A quick decision comes up roses for BC landscaper

After nine years with the same landscaping company, Mike Lalonde had a falling out with his boss.

The differences between the two were too much to overcome, and Lalonde needed change. He went to bed unemployed. By 9 a.m. the next morning, he was a business owner.

“I remember that night deciding what to do. I thought, ‘I can go get a job there, or there or there’,” Lalonde recalls. “I decided, ‘Ah, forget it. I’ll go at it alone.’ I was at the lawyer’s office the next morning. Once I saw the lawyer, I got business cards made, bought an old flat-deck truck and some tools and put an ad in the paper. All in the first day.”

Business cards in hand, Lalonde got to work finding customers for his new landscape construction company, Blue Pine Enterprises. But he didn’t fall back on old contacts or take clients from his former boss. It wasn’t ethical. Instead, he hopped in that beater flat-deck and drove around every day in search of work.

Lalonde stopped at every job site he saw just to meet people and hand out his card.

It worked. Business started trickling in. That newspaper ad started paying off as well. And after five months on his own, those old contacts started calling, looking to move their business to Blue Pine.

Building the business

Business picked up so quickly that Lalonde had to find help to keep pace with the commercial projects rolling in. In the first year, he hired three employees to fill out his crew and had enough work to warrant the purchase of his first skid-steer loader – a Bobcat S185. It was one of the first new pieces of equipment the company bought.

“I started with $3,000 in savings. All of a sudden I had people to pay and bills to pay,” Lalonde said.

“There were big growing pains – finding equipment, trucks, office space. That was challenging. We managed and we got through it.”

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In 2004, Blue Pine exploded with growth, doubling in size every year for five years.

By 2008, it was one of the fastest-growing companies in British Columbia. More employees meant more machines and more space. In a few short years, the company moved from the second bedroom in Lalonde’s basement, to his garage, then to bigger and bigger locations.

“We were on the edge of chaos every minute of every day. That is the best way to describe it,” Lalonde says. “We went pretty much from four or five guys to 10, to 20, to 40, to 80, to a hundred and something. It was insane.”

Growing like grass

The head-spinning growth meant big changes – especially for the man who started the business. Up until 2004, Lalonde was still on site and in the dirt like he had always been. He organized four different crews and ran one himself. One day, he spent more time in his truck taking calls than in his loader helping his crew finish the task at hand.

“That’s when I realized that, ‘Hey, holy cow! I’ve got to be in the office. I’ve got to pull myself out of here,’” he said. “I really miss being out there building stuff, but I decided I have to be full-time selling, in the office and organizing crews. It kind of naturally happened because it had to.”

Those calls haven’t stopped. Neither has Blue Pine’s growth. The one-man show has morphed into a diversified, one-stop shop for infrastructure and building contractors with landscaping needs.

The company now has more than 150 employees and 50 landscaping crews, split into four divisions: soft landscape, hardscape, fencing and irrigation — all booked into 2018. This year, Lalonde even hired an additional 30 labourers and bought a new Bobcat M2-Series S650 skid-steer loader to handle the busy Vancouver summer.

“I’ve been doing this pretty much since 1991,” he said.

“Right now, I have never seen it this busy in my life. This is the busiest market in Canada. It’s the busiest market British Columbia has ever seen.”

The booming market is great for Blue Pine’s bottom line, but it’s become a challenge to find quality workers. Manual labour is still a big part of every job.

There aren’t enough “guys with two hands and a heartbeat” in British Columbia — let alone experienced labourers — to handle the unprecedented volume of landscaping projects, Lalonde said. In times where hiring is difficult, Blue Pine leans on its fleet of 24 Bobcat loaders and attachments to help relieve the pressure.

“Doing what we do, you have to have machines. Equipment’s faster and it shows up every day,” he said.

“We used to get one or two dump trucks full of soil and wheelbarrow it all by hand. There’s no way in the world anybody would be doing that today. We always put a piece of equipment in anytime we can.”

With two dozen Bobcat machines and 50 crews working on projects at various stages of completion, managing inventory is critical. Lalonde keeps a close eye on his machines and still organizes the daily schedule himself.

He knows where every piece of equipment is every single day, when it will return and what’s needed for the next day. In-house delivery drivers keep projects on schedule, getting the machines out into the field and shuffling them around job sites as needed throughout the day.

Blue Pine equipment roster

About 60 per cent of Blue Pine’s equipment inventory is skid-steer loaders. The remainder are compact track loaders to keep the company productive in the wet Vancouver winters. Blue Pine typically adds three new loaders every year and sells its older machines.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. We’ve always stuck with Bobcat,” Lalonde said.

“Bobcat has always been ahead of the curve. Not just the operating part of it, but the power, the hydraulics and the resale value.”

Blue Pine Enterprises has grown beyond its owner’s wildest dreams. But you don’t get to the top in the British Columbia landscaping industry without overcoming some bumps in the road. Lalonde had some business education through Fraser Valley College in Abbotsford, B.C., but his greatest teacher was always experience.

“About 99.9 per cent of what I know was learned through the real world,” he said. “Making your own mistakes and learning is the best teacher in the world. You learn pretty fast when it costs you.”

On the business side of landscaping, the learning curve was steep. Each stage of growth brought new challenges, and he had no one to turn to for advice.

The experience helped Lalonde grow as a businessman, but he passes along insight from those hard lessons at every opportunity.

“Nowadays, it’s kind of funny. I know a lot of young people in the business and a couple guys in the industry that are my age,” he said.

“I’ve mentored five or six guys over the years. I enjoy that because I never had someone to go to. Knowing what I know now, I can teach somebody something in 15 minutes that probably took me six months to learn.

“I like to see people succeed. I like to see younger guys in the business. If they come to me and ask for advice, I’ll always make the time to do that. I feel I’ve got something to give back to them so, why wouldn’t I?” he said. “I tell them, ‘Be prepared to work double. Be prepared for triple the stress. Be prepared to eat macaroni and cheese.’ Then I tell them the best time to do it was yesterday. My only regret is not doing it sooner.”

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