I was just about to graduate from the UW with a degree in art and a background in horticulture when Blair Lawn and Landscape was first born. That was 30 years ago, in May of 1984.
I knew that returning to the suburbs of Illinois—where I had grown up—was not in any way what I wanted to do with my life. I decided instead to use my experience from the park district in Illinois, the small lawn care business my sister and I had back in high school, and my work experience at the local Jungs Garden Center to stay in Madison.
More than any of that, though, I knew my passion was to be outside and to be artistically creative, so I decided at that moment to put an ad in the local paper, calling myself Blair Lawn Care. It was a scary and incredibly powerful feeling all at once. I had a little ‘79 Datsun pickup truck and some pruning tools and a mower, and I was starting a business.
Thinking back on my life growing up, I always strived to do what I was passionate about. The landscaping industry, being outside, and creating with Mother Nature were in line with what brought me joy.
Yes, there were critics who thought only a male could run a bobcat, or plant a big tree, or dig in the dirt. Thankfully I had the desire and people along the way to encourage me to do what I was passionate about and to do it well.
These challenges with gender-norms were not unfamiliar to me. Growing up, my sister and I started playing hockey on the ponds and were the only two girls on the lagoon in Lombard, Illinois. When I came to Madison, I got to be part of the Women’s Ice Hockey Club team, where we were pioneers in the arena of women playing the sport. I remember the challenges with getting people to accept and take us seriously.
Once an older guy asked me, “Why do you want to play hockey?”
“Because I love the game,” I answered simply.
I believe when you are able to do things you are passionate about, it makes the journey that much easier and hopefully shines a light on what doors can be opened. Mother Nature doesn’t ask an acorn not to become an oak tree, now does she?
I believe a lot of my initial interest in landscaping came at the age of 12 when my dad passed and my twin sister and I had to take care of our home for my mom. Living on a corner lot, we had lots of grass to mow and plenty of shrubs to prune, plus sidewalks and a double driveway to shovel in the winter. I remember taking to it naturally, enjoying it and wanting everything to always look nice.
That led my sister Pam and me to start a business doing lawn care and small landscape projects. We worked together for a summer and found we both loved the work, but we had different ideas about how to run it, so we parted ways and I headed off the college.
When I was deciding what to study, I remember horticulture and art were my two passions, even though I had no idea where they might lead me. My mom kept telling me to take typing and office skills because women were always needed to do office work (this was in the early eighties). I would laugh, knowing there was truth in what she said, but that it was not me at all.
My first client was an elderly woman named Frances Borchardt who had a large property on Fish Hatchery Road. I would come once a week and hand push a mower on her quarter acre lawn, weed and prune the shrubs, and rake leaves when needed. Frances recognized my passion for work and would often invite me in for a sandwich and to share some stories of how she and her husband had built their house and raised two kids. I still remember her to this day and how her kindness and encouragement kept me going. She would pass my name on to other friends, and I was suddenly building a nice client base. I wasn’t making a lot of money, but every day was mine to schedule, work, and play as I wanted.
My desire to grow and take on more challenges was huge. In part it comes from being an athlete all my life and wanting to challenge myself to see how much better I could be. Plus getting to do physical work in the sun and was a great way to stay in shape. It all fit right into my lifestyle.
As my company grew, so did the challenges. Once I had a business phone number set up, I began receiving calls asking for “Mr. Blair,” who they assumed was the owner. Most were shocked and would wonder how a female could do such “heavy” work.
That continued for years: mail, phone calls, etc., all directed to Mr. Pat Blair or Mr. Blair.
Once I was able to establish a solid reputation and get signage on trucks, all of that began to subside. Then I had to work through proving to bankers and suppliers that I deserved a business account and was looking long-term. Many asked why I wanted to do landscaping because it was “man’s work,” and others wondered what “my husband” thought.
Paving the Way
I persisted and established business with a local bank and Madison Block and Stone, which is still one of our main suppliers for materials.
I was encouraged to join the Madison Chapter of the Wisconsin Landscape Contractors Association by Liza from Avante Gardening. The first meeting I attended was in a smoke-filled room with 15 male landscape contractors, half of whom fell asleep during the meeting. I didn’t see the value of joining, but Liza kept encouraging me to come back. She said it would be changing, and new members were coming in that would support the companies we were trying to build.
It took time, but it happened, and I met some extremely talented people and great mentors, such as David Watts and Paul Ganshert, who inspired me to continue on and helped me make good business decisions.
That group has been a key to my success along the way. Being able to network with other business owners and rub elbows with some of the top contractors in the state has been of huge value to me.
In 2001, I was elected president of our chapter and served through 2003. Together we installed community projects such as the engraved walk at Agrace Hospice, the Shorewood Elementary School kids’ area, Ronald McDonald House landscaping, and we continue to do the Garden Expo central display every year. Though our name has changed (now WNLA, Wisconsin Nursery Landscape Association), this group continues to be a main source of knowledge and inspiration for me, and now I get to share my knowledge with other, younger members.
Weathering the Storms
There have been a variety of challenges over the years: the weather and its unpredictability, surviving a recession or two, as well as labor shortages in the industry. These are all challenges that force me to be creative and seek out wisdom where I can. Of course, Mother Nature will always have the last say, and after 30 years in business I realize that there may not be a “normal” summer or winter anymore, and still we must continue on.
While I feel accepted as a woman business owner, I was recently reminded that some things in the world take longer to change. I was volunteering with my neighborhood group to do leaf raking for those who are elderly or unable. Our group consisted of three guys, two other women, and me.
Upon arrival at the last residence on our list, the elderly gentleman poked his head out and said, “Oh, you even have gals doing the work!”
I could smile and think how far I’ve really come.