Growth Business

These brothers leave no turn unstoned

by Mark Pendergrast

landshapes_lead_364editFour years after his older brother, Jeff, launched an excavation business, Jason Hutchins opened Landshapes Landscape Design. They merged their related enterprises in 1996 under the umbrella of J. Hutchins Inc., but the two companies function as completely independent entities, although under the same roof in Richmond.

Jason and Jeff Hutchins are brothers by birth and business, and both seem to have inherited an independent, workaholic Vermont gene. In 1988, at age 20, Jeff started an excavation business, J. Hutchins Inc., in his hometown of Charlotte. He rented a backhoe, with 80 percent of the fee going toward a down payment on the machine.

“I drove it around from job to job, generating enough money for the next month’s rent,” he recalls, “and after four months, I had enough for a down payment and I bought the backhoe.”

Today he employs around 30 people, and his excavation company, located in Richmond on 30-plus acres off Vermont 117, grosses some $6 million a year.

In 1992, at age 19, Jason, seven years younger than Jeff, started Landshapes, a landscaping business. “I started doing landscape work when I was 11 years old,” he says, “helping my grandmother Laura Marcotte, who was an avid gardener, and then working for neighbors.”

He is a self-taught naturalist who became a Vermont-certified horticulturist after passing a four-hour test in 1997, having studied intensely to learn about soils, pests, diseases, botany (including the Latin names), growth rates, zones for various plants, and the like.

Though Jason and Jeff merged their related enterprises in 1996 under the umbrella of J. Hutchins Inc., the two companies function independently under the same Richmond roof, where they relocated in 1999. Occasionally they work together on a job, such as the new Community College of Vermont building and its landscaping in Winooski, but they usually generate their own separate business.

Landshapes employs around 20 people full time — both firms hire additional help during the summer — and grosses approximately $4 million annually. Their older sister Gina, who currently lives in Colorado, keeps the books for both companies.

For its first five years, Jason’s landscaping business remained relatively small. “It was just me and a couple of people in the summer,” he says. “We put in lawns, planted trees, laid walkways.” Gradually, the jobs got larger as word of mouth from satisfied customers spread. Their big break came in 1998 when Dreamworks came to Vermont to film What Lies Beneath (2000), starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer.

Jason went to poke around the movie set and met the head construction foreman, who was supervising the digging of foundation footings for two homes at the DAR State Park in Addison. “Hey, can you help build a driveway and put in some large trees?” the foreman asked. That’s how it started, and the work kept coming.

“At one point, they asked us to remove milfoil from the lake for a movie scene. So my crew and I swam out and pulled the weeds back to shore, while Jeff did laps with a rented boat to push the stuff in the right direction. From that point on they realized that we could and would do anything.”

On a Friday night, they received a call to set up for a stunt scene on Monday morning in which Michelle Pfeiffer crashed her car off a bridge. Working all weekend, they had everything ready in time. After the filming ended, Landshapes tore down the shell homes and restored the park’s landscape to its original condition.

Until the recession hit in 2008, Landshapes experienced between 20 percent and 50 percent growth every year. Jason has not laid anyone off because of the economic downturn, although he has had to negotiate for jobs. “Sometimes we just ate it and took a job at cost just to keep the crews going,” he says.

This helps to account for his fiercely loyal employees in an industry that traditionally has rapid turnover. Landscape designer Caroline Dudek has been with the firm for 12 years, while truck driver and equipment operator Greg Verchereau has worked there 14 years. Lead estimator and project manager Brian Lanphear, who has worked there for six years and shares an office cubicle with Jason, observes, “I’ve worked for a lot of people, and I can tell you that Jason is great. I also used to work for myself, and that guy was a jerk.” He laughs.

During the summer, Jason spends most of his time out in the field, where he pitches in like anyone else. “I don’t have any ambition to be The Man out on his yacht,” he says. On a typical day, he gets up at 4 a.m. and doesn’t get home until 7 or 8 p.m.

As often as possible, he tries to eat with wife, Tiffany (a psychologist at UVM), and their two girls, Brynn, 6, and Kenna, 2. But he also admits to “110 percent dedication” to his business. It isn’t too surprising that his own home in Charlotte suffers from the “plumber’s leaky sink” syndrome. It does not feature superb landscaping.

