Growing Businesses

How five landscapers built their companies from the ground up.

November, 2005

Steve’s Gardening

Steve Dewald wanted to help people in need.

When the one-time Schofield Barracks’ infantryman was discharged from the U.S. Army in 1992, he had plans of becoming a paramedic. After finishing up some core classes at Kapiolani Community College, Dewald was accepted into the school’s emergency medical technician program the following year. To earn extra cash, the student got a job with a landscaping company. It was work with which Dewald was very familiar, having grown up in the industry.

“My dad had a small landscaping company in the Laguna Beach area in California, so I had done a lot of work for him,” says Dewald. “The company that I was working with in Hawaii was doing shoddy work, but they were busy. After a while, I got to thinking: If these guys can make a lot of money putting out a poor product, how would a company with a good product do?”

The answer was very well. Dewald shelved his career plans, hired a small crew and got busy. They started out doing a lot of maintenance work, but a water feature installation for a new home in Waikele caught the eye of an official with the housing development. One thing led to another and Dewald eventually had five years of uninterrupted work in the Waipahu community.

The small company’s reputation and workload grew with every landscape it completed. Today, Steve’s Gardening Service has a staff of 15 full-time employees and one part-timer, who works at his nursery. Dewald says that he could grow his business threefold (at least) to keep up with demand, but that would mean sacrificing quality control. It’s a compromise he’s not willing to make.

“For us it’s been one job at a time, period. It’s worked for us this far,” says Dewald. “I’m personally on every job, getting my hands dirty. I’m a ditch digger, I’m a landscaper. My favorite thing to do is to create and build landscapes.”

Although he doesn’t ride around in an ambulance, as a landscaper, Dewald does offer emergency services of a sort. “People tend to take on more than they can handle, or they try and cut corners where they shouldn’t. The next thing you know, everything is screwed up and they have to call me,” says Dewald. “I tell people to keep it simple and don’t rush. They’re plants, they’re going to grow and fill in.”


Kevin J. Mulkern
A Licensed Landscape Contractor

If Hollywood ever decides to make a movie of Kevin Mulkern’s early career, the film would be entitled Surf & Turf. The young Mulkern, an avid surfer, had planned on a career in marine biology. But a couple of trips on a research boat left him green in the gills. The experienced water man just couldn’t get his sea legs.

“I quickly discovered that there is a big difference between playing in the water and working on the water,” says Mulkern. “I had to quickly change gears.”

Mulkern discovered that he was a land lover, literally. While at Leeward Community College, he took horticulture and agriculture classes for “fun.” He did well and took more and more and more. When he left Leeward a couple of years later, he started up his landscaping company and had “a full eight hours of work a week.”

Things quickly picked up and, two years later, Mulkern convinced his wife, Susan, to leave her job in the garment industry and join the company. Thirty years later, Kevin J. Mulkern landscaping has a staff of 12 and a long backlog of work. Susan still handles the business end, including all the job estimates.

While Mulkern does all types of landscaping, he has cultivated an interest and expertise in water lilies and water plants. “In the ’80s, we were hired to landscape [real estate developer] Chris Hemmeter’s $70-million estate, and he wanted water lilies for his ponds,” says Mulkern. “So we went to the only supply on the Island at the time and bought out their inventory, which turned out to be four plants in coffee cans. After that, we started importing water plants from various parts of the country and the world.”

Over the years, Mulkern has developed a laid-back, go-with-the-flow relationship with his clients, trying to integrate their ideas into a collaborative landscape design. “I used to like to do everything myself, but I realized that there are a lot of people who like gardening and doing their own projects. Why not give them a helping hand?” says Mulkern. “It’s really a lot more fun to work with people and develop their own ideas.”


Landscapes by Tropical Images & First Look Exteriors

Looking at one of Greg and Terri Lee’s landscapes–whether it be a Native Hawaiian lei garden in Haiku or a plantation-era, kamaaina yard in Kaimuki–it is easy to assume that the husband-and-wife landscapers are traditionalists. Look closer and you might see an unusually colored ti plant or over-size puakenikeni blossoms. The Lees, Native Hawaiian plant experts, also like to mix things up.

“We always try to keep things simple and clean,” says Greg. “But we are always trying different things, new plants, varied combinations. To do that, the designer really has to understand all aspects of landscape. The deeper the knowledge, the better the design.”

For the Lees, that knowledge runs deep. Greg’s father ran an Ewa nursery where Greg worked growing up. As a young boy, he vowed that he would never work with plants when he got older. He would eventually become a broadcast engineer and married Terri, who worked at Kapiolani Medical Center. But an after-work landscaping job for a friend of a friend convinced the couple that they had to get back to their roots. Greg quit his job, went back to school to study landscape design. A couple of years later, the couple started Landscapes by Tropical Images, the state’s first design/build landscape company that specializes in tropical and Native Hawaiian plants.

The couple credits much of their success to their insatiable appetite for innovation, introducing new things into the market just before the market is ready for it. Shortly after starting the business, the Lees worked with Native Hawaiian plants in the wild as well as studying and propagating them in their nursery.

