Landscape business thrives during pandemic

tackling commercial clients’ projects

Georgann Yara

Two longtime coworkers launched their own landscape business in 2019 and saw steady success in their first year, building business with big companies in the corporate landscape space.

Then the pandemic hit, sending millions of office employees to work-from-home duty. But instead of job cancellations and wide open schedules, Encore Landscape Management owners Mike DiFabbio and Juan Hernandez, found their Phoenix company busier than ever in 2020.

Encore Landscape Management owners Juan Hernandez (left) and Mike DiFabbio founded their Phoenix-based commercial landscaping company in 2019, and experienced exponential growth during the pandemic.

Encore Landscape Management owners Juan Hernandez (left) and Mike DiFabbio founded their Phoenix-based commercial landscaping company in 2019, and experienced exponential growth during the pandemic.

Photos by Brandon Tigrett

The Encore team is selective in the clients it picks, partnering only with the right fits.

Mike DiFabbio says all three partners at Encore have had leadership experience.

At first, DiFabbio said they thought their core clients would cut back on spending and that the landscape category would be among the first areas to get cut.

Turns out, although buildings were pretty much empty, the need to keep their exteriors lively and thriving remained a priority.

Encore’s clientele include heavyweight real estate and investment firms such as CBRE, Cushman and Wakefield, Prologis, Kidder Mathews, Caprock and Avison Young. Other clients are The Scott Resort in Scottsdale, Joyride Taco House and Upward Projects, the hospitality group responsible for Postino.

Encore’s growth tripled in 2020, and is on pace to double this year, DiFabbio said. Demand sparked Encore’s launch of a Las Vegas branch and a dedicated tree division in 2020, too.

“We thought the capital projects would go away, but it was the opposite,” DiFabbio said. “It shows the confidence building owners and managers have (in us), knowing the investment they have, and they need to look good.”

Much of this is credited to  DiFabbio and Hernandez’s business model that focuses on relationships and a client list of professionally managed properties.

And Encore’s clients - 90% of them representing large commercial office, industrial or retail properties that take extra pride in optics —

Julie Cornelius, Phoenix-based director at international real estate firm Lincoln Property Company, is among them. Encore services five of Lincoln’s properties in Phoenix and Las Vegas. Because most employees were working from home during the pandemic, Cornelius said these conditions provided a good chance for tasks that may not have been able to be completed if the buildings were at full occupancy.

“When you have a large property and have the landscaping that all of our properties have, you need those to look sharp and ready for inspection anytime,” Cornelius said.

Cornuelius had worked with Encore’s leadership previously so when she found out DiFabbio and Hernandez started their own company, she was quick to sign them up. Cornelius said Lincoln’s are Class A and Prime Class A properties that require a high level of service she knew Encore could provide.

“We don’t look at our vendors as vendors. We consider them to be partners. Encore is really the epitome of that,” Cornelius said. “They understand what it is that we need … I have a lot of faith in their ability to deliver what they say they’ll deliver.”

Both commercial landscape veterans, DiFabbio and Hernandez worked for the same large company for years, with DiFabbio in that company’s Las Vegas office and Hernandez in its Phoenix office.

When that company was sold in 2016, they left and went on their separate professional paths but stayed in touch.

It didn’t take long for them to realize their ideas aligned and joining forces would give them the opportunity to start their own business and run it the way they envisioned but couldn’t if working for others.

“It seemed like we could do it better ourselves. We figured, why not give it a shot?” DiFabbio said.

Over the past two years, Encore has grown to include a fleet of 25 vehicles, several specialized divisions for landscape, arbor, new installations and enhancement work.

Encore is part of a landscape services industry that employs more than 1 million people and is worth $105.1 billion, according to IBIS World.

During the pandemic, Encore worked with clients in ways that were doable on both sides. Hernandez said they serviced The Scott Resort for free while it was shut down, and when Upward Projects had to suspend service, they stayed in touch and helped how they could. This included purchasing meals from their restaurants and giving those to employees at the end of the day.

Both are big believers in a positive work culture and team attitude, two aspects they always wanted to be part of.

“We learned a lot of good things from the original owners ... When that company became part of a big company, all of those things went away,”  Hernandez said of his and DiFabbio’s former employer. “We felt we could provide a better service for our clients by creating a good environment for our employees.”

In addition to day-to-day interactions, this includes year-round events like recreational activities, raffles, giving turkeys and hams for the holidays and company cookouts with Hernandez at the grill making his famous carne asada.

Seeing ownership present and hands-on goes a long way in letting employees know they are all a team, explained Hernandez, who got his start pushing a lawn mower and over 30 years in the industry worked his way up to entrepreneur.

He values giving employees a shot to do the same.

“What’s rewarding is just providing a home for our guys. Not just giving them a job, but the opportunity to make a career out of it,” Hernandez said.

Letting the staff know the owners have their backs is also key, especially when employees aren’t treated professionally. DiFabbio talked about sitting down with former clients and having difficult conversations about why the relationship is not a fit.

This has been vital to the company’s success and continued growth in a competitive market.

“That’s the culture we wanted to build, where we are truly looking out for you guys and creating positions for our employees to keep growing,” DiFabbio said. “If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”

What: Encore Landscape Management

Where: 2600 S. 20th Ave., Phoenix

Employees: 70

Interesting stat: The landscape services industry has a market size of $105.1 billion, according to IBIS World.

Details: 602-568-2582,

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