There is no such thing as a typical day for Colleen Barkley, studio coordinator for , but that’s just how she likes it.
Based in Lake Bluff, Illinois, just north of Chicago, Mariani is the largest privately owned residential landscape company in the United States.
Barkley began working for Mariani as an intern and has now been with the company for 14 years.
“Our goal always when we find interns is a trial run,” she said. “If we can retain them and see if they’re a good fit, it’s just a win-win situation, so that’s always our goal.”
The company is known for serving high-end residential customers but also offers commercial services, with corporate, hospital and educational campuses among its clients. In fact, Mariani has been trying to combat the perception that all of its residential work is confined to large-scale jobs for well-to-do customers.
“It’s not so much that we want larger jobs,” Barkley said. “People think high-end is larger in scale,” but in the area between the city and North Shore, Mariani is always interested in pursuing projects at smaller residences, she said, “because we can bring that quality to that size job.”
Mariani has already proved it can bring the wow factor to any size job. About 10 years ago, the company added rooftop garden design and installation to its services.
“Rooftop is a massive area of growth for us in the city of Chicago, not only designing and installing but maintaining those,” said John Szymanski, director of marketing and commercial sales manager for the company.
This is a challenging niche where each rooftop comes with its own set of considerations, problems and microclimate.
“The logistics is a whole animal in itself,” Barkley said.
Barkley loves working for a design/build company because she can get outside and improve the design once she sees how it will play out in real life. The work presents plenty of challenges, and she gets out of the studio to take them on.
“It’s the balance of your design work that’s inside and your projects that are going on during the season,” she said. “I’m probably at a job every day of the week in every season.”
The goal of a site visit can vary widely. For example, she may be surveying a property in preparation for a new job, walking the design while it is in construction or discussing a detail with a subcontractor. The new designers don’t go out as often, but they, too, are encouraged to check on projects firsthand as they progress.
“When you come out of a landscape architecture program, if you’re not a dual major with horticulture, most likely you’re not going to know your plants,” Barkley said. “I had one plant ID class through five years of school. My plant ID knowledge came from here, and (from) walking our yard, and seeing what works and what doesn’t through projects.”
For the designers at Mariani, there isn’t much downtime during any part of the season, but they do make themselves take time around Christmas to manage office cleanup.
“We’re working on designs to sell for the next season and if anybody wants an opportunity to build first thing in the spring, they need to be sold with us in February,” she said. “I think we feel busier in season because we have the distraction of the calls from the crews and project managers; that extra layer makes us feel busier definitely in the season, but we don’t slow down.”
Barkley says she needs variety and sets one new goal for every day and strives to meet it. She finds the challenge of working in a small space exciting and loves the opportunity to create minimalist, modern designs.
Like many others in the industry, her biggest pain point is simply not having enough hours in the day.
“There’s not too many days when I’m not looking forward to work,” she said. “I feel like I better the environment for the clients and I hope the clients have that appreciation. I think the days are rough when the clients don’t appreciate that, but that’s just a handful.”
Mariani Landscape was founded in 1958 by Vito Mariani, but when he was diagnosed with cancer, his son Frank was called back from college to run the business.
Now the CEO, Frank Mariani expanded the company into landscape architecture during the 1970s. His son, Frank Mariani Jr., is also in the business, currently serving as branch manager of the company’s offices in Westmont, Illinois, which opened in 2000.
“The driving force is Frank Mariani,” Szymanski said. “He’s a relentless, driven guy who has tremendous energy, and he is a very dynamic guy in terms of understanding the industry and wanting to give back to the industry and wanting to always expand and improve on what we do.”
The different sales groups for Mariani’s design and maintenance operations are held accountable for their sales goals on a weekly, monthly and quarterly basis, and everyone is aware of where they stand and where they need to be. Szymanski credits this ongoing accountability as a powerful force in driving a successful sales operation.
When a new client reaches out to the company, whether through the website or a phone call, employees are required to respond within 24 hours with some form of proposal, a meeting or some other tangible form of response.
“Mr. Mariani insists on that and we love to get back to people as quickly as possible,” Szymanski said.
Frank Mariani is also known for his dedication to perfection, going as far as driving around on weekends to look at job sites and pointing out things that the client probably wouldn’t notice but insisting that the company’s crews make it right.
“He pushes us to be the best,” Barkley said. “He’s very passionate, which I appreciate in a boss, as a leader. If you had someone more just pushing business all the time, it would be hard to keep up your own personal standards. He gets that it’s in the details. His passion is what he’s doing and making sure that the people he’s working with are on the same page, and I think that’s great.”
One of Mariani’s common sayings is “the best job is the next job.”
When it comes to the phrase “well-oiled machine,” Mariani Landscape could be an example cited in the dictionary. Naturally, its size demands that the company have detailed management processes in place.
Mariani Landscape is over 400 employees strong in the height of the season and has more than 200 trucks and pieces of equipment overall.
Its trucks are quite distinctive, bearing the company’s green, two-tone pattern. Originally, the idea was to make the vehicles a color that was visible to kids; over time, the color scheme has become part of the company’s brand identity, generating a considerable number of leads.
“We’re known for these trucks,” Szymanski said. “It’s a part of who we are. They’re always clean, they’re very distinctive and it sets a tone for who we are as a company.”
To ensure that they get the most out of every piece of equipment, the company has an active repair shop where the machinery is maintained in accordance with strict maintenance schedules, including the replacement of components.
“When you start small, obviously you don’t have those scenarios and don’t have to adhere to programs like that, but as we kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger over the last 15 to 20 years is when it really ramped up as our fleet kept increasing in size,” Szymanski said.
The design/build company has a variety of different trucks, from the basic trucks for sales runs to medium-duty trucks with box trailers to semi-trailer trucks for moving large numbers of plants. Some of the trucks are as old as 2000 or 2001, but a casual observer wouldn’t notice because of the care the vehicles have received.
“We have a regular kind of rotation that we service these vehicles, as well as all of our equipment,” Szymanski said. “We have a small engine repair shop adjacent to the main truck servicing area. In that (shop), we service all the lawn mowers every night – blades are sharpened, small blowers, weed whackers and other types of equipment are all maintained to an extremely high level of service.”
Yet, just because they have a successful system in place does not mean Mariani Landscape has stopped looking for ways to improve. In fact, last year it conducted an in-depth study of the ramifications of switching to alternative fuel powered equipment.
“We’re close, but the industry is not quite where it needs to be to maximize the efficiencies that we need with our crews with these new types of equipment and power sources,” Symanski said, “but it’s coming.”
As for the employees, Mariani Landscape used to participate in the H-2B program, but frequent changes in the program’s regulations prompted the company to stop and readjust.
“We were very aggressive in the last few years in raising the starting rate for laborer,” Szymanski said. “That’s a delicate balance, but we felt it was imperative to do this to attract a higher quality of employee and we wanted to retain associates because associate retention is really important.”
According to Szymanski, their method has paid off with a huge up-tick in both employee retention and quality.
“In the meantime, we were able to somewhat handicap our competition because we forced them to raise their rates, so it was kind of a two-pronged benefit to our company,” he said.
Mariani also recruits often at colleges for landscape design students. Barkley is hopeful that their new design studio in Lake Forest can attract new designers from the city, especially because the train station is close by.
There are many different moving parts when it comes to Mariani Landscape, but Szymanski sums up the company’s method for success quite succinctly: “The work has got to be exceptional, the design has to be exceptional, our service has to be exceptional, our communication has to be exceptional, and we want to exceed our customers’ expectations.”