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Meet Craig Jenkins-Sutton of Topiarius

Today we’d like to introduce you to Craig Jenkins-Sutton.

Craig’s love of the landscape was a natural progression of his upbringing in central Minnesota where he grew up at a youth camp where his father was the director and his mother oversaw the kitchen. Normal chores revolved around maintaining the camp’s property – from mowing to construction projects to snow removal. When he attended college in Chicago, he maintained his connection with the outdoors through a variety of back packing trips. After a month in the Sierra Nevada Mountains he did return to work with disadvantage teens at Covenant Children’s Home in Princeton, IL, but soon realized that his career path needed to encompass the outdoors.

In a confluence of events, Craig approached a friend who managed the landscape job-training program through ServiceMaster at Chicago Christian Industrial League [CCIL]. Craig was quickly hired as the Operations Manager. Over his tenure at CCIL, Craig helped bring the program from a 3-truck operation to a 22-truck operation and trained over 100 residents in the landscaping job-training program. Most of the landscaping contracts were with the city of Chicago. At this time many city green spaces, median strips and public schools were maintained by CCIL. One of their significant projects was working with the mayor’s team to beautify the river walk, particularly with seasonal color window boxes. During the winter, Craig managed the snow removal services for CCIL, learning the ins and outs of removing snow in Chicago.

During Craig’s time at CCIL, he married his wife Sara. Her career brought them to Attleboro, MA. So after working in the big city, Craig garnered some experience with a small construction company. Although not digging in the earth, it was an opportunity for him to expand on his construction skills that would be translated into his work at Topiarius building decks, pergolas and custom planter boxes. Craig did soon become a Construction Manager at D. Foley Landscape where he continued to fine tune his plant knowledge, installation skills, and design esthetic. He also continued to expand on his experience in snow removal and ice management services for clients in MA.

Throughout his positions, Craig came to embrace the fact that he had a strong entrepreneurial spirit. Recognizing the level of risk needed to start one’s own business, far out-weighed being an employee. So while in MA, the vision of an urban landscaping business was formed. In early spring of 2003, Craig and Sara returned to Chicago to start Topiarius. Craig’s first landscaping job was completed out of the back of his Ford Focus wagon using 5 gallon buckets and a shovel.

After two years in business, his wife Sara left her human resources position and joined Topiarius. During the landscape season they hired local college students to help out with the labor. Slowly the clientele list was built through referrals of satisfied customers. From 2007 – 2012 Topiarius operated their Floral Design services for events and weddings.

In January 2010, Craig and Sara made a significant decision to deliberately grow Topiarius into a larger company. Through extensive work with and guidance of a consultant, Topiarius went from a 2 ½ employee operation to an 11 person operation with an office and landscape yard on the west side of the city. Through the recent economic downturn, Craig and Sara have worked to increase the sales at Topiarius and have more than doubled them over the 2011 season to over a million dollars. As the president of the company, Craig continues to steer the business while wearing many hats.

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
I had this dream of being a two-truck operation where every customer knew me personally and I personally oversaw every detail of every project. Basically, I was the biggest problem. We got to the point where we either had to grow or I would be working in the field until I was 80. We hired a consultant to help us figure out how to grow. While he didn’t really provide the step-by-step answers that I would have liked, he did give us the confidence to make some of the big leaps. We moved into a real office, invested in people and equipment and worked hard at getting our name out to potential customers. Looking back, it was the dumbest and smartest thing I have ever done.

Today, it’s all about staying on top of the latest . . . product, plant, design, flower, container trends. I spend a lot of time looking for new ideas. I try to find new ideas in old products used in creative ways. With that said – I am bare bones practical. I am not a trained designer. I am an implementer. Simplicity of installation is key to keeping the crews productive and profitable.

Please tell us about Topiarius.
Founded in 2003, Topiarius
is a Chicago-based urban gardening and landscape design firm that offers landscape design and care from the construction of hardscapes and planting of softscapes, to regular maintenance, urban farming, and exterior and interior seasonal decorating/planting. Topiarius alsoprovides regularly scheduled floral arrangements and interior plant rotations.

Design & Install Services – Topiarius understands form and function in gardening and landscaping, and blending what looks stunning with what is comfortable. Combining inspiration with practicality and merging style with affordability, Topiarius turns outdoor spaces into a true extension of the home providing both full designs and installations.

Fine Gardening Service (Landscape Maintenance) – Topiarius’ fine gardening service focuses on the health and appearance of properties, based on the best practices in the green industry. Their regularly scheduled visits address a variety of needs from weeding, pruning, fertilization and turf maintenance to irrigation.

Seasonal Color Program -In Chicagoland, the four seasons are very different from one another. Topiarius celebrates each one with seasonally-unique annual plants and designs. The company services both homeowners and commercial properties, whether it’s for just one container or for many, on a roof deck high in the sky or in a sweeping landscape bed.

Custom Containers & Hardscape Construction – One of Topiarius’ specialties is the construction of custom containers and hardscape elements that fit into garden design, from planter containers and outdoor kitchens to pergolas and showers. Their custom creations will make your space distinctive and original.

Urban Farming – Topiarius can transform spaces such as a balcony or roof deck, a small backyard or any other type of vertical and horizontal space into attractive and functional gardens that will meet any production goals, from adding herbs to flower beds to growing food for restaurants.

Interior Floral Design – Topiarius takes care of interior floral and plant needs, whether it is a one-time installation or regularly scheduled visits. From selecting the right container to showcasing a variety of plants, Topiarius is a one-stop shop to address any horticulture needs for the home, building or property. Topairius also provide regularly scheduled floral arrangements and interior plant rotations.

As far as differentiators, Chicago is probably the second biggest market for landscaping in the US. We have some of the biggest and best landscape firms in the country that are our competitors. Some people would see this as a threat, but I see it as an opportunity. Our consumer has a high expectation for quality and this is an advantage and point of differentiation for Topiarius. We focus on the individual and try very hard to give every customer our complete attention and a unique design.

Do you look back particularly fondly on any memories from childhood?
In addition to my work with underprivileged children, my upbringing in central Minnesota. I grew up at a youth camp where my father was the director and my mother oversaw the kitchen. Normal chores revolved around maintaining the camp’s property – from mowing to construction projects to snow removal.

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Image Credit:
Topiarius

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