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In the Company of Honorable Men

Profile: Burton S. Sperber, FASLA, Founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies

Interview by Leslie McGuire, managing editor

"At the time, I had no dreams or thoughts of building a company the size of this," says Sperber, who personally designed all the horticulture around the corporate campus in Calabasas, California. "My favorite design is this one--the corporate office here. I designed the horticultural part and the front entry gate, and Jim Hyatt did the hardscape."
Photo courtesy of Robb Williamson

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Burton S. Sperber, FASLA, Founder, CEO and Chairman of the Board of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies.
Photo courtesy of Guy Nelson

When Burton S. Sperber started ValleyCrest in 1949, he was 19 years old, and this year marks the 60th anniversary of this amazing company. He bought the nursery where he worked from the widow of its former owner, Mossimo Gianulli. Now, ValleyCrest is the nation's largest integrated landscape services company with annual revenues of $1 billion, more than 11,000 employees at its peak and more than 120 locations nationwide. And it wasn't just luck.

"I learned about horticulture by working after school for Mossimo Giannulli, a nurseryman from Italy. The nursery was at Five Points in North Hollywood. He taught me about taking cuttings, grafting, transplanting, boxing trees--everything to do with horticulture. And I liked it," states Sperber. "When Mossimo died after a couple of years, his widow was trying to run the nursery/landscape company and couldn't. So she sold it to me."

"Luck is when hard work collides with good timing."--Burton S. Sperber, FASLA

"Back then," Sperber remembers, "the biggest challenge was making payroll, because as a company grows, you need to hire more people, so then you need more money to make payroll. You're stuck between the ability to finance what you do and collect the money to pay the people who help you do it."

ValleyCrest Landscape Companies now operates seven business units that include: ValleyCrest Landscape Development, ValleyCrest Landscape Maintenance, ValleyCrest Design Group, ValleyCrest Golf Course Maintenance, Valley Crest Tree Company, ValleyCrest Residential and U.S. Lawns.

"I worked with my son, Richard (center) for 25 years, and my brother, Stuart (left) for 50 years--and Richard has the same attitude towards people and customers as we've always had," Sperber states. "The strongest thing we have is we are a very moral and ethical company. We don't take short cuts. That is not a way to do business. We work extremely hard to keep our customers happy so they get their money's worth. There aren't many people in business who do that."
Photo courtesy of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies

In describing ValleyCrest's keys to long-term growth, Sperber explains, "I'm the worst planner, but also the most focused. We're a very focused company, and we do what we do on a pretty straight line. Our success has nothing to do with our size, but everything to do with our focus. I think it's great to be involved in horticulture. If it's not about horticulture, I have little interest in it."

"We've installed the landscape on every single project Steve Wynn, chairman of Mirage Resorts, has ever built. We've brought all of his visions to reality for over 20 years. Most developers use different designers and contractors, but we do all of his installations. Our single toughest job was Wynn Las Vegas with the mountain. We moved the trees a year before we needed them installed and had to use two 300-ton cranes to move them," says Sperber.

Managing From the Heart

"I was not fortunate enough to receive a formal education to learn management skills and I had never worked for anyone. As a young man I was not exposed to any management training, all I knew was manual labor. I did recognize early on that paychecks for the employees were more important than mine. I went home some paydays and gave my wife a check saying, 'Don't cash it until I tell you.' Payroll always comes first."

"The first field hand I hired was an employee--Geronimo Rodriguez--who boxed trees for me. He took two buses and one streetcar to get to work. We didn't have cranes back then, so he would take a tree out of a yard, jack it out of the ground, put it in a six-foot box and roll it to the truck. He was weaker than anyone in this room, but he knew how to use his head instead of his back."

"Al Ain is a new resort being built in the desert in the United Arab Emirates," Sperber explains. His son, Richard adds, "It will have a zoo with mixed use areas, hotels, safari-style accommodations--you can watch animals from your balcony. It's a massive undertaking and the first time we've built and maintained something of this magnitude."
Rendering courtesy of ValleyCrest Design Group/Comstock Studio.

Tom Donnelly, ASLA, President and COO of ValleyCrest Landscape Development, is responsible for the division's preconstruction services, design-build and ValleyCrest Design Group, the company's landscape architecture practice. Donnelly has worked for ValleyCrest and known Burt for 30 years. Says Donnelly, "Burt is a great landscape guy, and an amazing leader in what you do and how you do it. Most impressive is his focus on his customers and employees. He is the living embodiment of his own advice...Keep on looking at where you want to be, then all else falls into place."

