Sonoran Gardens

Kira Niccum-Pritzl, left, Jean and Chris Niccum review a Sonoran Gardens landscape design plan.

Growing a business may seem like a natural metaphor for a landscaping company, but doing so in a difficult economy and keeping the services provided at a high level to meet expectations are a couple of the growth elements that occasionally keep Chris Niccum, president and owner of Sonoran Gardens Inc., up at night.

However, insomnia notwithstanding, Sonoran Gardens is flourishing at a time when competing businesses have shut their doors. Niccum says the core business focus of Sonoran Gardens has been designing outdoor living spaces for residential customers since the company’s inception in 1996, and the company’s expansion into a Custom Care division a few years ago has given it a boost that has fueled a part of its growth.

Sonoran Gardens also has just completed the purchase of the Contained Gardener, a company specializing in potted plants for residential and commercial customers, that Niccum said fits neatly into the Custom Care division mold of providing landscape maintenance and service, pool care and handyman services.

“Our core business is still the design and building of outdoor living spaces,” Niccum said, “which is how we survive as a company. But balancing that with our Custom Care business means we have become much less construction dependent.”

Niccum said Sonoran Gardens was “pretty much a residential construction landscape company in 2008,” but that after revenues dropped 50 percent in 2009, “we knew we had to do something different to survive that downturn.”

And survive it did, becoming a bigger company today in terms of people and revenue than it was in 2008, Niccum said.

“We have 16 employees now, including the four family members who make up the management team of Sonoran Gardens,” Niccum said. “That’s the big change in the last few years — I’m the CEO now with a strong focus on financial management and working on new opportunities.”

Niccum’s wife Jean serves as bookkeeper and office manager. Their son Matt manages the construction side of the business and builds all of the outdoor living spaces, and their daughter, Kira Niccum-Pritzl, is the operations manager, scheduling all jobs, ordering materials and assisting the Custom Care manager, Roberta Braegelmann.

Niccum, who holds a bachelor’s degree in ornamental horticulture from Purdue University, said his goal is to double the size of Sonoran Gardens in terms of revenue over the next five years, hoping to take the business over the $3 million mark annually.

“Our landscape construction business continues to grow and a lot of that is due to the marketing we do and the close relationships we’ve developed with designers,” Niccum said. “We have two designers who work for us as contract employees, but still maintain their own design firms.”

Niccum says Sonoran Gardens won’t do a landscape construction job without first having a design developed, calling it the “first step in the job, where the designer meets with the client and gets the project going.”

He believes one of the biggest innovations in the landscape construction business is that most of the marketing is done on the Internet. For instance, when he gets an initial phone call from a client, Niccum first calls up a Google Street View of the residence and takes a bird’s eye look at the house to get a first impression of the scope of the job.

“Using technology is the wave of the future in every business,” he said. “From the design side, there is a lot of software being developed that allows you to sit in front of a client with a laptop and show them in 3-D what their project will look like when its done.”

Technology comes into play on the service side of the business too. The Sonoran Gardens service technicians have iPads with estimating software loaded into them, Niccum noted, “which means he has an office in his pocket where he can access the internet and maybe have a look at an owner’s manual if necessary.”

He sees one of the biggest challenges to all residential construction companies as the difficulty clients are having in obtaining money.

“The decline in the housing market has been a big hit for everyone,” Niccum observed. “It’s difficult for people to get home equity loans for construction projects because many don’t have much equity left in their houses. But the market is starting to change and we’re seeing some banks loosening up on their lending standards, which has been reflected in more residential custom home work for us.”

He also believes that one of the chief reasons Sonoran Gardens recovered so quickly from the recession is due to marketing.

“We fully understand the value of marketing and spend money to do it well, and right,” he said. “We’re constantly updating and changing our marketing tactics, and even with the economic downturn when we cut costs, we never cut back on our marketing budget. We want to be out there always trying and doing new things ourselves.”