Landscape Development CEO Gary Horton discusses company’s post-Great Recession perseverance, growth

Landscape Development Inc. had crews on scene working around-the-clock to help repair and restore after the damage was done to the American Beauty and Trestles communities. The services were just part of LDI's post-recession expansion.

Valencia-based Landscape Development Inc., or LDI, made the Inc. 5000 list for the first time as one of the country’s fastest growing, privately held companies in 2007. More than 10 years later, the company of about 1,100 employees is showing no signs of decline.

Somewhere in between those years, Gary Horton’s LDI, which has been in operation for 36 years, found itself staying afloat amid a significant financial landslide that buried businesses during the Great Recession.

Just like the Santa Clarita Valley residents in the Trestles community who found themselves on shaky ground before LDI stepped in and volunteered services, Horton was able to find stability, which, for Landscape Development, led to unprecedented growth. But in both cases, recovery was no easy feat.

Just before the recession, LDI had reached annual revenue of $93 million and yearly growth of more than 25 percent. By 2012, that nearly triple-digit earning plummeted to $22 million and its pool of employees shrunk from about 1,300 to 200.

“It was beyond a recession; that was a Great Depression,” said CEO Horton. “In that recession, from 2007-12, we lost 70% of our revenue, equally, across the board.”

Around that time period, several big-name companies filed for bankruptcy, but Horton and his team knew they wanted to continue executing their mission of making their clients’ lives easier and giving them a “peace of mind.”

Gary Horton, CEO of Landscape Development Inc., announced several acquisitions of the last year that have helped his business.

“How would we leverage what was left and how do we take opportunities?” said Horton about the company during the recession. “We huddled with top leadership and (created) a business plan to recover.”

Here’s a closer look at how LDI not only rose from the recession but continues to be one of the nation’s fastest-growing businesses with a vision to cross the $150 million market by 2021.

‘Expanding one’s knowledge’

When looking back at the good and the bad of LDI’s trajectory over the years, Horton said returning to school was one of the best decisions he could have made for the growth of the company.

The CEO studied finance for undergrad at the California State University, Northridge, and earned an MBA from Loyola Marymount University, but he didn’t stop there.

Horton tackled business once again; this time at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, known as one of the nation’s top business schools. There he completed a five-week advanced management program created for senior leaders to hone their leadership capabilities.

“Eight years ago, I went to business school,” he said. “There’s huge importance in continuing one’s education and expanding one’s knowledge. That level of continuing to renew your education and keep it fresh particularly in tougher times is important.”

And it paid off. The company, with its headquarters in the Valencia Commerce Center, today operates as far north to Sacramento, south to San Diego and east to Las Vegas, and LDI projects about $110 million in revenue this year, said Horton.

A new business plan

With a booming housing market in the early 2000s, LDI had a lot on its plate to work with, but when the Great Recession hit, the coma Cpany, like millions of other businesses, took a severe hit.

“We were married to home building, but it wrecked us,” said Horton. While home and commercial building will be desirable, he said, LDI had to diversify its services.

The business now offers earth services, architecture and enhanced landscape services, among other operations.

Homeowners association maintenance services and soil stabilization have also helped offer unique services to clients in the Santa Clarita Valley, such as during the aforementioned recent landslide in Canyon Country’s Trestles community, and with brush clearing for residents in Ventura County during previous wildfires.  

For the residents of the American Beauty and Trestles neighborhoods, a recent storm and soil issues led to their well-landscaped backyards sliding into one another. LDI employees were there to blanket the soil with spool after spool of tarp, and bag after bag of gravel.

The company’s 24/7 emergency storm crews, when they weren’t working with the reserve pile to patch up or fix holes in the protective tarp, was working on the drainage system or manning the “sump-pumps” located at the top of the hill.

The HOAs relied on LDI crews’ work to stabilize the hill and take measures necessary to keep homeowners safe.

Acquisitions have also played a significant role in the company’s growth and its ability to offer these types of services, said Horton. LDI has acquired five maintenance businesses, for example. Maintenance revenue alone has more than doubled since the recession, making up close to 40 percent of overall company earnings and is expected to continue growing.

When it comes to adjusting to technological advances and environmental challenges such as the California drought, LDI has successfully transitioned with conditions. For example, the business has implemented an almost all-digital system to track irrigation and plant palates for each project. The company has also transitioned from brass sprinklers to underground sprinkler systems, as well as use succulents and tall grasses for its projects.

Building the right team

LDI strives to create “lasting trust and give you peace of mind,” possible only through a well-balanced team that a company builds, said Horton.

After losing about two-thirds of its payroll numbers, LDI had to rebuild its staff but this time the hiring process aimed to create a team focused on values first and talent second.

“We were careful to get it right this time,” said Horton. “When we hired staff, we filtered through a value of ethics like honesty, collaboration, friendliness, service commitment and thoughtfulness. Those kinds of things that you can’t teach, but you can control what kind of person you are or mood you bring to your clients and coworkers. This is part of our success story.”

LDI’s success story is made up of several smaller stories about creating careers for its employees in all levels, including the current general superintendent of the company, who started as a field manual worker.

“He’s responsible for 700 people and now owns his own home. This is a classic success story,” said Horton. “The most rewarding part for me is helping create careers in all levels. We’ve built thousands of them over the years. Our company culture is respect, integrity and honesty, and when you marry that with good incentives and benefits, you build a wall of defense form people leaving.”

LDI’s turnover is almost nonexistent, he added. Its employee basis of three, retention among office employees is about 7 percent, about less than 7 percent for professional field staff and about 20 percent for manual laborers.

What’s ahead

Despite significant drops during the Great Recession, LDI’s revenue numbers and projects speak for themselves. Continued growth is in the vision for the coming years.

“Our goal is to be a western regional green industry leader,” said Horton. “That means future geographic diversity and also looking to diversify into other green industry fields, as well as further diversification in multi-use stories as we become more urban. That keeps Landscape Development busy.”

The CEO said he expects to cross $150 million in revenue by 2021 and looking at additional acquisitions. He added that he is also interested in creating a multi-generational firm that can continue running LDI when he steps down.

When may that be?

“I don’t plan on slowing down myself, I can’t imagine it,” said Horton. “I should learn how to relax, but I don’t think it’s in the cards.”

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