Business Irish

Saturday 17 August 2019

Cultivating success from the ground up

Thomas Crummy tells Sean Gallagher how he turned his childhood interest in gardening into an award-winning landscaping business

Sean Gallagher and landscaper Thomas J Crummy, Sligo
Sean Gallagher and landscaper Thomas J Crummy, Sligo
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

It's scientifically proven that being outdoors is good for our health. Studies show that spending just 20 minutes in vegetation-rich nature improves our vitality, strengthens our immune system, and increases our enthusiasm for life. In recent years, having an attractively landscaped garden and a neatly manicured lawn has become somewhat of a standard for many home-owners. And while some people love to spend time gardening, planting, pruning or cutting their grass, others are happy to outsource the work to a professional contractor with specialist knowledge - and equipment.

Companies keen to make the right impression consider their natural environment important, not only to sharpen their image but to create an appealing environment for staff and visitors.

With this in mind, I visited the townland of Cloonloo, Co Sligo, near Boyle in Co Roscommon, to meet award-winning landscaper Thomas J Crummy. The chairperson of the Association of Landscape Contractors of Ireland (ALCI) has won the Bord Bia Landscape Quality Award every year since 2006.

He set up a landscaping business in 1998 and now employs four staff. He has an annual turnover of approximately €500,000. While down significantly from what he was earning in 2007, he feels the economy is finally turning a corner for businesses like his.

"We specialise in landscape and garden design as well as in garden building and maintenance works," explains Thomas as he shows me the equipment needed for his profession: everything from tractors and trailers to diggers, rotavators, tilers and fertilisers, as well as highly specialised grass-cutting and verti-draining equipment for sports pitches.

"We operate in a number of market segments mostly across the North West," explains Thomas. "While our primary focus is on residential gardens, we also do a lot of work for building contractors as well as for schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Landscape maintenance of large multi-national companies has also become a significant part of our business, as has our sports turf division, which caters for maintenance work on football pitches such as top-dressing and fertiliser programmes to help extend the playing season for pitch managers," he adds.

His customers include local authorities, the IDA and the HSE, as well as leading businesses such as Abbott's and Green Isle Foods.

Passionate about quality, he spends a lot of time working with the Irish Association of Landscape Industries and Bord Bia to raise awareness about the benefits of selecting quality-assured contractors. "Our industry is over-run with black-market and unprofessional operators and to compete against these, we have to continuously seek to attain even higher levels of quality and professionalism in our work," stresses Thomas. "Henry Ford put it well when he said that 'quality was about doing things right, even when nobody is looking'." he adds.

It is his focus on quality that seems to bring in most of his new work; each completed job results in referrals to three or four new opportunities.

Thomas's work involves both hard-landscaping and soft-landscaping services. Hard-landscaping services include activities such as paving, laying patios and building walls, while soft landscaping relates mostly to the planting of trees, shrubs and flowers. He has also developed expertise in sports turf installation. He uses specialist draining equipment to loosen and aerate the soil so that water drains quickly to leave pitches playable for longer.

Over-seeding is another important aspect of his work. That involves sowing grass seed in heavily worn areas to return them to playing condition. Top-dressing playing fields with sand also improves drainage. This work is highly specialised and involves carrying out soil testing and analysis, implementing comprehensive fertiliser programmes, drainage and weed control, as well as repair to the goal-mouth and damaged areas.

Thomas grew up on the family farm in Cloonloo. From an early age, he developed a deep love of the land and regularly helped his father around the farm. When he was just 14, he spent summers in Philadelphia, in the US, working in the landscaping business of a family friend from the local area. There, the seeds were sown for his future career as a landscaper.

After school, he went to agriculture college in Multyfarnham before heading to Reaseheath College, Cheshire in the UK, to specialised in landscape and amenity horticulture and sports turf management. This involved a 12-month internship at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, where he worked with a local landscaping company that specialised in large-scale commercial and residential work.

"It was here that I really learned the importance of leaving every job in a pristine condition," he recalls.

Returning home in 1998, he decided to set up his own landscaping business. "It was very tough at the beginning," he admits. "I had no phone and very little money. I even had to borrow my father's tractor to do the work in the early days. I tried to borrow money from the bank at the beginning to buy some equipment but most institutions wanted me to give them fancy business plans and neatly presented financial forecasts from an accountant, which just didn't make sense to me. No one really knows what turnover your business is going to have in first year or two," he goes on.

"However, my local AIB branch manager just sat me down at his desk and asked me about my experience and my plans for the business and, on foot of that, approved a small loan there and then. That got me started and allowed me to buy a small van on which I was able to put my name. Because I had no budget for elaborate marketing strategies, I found that this basic form of promotion and advertising reaped great benefits and the work slowly began to come my way."

Thomas is quick to acknowledge the marketing assistance and mentoring support he got from his local enterprise office (then the Sligo County Enterprise Board), which he feels helped him put in place important procedures to help him manage his business better.

By 2008, before the downturn took hold, he had up to 18 months' work in the pipeline and was turning over €1m. That year, in an effort to expand, he invested in a new fleet of sports turf maintenance equipment as well as a new John Deere tractor to top it all off. This move actually saved his business.

"When the construction industry collapsed that year, we were grateful to be able to diversify into the sports turf area and that really helped us get through the recession," he admits.

Today, he sees the green shoot of recovery. The phone is ringing again and people are looking for proposals and designs for their private homes and companies are, once again, beginning to invest in revamping their facilities and sites.

But there isn't much time off for the Sligo entrepreneur whose hobby is rearing lambs to sell to private customers. "I rear Mule ewes crossed with Beltex rams. But sure, it's not really work when you love what you do," he says with a big smile.

Thomas Crummy may not be running a multinational business or employing hundreds. But for the four he does employ and the many more casual workers he takes on during busy periods, his business is making a valuable contribution.

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