Every mighty live oak tree you’ve ever seen started out as a humble acorn. From Charleston’s iconic “Angel Oak” to the majestic specimen that stretches across Hilton Head Island’s Harbour Town. All of these ancient wonders began simply and grew over centuries because they were nourished by the sparkling sunlight of the South.
It didn’t take The Greenery centuries to grow from a humble Hilton Head Island-based landscaping firm to one of the most successful employee-owned companies in the Southeast. It only took 50 years.
“We’ve not only grown in terms of the area we serve, we’ve also just grown and matured as a company,” said The Greenery CEO, Lee Edwards.
Lee took over leadership of the company from his father, founder Berry Edwards, in 2007. The firm his father started during the island’s early years has grown apace with the Lowcountry, expanding into Bluffton to meet demand, and Lee has been a part of that growth since 1994. That’s when he joined the company full-time, following college. And after rising through the construction division, he helped launch the Charleston branch five years later.
“When I moved up to Charleston, that was really a big leap,” he said. “It just took off, and when I came back here (in 2007) we were already doing work in Beaufort and in Savannah, so it was just a matter of building on some of that work.”
The Greenery eventually acquired landscape companies in Beaufort and Savannah to better serve those markets. Similar buyouts in Greenville, South Carolina and Florida let the company blossom beyond the Lowcountry and become a true regional powerhouse in the Southeast.
“It’s an easy industry to start your own company, but there aren’t many people who view it as an industry, much less a growing industry,” said Lee. “We’re a growth-oriented company, not because we want to get bigger and bigger, but because we want to hang on to our people. People aren’t going to stick around if you don’t give them opportunities.”
That mindset speaks to one of the most remarkable developments in the company’s 50-year history, its transition into an Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) company. Set in motion by Lee’s father, this structure gives employees ownership in the company, incentivizing employees to help grow the business while rewarding them for their loyalty.
“That’s the best lesson I ever learned from my dad – hire the best people you can find, and then get out of their way,” he said. “Let them do their job, and promote from within.”
He points to several key employees who personify the long-term career that The Greenery is able to offer its employees as an ESOP. There’s Clay Kinard, who started with The Greenery right out of college and retired this past year. There’s Alfred Simmons, the company’s very first employee, who stayed on for 43 years. “He passed away this past summer, and I was honored to be invited to speak at his funeral,” added Lee.
That speaks to the two-way street of loyalty The Greenery has built for its employees. “I didn’t build this company by myself. My dad didn’t build this company by himself. It was done with the help of many talented and dedicated people over many years. So creating the ESOP is our way to reward the people who helped build it,” he said.
Those people, in turn, reward the communities they call home. The Greenery provides many local charities and non-profits with financial support, such as Volunteers in Medicine, the United Way, and The Heritage Classic Foundation, to name a few. But something else The Greenery has done is donate landscaping to a host of amazing non-profits including: the Arts Center of Coastal Carolina, The Spanish Moss Trail in Beaufort, an affordable housing project in Bluffton, The Boys & Girls Club of Hilton Head, and Operation Patriots FOB, a veterans retreat located in Ridgeland.
“We try and do things like that to get our people involved,” he said. “Writing a check is one important part of philanthropy, but to me it’s even more rewarding to get into the dirt and provide free landscaping. That way our employee owners get to be involved and they are part of giving back to the community in which they live.
And the company that all of those people built has proven that, after 50 years, it has the kind of staying power few companies can match. Just as it has grown countless beautiful plants across the Southeast, The Greenery has grown its business through establishing strong roots and ensuring they stay nourished with loyalty and opportunity.
“We’re growth-oriented, and I think that will continue,” said Lee. “We want to build value. We want to continue providing opportunities for people to grow in the company.”
And along the way, just as they’ve been doing for 50 years, The Greenery will continue to make the South a more beautiful place to call home.
By Barry Kaufman