program that would allow our customers a choice in lawn care”, added Mike. This growth in services prompted Mike Long to achieve a North Carolina Pesticide Applicator’s License in Spring 2005 to better serve the needs of Island Creek Landscaping customers.

“We Built It and They Came”

“You can have a degree in horticulture and put together a series of plants but without the knack and the passion it’s not going to please people,” Colette points out. “Achieving the status of Registered Landscape Contractor is important to us because it gave us more knowledge in the process and it shows our customers that we are committed to be the best that we can be. Customers know when you’re heart is in your work. That is why our business has doubled every year just by word of mouth.”

Colette has a degree in nutrition, but didn’t want to live her life doing that. Landscaping landed in their laps, and they’re so thankful it did. “We remade ourselves as well as our landscape. Our landscape company grew out of necessity in the community and we couldn’t enjoy our jobs more.” The first landscape installation that Island Creek Landscaping, accomplished was a residential landscape plan for their own River Landing home. Since then, Colette and Mike have been busy creating landscape designs for their customers, as well as, installing new construction landscapes and landscape makeovers of residential properties within the River Landing community on a full time basis. They also volunteer their time as S.C.O.R.E. mentors. SCORE is the Service Core of Retired Executives assisting and inspiring people who want to start a small business.

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