ILCA 2018 Person of the Year - BRUCE CHURCH


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ILCA 2018 Person of the Year - BRUCE CHURCH

Bruce Church  - Person of the Year

By Patrice Peltier, ILCA Contributing Author


Bruce Church, ILCA’s Person of the Year, thinks—and acts--outside the box.

Early in his career, he transformed Church Landscape, the company his father built, into a national player. In the process, he gave the green industry a new business model for strategic alliances. Recently, he and his family created a $100,000 scholarship fund to foster new green industry leaders who may also think outside the box.

Today, Church is president of Hard Surface Solutions Inc. and Balanced Environments Inc., companies with combined annual revenue of more than $25 million generated by more than 200 employees working out of five branch offices in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin. It’s a business he learned—literally—from the ground up.

Bruce’s father Denny, an active participant in ILCA from its early days and president from 1971-75, started Church Landscape in 1963. Bruce recalls Denny’s vision was “to do a common thing uncommonly well.” He succeeded in the business and in instilling that vision in his son.

Juan Gomez, who joined Church Landscape in 1980, was a foreman when Bruce worked with the crews each summer. He remembers Denny telling him to treat Bruce like any other employee, and so he did. Today the roles are reversed. Gomez works for Bruce managing the fleet, facilities and security for both companies.

“He turned out real good,” Gomez says with affection. He fondly remembers Bruce and Denny sharing an office as father mentored son. He also remembers Bruce attending Gomez’s daughter’s Sweet 16 party, and appreciates the way Bruce socializes with employees. “He’s a great guy besides being a great boss,” Gomez says. “He is not just my boss, he is my brother.”

While working with the crews in summer, Bruce studied business and economics at University of Illinois, later also receiving an MBA from Northern Illinois University. After graduation, he joined Church Landscape as a maintenance account rep. He also made sure the company was on the cutting edge of using a new-fangled business device—computers.

“Bruce had done the hands-on work, mastered business and economics, and then, at 22 years of age, stepped into sales, and he was good at it,” recalls John Joestgen, Chief Operating Officer of Balanced Environments, Inc. “Bruce just kept building and expanding on his experiences,  and he was a natural at all of it,” Joestgen says.

Bruce soon got involved in the industry on a national level, making contacts with contractors across the country. A believer in professionalism, Bruce took the National Association of Landscape Professionals  certification test the first year it was offered, becoming a Charter Certified Landscape Professional (CCLP).

By 1998, Bruce had owned Church Landscape for ten years. Realizing that he could better serve his commercial clients by operating nationally, Bruce joined with six other contractors across the country to create a national footprint from South Carolina to California and from Texas to Minnesota.

“We merged and went public on the same day, creating new publicly traded company called LandCare USA (GRW on the NYSE),” Bruce recalls. “I knew that regional and national contracts were on the rise, and this was a way to capture that ever-growing market while sharing best practices and buying power.”

 “He saw the need to be able to operate nationally because of the needs of our commercial client base,” says Tom Kelly, now Vice President and part owner of Balanced Environments, Inc.  At the time, Kelly was a maintenance rep for LandCare USA.

“For me, as a rep, it was phenomenal,” he says. “The wider we could stretch our arms, the better we could meet the needs of our clients, and the better we could get in the door.”

Creating an alliance of smaller, regional companies set off an acquisitions race with ServiceMaster, who recognized the benefits of this structure.

“It created an acquisitions war, which had never happened before in our industry,” Joestgen recalls. In the process, Joestgen says Bruce became one of the industry’s leading experts in mergers and acquisitions, one of his responsibilities as a director of a public company.

“He developed a unique skill set,” Joestgen says. “He was one of four or five elite people in the landscape industry who really understood the process and knew how to be smart about it.”

“It was a fascinating and exciting time,” says Church. “We were in a feeding frenzy, competing against ServiceMaster for companies to buy. We went from a $135 million annualized run rate to a $335 million annualized run rate in nine months. We had some truly brilliant people on the management team, and it was as fun and enlightening as you could ever imagine.”

Within a year or so, ServiceMaster bought LandCare USA, making it part of TruGreen LandCare.

Constrained by an agreement not to enter into landscape contracting for five years, Bruce established Hard Surface Solutions to meet the asphalt and concrete repair needs of his existing customers.

