Getting it Right – Profile: J. Landon Reeve IV, Chapel Valley Landscape Company

by Leslie McGuire, managing editor Landscape Contractor
J. Landon Reeve IV, Founder, Chapel Valley Landscape Company.

Landon Reeve is the founder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of Chapel Valley Landscape Company, an exterior design/build/manage landscape firm serving Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC.

As an entrepreneur committed to landscape excellence, Reeve actively worked with the Associated Landscape Contractors of America (ALCA), now PLANET, and Landscape Contractors Association MD-DC-VA (LCA) to improve industry training and set higher standards of professional excellence.

This job in Potomac, Md., was a challenge because all of the hardscape we provided tied into existing structures. We had to match the building materials and designs just right to make the walkways and walls look as if they had been there since the house was first built. Here the area with the sundial was an existing element, we tied in the walkway and raised planters.

Describing the source of his love for landscaping, Reeve says, “I grew up in Baltimore county and had a part-time job for four years in high school working for a wholesale perennial nursery. That sparked my interest. My grandpa had a farm, so my interest in landscaping was a natural extension of my history. Although my father was the postmaster, mine was definitely an agricultural background. I liked plants and I liked working outside.”

After graduating from the University of Maryland with a degree in horticulture, Reeve worked for a company that had a little garden center.

“They did installation and planting, but no maintenance. In 1964, the center manager and I decided to start a small business of our own. In 1968, I decided to start out on my own with just a landscape company that had no nursery. My wife helped out, and, of course, we had no money, but I learned what to do and what not to do. I had the opportunity to run a business, learning by trial, and error. However, the largest part of my education came from going to trade shows and taking seminars.”

We revamped this perennial garden for a client helping to create a place of relaxation. With the rest of the home having a more formal feel, the owners were looking for a more relaxed garden. Our designers took to the challenge and created a unique perennial garden to satisfy the homeowners.

Learning by Listening

”Even though we struggled for a few years, now the company has 350 employees — 300 of which are full time — and multiple locations. I found that it is important to always be searching for information and listening to what experienced people have to say. To that end, I became very involved in different associations. In the process, I got to know many people who were willing to share critical information. I always say, ‘If you don’t have the answer, go ask someone who does.’ That goes for everything from the financial, sales, business and production ends. After all, it’s not just planting — it’s everything. When you are running a landscaping business, you have many of the same issues as any business. It’s not magic, it’s just day to day.”

The Vietnam Memorial was a very exciting and challenging project, but it had a lot of problems because it was so unique. An amazing number of people were involved. People also came by during the installation and were often very emotional. We installed all the plantings, all the sod and did the planting in the grove while coordinating with the general contractor.

The Jones Day Building project in Washington, DC was an early leader in green roof technology. The landscape was designed to provide a space for relaxation for the employees of the building. The breathtaking view of the capital adds to its grandeur, creating a wonderful place to view the city. Photo courtesy of Richard Anderson

The Overarching Philosophy

States Reeve, ”My overarching philosophy is you must be fair, be honest and treat your employees and your customers right. There are two little things I always say: ‘Do it right the first time, and do what you say you’re going to do.’ If people just did that in their lives there would be a lot fewer problems. It is very simple and very basic, but very hard to do. If you do that in your business, you’ll have a great business.”

”My overarching philosophy is you must be fair, be honest and treat your employees and your customers right.”

We partnered with the Make-A-Wish Foundation to create Ava’s Garden. Ava was having trouble maneuvering outside of her home in her wheelchair due to the uneven walkway. We replaced the old walkway with a new one, leading to a new play area which included a natural playhouse composed of raised planters and a wood and wire structure to support climbing plants that she could touch and watch grow. Courtesy of Chapel Valley Landscape Company


”We do a fair amount of work in DC and it’s a big challenge working in an urban setting because of what it is and where it is-downtown. It’s a collection of simple things like finding a parking spot. You can’t store anything so you spend more time coordinating and trying to get around. You can’t leave things anywhere and you’re always coordinating with other contractors. Working downtown is more than planting plants because access is very difficult.”