"Part of our new challenge is going into the global marketplace. We didn't expect to be working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but we thought this was a good opportunity to pick up some work and accomplish something we've never done," Sperber continues. "The new office in Abu Dhabi is now working on the installation. Right now, we're building an experimental garden to see what grows and what kind of irrigation is needed."
Rendering courtesy of ValleyCrest Design Group/Comstock Studio.

The Road to Licensure

"We started ValleyCrest as a nursery that offered landscape and design. Because we were in the design-build business, I got my Landscape Architect's license, since I did the design work. There was no license back then, so I was grandfathered in for the license by Jack Evans, ASLA, Ray Page, ASLA (the Number 1 and Number 5 license holders in the state) and Courtland Paul, ASLA. Even though I hadn't gone to school, they signed for me, because I had successfully shown I was qualified based on numerous previous projects and I routinely competed for design assignments."

"When I first got licensed, I used to knock on doors to get jobs. Garrett Eckbo worked one side the street and I worked the other. Finally, Garrett said, 'Burt, if you're going to work in the landscape architecture business, I don't want to share a street with you.'" Eckbo later went on to get his MA in landscape architecture from Harvard.

"Courtland Paul started out as Crest Landscaping in Pasadena, California, but he also moved more into design. I never changed my direction from a design-build approach. A lot of the early landscapers came out of the design-build business. Most landscape architects worked at nurseries, and they were the ones who designed the gardens. The evolution of the free standing landscape architect came later, and they called themselves practitioners in California."

"I recently collaborated on a job in Malibu with my son and his partner, Richard Weintraub, who developed Malibu Lumber Yard, where I designed the fish tanks in the center courtyard. We believe these may be the first freestanding aquariums built outdoors with three different saltwater tanks. However, I am not a practicing landscape architect who made a living drawing plans," says Sperber. "By incorporating sustainable plantings such as Kentia Palms, Philodendrons, exotic succulents, a 60-year-old aloe tree, and California native plants, Malibu Lumber Yard's plant palette uses less water."
Photo courtesy of Robb Williamson

Future Industry Challenges

Sperber feels that one of the biggest challenges for the industry, moving forward, is the current economic environment. "We at ValleyCrest are fortunate to have fair backlogs, a good customer base and a very strong reputation," he says. "If clients want a company to design, build and maintain, we have the best track record. We have very happy customers and happy employees because we have successfully taken care of them and our customer's landscape needs without fail for 60 years."

"Working for ValleyCrest is viewed as a long-term career by our people. It is rewarding to see how many of our retirees have raised families and were able to send their children to college. That stability is in stark contrast to many individuals who start a business and face a host of challenges that we've already conquered. Those who come to ValleyCrest know the company is strong. There are some very smart and talented professionals who've built careers with us. They are confident in their abilities and strong leadership skills and able to go to any city in the world and handle large jobs -- and that's what makes ValleyCrest unique."

At the Malibu Lumber Yard, careful attention was made to select botanical elements that would thrive in the coastal environment where exposure to salt and wind can damage plants. To complement the contemporary design palette created by ValleyCrest Design Group, sculptural specimen plantings were chosen to communicate and celebrate organic, playful and artful growth.
Photo courtesy of Robb Williamson

Says Donnelly regarding ValleyCrest employees, "Our training program helps us to deepen our bench internally, rather than having to go out to the market. Ninety percent of promotions are from within for management, executive or operations roles."

ValleyCrest Landscape Development served as General Contractor for The Four Seasons Resort at Troon North. The landscape, designed while Jim Hyatt was a principal with EDAW, is accessible only by landscaped pathways dressed with Saguaro and Ocotillo cacti, Palo Verde, Mesquite and Ironwood trees, all of which were salvaged prior to construction and then replanted by ValleyCrest.
Photo courtesy of Robb Williamson

Innovation is Central

"Of course, we've always performed landscape maintenance services," explains Sperber. "It's been a good complement to sustain and grow a small business, but our expertise is moving trees. We did them exactly the way we're doing them today. We design the box the tree grows in and let it grow in the box. Usually they were balled after they were sold. Growing the trees in boxes is a ValleyCrest innovation that my brother Stuart and I started. Nobody did that. People said, 'That's crazy--you can't spend the money before you sell it.'"

