The Story of Jim Meinert Landscaping
My father, James H. Meinert, was born in 1961 at St. Margaret’s Hospital and spent his early years with his family in the Borough of Aspinwall. I find that fact ironic as it pertains to this story about the company he built because years later, St. Margaret’s would move across the river to Aspinwall and my father’s business would become the single-source provider for all of the hospital’s groundskeeping needs, including winter services – almost as if his birthplace and childhood and the success of his business and later life were destined to collide.
It may have seemed predetermined to my dad that he would end up working in construction and not landscaping for two reasons. The first is that he grew up with a father who worked in construction and who my dad often helped out. He also had a gateway into the construction industry through what was probably his first mentor, Anthony “Duke” Iurlano. Duke was a well-known figure in the Pittsburgh construction industry; if you stroll through Oakland, you are sure to see some prominent buildings that he played an essential role in erecting. I can recall stories my father told me of working with both his dad and Duke; helping my grandfather putting a roof on a house or getting home late at night from a long trip with Duke. One of my favorite stories is one of Duke working on a big ol’ parking garage in Oakland. When they were done forming the garage, Duke gave the plywood that was used for the forms to my dad, so that my dad could use it for the roof on his house he was building – brand new wood, only used briefly to form the concrete. I can’t explain why, but it’s fascinating to me that the very wood that sits above my head as I write this was used to form a once shiny, new parking garage in Oakland. In honesty, my father shared that story with me rather spontaneously in a moment he was feeling pretty down and out. Even though that low point may have been what prompted him to share it with me, I’m forever grateful that he did, and I often wonder what other neat stories he had and kept to himself.
Ultimately, my father felt that a lot of the people and things you had to deal with in the construction industry wasn’t for him and he made a conscious decision not to get any further into it. That being said, it should go without saying that the lessons he learned there, from my grandfather and Duke Iurlano, were the foundation for the success he later found. People tell me Duke truly guided my father in business and life and I wish I could have got to know him better before he passed in 2004.
The decision not to head further into construction likely gave Jim Meinert little choice but to put all his eggs into one basket: landscaping. It was something he had been doing to keep cash in his pocket since he was big enough to push a mower. Someone who grew up nearby once told me he recalls my grandfather yelling at my dad to get off the riding mower because he was barely big enough drive the thing. Allegedly, my dad only passed high school because he mowed a teacher’s yard, so perhaps it was less of his only choice and more of an obvious line of work he knew would take care of him.
So, with something that had morphed and grown over his teen years, and therefore having no official start date, Jim Meinert was all in on landscaping. What started years ago with some youth-sized t-shirts that said “Jim Meinert Complete Landscaping Service” eventually became Jim Meinert Landscaping, Inc. Later, in preference of something more marketable, he would adopt the now locally revered and recognizable name, JML Landscape Management. I believe he attributed much of his success to this and similar marketing moves. Early on he started insisting on a consistent uniform and branding for all his trucks and trailers. This move paid dividends. To this day, my siblings and I don’t go a day in public without someone saying, “I saw one of your dad’s trucks today.”
At first, I imagine my father accepted whatever accounts he could: neighbors, friends, friends of family, and so on. He probably had no inkling or goal of what type of clientele to target or what type of work to focus on; if you aren’t aware, there are a surprising number of “industries” within the residential and commercial sectors and many different types of revenue, or profit centers, a landscaping business can specialize in. He also probably had very little inkling on how to run a business. Afterall, this wasn’t long after he graduated high school. This period of time was the decade before I was born, and to be honest, I do not know much about it. What I do know, is that with a little time, he figured it all out. In 1988, he purchased a seven-acre plot of land on Route 910 in Indiana Township. The property had three buildings on it, one brick building which would be sold to raise funds, and two smaller buildings, which would eventually be removed. In September of 1991 the first walls of a large pole-barn building started to go up. This building is where the corporate office and largest branch of the company still operates out of today.
The 1990s are when myself and two of my siblings came into the picture. This was a fun period of time in the history of the company. There were frequent company outings to Kennywood and Pittsburgh Pirates games. It was also a period of extreme growth. Among other things, there were a number of high-profile projects for UPMC, the University of Pittsburgh, and others that JML was awarded. I have no doubt this growth also meant it was a period of learning for the company. The success led to a second building being constructed on the Indiana Township property just a few years after the first building.
It was around this time when my dad started to figure out and perfect the current business model. In short, he began to strictly focus on making commercial maintenance the core of his business, meaning there would be less of a focus on high-profile enhancements and no focus on residential maintenance. The reason is pretty simple; commercial accounts are larger than residential accounts, so you do not need to manage or sell as many accounts to maintain the same level of revenue. The reason for focusing on maintenance work is because it is renewable. Enhancements are great, but you cannot rely on it year over year; the economy could change, meaning people will spend less on extras. My dad would say, “the grass always grows” and call maintenance work his bread and butter. In other words, it is a great foundation. From that foundation you can generate a lot of enhancements. So, commercial maintenance would become the core business of JML.
In the mid 2000s, my father had his eye on expansion via the addition of a new branch location for the company. The geographical footprint of the company’s work probably could have supported a branch anywhere around Pittsburgh, but my father chose Cranberry Township. In 2009, he purchased a property with a single building and big lot near the heart of the township. This endeavor and period of time was not easy. There was a lot of work to be done renovating the new Cranberry building and property. Even after the branch was established, I can recall my father frequenting the turnpike to Cranberry for meetings to deal with problems and strategize the growth of the branch. The years of struggle was worth the bet, however. The company’s accounts in the area today are enough to support a branch and the township is one of the most booming areas in all of Pennsylvania; HOAs and commercial buildings are popping up like nothing I have ever seen in Pennsylvania.
