FEATURES


Perfectly Natural

It's the coolest landscape company ever, and under the direction of secondgeneration president Seneca Hull, this Boise-based firm is growing and creating havens across the Gem State.
By Sally Benson




Seneca Hull, left, president of Franz Witte, with her mother, Vicki Witte
All photos courtesy of Franz Witte

What could be cooler than doing what you love with people you enjoy? For Seneca Hull, president of the Franz Witte landscape company in Boise, Idaho, it's making a difference. It means making a positive impact on the environment, on people's lives and on the community, and for Hull, it's both a legacy and a future.

Hull's father, Franz Witte, established his landscape contracting company in 1971, when Boise's population was a touch under 75,000. He had begun working for another contractor, and his reputation soon attracted the attention of clients who requested his work. As news of the young contractor's talent spread, he was able to establish his own business, and the city, the company and the owners grew together.

What's with the flamingo?



Franz Witte's well-known flamingo takes center stage in promoting the company's annual OktoberBreast fall festival, a fundraiser for breast cancer research.

It started out as unique way to attract some attention for the company, something to make Franz Witte stand out among other businesses. Franz decided to place a few pink plastic flamingos on the lawn in order to "freak people out." Vicki, Franz's wife, ordered what she thought was 120 - the minimum order - but it turned out that she'd ordered 120 pairs. The flock attracted so much attention that the company quickly became known for its pink flamingo, so what better way to capitalize on the popularity than to use the flashy bird in the company's logo?

With her background in marketing, Franz's daughter, Seneca Hull, convinced him to develop a campaign for the entire company, incorporating all three divisions. "So I convinced him to use the flamingo as our company logo," she recalls. "It was a hard sell, because they're tacky. They don't reflect the high-end residential that we do, but we've been able to use it to brand us. It's fun."

As is the case in so many family-owned businesses, a very young Seneca Hull was recruited to help out where she could. Despite early intentions to find another career, she continued to work with the family company and eventually became president in 2007.

She now oversees all operations, including 85 to 90 employees in three divisions: nursery, landscape design and installation, and landscape maintenance. The headquarters location in Boise covers about 20 acres and includes the three main divisions, plus a small retail facility; a smaller location in McCall, about two hours north of the capital city, encompasses about 5 acres.



High-end residential design and installation is a hallmark of the Franz Witte landscaping company in Boise, Idaho.

Landscape work in Boise is mainly commercial but includes high-end residential; in McCall, it's primarily residential. "We do everything in both locations," Hull points out, "but the biggest profit centers are definitely in landscape. We can say that we do jobs ranging from commercial to high-end residential to a once-in-a-lifetime contract (see sidebar)."

It's the coolest

Franz Witte is known for its use of large and unusual woody specimens: "Something that sets us apart is our craftsmanship, and that includes the type of plants that we use," Hull says. "We really like specimens; we like them big, large, cool, strange. We search for our material; we literally go out in fields and hand-tag a lot of the cool stuff ourselves so we get the best plants. We definitely have a stronger focus on plants than a lot of landscapers do; you know, where they're just the things that fill the spots." The majority of the plants - including larger specimens such as weeping spruces and other ornamental evergreens and shrubs - are sourced from Oregon, but Franz Witte buys from local growers as well.

"The other thing is, we do a lot of hard surfaces," she continues. "We do a lot of pavers and walls. Sandstone is a local product, and we use a lot of it to make edger and dry stack walls, fire pits. We also use a lot of brick; we don't use a lot of concrete, but we really like natural products, and we like cool plants. We like things to turn out to be a little more 'designer' than other places."

Excellent work is the goal for any company, so what makes Franz Witte cool? It's the way Hull has positioned the business to make a clear impression. "We had a motto that said something about professionalism; you know, the same thing every other company can say," she explains. "During one of our strategic planning sessions, I asked, 'What are we really doing? We're trying to do cool stuff. That's what our intent is: to try to go out and do cool stuff.' So we decided then to be 'the coolest landscape company ever.' Not just in Idaho; this is who we want to be."

