PA Firm Grows From Mowing Lawns to Million Dollar Jobs

Thu September 23, 2004 - Northeast Edition

How do you start with nothing and become a successful site-development firm? Hard work. Timing. Location. Maybe a little luck. Definitely more hard work.

For Michael Tulio, the path to contractor success was certainly not a straight line to the top.

“I started out with a grass-cutting business,” he recalled. “It was okay until I woke up one day and realized I didn’t want to be pushing a lawn mower all my life. When a local developer gave me the opportunity to do some landscaping for new home construction, I jumped at it.”

That was in 1987. Based in Warrington, PA, north of Philadelphia, Tulio Landscaping’s work initially consisted of installing new lawns. But within a short period of time, Tulio bought a dozer and some other equipment so he could do his own grading work as well.

“The reason I did that was because the people who were supposed to be doing the grading couldn’t keep up and I kept running out of work,” he explained.

Because he now had equipment, Tulio said builders he was landscaping for started asking if he’d also dig and backfill basements, do utilities up to the houses, cut and stone the driveways, and do the paving.

“I became a full-service site-development firm, almost by accident,” he noted. “It was a combination of being at the right place at the right time and doing good work. Plus, for builders, it was much easier because instead of hiring three or four different guys, I was the only person they had to deal with.”

Business was good until a severe slowdown in the early 1990s caused building activity to dry up.

“Now only was new business slow to nonexistent, but some people decided they couldn’t pay me for work I’d already done. I got stuck for a lot of money and almost went out of business. When we got back on our feet in 1994, we did public work almost exclusively because I knew the municipalities would pay their bills.”

By the year 2000, private-sector work had rebounded in eastern Pennsylvania, and Tulio was once again doing private site development — this time on a larger scale.

“Each year since 2000, we’ve increased our private workload and now, commercial, industrial and residential subdivision work for private developers is just about all we do. We do the earthmoving, pipe work and paving ourselves. The only thing we sub out is the curbing.”

Rapid Growth

The move back to the private side has paid off for Tulio, whose business has grown tremendously in recent years. Two years ago, the company did approximately $6 million in sales. Last year, the figure was $10 million and this year, $15 million. Next year, he hopes to have possibly as much as $20 to $25 million in sales.

“Much of that growth is the result of a strong relationship we have with the development firm, the Main Street Group,” Tulio acknowledged. “They’ve become very aggressive in developing property, not just in this area [Bucks County], but as far away as Northampton County, and up in the Poconos.

“We did a couple of jobs for Main Street early on and they liked the way we performed. It wasn’t really anything special we did. It’s the way we treat all our clients. We do quality work quickly, and equally important, we manage a client’s job like it’s our own. If we can value-engineer something to save them money, we do it. And we don’t beat them up for every little extra that comes along. Main Street has shown its appreciation by giving us a tremendous amount of work in recent years.”

Commitment to Employees

Tulio relies on a dedicated group of employees to do the quality work his clients expect. From that one-man operation back in 1987, Tulio Landscaping now has approximately 75 full-time employees. The “full-time” aspect is a serious matter to Tulio.

“I don’t believe in laying people off. The employees have made a commitment to me by coming to work here, so my commitment to them is that they’re going to get paychecks and benefits year around. They have families too, and their bills don’t stop in the winter. If there’s not enough pipe work and snow removal, we do equipment maintenance and repairs. I think our ’full-time’ philosophy is a big reason we’ve been able to hire good people and keep them.”

Key personnel at the company include Bill Fisher, controller; Megan Geria, office administrator; Ed Hnosko, estimator; and Bob McLean, Adam Passerini, Jim Price, Jim Neumayer, Ray Mancini and Chris Dachenhausen, site superintendents.

“My name is on the letterhead, but this company is only as good as the people who work here,” Tulio emphasized. “Fortunately, we’ve got really good people, and not just those top office and field people. All the operators and laborers are hard workers, dedicated to this company and our customers, and it shows in the work we do.”

Equipment He Can Count On

Tulio believes in providing his superintendents and operators with equipment they like.

“They’re the ones who are going to be on the machines all day. If they like, they’re going to be more productive. I let them demo the equipment and if they don’t like it, I’m not buying it. I’ve learned my lesson about buying on price alone, and I won’t make that mistake again,” Tulio said.

Over the past couple of years, Tulio has turned largely to Komatsu equipment from Midlantic Machinery in Hatfield, PA.

“In the last 12 to 14 months, I’ve purchased eight Komatsu machines — four excavators, three dozers and a wheel loader,” said Tulio.

The excavators include two PC400s , a PC160L-7 and a tight-tail-swing PC138USLC-3.

“The tight-tail-swing Komatsu is the hottest trackhoe in our fleet by a long shot. The operators love it and it seems like every supervisor always wants it on his job. It’s great for utility work and anything around traffic. It’s been so successful for us, we’re already looking at adding another tight-tail-swing model. This time we’ll get the PC228, which is the next size up, to enable us to do a little heavier work.”

Tulio’s dozers include a 310-hp Komatsu D155AX-5 with a ripper.

“That was a giant step for us,” said Tulio. “It’s a large machine and a major purchase, so I was really on the fence about whether to buy it. But I’m so glad I went ahead and got it. We’re doing a big dirt job, and with the D155, we cut the roadway faster than I could have imagined. The guys love it and it’s going to help take us to the next level.”

In addition to the quality of the equipment, Tulio appreciates the service he gets from Midlantic and Barry Talley, sales representative.

“Midlantic has been nothing but good to me and Barry’s been great. He doesn’t just drop in here to see me — he goes out to our jobs and talks to the guys about the equipment, how it’s running, what he can do for them. We know if we have any problems, Midlantic and Barry are going to take care of us, and that’s worth a lot,” said Tulio.

Future Looks Bright

As he looks back on his lawn-mowing business and the early days of Tulio Landscaping, Tulio said he never really thought about where the company would be in 15 or 20 years.

“Did I think I’d be doing this level of work? No way. I didn’t have even a glimpse of it happening. It was just a matter of going to work every day, doing our best and capitalizing on opportunities as they arose.

“I take a lot of pride in the work we do and I think everybody who works here feels the same,” he added. “When we leave a job, we know we’ve done the best we could do for our client. Fortunately, for the most part, those clients feel the same way. As a result, we’re continuing to grow and we definitely expect that our best days are still ahead of us.”

(This article appears courtesy of Midlantic Machinery “NEWS.”)