”My favorite project, and the one I worked the hardest on personally, was the corporate headquarters of Lockheed Martin. It was our first large project. It took us three months to negotiate to get the job, which was on multiple levels with different planting areas both inside and outside. Right after that, we had the worst, coldest winter in 100 years. Many cold hardy plants died, but we worked through that as well. I call it learning by doing. We have done the maintenance on the site ever since. For me, it was a great experience and I was particularly pleased we were able to work it out.”

The maintenance we do at Stony Point Mall is interesting. We have to work through scheduling conflicts due to the heavy traffic of the shoppers. Our crews not only have to maintain their own safety but always be aware of their surroundings in an effort to protect the high volume of consumers. Photo courtesy of Roger Foley

Keep Your Customers

”We’ve done a lot of residences and each one has it’s own uniqueness. Working on residential properties is more personal. I still have relationships with the owners, and try to keep in touch with them, because sometimes we’re called back to do additional work or ongoing maintenance. Finding a customer and keeping them for life feels good. We keep good relationships for a long time. We also have repeat customers over the 41 years as people move and call us to work on their new property. We even work for the children of people we worked for originally. That’s a big compliment.”

The University of Maryland-Moxley Gardens was provided as a donation to the University of Maryland to enhance campus life and create a relaxing place for students and alumni to take solace in. We installed the gardens and still provide maintenance for them. Photo courtesy of Roger Foley

Full-Service Landscaping

”We provide a fairly broad range of services-commercial installation, maintenance, and contracting. In residential we provide maintenance along with design/build and negotiate/build for landscape architectural firms. We also have four landscape architects on staff as well as irrigation and lighting experts. We have also installed about 10 to 15 green roofs, and every one of them is different. They range from a couple of acres in size to very small ones.”

”The green emphasis, which has developed over the last five years, has driven more and more people and businesses to install them on their buildings. It’s certainly a growing industry and the technology is constantly changing and getting better. The industry is in its starting stages and not a mature industry yet. With the LEED requirement, most of the emphasis is on buildings themselves, not the green roof. We’re learning as we go because each installation is different. Different materials are available and each building has different load and drainage issues. Some of our green roofs have been in place for four or five years now and they’re doing pretty well.”

The entire garden for this residence was constructed around this statue. The homeowners wanted their own secret garden that would lead to the magnificent statue at the center. We worked to create a formal setting for the piece in a secluded area that allowed the homeowners to enjoy its beauty in privacy. Photo courtesy of Richard Anderson

The Good News and the Bad News

”No question, the economy is challenging. If you look at the big picture, it’s quite severe worldwide, and that filters down to our business. However, in the Baltimore and Washington DC Metro areas, we’re better off than in some areas of the country. Our company has a stable market, but we are definitely being impacted. People are buying less and being more conservative. The result is less available business while pricing is getting more and more competitive.”

Reeve keeps in continuous contact with both local and national associations, keeping his finger on the pulse of the industry. Currently, he is on the American Horticultural Society, Executive Board. He was president of the PLANET Academic Excellence Foundation from 2007 to 2008, ALCA, National Association President in 1984, and the Maryland Nursery Association President from 1977 to 1979. ”People attending the summer meeting of the Maryland Nursery Association report are just trying to get through their year and make the best of it,” says Reeve. ”We are taking steps to reduce costs and downsize because of less business during a challenging year. We’re doing a lot of things differently than a year ago, and as my neighbor said the other day, ‘We see the country changing so we’re going to have to learn to live differently.”’

In preparation for the Pope’s visit to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC in April of 2009, we planted 4,000 flowers, 10 trees, and 40 shrubs using 100 yards of mulch. We had employees on site every day, up until the visit, pruning, weeding, trimming, and mowing. Photo courtesy of Richard Anderson

Getting it Right

”The current green focus means more opportunities for our company because more green roofs are being built. But I don’t think it’s going be a great groundswell of opportunity. When I started out 50 years ago, the environmental issues weren’t even on the radar screen, but in the last 20 years, there’s been a huge awareness of how we affect our environment and how things we do impact the planet. The green focus is on how we’re going to take care of our world and our property. The chemicals, products, and mowers that used to be fine aren’t anymore. Employees didn’t have protective gear such as goggles, and now they do. This evolution is wonderful, but unfortunately, we are being rushed into it because we didn’t do it right the first time.”

”And that, of course, brings me back to my overarching philosophy-Do it right the first time and do what you say you’re going to do. Those two things are the key to a great business that grows and lasts.”