The next objective for my father was to open more branches. My dad held customer service in high regard and the reason he would always give me (and even put on the company website) for opening more branches was to be no more than a fifteen-minute drive from any customer. If there was a problem on a property, he did not want it taking an hour or longer to get there and rectify the problem.
A few years after Cranberry, two more branches opened in South Fayette and Monroeville. With four branches now strategically located around Pittsburgh, there became a higher demand for good people to manage and operate them. Thus, a common theme of the 2010s for my father was acquiring and developing talented people. This was around the time I started to benefit from sitting in on budget meetings with the company’s main consultant and various Branch Managers. I can recall discussions after these meetings where my father would exchange views on the capabilities and limitations of his personnel. I’m happy to report that any problem usually worked itself out and the team my dad put in place was extremely talented and capable. One of those individuals is Wes Stetser, who started at JML in 2011 and is now the Division President of the company. Wes shares with me, “For those of us that began working with your dad in the past 10-15 years, it’s hard to imagine him being a client interface kind of guy.” With his team in place, my dad relied on them to handle all client relations, often stating something I myself recall him saying; “The buck stops with you!” Wes recalls, “All of us had this perception of a business leader that focused on operations and maybe had a weakness for account management and that is why he hired a professional account management team.” Knowing my dad, this perception was simply a result of not having the strongest teaching skills. He didn’t have any business partners and after Duke, he didn’t really have any mentors, which meant he had to figure life and business out on his own for the most part and I think maybe he just thought that’s how everyone should go about it. The lessons, however, were not all lost. Wes says that a few years later he was in a meeting with a client who dealt with my dad directly in the 90s and told of him personally hand delivering their invoice every month along with a box of cookies or pastries. If there is a lesson in that, it might be that a lot can be learned from someone who has been doing something for several decades; they likely did not get to where they are only being good at one thing even if they no longer exemplify or participate in some of the other things that got them there.
With his team in place, Jim Meinert shifted heavily into the more corporate and operational aspects of the business. One thing in particular, was an emphasis on something he had been doing for a long time; budgeting. I have floppy disks from the 90s labeled “JML 1994 budget” and so on. Now, however, he would take it to a new level. For two days every month, he would fly in a consultant to update and scrutinize the company budget with him. I’ve sat in many of these meetings, both in my late teens/early 20s and later as President of the company. We had a standard process of progressing through the budget, but a visit wasn’t complete without finding ourselves going down a rabbit hole of constructing new tables and calculations. I would say that every statistical aspect of the company that could be analyzed, was at some point probably scrutinized. In between those monthly visits, I can remember my dad bringing that budget home on his laptop and pouring over the details of it. Although they can be wrong or misleading, numbers usually present facts and my dad clearly relied heavily on them to diagnose, treat, and improve the health of his business. Balance is key, however. Every once and a while, he would have to warn his consultant, Branch Managers, and even himself about “analysis paralysis.” At the end of the day, delving deeper and deeper into the numbers might obfuscate the fact that the reason we aren’t getting paid, or our turnover is bad isn’t because of some number, it’s because we stopped hand delivering those pastries or we lost some personal touch with our clients.
Throughout all these years of growth and success was a quiet insistence on giving back to the community that helped fuel that success. I say “quiet” because my father was a believer in the doctrine that if you sought or got recognition for charity, that it was worse than doing nothing at all. After a certain Pittsburgh Steeler showed up to UPMC Children’s Hospital with a giant check and camera crew, I do not think my dad watched another Steelers game in his life. JML has been donating services to UPMC Children’s Hospital for over a decade, a value well over six figures; something neither JML or UPMC has ever made public knowledge to date. Among other organizations JML has donated to are St. Mary’s of Glenshaw, The Children’s Institute, Indiana Township, Western Pennsylvania Conservancy, St. Lawrence O’Toole, the Borough of Aspinwall, St. Vincent de Paul, various little league teams and organizations, and many more.
This is something I am most proud of my father and JML for and why I am founding The James H. Meinert Foundation, which brings my story near to a close.
The biggest lessons here are making a conscious decision about what niche you want to operate in within your industry and holding customer service in the highest regard. Life is about relationships. Having a consultant and a top-notch management team is great, but you cannot foster those things without understanding that those people and your clients need to be looked at and treated as much, much more than a business transaction. When done so is when the magic happens, when your people are excited to come to work, when your consultant is happy to fly across the country to see you every month, and when your clients champion your relationship with them and recommend you to others. To bookend all of this, I'd like to say that building a business takes dedication and sacrifice. This short synopsis of how JML came to be and grow over the years does not begin to delve into the many obstacles and battles my father had to overcome to achieve the success that he did. It was not given to him, he had to go at many of those obstacles and battles alone, and there are stories and struggles only he knows of. Other stories I choose to keep to myself either for the sake of brevity or to keep personal. I hope if you knew my father or are interested in business or the landscaping industry that you found this history enlightening. Lastly, I would like to say that if you knew my father and are custodian to one of those stories that I am unaware of, I would love for you to reach out and share that piece of his history with me.
Thanks for reading and God bless.