“It was a strategic stroke of genius,” says Joestgen. “He kept up his relationships with every owner and property manager he had worked with. After five years, when he started Balanced Environments, he didn’t have to start from scratch. He had all those relationships intact.”

“We’re still working with many of the same clients as Church Landscape. We’ve grown with them,” Kelly notes.

One of the themes that runs through all Bruce’s companies—from Church Landscape to Balanced Environments—is a dedication to meeting the needs of customers uncommonly well.

“When it comes to our clients, there’s never a ‘no’, says John Ploss, Senior Landscape Project Manager at Balanced Environments. “Bruce’s approach is always ‘How can we help you do better? How can we fit into your scenario and give you something of value?’”

When people talk about Bruce, they often use the words “tenacious” and “driven”.  Ploss is no exception. “He’s a real go-getter. He has the tenacity and the urge to push and push and push to get the best work done,” says Ploss, who joined Church Landscape in 1991. “It’s great to work around someone who has that kind of drive.”

Bruce’s drive includes working with ILCA to make the whole green industry better. “As one of the early ILCA members, Denny laid the groundwork for the company’s involvement going forward,“ Ploss explains. The association’s emphasis on enhancing education and professionalism is “in Bruce’s wheelhouse,” Ploss adds.


Kelly agrees. “ILCA helps all of us. Everything ILCA does, we all reap the benefits,” he says. “Sharing best practices has always been a part of Church Landscape. When it comes to mentoring and sharing information, Bruce is always there with a helping hand.”

To help attract and support new green industry leaders, Bruce and other members of the Church family recently contributed $100,000 to the Illinois Landscape Contractors Educational and Charitable Organization (ILCECO) to establish the Denny R. Church Memorial Scholarship. The scholarship will be awarded annually for 20 years and in rotation with other ILCA scholarships thereafter, according to ILCA Executive Director Scott Grams.

“ILCA is honored and privileged to be chosen by the Church family for this wonderful legacy,” says Rusty Maulding, ILCA president when the gift was made. “Denny had a great impact on our industry, and thanks to this substantial and generous contribution, his mark will endure through future generations of green industry professionals.”

“Denny always believed in education and made sure me and my siblings all went to college,” Bruce recalls. “He also understood that higher education would lead to more professionalism and hopefully higher wages for an industry that needed a higher wage scale to attract good, young talent to the fields of Horticulture, Landscape Architecture, Agronomy, etc. That is why my sisters and I decided a fitting tribute to such an admired and respected man would be to create a scholarship through the ILCA. The fact that this scholarship potentially brings even one more person into our field means the world to me.”

Bruce has also been involved in other associations. For instance, for more than 20 years, he has been active in the Suburban Chicago chapter of Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA). In December, 2017, the organization recognized Bruce with its Lifetime Achievement Award.

Joestgen isn’t surprised. “Ninety-nine percent of landscape contractors would never be exposed to the breadth of experiences Bruce has,” he says. “His success was not by accident. His goals were achieved through his intentional, well-thought-out approach coupled with his drive and determination to master each level and then build on that acquired talent to take on the next opportunity.”

It isn’t just Church Landscape that’s been transformed by Bruce, according to Joestgen. “The landscape industry has changed an incredible amount over the last 35 years, and Bruce has had the vision to see what’s coming and adapt his business model to stay out front and succeed with those changes,” Joestgen says. “For much of that time, I’ve gotten to watch Bruce create it and direct it to great success.”

Being named ILCA Person of the Year is a great honor, Ploss says. In fact, it’s an honor Bruce shares with his father, who was named ILCA Man of the Year in 1976.  “It’s a recognition of the legacy of Bruce and his family and an affirmation of the work he’s done.”

“Being named ‘Person of the Year’ by the ILCA is an honor beyond what words can describe,” Bruce says. “I have been so fortunate to be surrounded by peers that support my vision for my companies. As the leader for our industry in Illinois, the ILCA has brought the professionalism and education that Denny had envisioned and is carried out today by dedicated staff and volunteers alike. I am very humbled by the honor, and I share this recognition with every member of the association as well as my co-workers and family. It is an honor I will truly treasure the rest of my life.”