In the late ’90s, as digital photography grew more popular and affordable, Greg began incorporating digital imaging and photo manipulation into the business. He took pictures of clients’ properties, then inserted his proposed landscapes into the images of their yards. Greg’s pictures were worth a thousand words. And when the Islands’ building boom started up in 2000, they were worth thousands and thousands of dollars. In addition, several years ago, the Lees introduced hydrosprigging (spray-on turf grass and ground covers) to residential landscaping. The process, which up until then had only been used on commercial jobs in Hawaii, significantly reduced both grow-in time for the plants and labor costs.

Even though the Lees have more work than they can handle, they aren’t expanding their landscaping business. In fact, they are already preparing themselves for the inevitable downturn in the industry by diversifying their operations. Late last year, they started First Look Exteriors, a high-end, landscape lighting-fixture company, which offers custom-made glass art hand blown by Greg himself.

“One of our advantages is that we are young and curious as hell. It’s so important to try different things, to not do things the way you did the day before,” says Terri. “But one of our disadvantages is that we’re young and curious as hell. Sometimes you just want to say enough already!”


Hokuahi Lawns Inc.

There aren’t too many companies that get their names from a building or a job site. But in Gary Shinn’s case, Hokuahi, “flaming star” in Hawaiian and the name of an apartment complex in Mililani, seemed wholly appropriate. You see, Shinn and his co-workers had just landed a maintenance contract with the celestial apartment house and, by coincidence, they were all moonlighting fire fighters.

“The name just stuck,” says Shinn. “Firemen, fiery star–it seemed like fate.”

Although he had grown up in the business, working in his mother’s orchid shop since boyhood, Shinn had taken a roundabout journey to the landscaping business. He joined the Honolulu Fire Department (HFD) in 1974, and one of his on-duty chores was to maintain the grounds of his Pearl City firehouse. It was work he enjoyed and at which he was good.

Working 10 days a month on 24-hour shifts meant that Shinn and his colleagues had a lot of extra time on their hands. He convinced four of his buddies to join him in starting up a landscaping company on the side. Things went so well that, several years later, Shinn quit the fire department to devote all of his time to his growing company. In addition, in the mid ’80s, with business booming, he opened a garden and supply store in Aiea. The shop provided plants, supplies and advice to do-it-yourselfers in the area, as well furnishing his landscaping business with raw materials.

But the retired fire fighter would still have to put out a few fires. In 1993, big-box retailer Eagle Hardware moved in down the street and Shinn’s garden shop’s business dried up in a matter of weeks. He quickly changed course, dissolving his interest in the store and concentrating his resources on his landscaping business. But times were tough, and the business had to weather a few more lean years before Hokuahi found its footing by diversifying its operations between residential, commercial and government work.

Today, Hokuahi has never been busier or on more solid ground. Shinn was able to do something he hasn’t done in years–take a vacation.

“The impact that Eagle had on my shop was shocking. But that’s what happens in business,” says Shinn. “You have to go with the flow of the times and adjust to the moment. I didn’t study business in school, but I’ve learned that, if you don’t react to the trends, they will bury you.”


Reliable Landscaping & Sprinklers

Jerry Brown and Richard Long always dreamed of living and working in Hawaii. The high school classmates shared a love of surfing and the laid-back Island lifestyle. While in their early twenties, the friends spent six months in Mexico, living out of the back of a van and surfing their days away. But life has a tendency to get in the way of dreams. Years later, Long had his own landscaping service in California and Brown was operating a candle-making business in Colorado.

However, when both went through difficult divorces, the friends got back together and decided that they should try and realize their Hawaiian dream. They decided to move to the Islands and start a landscaping business, buying one-way tickets to Honolulu and shipping over some of Long’s lawn-care equipment.

“We came here on Martin Luther King Day, almost 20 years ago,” says Long. “I remember listening to his famous speech over the airplane and thinking that we had a dream, too.”

Brown and Long rented a house in Waialua (on the beach) and went right to work, knocking on the doors of their North Shore neighbors and offering to mow their lawns for a monthly fee. Business was brisk.

“Within a month of arriving, Richard and I were making enough to take care of all the bills and pay for whatever we had. We didn’t have much at the time, but we were doing OK,” says Brown. “We were maintaining 125 yards a week. At sun up we’d be firing up the equipment, and we wouldn’t stop until sundown. We just kept going.”

And going and going and going. Today, Reliable Landscaping & Sprinklers boasts a staff of 35, which includes five installation crews and an office staff of three. Even during the state’s economic downturn during the ’90s, the company continued to experience steady growth, getting much of its work from West Oahu’s new housing developments, which were popping up like weeds. Brown says that his company’s recipe for success has been its ability to offer professional-grade landscape services at an affordable price.

“We’ve been busy during good times and bad, and that’s because our price structure is on the affordable side,” says Brown. “Early on, we did a lot of homes in Mililani, Waikele and Kapolei. Those are the people who wanted our services.”

Both Brown and Long say that their childhood dreams have been fulfilled, and there isn’t a day that goes by that the pair doesn’t appreciate living in Hawaii. However, not all things have worked out according to plan. For instance, in the nearly 20-year history of Reliable Landscaping & Sprinklers, Brown and Long have taken only one day off to go surfing.

“I guess that’s one of the dangers of having a thriving business,” says Brown.

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