A significant promotional campaign was launched, with billboards saying "silly things, like 'Your attraction to us is perfectly natural.' We even used that for our OktoberBreast (fall festival) T-shirts," Hull points out. "We decided to have fun with it. Everyone strives for excellence; why not have fun doing it? It helps in employee attraction, in hiring. It makes us stand out. People want to be a part of something that's different, that's cool, that's not just stuck where they were 10 years ago, but they're trying to be something better every day."

Humor is carried over to the Franz Witte web site (http://www.franzwitte.com), where clients and customers see phrases such as "We really dig what we do" and "It's a dirty job, but we love to do it."

Exceptional design, execution and maintenance are part and parcel of what the company does, but Hull sees community goodwill as an important part of their success story. Continuing with that irreverent approach, the company created a unique twist on a common event.

Festival for a cause

Fall festivals are a staple of the nursery/landscape/garden center industry, and whether they're planned as profit centers or staged to encourage goodwill in the community, they're a time-tested way to bring attention to the business. Pumpkins and gourds, scarecrows and hayrides are standard fare, but the staff at Franz Witte wanted to do something a little different.



Brick, local sandstone and "cool" plants are signature elements of Franz Witte landscape designs.

"A few years ago, the nursery staff and I wanted to do a fall festival of sorts," Hull explains. "We were thinking, of course, of a harvest theme. But we also had this idea: We've already got the flamingos, we've got the pink; we should have that fall festival benefit breast cancer research."

It was a natural tie-in with the iconic pink theme of the national Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October. "The first year we did it, we tried to have a farmers' market-type feel," Hull says. "We had a band; we had food and wine. It went really well, but we didn't make a ton of money. At that point in time we were benefiting Susan G. Komen, because when you first start out, you don't know a lot about it. But that's a name everybody knows, so we could give them money."

This year's event is the fourth for Franz Witte, and a few things have changed. "We're now benefiting two local charities," Hull explains. "One is called Casting for Recovery, which is a national organization, but they have a local chapter here. That group takes women on a fly-fishing retreat for a long weekend. They take women who are recovering, women who have gone through treatment. It's physical therapy as well as mental therapy for them. They get to watch other women who are going through this and understand everything they're going through. They have counselors, they have nurses, and it's a really amazing group of women who are just so strong. They're survivors.



Fire and water are intimately blended in this streamside patio designed and installed by Franz Witte.

"Then there's also another group called Expedition Inspiration, which my own doctor was involved with," she continues. "They fund research directly, so [proceeds are] really used for research, not just to pay doctors' salaries."

What's in a name?



Members of a local soccer team-wearing uniforms sponsored by Franz Witte-are eager volunteers for the company's OktoberBreast festival.

When the Franz Witte staff brainstormed its fall festival and came up with the catchy name "OktoberBreast," it seemed to be a winner. And because the company already was identified by a pink flamingo logo, it was a natural fit. But there's a bit of a catch.

"I don't think you can talk to anyone who hasn't been touched by breast cancer in some way," Hull says. "It is so prolific, and so it resonates with people. We came up with this hilarious name and started promoting it. And I immediately got an email from this group in California, saying, 'I'm sorry, but you can't use this name, it's trademarked' to an event that they hold."

Franz Witte's promotional materials already had been produced and distributed, but Hull was able to negotiate a compromise. "I have to pay [the group] a trademark fee," she explains. "It's not a lot, but they have to keep up the trademark. I think it's $150 or something, and then I have to send a T-shirt and some other items.



Lighthearted advertising for the company's annual fall festival helps to set the stage for a day of music, food, fun and fundraising.

"You wouldn't believe the type of events that try to use this name," Hull hints. "So the folks in California have to follow up and make sure they're legitimate, and in order to do that, it costs money. When you come up with something like this, you realize that there's a lot more work that should have been done ahead of time, but you think, it's a great idea, let's run with it."

In a very short time, the event has become the place to be for Boise residents. "It's a great community event for everyone involved. The men just love to be able to say 'OktoberBreast,'" Hull says with a laugh. "We have a mammogram bus here, and this year we'll have food trucks, we'll have wine and beer and music and dancing and a live auction, plus a raffle. We're selling tickets to it for the first time this year. It's always been a free event, and we'd always hoped that everybody would just open their checkbooks."

