For many landscapers, their entry into the market is often a love of the industry combined with the desire to be their own boss. For Deborah Munoz-Chacon of Sonoran Oasis Landscaping in Tucson, Arizona, the path took a different direction.
With a strong business foundation, Munoz-Chacon’s background is rooted in management. Working for a management company for more than a decade, she assisted the owner with a range of duties, including human resources and accounting.
As the company owner continued to launch several different companies, Munoz-Chacon ended up working in the landscape division of one of his companies. Here, she began to sharpen her broad range of skills into focus, becoming more interested and more involved in .
She obtained licenses, becoming a certified arborist and taking landscaping courses. Spending more and more time in the field, Munoz-Chacon discovered she truly enjoyed the landscaping industry.
Eventually, Munoz-Chacon’s employer decided he was ready to get out of the business. Having spotted the spark in her, he suggested she start her own business.
“The timing was right for me,” she says. “I was burned out on management, and I saw this as an opportunity to do things the way I’d like to do them.”
So, in March 2005, she launched Sonoran Oasis Landscaping. Starting with one truck and four employees, Munoz-Chacon knew the market she wanted to target.
“We concentrated on homeowners associations, because that was what I knew,” she said. She figured if she could create a niche and excel in that space, her company would be successful.
The strategy has paid off: Today, 94 percent of her client base is composed of HOA clients, and the company is looking to expand by taking on more apartment complexes.
While working for someone else, Munoz-Chacon had paid careful attention to which business strategies worked and which didn’t. One intangible factor was how she approaches the competition.
“Although one goal was to be able to compete against both very small and very large companies, it’s important not to focus on the competition,” she says. “I also try not to look at the overall economy. I knew I could deal with anything if I put the company first.”
Since the overwhelming majority of the company’s clients are HOAs, customer service is vital, and Munoz-Chacon stresses the importance of communication to her crew leaders. They know how to educate clients on what types and scopes of services they will receive when working with a professional landscaper such as Sonoran Oasis, and they understand how to deal with each HOA’s chairperson.
Of course, learning to work well with the client is just part of the training process.
“We continuously train,” Munoz-Chacon says. “Different classes throughout the year helps keep them engaged.”
Her son, Robert Robledo, a field supervisor with the company, handles a great deal of the employee training, and is himself both a certified irrigation technician and certified chemical spray technician.
Because of the climate, safety training is crucial. Employees receive training on topics ranging from avoiding heatstroke to dealing with Africanized bees.
Nate Chattin, who has been with the company for 10 years, says Munoz-Chacon takes safety seriously, and the company promotes pacing yourself during the heat of the day.
“It can be difficult when working in an HOA, because you never want it to look to the residents as if you aren’t working,” Chattin says. “However, it’s important to not only drink enough water, but to pace yourself. If our employees need a break, they take a break. They just don’t do it all at the same time.”
The climate also dictates a unique approach to landscaping with respect to water conservation, and Munoz-Chacon’s employees receive training on using native vegetation. They understand putting the right plant in the right place can make a big difference with respect to saving money for the client.
“We provide our clients with expert information,” she says. “Sometimes snowbirds who winter here want to bring in plant material from back East. We don’t just tell them that what they want won’t work – we provide them with options that provide similar color or function.”
Munoz-Chacon is certified in Sustainable Landscape Management, which provides her the tools to talk to her clients, and gives her the ability to steer them to native landscaping and educate them on low-water-use irrigation practices.
Many of her HOA clients have not only a landscaping committee but an irrigation chairperson as well. Munoz-Chacon keeps the lines of communication open by having her crew leaders meet with a representative monthly, and then with the full committee on a quarterly basis. Once a year, she plays host to a lunch-and-learn for the HOA committees.
The company has a strong social media presence, with a blog, a LinkedIn group and a YouTube channel. And instead of handing out cards, Munoz-Chacon hands out “Getting the Most Out of Your Desert Landscaping,” a book she wrote that gives those living in a desert region direction on how to know what their landscaper should be doing to maintain a healthy vibrant landscape.
“I wanted to give clients and prospects something informational, rather than just handing them a business card,” she says. The book is also available on Amazon.
Desert landscaping isn’t the only topic Munoz-Chacon has in mind for a book. Over the years, she’s gone out of her way to try to help other women in non-traditional industries, and she has plans to write something to assist women in business – particularly those in male-dominated industries.
Munoz-Chacon’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. She was named a finalist for National Enterprising Woman of the Year by Enterprising Women magazine, has been honored by the Minority and Women Business Enterprise Commission and has been named a Small Business Association SASIE Award winner for environmental awareness and an SBA Minority Enterprise Development Service Firm Award winner.
Outreach and training aside, sheer hard work has paid off for Munoz-Chacon. She says you can’t underestimate the importance of setting yourself apart.
“Be different from everyone else,” she says. “Think about who you want as a client beforehand. If you try to do everything, you won’t do anything well.”
She says it’s important to reach the stage where you can fire a client if you need to, and you must be as diligent about the business end of things as you are about the field work.
“If you do fire a client because it’s not profitable for you, don’t just cut them loose,” she says. “Try to refer them to someone else better suited for them.”
For Munoz-Chacon, Sonoran Oasis is a continual evolution.
“There’s no standing still,” she says. “We’re continually goal setting and working on our vision for the future.”
VIDEO: To hear Munoz-Chacon outline her keys to success, click here.