What do designing and building nuclear submarines for the U.S. Navy and running a successful landscaping business have in common?
And maybe that’s the whole point for Bill Lillie, co-owner of Sprigs and Twigs Landscapes in Gales Ferry, Connecticut. For 37 years, Bill worked as an engineer designing nuclear submarines for the Navy. Toward the end of his career, Bill was transferred to the Pentagon to work for the Missile Defense Agency, making a grueling weekly commute between Virginia and the 150-year-old home he and Linda keep on the shore of Connecticut’s Thames River.
Once home, Bill found himself constantly amazed at Linda’s golden touch in the yard. Her knack for plant palettes – reinforced by a botany degree from Connecticut College – was ever-apparent in the vibrant display of colorful blooms that graced the yard almost year round.
And Bill wasn’t the only person who noticed. Time and again their neighbors came to Linda for advice on how to plant their own yards. And although Linda was making a decent living as a dental hygienist, Bill felt it was a shame she wasn’t following her true calling – landscaping.
“It’s my passion,” Linda readily admits. “I go into a nursery and my heart starts beating hard. I just love plants. And I’ve always focused on native plants, and naturalistic landscaping. I love to take a landscape and make it look as natural as possible.”
A stressful – but healthy – lifestyle
With Bill’s encouragement, Linda began taking on landscaping design and installation jobs part time. She was still working at the dentist’s office, and Bill was coming home from his defense industry job, taking off his coat and tie and rolling up his sleeves to pitch in whenever he could.
Although she was only working part time, word on Linda’s landscaping designs was definitely out. “I literally had people chasing me down the street to hire me,” Linda recalls. “One woman came up to me and gave me a blank check. She said, ‘I need you to go to my house over here and do whatever you want.’ It was cool.”
After a year, it was clear that Linda’s landscaping work was beginning to attract a lot of attention in southeastern Connecticut. One night, sitting on their deck on the shore of the Thames River, Bill and Linda discussed going into the landscaping business full time. “The truth is, we were leading a comfortable lifestyle,” Bill says. “We certainly didn’t need extra income – we were leading a risk-free life from a career point of view. But at the same time, running a landscaping company looked to both of us like a very fulfilling way to make a living together.”
That riverside meeting took place nine years ago. Linda ran the business full time in the early years and Bill retired early from his Pentagon job and joined her full time in 2005. And today, Bill says it was the best professional decision he’s ever made. “It’s every bit as demanding as the lifestyle I used to have,” Bill says. “It’s still stressful, but it’s much different because it’s healthier – you’re outdoors almost all of the time.”
Expanding beyond their niche
Bill admits that his learning curve has been steep. “In the beginning, we started with a 20-year-old Nissan pickup truck and we were doing everything by hand. Since then, we’ve educated ourselves, and purchased vocational work trucks, a mini-skid steer and other equipment types. And those machines have given us a truly exponential boost in productivity.”
Bill and Linda both feel their success has been due to their ability to fill a particular landscaping niche in their community. “We are a small, yet big company, in a way,” Bill explains. “Our market is high-end, high quality, mostly residential but some commercial, garden design, installation and maintenance. But what we discovered is our customers expect a company like ours to do a lot of things. So we’ve learned to diversify our portfolio, and use equipment to extend the range of our services.”
When a project calls for skills beyond their own, the Lillies will call in one of their many subcontractors to pitch in. “We have aligned ourselves with the best companies in Connecticut,” Bill notes. “They’re wearing our T-shirts on the job, and we pay all our vendors immediately – even if we’re waiting on the customer to pay us. It’s part of our overall reputation: We want to be known as a company that manages its cash flow well, and is easy to work for. That way we can insure that we attract and retain the most talented subcontractors in our area and give our clients the landscapes of their dreams.”