In 2003 he hired Jonathan Leduc — who had worked with Cedar Glen Property Maintenance and, earlier, had done landscape maintenance at the Burlington Country Club — as operations manager. Until then, the winter season was slow. “Every spring we started in a financial hole,” Jason recalls.

Also, he was frustrated by watching his beautiful landscape jobs deteriorate from neglect or mismanagement in subsequent years. Why not offer continuing maintenance? he thought. “By staying with the customers, we can help their landscapes mature and maybe plant a few more maple trees, for instance, later.”

He also began to offer snow plowing and removal to use machines that were sitting idle most of the winter. “We have grown the business in snow and landscape maintenance from zero to $2 million a year.”

In early February this year, Washington, D.C., was hit by a blizzard the media called “Snowmageddon.” It was a lean snow year in Vermont, so the Landshapes crew drove to the rescue, and Brady Hart ran a crew 20 hours a day for eight days straight.

“The city was not even close to knowing what to do with that much snow,” Jason says. “We opened up at least one lane, unburied cars, and freed some people who hadn’t left home for 10 days. There were pregnant women delivering babies at home. Yes, I think we may have saved people’s lives.”

Other work has also taken Jason far afield. He has spent a good deal of time on the island of Nantucket, working with Burlington architect Graham Goldsmith to create the swanky Westmoor Club on an old Vanderbilt estate.

“One of the most important things about Jason’s company,” says Graham Goldsmith Jr., the architect’s son, “is that he warrants all the plants and shrubs he puts in. If there is any problem, he replaces them at no additional cost.”

The Goldsmiths have now hired Landshapes to create large atria — with interior botanical gardens, water features, and stone walls — for the White Cap Business Park, under construction at the former Rossignol plant on Industrial Avenue in Williston.

The University of Vermont is also happy with Landshapes’ work on the Davis Center and the University Heights dormitories. Jason is proud of the “hydrological spine” his firm built to capture rainwater from the University Heights building for a waterway with stone walls, a waterfall, and 20,000 wetland plants. The stream flows into a large collection pool and is pumped back up the spine. Just before the pool is an amphitheater with granite benches.

Landshapes also designed rooftop gardens for University Heights and continues to perform landscape maintenance for UVM. The company is currently subcontracting with Pizzagalli to landscape the new Stowe Mountain Resort.

Aside from such large commercial projects, Landshapes also designs magnificent grounds for private homes, such as a hundred-acre spread in Hinesburg owned by a Vermont businessman who prefers to remain anonymous. “We started work there in 2007, and each year we do a little more,” says Jason.

Another anonymous retired homeowner, in Colchester, has spent over a million dollars on landscaping with Landshapes. “I asked him when we could start more work, and he said as soon as possible, for his sanity. He just loves having us around.”

So does James Greenway, a retired aerospace marketer who hired Landshapes five years ago to landscape his 60-acre property on Thompsons Point Road in Shelburne, then at a new home in Charlotte on 12 acres. “Anything we needed, Jason would come and do,” says Greenway.

“When our underground power line went bingo, he showed up and worked all night. He excavated the whole thing, found the broken spot, then completely repaired the damage to the lawn. He is as honest and straightforward as anyone I’ve met, and I’ve never seen a nicer crew of workers in my life.”

Jason would like to continue to expand Landshapes gradually. “If you don’t keep growing, there is no room for employees to advance. Besides, I’m always looking to do something cooler and more interesting. That’s why we picked up the distributorship for San Juan fiberglass in-ground pools.” And it’s why Landshapes has submitted plans for an innovative playground at the end of Kilburne Street in Burlington, with big slabs of rock, caves, tunnels, and water troughs.

Meanwhile, brother Jeff’s excavating is thriving, with three crews working on commercial projects, usually on road, water, sewer, or construction projects. J. Hutchins Inc. often subcontracts with large general contractors.

Jeff lives in Holland, in the Northeast Kingdom, near his wife, Anna’s, extended Patenaud family. He commutes almost two hours to work, staying in a Shelburne motor home three nights a week. He also owns Harvest Equipment stores selling John Deere equipment in Newport, Swanton, Montpelier, and Williston. So, to say that he is a busy man is an understatement.

“Jeff is crazy,” his younger brother explains. “He enjoys coming up with new ideas and starting businesses.” He pauses. “I guess I’m crazy, too. You have to be a little crazy to work in this business, with long hours outside in the rain or at 10 below or 90 degrees.” •