Despite Steep Odds, Couple’s Business Gamble Pays Off
When Maria Fuentes decided to go into business for herself, she knew the odds of success were long. Statistics show most businesses fail in the first few years, even if the owners have experience in the field they’re going into. Maria didn’t. On top of that, she chose a field that’s historically been a man’s domain, stacking the chances for success even further against her.
She came up with the idea of starting a landscaping business while on maternity leave from her job at Motorola Researching the industry. Fuentes realized there was a good opportunity in the New Jersey heavy highway landscaping marketplace.
“Despite the opportunity and market, I had some uncertainty, because I didn’t know anyone in the heavy-highway or landscaping industries, or anything about the bidding process,” said Maria. “I just jumped in, learning as I went and self-teaching how to bid. Fortunately, there were general contractors who were willing to give me some feedback. I was certified with New Jersey Transit, the New Jersey Department of Transportation and Port Authority, and that helped because practically every governmental project has some form of landscaping attached to it.”
Once the certifications were in place, Fuentes could bid as a prime contractor on state projects that are considered primarily landscaping – more than 51 percent of the total job is made up of landscaping. Aspen Landscaping Contracting landed about $2 million in work within its first couple of years, and business took off. With a firm foothold in the market and prospects good, Fuentes’ husband, Don, retired from his law enforcement job and joined Aspen as Senior Project Manager in 1999.
“I’m extremely proud of what Maria has accomplished,” said Don, who helped research the industry and called on contractors to get Aspen Landscaping’s name out before joining the business full time. “There has been a lot of hard work behind it. When she started out, she’d be up in the middle of the night to type bids and fax them out in her office on the second floor of our home. During the day, I would often be on the first floor and hear the phone ring upstairs, hoping it was someone calling about a project.”
Seeing Both Sides
Aspen Landscaping Contracting’s phone has rung more and more frequently throughout the past decade, much of the business coming from repeat customers who turn to the company to sub the landscaping portion of heavy-highway projects. Aspen offers topsoil placement, planting, rooftop landscaping, wetlands restoration, soil-erosion control and landfill remediation. More information about Aspen’s services is available online at www.aspennj.net.
“Working projects from both sides – as a sub and a prime – we’re developed some longstanding relationships and that’s a big part of our success,” said Maria. “Prime contractors have come to see that we have proven ourselves and are able to handle large projects. When we bid as a prime contractors, we believe we treat our subs the way we want to be treated. The bottom line, either way, is that we have to get the job done when we say we will, and we create good relationships based on our previous reputation. We’re always the last ones on the job, so there’s an urgency to not only do the job right, but on time because no one gets paid until the job is closed out.”Aspen Landscaping has closed out numerous jobs since, including one of its most challenging: Echo Lake Park wetland restoration. The company dewatered the site as part of the project, before planting more than a half-million plants throughout the 10-acre site. Plantings were done in “shelving level,” which meant installation at varying depths to ensure their survival. Adding to the challenge, Aspen had to boat to some of the areas in the wetland in order to put the plants in place.
Aspen Landscaping Contracting generally has several projects going on at any one time during the company’s main season, which runs from March to December. Depending on work load, Aspen employs 20 to 50 workers, including key individuals such as Project Managers Bill Morgan and Anthony Williamson and General Foreman Frank Cunha.“Our ability to coordinate and execute a project successfully is directly tied to the experience, hard work and dedication of our employees,” Don emphasized. “Many have years in the industry and know going into a project what needs to be done in order to finish on time and on budget. Everyone – our laborers, project managers and foreman – is very good at offering an alternative ideas for doing a project more efficiently. They’re an excellent group.”
Aspen Landscaping Builds Solid Customer RelationshipsThe Right Equipment Match
Also playing an integral role is equipment, especially the Komatsu D39, D41, and D65 dozers and PC160 excavator Aspen Landscaping Contracting uses for grading and moving material. Maria and Don worked with Binder Machinery Company Sales Representative Dominick Vecchiarelli to purchase its Komatsu pieces.
“Because we’re usually the last ones on the job, it’s important that we don’t disturb the previous work completed by other contractors, so having the right equipment that allows for that, while giving us the performance to complete our job, is essential,” said Don. “For example, the Komatsu dozers allow us to spread topsoil with minimal ground disturbance. The operator also has good visibility to the blade and material, so he can place material efficiently with minimal passes.
“The PC160 allows us to dig, place and load material, so it gives us versatility,” he added. “Because of its size [37,790 pounds] it’s easy to transport. That’s a nice feature, because we’re frequently moving, so we’re happy with the time savings.” The couple also is happy with the service they receive from Binder Machinery Company. They call on Binder as needed for service and parts.
“We’ve built a good relationship with our customers, and in order for us to maintain that, we need to have good equipment that’s not going to cost us significant downtime, as well as a dealer that supports it,” said Maria. “Binder understands that, and any time we’ve had to call on Dominick or someone else at Binder, they’ve provided quick action. Just as we value our relationships with our customers, we value the relationship we’ve built with Binder.”
Binder Machinery Stands Behind Aspen’s VenturesConstantly Proving Itself
Maria and Don Fuentes readily point out that Aspen Landscaping Contracting won’t continue its success story without continuing to grow its customer relationships. The couple have built the company into one of the most respected heavy-highway landscaping operations in New Jersey. In more recent years, the company also has been working in the five boroughs of New York City and in upstate New York.
“Aspen has been successful because we were willing to take a chance, and we’ve learned a lot along the way,” said Maria. “We’re still learning. Not only are we looking ahead to see what’s out there for future work, we’re focused on the present to ensure our current work is done right and on time. We also look at the past, reviewing jobs we’ve completed to see where we could have done something better or more efficiently.”
“We have a solid footing now in landscaping, and the hard work and dedication we’ve put in has paid off,” added Don. “We’ve discussed diversifying, and that’s a good possibility going forward as long as it doesn’t hinder our ability to take care of our customers. That’s our top priority.”