Ask The CEO

Photography by Rebecca Baxter By Molly McCartney April 30, 2010

As CEO of ArtisTree landscape maintenance and design company, Joe Gonzalez, 62, oversees a business with annual revenues of $12 million, a workforce of 250 and a customer base of 12,000 homes in Sarasota, Charlotte and Manatee counties.

Gonzalez grew up poor in the then-notorious section of Manhattan known as Hell’s Kitchen, the youngest of three children of a Cuban father and a Croatian mother. His parents divorced about the time he was born, and his mother worked as a barmaid to support the family. After earning an accounting degree, Gonzalez worked as a financial analyst for W.R. Grace, the shipping and chemicals conglomerate, before moving to a globetrotting career with Butterick Patterns. In 1988, Gonzalez sold his interest in Butterick, netting about $1.5 million—not enough to retire, he says, but enough to start a new life and a new business.

After searching the country for a place that would provide the “quality of life” they wanted, Gonzalez and his wife moved to Sarasota with their two small daughters. In 1990, he bought a small lawn maintenance company in Venice that has grown into what is one of the region’s leading lawn and landscape companies. “My life has evolved from sheer accident,” Gonzalez says. “Every day is a surprise for me.”

How’s business? We had our 20th anniversary in January, and our people threw a surprise party for me. I couldn’t have dreamed that I was 20 years in this business because it flew by so fast. In the beginning, it had four employees mowing lawns. It was called Save On. Our annual revenues reached about $15 million before the landslide in the economy, when we drifted down to $12 million. We are now building back up. 

When did the name change to ArtisTree? Six years ago. We had a brainstorming session to come up with a new name. Save On was never the image we wanted. I always worked for high-end companies, and I wanted to develop a high-end business here.

Your proudest achievement? I am sitting on it right now. I feed a lot of families, look after lots of people and have cultivated and developed an executive group of about 30 people who do very good work. My passion is waking up every day feeling good about my business.

What do you do best? Delegate and inspire. I am a motivator.

What you’re not so good at doing? I am definitely not good at being directed or controlled. I am not good at not doing it my way.

Toughest part of your job? The competition. New companies come in every day and undercut prices by 20 percent to 30 percent to get business. It’s easy to cheat people in this business. You don’t put chemicals down. You don’t cut as often. You have crews move through faster. There are a million ways to cut back. And the cuts won’t show up for 12 to 18 months, so you can promise anything. Competing with these guys is very hard because customers don’t understand it. Everybody wants to believe that there is somebody out there who can do something for less.

Where you want to be in five years? In the same saddle, doing what I do now. And I want the company to be twice the size it is today.

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