Environmentally Friendly Landscaping Services

AAA Landscape
Written by Jen Hocken

Landscape contractor AAA Landscape provides installation, maintenance, arbor care, chemical applications, and enhancement services in Arizona, California, Nevada, and Texas. It often works with developers to improve the design and water sustainability of master-planned communities and maintains those properties for many years. It has a high-end residential design-build division, yet its specialty is in multi-million dollar projects that require an educated workforce.
AAA Landscape was created in 1974 by Robert and Richard Underwood, two brothers who borrowed a thousand dollars from their mother and a pickup truck from their uncle to start a new venture. They established great local relationships in Tucson, Arizona and opened a landscaping office there in 1976. In 1978, the company expanded to Phoenix to a new office made out of an old farmhouse, and by 1980, it had reached its first million dollars in revenue. AAA Landscape purchased a nursery in Phoenix in 1981 where it grows its own young plants until they are a usable size.

In 1985, the company became involved with municipal work and began to work with the department of transportation. Richard Underwood went back to school to get his general engineering license to ensure the company was prepared for the change. After outgrowing the Tucson office in 1998, the company purchased seven acres of land to build a second office in the same city.

The year 2000 marked the beginning of the company’s in-house training program. AAA Landscape has a dedicated instructor to take the company through the certified landscape professional program to get the employees certified, and that instructor also helped to write the book that is used to test for sustainability in Arizona. The company is made up of people with the highest levels of skill in the industry.

In 2007, the company hit forty-five million dollars in revenue, and Richard Underwood became a member of the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. In 2008, he got his B-1 general commercial contractor’s license to enable the company to construct restrooms on properties – such as parks – it builds. That same year, AAA Landscape was awarded the best sustainable landscape maintenance award from the American Society of Landscape Architects, and it has won numerous other awards over the years.

After its many benchmarks and expansions, the company currently has six facilities in Phoenix, four facilities in Tucson, and one in San Antonio, Texas. It has over six hundred employees.

The two brothers were raised with spiritual and moral values by their parents and taught to take proper care of the land. This attitude has led to the principles of the company. “We respect the work ethic, and we understand that without our laborers we are nothing, so we really want to try to take care of them with education programs, and if an employee is in trouble, we’ll help them out,” says Richard Underwood, president of AAA Landscape.

The company operates with a golden rule mentality, and it has retained many of its employees for over forty years. “Education is paramount, and I think that separates us from other companies. There are not a lot of companies that have a dedicated education staff to the level that we’ve got.”

Tucson does not have a lot of business that brings outside money in, and when misfortune arises, Tucson is particularly affected. “When hard times hit, they hit Tucson a lot harder than other places, and we get by by taking in each other’s laundry,” says Richard. The citizens take care of each other and give back to the community during a recession. Having a ratio of sixty percent maintenance to forty percent construction is the company’s current strategy to help pay the bills when construction disappears.

Richard received a piece of advice in his early years to always be a man of his word and to be kind to people. He learned that it is easy to be nice to people whether they are on their way up or on their way down, and it is just the right thing to do. “It is most important is to give back to the community where you earn your daily bread, and we basically made that a part of our culture from the very beginning, and that’s probably why we have some of those thirty-year projects because we are very involved in the community,” says Richard.

Learning to respond and adapt to the swings in the economy that can devastate the marketplace has been a challenge for AAA Landscape. “It’s a good thing we didn’t know what we didn’t know when we started the company, or we probably wouldn’t have done it. We were undercapitalized, and all we had was an overdeveloped work ethic,” says Richard.

The company believes in its people and having to lay someone off is the most difficult aspect of the business. “If we’re going to have to lay somebody off, we bring them in; we look them in the eye and tell them what’s happening, and they will be eligible for coming back. We also help them find another job. We have enough contacts in the industry that we try to place everybody that we’ve had to lay off,” says Richard.

Early on in the company’s development, it kept running into the Peter Principle, which is a concept developed by Laurence J. Peter that states employees in a hierarchical organization will rise by getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. Some of the best employees at AAA Landscape were confused about how to move into supervisory roles, and the company called on the teachings of Dale Carnegie to mentor the emerging leaders.

“It’s just invaluable because people that wouldn’t have made it before, not through their fault but through our fault because we didn’t have the program. Now we have the tools to succeed, and it works really well. We’re always looking around for new educational opportunities,” says Richard.

There is a huge labor shortage in the United States that is not going to improve any time soon, and the H-2B program is a great resource. “We do advertise. We recruit in the high schools, but these guys that come up here on the H-2B legal visa program, they’ve been vetted before they get here. They work for nine months and go back for three months, and some have been coming back year after year for ten years,” says Richard.

Unfortunately, the U.S. government has lowered the number of H-2B workers available in the workforce, and it has only exacerbated the marketplace shortage. Richard Underwood is concerned about the changes. “We’ve got to stop playing political football. It’s becoming tragic, and it’s going to be an economic catastrophe for the U.S. not just now, but in the future.”

AAA Landscape enjoys challenging projects that improve the community or the environment in some way. The Underwood Family Sonoran Landscape Laboratory at the University of Arizona College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture is one project of which the company is particularly proud. It is a beautiful garden that was built in collaboration with others in the industry and was dedicated in honor of the Underwood family.

The 1.2 acres of a reclaimed parking lot is now considered to be an oasis that represents water sustainability in the middle of a campus of forty thousand students. “On the south side of the architecture building, we cut the asphalt out of the parking lot, and we put in a 7,000-gallon stainless steel tank to capture the rainwater, but most importantly, to capture the chiller water that comes off the AC units,” says Richard. Millions of gallons of water are sent down the storm sewers from air conditioning condensers that can be reused, which is especially useful in the state of Arizona.

The seven thousand gallon tank fills up and overflows into a natural pond that flows into a stream traveling through five distinct biomes that represent the habitats of the Sonoran Desert. “It’s just so peaceful, and it’s got such a good feel. You’ll find engineering students, philosophy students, and landscape students just sitting there and reading, hanging out, or enjoying the peace,” says Richard. AAA Landscape had been hoping to give the University of Arizona and the people of Arizona a gift for many years, and the exceptional work at the Underwood Family Garden has won numerous national and international awards.

AAA Landscape has partnered with the Second Chance Foundation to help re-establish previously incarcerated individuals in society and the workforce. The mandatory sentencing in Arizona puts many young adults into prison and leads to recidivism for those who are unable to find work when they get out. The community’s youth is a precious natural resource that should not be wasted, and AAA Landscape is looking to train the incarcerated in landscape careers to encourage rehabilitation from crime.

Every employee at AAA Landscape is told that the sky is the limit and that there is no ceiling at the growing business. There are opportunities for personal growth, extra education, and promotions in the company. “We stress opportunity, and we stress a lifestyle. We want to be a company where a person can work for us their entire life, buy a house, and have a good life doing something they love,” says Richard.

AAA Landscape is the largest Arizona-based landscape company, and it is proud of the work it completes. “There have been studies done of homeowners who come home right after the grass has been cut, pruned, or raked and it gives them an increased sense of wellbeing,” says Richard.



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