"When ValleyCrest was starting, there was a big housing boom in the San Fernando Valley," remembers Sperber. "In 1950, those houses sold for six or seven thousand dollars. I used to do a front yard, which included the lawn, half a dozen shrubs and one street tree, for $60. Today, 100s of millions of dollars are being spent. Sixty years ago we didn't know what that was--multi-million dollar fees."
Photo courtesy of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies

"It was the same thing with the equipment. We invented most of the innovative tools and worked with the manufacturers to create them," notes Sperber. "We were involved in the whole R&D process so we also got to test the equipment in the field. We have been closely involved in numerous innovations in water conservation. Southern California is the world headquarters for the industry and irrigation products. Every major company is here--Hunter, Toro, and Rainbird. This is where the landscape construction industry as it is known today started. The growth and maturation of the industry was fueled by the California boom that took off after the Second World War. That drove the evolution of the irrigation business and there was a fair amount of collaboration among all of us involved. In fact, it was the irrigation companies and their distributors that extended credit back then, not the banks, hence the large failure rate in the industry."

"In the early days, irrigation trenchers were the big innovation--everyone used huge ones, so we decided to design a small one. We were able to plow trenches at 15 miles an hour--Well, actually, maybe only 5 miles an hour. That innovation was driven by the amount of highway work we had at the time. We took agricultural tools and made them into landscape tools," states Sperber.

"The first box scraper was made in our yard," Sperber recalls. "We took it to a manufacturer and they gave us the first one for free. But they held onto the design and went forward to make millions for themselves."

Tom Donnelly states, "ValleyCrest took hand work and made it into machine work, thus gaining productivity by mechanizing an operation. Efficiency is something that our customers recognize, respect and now expect."

Above: The 180-acre Las Vegas Springs Preserve in Las Vegas, Nevada was recently certified LEED-Platinum. Among the indigenous plants and animals protected by the Preserve are the critically endangered Las Vegas bear poppy, the Cienega (recreated desert wetland which has re-attracted nearly 250 species of birds to the area), Desert Tortoise and Desert pocket mouse. Sperber points out, "ValleyCrest Landscape Development restored the ecology of the site, using sustainable elements such as bio-filtration ponds that reclaim on-site wastewater, drip irrigation systems, advanced irrigation technology and mulch from reclaimed glass. The landscape includes more than 1,200 species of plants aligned with its origins as a freshwater spring."
Photo courtesy of Lonna Tucker Photography

Back to the Source

In 1955, ValleyCrest closed the retail nursery business, but was there a moment when Sperber missed growing trees? "Getting back into the nursery business was a natural evolution," he says, "but it was smartly decided to grow a few acres at a time. We were a small Southern California company shipping product to Northern California. We built the marketplace there, and now we have 800 acres of trees in three California locations--Farmington, Fillmore and Sunol.

"All landscape architects want ValleyCrest quality trees or their equal. That's because we do it right. The landscape architects who understand that want our uniform quality, straight-trunked trees. If they need 100 trees, they know they'll all look alike, and be perfect. That's what our training classes are about, as well as safety, customer satisfaction and quality. The one thing that's uniform about ValleyCrest is what we do to keep the customer happy. Customers are hard to come by and we work hard to keep them.

Brought to life by ValleyCrest Landscape Development in collaboration with Suzhou Garden Development Company in China, the Garden of Flowing Fragrance spans over 12 acres at the Huntington Library in Los Angeles. "The project utilized a team of Mandarin-speaking Chinese stonemasons and artisans," recalls Sperber, "and a tri-lingual crew of Mandarin, Spanish and English speaking people to build and landscape the garden. The translators had to be on site throughout the entire project."
Photo courtesy of Bob Riha

Fuelled by Ethics and Hard Work

"The company has experienced steady long-term growth over six decades. Over the years, the annual growth hasn't increased any faster, but the numbers are bigger. We went through a period of rapid growth for several years, so we knew there'd likely be a period of catching our breath. We're still experiencing growth, though at a slower pace. To put the numbers in perspective, the company has grown $300 million over the past five years."

"As the company grew, all of our banks insurance companies and board asked, 'What's the plan for the succession?' and I said, 'Richard will be here.' In 2000 I said, 'Richard, you're ready.' He was running ValleyCrest Development very successfully and I said, 'It's yours, not that I'm going anywhere.' He may wish he had 100 percent of the reins, but he has 90 percent of the reins and, luckily, we can do that together."

Says Richard Sperber, Burts son, "My dad and I... we've never gotten into a big argument. He gave me a lot more love than I deserved. I've paid a lot of dumb tax and made my mistakes. But he's not necessarily mellow, either. He's passionate about what he does and I think he has given me a great gift. I see my dad every day and I couldn't ask for anything more. He even beats me in to work."

"We went public in 1969, but we bought the shares back in 1982," remembers Burt Sperber. "We would have a great year and then our stock would go down. That didn't make any sense, but it was, apparently, all about our size and the nonsense of the investment community. We have been pleased with our performance as a private company and have been rewarded with consistent growth over the years."

