DEP recently had the pleasure of interviewing Al M Britt, II, founder and president of Britt Landscaping, a black owned, local small business in Montgomery County, Maryland. We were interested to learn about his journey, as black landscapers are under-represented in the industry.
Please tell us a little bit about your company and your journey in the landscaping industry.
My brother and I started mowing our neighbor’s yards in Silver Spring, Maryland to make a little money for ourselves, but after a couple of years he grew tired of it and stopped. I enjoyed working outside and making people’s lawns in the neighborhood look beautiful so I kept going. My siblings and I are artistic at heart. I express myself through nature, so it was natural for me to learn how to design the yards that people wanted and install the appropriate flowers for them. My sister is an amazing illustrative artist and she designed my first logo. She also helped me with the administration of my business. After a few years of this, around 1989, my mother saw that I was serious about my work, so she helped me incorporate into a company and do everything I needed to do to set up a business. Thus, Britt Landscaping was born as a family-based business. When I graduated from BCC, I went to Montgomery College where I majored in Landscaping. By 1990, people loved the work that we did so much that my clientele grew by word-of-mouth up to 200 customers made up primarily of single-family homes. By 2000, I added Homeowner Associations and some commercial properties.
In 2012, Britt Enterprises LLC was formed with a Doing Business As (DBA) Britt Landscaping and a DBA Work Environment Specialists, and our clientele expanded to local and federal government-owned lands. The business obtained its 8(a) certification and is certified as a MBE/DBE/SBE in the state of Maryland. It is also registered in the Maryland Local Small Business Reserve Program (“LSBRP”).
Today our services include: lawn health & care maintenance, landscape design and installation, bio-retention site maintenance, erosion control, fertilizing, lawn restoration, Spring & Fall clean-up, pruning, trimming, mulching, gutter cleaning, hedge trimming, hauling, snow & ice management and removal, building small hardscapes and medium to small ponds, pesticide application, and more. We are always looking to expand our services too, with the right people on board.
Britt Landscaping started as a small family business rooted in family values that include, but are not limited to, excellent work-ethic, respect, trust, care and support. As we expand, we endeavor to maintain these values by taking care of our employees so that they and their families are healthy, happy and thriving. This allows our employees to bring their very best to work, taking care of our customers by not only meeting but surpassing customer expectations.
What commitments do you make in your hiring decisions?
When I am hiring people, I am committed to training them to succeed with us as leaders and within in this industry. Everyone should have a skill that they can depend on to survive and make a living. We do beautiful work and we have to train new employees (no matter what they say their experience level is) to get them up to our standards so that we can maintain and improve our standards as well as grow our customer base.
I am also committed to creating a diverse and supportive work environment where employees and their families can thrive. Happy and secure employees bring their best to the table creatively and through good work ethic. We try to foster a work environment that is free from discrimination and that allows people to express themselves creatively, especially through nature.
My biggest challenge is finding people who want to work outside in nature, especially in the extremes of heat and cold in this area, but I love it out here.
What, if any, challenges do you feel you have had to overcome as a black owned business in the landscaping industry?
One of the challenges we have faced is hiring Black and Brown people interested in investing in careers in this industry. Maybe I am wrong but I think that because of our history here, it has been my observation that many Black and Brown people view careers such as this (farming, agriculture) as oppressive and exploitive so they are not running to work outside within the landscaping industry. Landscaping is a billion-dollar industry in which we may all take part, and we at Britt Landscaping are seeking to show Black and Brown people that this work is quite rewarding. In addition to the potential economic benefits, there are other tangible and intangible benefits. Your office is the outdoors and we work with nature! It can be a very humbling experience to see the beauty and even divinity in how nature looks and works. Moreover, having people skilled in growing and maintaining plants has the potential to stabilize communities, but finding people interested in investing in careers in this industry has proven to be quite the challenge at least in this geographic area. Finding large numbers of women is also difficult in this industry. We are looking to form Britt Landscaping Teams of women (of any race) because most of my clients are women, but it is difficult to get women out here too.
