From side business to powerhouse: The Emerald Isle story

How a son took his parents' side business to the top

Bill and Sandy Lamberton founded Emerald Isle Landscaping the same year – 1977 – their son Rory was born. In the intervening years, Rory grew up, took over the family business and turned it into a statewide landscaping dynamo with 140 full-time employees. Rory recently earned his MBA and is now pursuing a law degree.

“I wanted to make it a sustainable business,” Rory explains of his work on Emerald Isle Landscaping.

But it certainly wasn’t that when Rory’s parents started the business. Bill and Sandy were both school teachers who happened to fall into landscaping as a way to make extra cash on weekends and during the summer.

“It was really small for a long time,” Rory says, explaining the company’s start. “They got a bid to do the landscaping in a back yard, and my dad thought he could do it better, and did it himself. Then the neighbor wanted him to do it. And so he started doing it in the neighborhood.”

But Rory says the work was no picnic.

“When he was teaching, my dad would take his planning hours that teachers get in the middle of the day, and he would go check on the customers, employees, check on the jobs and make sure they were going smoothly,” he says. “And then he would go back to school. After school he would go back and do more work, and then take my brother and me to soccer practice, and then … meet with the customers at night, do lesson planning when he got home. So he was really busy. Both of them were really busy.”

Not surprisingly, Rory has been enmeshed in the business since before he could walk. “When my dad was in meetings with customers, he would have me come out when I was a little kid and pull weeds for a dollar an hour,” Rory says. “He was basically just giving me something to do when he was talking to customers. Then when I was in high school it was like a real job. I worked summers and after school, weekends, doing mowing and landscape install, that kind of thing. I’ve just always been doing it.”

Rory went to college but quickly dropped out and returned to the family business. “I came back from school and said, ‘I want to do something with this,’” he recalls.

As he worked through the company’s maintenance, irrigation and administration divisions, he quickly got a handle on what it meant to run a small business. After the recession of 2008 and 2009, Rory decided to expand Emerald Isle to meet customer demand, and that move has paid off. He says the company’s revenues have grown steadily from $5 million in 2012 to roughly $12 million in 2015. Today the company counts five offices stretching from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins.

And during those years of expansion, Rory decided to return to school to earn his MBA. “The first time around I didn’t see the value of what I was learning in college,” he says. “But now that I’m running a business, it makes sense. And so I was like, ‘Wow, what I’m learning today I can apply to my business tomorrow.’”

Rory explained that Emerald Isle Landscaping relies on a few core principles. “We kind of have a don’t-say-no attitude. Instead of saying we can’t do it, we say how do we do it,” he says. “There’s a whole small family mentality of the business. No matter how big we are, we try to keep that a part of our culture. Because we’ve got employees who have worked with us for 20 years – well, that’s why we have had people stay with us, because we treat people like family.”

Rory says Bill and Sandy are still owners in the business and check in every once and a while. “They’ve seen where it’s going to go, and they’re still excited about it,” he says.

Categories: Company Perspectives, Magazine Articles