John Vlay has held many positions in the nearly 30 years since he went to work for Jensen Corporate Holdings. When Vlay joined the company right out of college, Jensen was still a small landscaping company, headed by its two owners, an office manager and about a dozen men in the field. He started as an estimator and created standardized bidding procedures and processes. In 1994, he was promoted to vice president of estimating before moving up to be president of Jensen’s construction division. In 2005, he entered his current position as CEO of Jensen Corporate Holdings.
Just as Vlay has seen many changes in his career with Jensen, he has seen the company itself go through many transformations, as well. Founded in 1969 by Fred Jensen, Jensen remained a small landscaping company until it was bought by former employees Duane Wasson and Scott McGilvray in 1982. The two grew Jensen to be many times larger than when they purchased it and set up a corporate structure that would allow for both diversity and stability.
“We have Jensen Corporate Holdings, which is the holding company, and we have wholly owned subsidiaries,” Vlay explains. “The holding company provides shared services such as accounting, HR, IT, administrative, fleet and also purchasing. It’s all part of the holding company and we charge a management fee for the percentage of time spent on each division. It allows for consistency for all departments and all of our employees.”
With its solid foundation, the Northern California company has diversified itself through four subsidiaries. Jensen Corporation Landscape Contractors handles commercial and public works projects while Jensen Landscape Services specializes in landscape maintenance in Northern California’s East and South Bay, Peninsula, Monterey Bay and Sacramento and North Bay. Jensen Landscape & Construction Company performs landscape contracting, maintenance and construction for high-end residential estates, and Jensen Tree Services specializes in arboriculture and tree maintenance consulting.
Core Corporate Values
Although these divisions offer different services, each functions under a common business philosophy based on partnership and accountability. In 1994, Jensen went through its second acquisition, but instead of individual owners, Jensen employees would be the new owners. The company formed an employee stock ownership plan and over the course of nine years the two former owners sold their stock to the employees in three separate sales. The employees were able to buy company shares with pre-tax dollars, which gave them a higher stake in their company’s performance.
“By owning shares, everyone has an interest in growing the value of that stock, and over the years employees can amass a pretty good retirement account,” Vlay explains. “It gets people to think like an owner and take ownership for what they are doing and they realize if we all work together it benefits the company and themselves as owners. It’s another way to incentivize employees.”
Vlay says the camaraderie within the company is practiced outside of its walls at job sites, as well. During a tough economic time when Vlay says competitors are cutting prices to new lows to keep their doors open, Jensen has instead maintained its success through truly partnering with other companies. Whether it’s an architect, subcontractor or general contractor, Vlay explains that Jensen’s goal is to create lasting relationships, even if it means resisting one of the biggest trends to hit the construction scene in the past few years: design/build.
Design/build is a construction method where owners contract one entity that can handle both the design and construction of a single project, rather than hiring an architect to design the plans and then seeking bids from contractors. Because of this trend, several landscape companies have hired in-house architects; however, Jensen is not in the business of competing with the landscape architects in its region. Instead, it works with landscape architects and then provides the contracting portion of the project.
“We don’t have architects in our company and we don’t compete with architects because they can be our best source of referrals and references,” Vlay says. “We partner with them rather than compete. The same goes for other people we partner with. We have subcontractors that we work with and we will bid on jobs with them or with other general contractors. We have a philosophy of partnering with whoever we work with.
Vlay says all of Jensen’s key strengths work together to benefit its clients and meet their needs in the field. These same strengths will help the company as it discusses plans to move into Southern California. It will also help the company as it adjusts to new trends in its market.
Sustainability is a growing trend and the company recently bid on a green roof for the San Francisco 49ers stadium. In 1995, it became one of the first companies in its region to build a green roof for the GAP headquarters. It has since built a number of green roofs, such as the California Academy of Sciences’ green roof in 2007, designed by world-famous architect Renzo Piano. The project received international acclaim and Jensen certainly welcomed the positive feedback, which seems to be a regular occurrence for the company.
“I recently received a really nice email from one of the inspectors that we work with at a local city,” Vlay says. “He took the time to write an email saying how much he appreciates all the people he has worked with from our company. I’m passing it on to all of our employees to let them know that even in these tight economic times, I appreciate that we serve the clients as good as we do and that it’s recognized by our clients. Of all the things at our company, I’m most proud of our employees.”