Some other challenges we have had to overcome as minorities in this business include finding effective contacts and getting contracts. I look at some of my non-minority peers who have been able to obtain very large contracts and clients by sometimes just walking into the room. Often non-minorities have contacts that I just don’t have, so it takes a lot more networking for me to meet the contacts that I need, and then I have to really convince them to give us a chance. Many of us minority business owners just don’t have the same circle of contacts that non-minorities have. Often times, my non-minority counterparts may have grown up with the people who are now the corporation owners or heads in government, so they have a leg up on obtaining contracts because of who they know, particularly in the private sector.
I have actually had an older white male who is an investor, who knew nothing about me, tell me that I have not worked hard enough and then proceed to tell me how he had to struggle and put himself through a particular community college (outside of this area), and how he had to work his way up and in a relatively short amount of time, built a large well-known corporation, and sold it for millions of dollars, etc. It was immediately apparent that he was not capable of understanding that his comments showed a lack of sensitivity to a core issue and problem for Black and Brown people. his perspective came from a point of privilege that allowed him to be able to walk into a room and receive a contract because of how he looked and who he knew. So, I certainly have had to deal with insensitive people who don’t care to understand that I have had to work 10 times harder to get a fraction of what they have obtained by simply walking into the room.
Part of the progress that must be had for minority businesses like mine to succeed is that people have to come to understand that extending the invitation into “the room” is needed, but being seriously considered and offered the opportunity is the next necessary step. We can get into the room all day, but if people still turn their back on us then we are no better off. People who see these steps, (the invitation and the offer), as a hand-out fail to understand that I and businesses like mine, still have to do excellent work to actually get the contract and keep it. Minority businesses are not asking for a hand-out but we sometimes need a hand-up. Think about it like this: If you have ever seen or run a race around a track, you know the starting points for the racers are staggered. That staggering is to put the racers on equal ground because some circles are inherently advantageous to run on than the others. The staggering makes the race equal. The racers can run the same race and no one has a starting advantage over another. Minority-owned companies are only asking for the chance to run an equal race.
This is what drives my commitment to creating a work environment of equality for men and women of any race, national origin, or sexual orientation within my company, because I know what it feels like to work hard and do what is required but still face discrimination because of peoples’ perceptions of me based on how I look.
Has anything else been unique in your business journey?
One of the things we try to do is give back to our community. Through donations we have supported various civic organizations that support children and the arts. We also have worked with Returning Citizens in Washington, D.C. and Maryland to provide jobs to people who are returning to society after being incarcerated. We strongly believe in arming people with skills that they can use to survive in this world regardless of their backgrounds or mistakes they might have made.
What do you think government or community leaders can do to support businesses like yours?
Montgomery County Government actually does a lot for minority-owned businesses and we are blessed to be in this county. They have programs that assist with hiring through the state’s Department of Labor and there are a plethora of non-profit organizations that assist with business startup. Even though they provide these services, there just are not a lot of people who are interested in investing in a career working in landscaping. Even with these resources, we still struggle with hiring qualified dependable people. But I do believe that Montgomery County and the state of Maryland make it fairly easy to start up a business and they do provide excellent resources to business owners, especially compared to other nearby jurisdictions.
What do you think educational institutions, trade organizations, or communities can do to encourage more minorities to become leaders and experts in the landscape industry?
Perhaps these institutions can host even more hiring forums like the federal government does where people interested in this industry can come and meet landscaping companies who will hire them. They can also hold sessions to educate people on today’s industry to get the stigma off of it that comes with the history of black and brown people working outside in nature. They can also go into schools and talk to juniors and seniors about the industry and really talk about how these skills are necessary to stabilize communities. Colleges can publicize more about their internship programs that they may have with landscaping companies so that the companies know they have them.
Tell us about how you incorporate environmentally friendly practices into your services and why that matters to you.
We recycle everything meaning we compost all yard waste and recycle anything else that we haul away. We educate our clientele on recycling as well. As much as possible, we try not to use chemicals. We are working towards getting solar powered equipment but that will take time. A part of our mission is also to be good stewards of the environment. Our habits and practices are certainly in alignment with the environmental policies of the state of Maryland and local Counties, and we are always committed to looking for additional ideas and ways to be gentle with our environment.
DEP would like to thank Al for this enlightening interview! We hope you have learned something and encourage you to get involved in the landscaping industry if you enjoy working with people, plants, landscape design, project management, being outdoors, and exploring a variety of properties.