In a city that has Little Traverse Bay as its backdrop, one landscaper carved out a niche with water features that rival the natural beauty around them.
Bob Drost, owner of Drost Landscape Design, Construction and Maintenance in Petoskey, Michigan, is not only known for his signature water features, but he’s also built a company that puts the focus on people, both clients and employees.
His backstory is similar to many others in the industry. But it’s his passion for his work and creativity that really set him apart – and that’s one of the reasons he was chosen as a TLC 2015 Landscaper of the Year Finalist.
A Michigan native, Drost grew up building forts in the woods, playing baseball and just enjoying country living. His father and grandfather loved gardening and the outdoors, and that passion rubbed off on Drost.
After graduating from high school, Drost went to work as a caddy making $6 a day tips. On the lookout for something better, he eventually landed a job working for a local landscaping company.
“It was during the ’80s recession, so I said, ‘Hire me and if in two weeks I’m not the best, fire me,’” Drost recalls. “It was hard work, but I loved it.” He made it through the tough two-week period and worked for the company until winter. He was laid off during the down season and hired back in April.
During his time off, he built friendships that would later lead him to work for another landscaping company. He spent 13 years there, starting out as the lowest laborer, working his way up to a foreman’s position and, finally, becoming the supervisor. But, he wanted more.
He started taking on side jobs and purchasing tools when possible. “I worked on building my reputation in the community,” he says.
After gradually building a client base, Drost and four others created Drost Landscape Design, Construction and Maintenance in 1991. Twenty-four years later, he has close to 60 employees, as well as 20 high school and college students who work for him. He has one employee who has been with him for 23 years.
Drost’s company offers design/build, maintenance, irrigation, lighting, integrated pest management (IPM) program and other construction services. Drost also acquired Willcome Tree Service, which specializes in tree removal, lot clearing, stump grinding, tree maintenance, lighting, brush chipping, woodland cleanup, seasonal décor and emergency services.
No matter the project type, they stick to the company’s mission statement: “Memorable landscapes, delivered by a team effort, grounded by integrity.”
The feature Drost is best known for began as a challenge.
“I was building a wall in Traverse City, Michigan, and a gentleman I have great respect for was stopping by to check on the progress. The one day that he stopped, he presented me with a challenge,” Drost explains. “He said, ‘I think you should figure out how to build a hot tub out of boulders.’ I took the challenge to heart, and about four years later, I built my first boulder hot tub in Cheboygan, Michigan.”
Since then, Drost and his colleagues have traveled as far away as Indiana to construct a spa and water feature. They have also installed one inside a client’s home.
“We do things you typically don’t find,” Drost says.
With creativity at the forefront of his business, Drost says his biggest challenge through the years has been continuing to come up with unique applications for landscape design and installation.
“Our first water feature was built on Lake Charlevoix more than 20 years ago,” Drost says. “It was so exciting to watch it run down through the landscape and to watch the reaction from the public who had really never seen an application into the landscape quite like that.” He says they strive to get that same sort of reaction with every project.
He’s also faced other issues through the years, including working through local government obstacles to some project plans. Drost has appealed several cases to overcome roadblocks on behalf of his customers. “We fight for the client,” he says. “It’s been really fun to help them.”
Working with customers is one of his favorite things to do, he adds.
Surrounding himself with talented, driven employees has been paramount to his company’s success, and he looks for ways to find and keep the best workers.
He offers employees 401(k) packages, health-care insurance and fair wages. He also pays for holiday parties, company barbecues and other group events, such as canoeing.
Drost also wants his employees to feel empowered. “Instead of me telling them what to do each morning, they can make their own decisions,” he says. He allows some of the leaders within the company to make purchase decisions under a certain amount.
Drost didn’t drop any employees during the recession, but finding work for them during the harsh Michigan winters can be difficult. Last year, the ground was still frozen in April, so they weren’t able to start their design/build work until May. To counter the winter weather’s effect on their schedule, the crews focus on snow removal for their residential clients during these months.
Drost’s sons also work for the business, but that doesn’t automatically mean he will give them the business when he retires. He’s been working with Jeffrey Scott, a consultant who works regularly with landscape business owners, to help with his succession plan.
“I don’t think it’s all about me,” Drost explains. “It’s about the team.”
In addition to great team members, he attributes his success to their creativity, innovation, quality techniques and client confidence. All of these things have contributed to Drost’s and his company’s reputation.
“He has a really fantastic company,” says Don Neill, a Farm Bureau Insurance agent who has worked with Drost personally and professionally. “He thinks outside of the box. He’s creative and takes the client’s perspective into consideration to create something that’s unique.”
Neill says Drost’s water features are exceptional. “He does something unique in round hot tubs that makes you not even realize it’s a hot tub – hidden surprises,” Neill says.
Drost has also been recognized for his work through the years, including winning the Grand Award for landscape construction from the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association the past six years straight.
Drost Landscape Design, Construction and Maintenance promotes its services through a variety of outlets, including magazines, social media sites, yard signs, wrapped trucks and on the company’s website.
“It’s amazing how many people call after seeing the website,” he says. To make marketing a priority, Drost has it figured into his budget.
Client referrals are another important tool. “People are our single-best salesmen,” he says.
Drost has built relationships with many, many people in the region served by his company and he constantly looks for ways to give back.
The company sends money for fireworks at the local Fourth of July event, participates in garden clubs to raise money to improve the community’s landscapes, volunteers with churches in their work with food pantries and raises money for hospitals to buy new equipment.
In the future, Drost would like to expand his business, possibly moving into other cities around the state. He has also considered acquiring a lawn maintenance business.
But no matter where he takes the business from here, Drost is happy with where it stands.
“At the end of the day, there’s nothing I would have done differently,” Drost says. “It’s been 37 years and I still love it.”