A local girls' soccer team has become a sort of promotional "staff," helping to encourage attendance and even selling raffle tickets. The girls' coach - a good friend of Hull's - had approached her to sponsor the team. "It was right when we were trying to figure out all this stuff with OktoberBreast, and I said 'Sure; however, can I have them come and help sell raffle tickets at this event?'" Hull says. "It has been so wonderful. This group of girls and these coaches do more than just this throughout the year; they do a lot of community stuff. The girls show up, all in their uniforms with the [Franz Witte] flamingo on them, and they charm people into buying all the raffle tickets they can. They're hilarious, and nobody can tell them no.

"They also presented a $1,000 check to each of the organizations last year from their fundraising alone," Hull says. "It's just been a great thing for these girls. They're learning so many life skills and gaining so much understanding about how the world works. It's beneficial not only to survivors and to research and things like that, but the people involved gain so much, too."

Company staff works for free on the day of the event, and Hull says that although they're not required to do so, most of them come to help. "We try to do things to limit our costs as much as possible; we have sponsorships and things like that," she adds. "The only benefit that we hope to get from this is just a good feeling to have people look upon us as a good part of this community. And when they need landscaping or when they need something for their yard, they're going to call us. That's really the only benefit that we hope to get out of it. All the money that we can possibly hope to get we give to these organizations. However, as it grows, we may have to do something to create its own entity. I don't ever want there to be a question of how did that bill get paid, and those types of things. So we're keeping a very close watch on it right now, but I think in the near future it will have to be its own thing."

Once-in-a-lifetime contract

Asking a green industry pro to select a favorite project is like asking an artist to name a favorite color. They're all special, and they all contribute to the complete palette. But there's one job that Hull can point to as the pi├Ęce de résistance for her company - and as her father's legacy.

American Nurseryman will cover the installation in depth sometime next year; the "grand opening," was held just last month, and Hull and the property owners would like to give it a bit of time to mature. For now, though, here's a sneak preview:

The installation is located within a newly established "lifestyle development" situated at the busiest intersection in the state of Idaho, with traffic exceeding 90,000 vehicles per day. For this $4 million project - "That's about what we normally do total in construction in a year in the landscape side," Hull says - Franz Witte Landscaping installed about 850 trees. "They range from 2-inch trees in the parking lot," she continues, "to 12- to 14-inch trees in the critical areas. There are approximately 60,000 shrubs and 4-inch perennials and groundcovers. There are hanging baskets. There are about 300 pots, which we had to pipe in with irrigation. There's a lot of site work with large pavers ... it's a showpiece."

Based on a successful, ongoing professional relationship, the development's general contractor approached Franz Witte: "We've worked a lot with him over the years," Hull explains. "He had this project, and he told the owner that we were the ones he had to have.

"This is Franz's swan song," she adds. "He's worked his entire life to be able to have a project like this; this is what he's worked hard his whole life to do."

Stay tuned.

It's all about the people

Hull says that after growing up in the industry and receiving a degree in business administration with an emphasis on marketing, she decided to remain because of the people. She had worked her way up in the nursery - having started watering plants at the age of 10 - and realized that a 9-to-5 job just wasn't appealing.

"I had been a big part of building this nursery," she explains. "I enjoyed it; I enjoyed the people. That's probably the main reason I stayed in this industry, was the people in the industry. For the most part, it's laid back. Yes, it's intense, it's stressful and all those things, but you're outside. I don't get to be outside as much as I used to, but I can still walk outside whenever I want to rather than being cooped in an office."

"This is a people industry," Hull emphasizes. "What we do is not beside the point, but the people side of it is just as important, if not more important, than what we do everyday. My dad wouldn't be where he is without the incredible staff and people he's had around him; I certainly wouldn't be here without that. And other people, too; it's a very supportive industry.

"My main role has been to help transition my dad's heart and soul to a company that belongs to the people of this company as well," she continues. "Not necessarily in terms of ownership in stock, but in pride and in quality. Franz Witte is a company that you call when you need something done outside, and you need it done right. That has been my role, to take it to that point, so that this company can go on beyond him and beyond me."

Sally Benson is editorial director of American Nurseryman. She can be reached at sbenson@mooserivermedia.com. Visit the Franz Witte company at http://www.franzwitte.com.