MARINA Landscape Inc.

It’s not unusual for a 16 year old to start a small business to pick up some extra money, but for that small business to grow into a $40 million company is something else entirely. That’s essentially the story of California’s MARINA Landscape Inc., and it’s a testament not only to the resolve and business sense of its founders, but also its ability to change with the times. 

Vice President Steve Guise says the company was founded in 1971 by Bob Cowan and his two brothers, the youngest of whom was 12 at the time. Originally, the brothers mowed lawns to supplement their family’s income, but within a few years, they had taken on some big customers and found themselves with a real business on their hands. “At that time, you had 16- and 17-year-old boys managing 50-year-old men,” Guise says. 

In time, the Cowan brothers added construction and tree maintenance services to their repertoire, continuing to rack up bigger and bigger customers until reaching its current status as one of southern California’s leading landscape contractors. Guise says MARINA is the 17th-largest landscape contractor in the nation, bringing in approximately $40 million in annual revenues and working throughout the Southwest. 

The company’s services today include landscape construction, maintenance, architecture and erosion control; site development; sports field cons­truction; and water management. 

Guise says that although the economy has made the landscaping business extremely competitive at the moment, MARINA has shown it has the expertise, reputation and breadth of services to help it survive. At a time in which some contractors are willing to cut a bid by as much as 20 percent lower than usual to get work, MARINA relies on its strong position and quality services to make it. 

Standing Alone

MARINA stands apart from other landscape contractors because it brings things to the table that others can’t, Guise says. First and foremost, he says, is the company’s reputation for quality. “I like to say that we complete the jobs on time and on budget,” he says. 

This can be attributed in large part to the level of experience within the company’s ranks. Guise says the average tenure of one of its construction employees is 15 years, and the company tries to assign them the same type of work on a regular basis. “We know where to start and where to finish,” he says. “That makes us very competitive because we’re very productive.” 

MARINA also owns its own equipment, which Guise says makes it easier for the company to respond quickly to customers’ requests because it doesn’t have to worry about procurement. For example, he cites a recent example where the company sent 50 trucks to complete a project on time that one of its competitors was falling behind on. “That’s something a lot of companies can’t do these days,” he says. 

The company has an additional edge when it comes to architecture and design/build work because it has its own architects on staff. Guise says this is a very rare situation for the landscaping industry. “From a design/build standpoint, that puts us in a market all by ourselves,” he says. 

Keeping its operations streamlined and efficient is especially important for MARINA these days, and Guise says the company strives to be conservative with its overhead as well as take some innovative steps. 

For example, he says, the company recently switched to a paperless estimation system. MARINA also cross-trains its employees to handle multiple duties within the company’s office for greater flexibility. 

Tighter Conditions

The recession put a bit of a squeeze on the company, especially when it came to its landscape construction work. Nearly 20 percent of MARINA’s work in that area was for new housing construction, which has comp­letely flattened out, thanks to the mortgage crisis. However, Guise says the company has adjusted by putting more of its efforts into maintenance of existing properties, such as for homeowners’ associations. “That cash flow really helps the company stay afloat,” Guise says. 

In response to the recession, MARINA also is working to find new areas for work. Guise says the company has added a number of salespeople to its erosion control segment to drum up new business there, and has expanded its construction services beyond its traditional southern California stomping grounds. Additionally, the public sector continues to present a healthy amount of work, thanks to federal investment in highway projects. 

“The recession will end and housing markets in California will rise, and for the industry, we’re all just trying to stay afloat and keep our people working,” Guise says, adding that due to MARINA’s diversification, he expects to keep busy for a while.  

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