Sperber is deeply involved in horticulture which is why the north side main entrance to Broad Contemporary Art Museum gallery is another ValleyCrest showcase. Flanked by two rare Australian 'Pinwheel' Fan Palms, ( Licuala ramsayi), a showpiece 50-year-old Chilean Wine Palm (Jubea chilensis) is rightfully given center stage. The Palm Collection is a new signature urban landscape design at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). "Paul Comstock, head of Comstock Studio, a recently-established landscape architecture and planning practice that is part of our ValleyCrest Design Group, was the Lead Designer," explains Richard Sperber.
Photo courtesy of Lonna Tucker Photography Courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA)

Branching Out

When Richard Sperber became CEO, he basically started ValleyCrest's landscape architecture business from scratch. "The goal is to create an industry standard, a really cohesive way of dealing with landscapes on every level. "Even when we originally started, we had a superior delivery system," he says. "But we saw the inefficiencies, and all the flaws inherent in having no connection between the different parts of the process. Furthermore, the pricing was often all wrong. A lot of our clients were pushing us to start with one single vision. We now have five landscape architectural practices employing about 85 landscape architects. We mainly work on big commercial projects, but we also do residential and private estates."

"When we first did work outside of California," remembers Sperber, "we went to Colorado and Florida doing design-build for model homes and helping developers merchandise their product the California way. We had good concepts on how to place houses on the lots, and eventually, we opened a Colorado branch. We had Florida developers coming to California to check out what we were doing and then the Miami airport came next. Now we have operations in 19 states, the Bahamas and Middle East--although we perform work in numerous other states."

And who has been the biggest influence on Sperber all these years? "On the customer side, we have three customers we think are outstanding. They feel the landscape work we do for them is one of the more important things they sell, Steve Wynn, Rick Caruso, a retail developer, and Donald Bren of the Irvine Company. These three true visionaries understand that spending money on landscape is what makes or breaks any project."

Sperber's dedication to green initiatives was certainly a factor as ValleyCrest was selected as the winning design-build contractor for this broad scope project, the Naval Air Station at Pensacola Florida. The work included the removal of storm damaged timber, re-construction of beach dunes and trails damaged by past hurricanes, and the creation of several new, historically-themed plazas.
Photo courtesy of ValleyCrest Landscape Companies

Going Global

According to Sperber, "Part of our new challenge is going into the global marketplace. We didn't expect to be working in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but we thought this was a good opportunity to pick up some work and accomplish something we've never done. We are in the process of establishing an officein the UAE. We're already doing the design work, so it's this new office which is now doing all the installation."

"It's very interesting going to Abu Dhabi," says Richard Sperber. "And working with Joe Lalli of EDSA is truly amazing. Paul Comstock, head of Comstock Studio, a newly-established landscape architecture and planning practice that is part of our ValleyCrest Design Group, is out there, too. He was formerly the Director of Landscape Design for Walt Disney Imagineering. Right now, we're building an experimental garden to see what grows and what kind of irrigation is needed."

"I don't travel much except to take the whole month of June and hit most of our branches and see most of the projects being done out of the area," says Burt Sperber. "I'm spending more time in management, but I still like to go back to the basics of dealing with customers. I like people and I like to satisfy our customers and our employees.

In the next two weeks, ValleyCrest is going to China. "Internationally, this economy has opened a whole world to us," explains Richard Sperber. The world is bigger than the United States and becoming more of an international company is an exciting challenge. Our people are looking forward to building the next phase of the company."

"My family is not just Richard," Sperber points out. "It's all our employees. So many of our older employees are family too, and they've been treated like family. The growth of the company is very steady, but that wouldn't have happened without employees who know they are safe and feel comfortable, and customers that are happy."
Photo courtesy of Guy Nelson

The Future for Valley Crest

Both Burt Sperber and his son Richard know one of the biggest challenges in the future is the economy. "It's definitely going to be an interesting two or three years," says Richard. "Even though we're launching this big landscape architecture business, this has given us a chance to breathe a bit, educate our customers and build a great team. It'll be a time to step back and really take a look at what we're doing."

"I'm good at what I do because I learned from hard knocks and my mistakes," says Burt Sperber, whose present, past and future all involve horticulture. "I love what I do, and I do what I love. My work is my enjoyment. Playing golf would be horrible."

In 2001, Sperber was named a Fellow of the ASLA. Does he believe his success has had anything to do with luck? "Luck is when hard work collides with good timing," he says.

Well, Happy Anniversary, ValleyCrest! May your next 60 years be as eventful, as filled with promise, and even more stupendous!


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May 19, 2019, 8:28 am PDT

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