Origin stories: Gothic Landscape | The family man

June 21, 2017 -  By

Jon Georgio
CEO, Gothic Landscape

No. 12

Since 1984, Jon Georgio and his brothers have taken the company their mother and father started from $500,000 to $130 million in annual revenue. Through it all, they’ve retained a mom-and-pop vibe while providing jobs to more than a thousand people and operating in four states. This is the story of three brothers, Mike, Jon and Ron, taking a family business to new heights. This is the story of what Jon Georgio calls a miracle. This is the story of Gothic Landscape.

The Gothic Landscape story is not the Jon Georgio story.

My father, Louis Georgio, was a World War II Marine who served in the Pacific. He was from Rhode Island, on the East Coast, and he went to Camp Pendleton in 1943-1944 and said,
“California is amazing.” So he learned how to operate heavy equipment, and he became a fine grade contractor in the post-WWII housing boom in the San Fernando Valley.

My dad passed away fairly young in 1979. I think my father passing away was something that had us really focus on a goal, which was to take care of our mom. All the family pettiness goes away when you have a goal of making sure that mom’s OK and mom can pay her mortgage.

When I was in college in the early 1980s, it was a difficult time in the economy, and my mom and my brother, Mike, put me through school, which I really appreciated. They made it easy financially for me to go to school even though they were struggling.

When I went to business school, I was kind of slated to go work in commercial banking. Before I was supposed to start another job, I came to help out the family company over the summer as a kind of payback, and I fell in love.

Gothic Landscape is actually a woman-founded company by my mom, Judy Georgio. When I came on in 1983, we were doing about $500,000 a year with 20 employees.

We only had two clients at the time, but they loved us. They did surveys on their vendors and we had perfect scores on both of them—something a very small percentage of their vendors had. The economy was difficult and grading involved so much heavy equipment, so it was difficult to pay the equipment bills. There was no business. One of the clients said,

“We’d like you to be our landscape contractor, and I will teach you the business.” My dad had dabbled in landscape, but it was ancillary. So my mother and Mike listened to the client’s needs, and this client taught us the business.

Gothic Landscape started in the garage of the Georgio family home on Gothic Avenue in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles

Gothic Landscape is a funny name. It’s the street we grew up on. When we started the company, we were in a garage on Gothic Avenue. It was our childhood home. When we went to incorporate, all the names were taken that we wanted. We literally looked outside of our garage and said, “Gothic Landscape.” We thought we’d change it later.

When we started the business, we really focused on setting up a mission statement in our first week. That was to develop a long-term relationship with our customers through extraordinary service, and I think that’s what led to the miracle.

My mom, my brother and I made a good team. My mother and brother didn’t like the business end. They liked more of the operating end. When I came in we were already in Las Vegas—my brother had started that office. He had a lot of ground to cover, so my mornings were on job sites until about 3 p.m. Then I would come into the office and try to organize us by doing the accounting, billing, estimating. My nights were full with that administrative work, and it was a pretty big workload.

In the beginning, you’re outstripping financial resources, you’re outstripping people, talent, physical resources, trucks, equipment—everything’s tight. You never have what you need. Working through that was probably, gosh, the first couple decades. We always seemed like we were tight on resources.

As you grow, you have to have systems that grow with you. It’s not so intuitive; you can’t just shoot from the hip.

You have to add good job costing and accounting systems, which was kind of my background, and you have to have good data and information to work from. The start was having an organized system of data that told you where you were at in the business so you could give good feedback to the operational people.

I gravitated much more towards sales and finance. We began to build a team underneath us of administrative help, and I made sure the accounting was going right and specialized in sales, which is still my No. 1 love at the company. I love to talk to clients, find out what they need and prepare solutions.

In 1999, I became president of the company, and my brother Mike was CEO.

Mike focused on getting the job done in the field. We would give amazing promises, and he made sure the operations teams delivered on the promises we made. His customer focus was just in his DNA. He was very humble when he would talk to a client. We’re business to business only—we don’t do private residential—so it was presidents of major home builders or VPs of construction, and he was very respectful, which is the culture he set.

I lost Mike in 2009. He was 53. He was absolutely the iconic heartbeat of the company that lived and breathed our mission statement everyday. If there was a dispute, he always made sure the other party walked away from the table feeling good about the transaction, whether it was an employee, a client or a vendor. He always took the high road because reputation was everything to him. He always believed that if we treated the customer really well, the profits would follow. He was just a walking icon for the company who always did the right thing, and always focused on his people and the client. I think his legacy is our culture, which is the support behind the miracle.

His legacy is built into all our training. We have an orientation video that explains our values—the values that my dad created and were really magnified by my brother Mike. We have constant recognition of employees for their customer focus. We have a Mike Georgio Award every year that goes to employees who show exceptional customer service.

There was a time when I wanted to try to shed the mom-and-pop nature of the company.

I just thought people would rather work for a larger corporation and know that there’s advancement and opportunities. A couple of times we’ve hired identity companies to change the name. Both times, the companies said, “Hey, there’s a lot of goodwill with this name, you really shouldn’t change it.”

Today we’re on pace to do $160 million and have about 1,500 employees. How do you get to $160 million starting out with $5,000 in capital without having a couple thousand people really resonate with what you’re trying to accomplish?

We took what we learned from our parents and used it to build a new family—the Gothic family. People responded and the family grew. We’re a miracle.


“My biggest mistake was…”

“When we decentralized, as an entrepreneur, it was difficult to give up authority. You say you will, but you end up trying to impart your will. When I started out that way, the management team didn’t like it, and they let me know. I was upset with them. I thought I was working so hard to develop all these opportunities and create these advancements, and I felt like they were ungrateful or they didn’t understand what I was doing. My brother Ron, who was CEO of a window and door manufacturer until rejoining Gothic in 1998, was invaluable in explaining that I wasn’t giving up authority. I wasn’t letting them do their jobs. He taught me how to give parameters for decision-making but to absolutely let (the team) make the decisions. It was instrumental in the growth and change in our business. Once my brother Ron (now president of Gothic’s maintenance division) taught me how to delegate and let people do their jobs, the company took off.” – Jon Georgio

Photo: Jeff Bandy (Top), Gothic Landscape (Bottom)

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Dillon Stewart

About the Author:

Dillon Stewart graduated from Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, earning a Bachelor of Science in Online Journalism with specializations in business and political science. Stewart is a former associate editor of LM.

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