Rotolo Consultants Inc. (RCI) is a regional landscape, maintenance, and construction company based in Slidell, Louisiana, serving the Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee markets, with two recent acquisitions in the Florida panhandle. The company has just celebrated forty years in business, and we caught up with the team to get the full story of its continuing success.
In 1978, Joe Rotolo, Sr. purchased Jack’s Little Nursery, a small, locally owned retail plant nursery in Slidell, LA. Originally intended as a retirement project, it wasn’t long before Rotolo’s sons became involved. By 1979, both in their early twenties, Kerry and Joe Rotolo purchased the majority of the company from their father. Neither of them had any experience in running a business, but they were determined to make it work.
By the end of their first year, Jack’s Nursery made just under $115,000 in gross revenue and employed three people. Today, under the RCI Consultants banner, it’s a multimillion-dollar enterprise with nine locations, 750 employees at peak season, and a broad range of landscape, maintenance, and construction capabilities.
“They talk a lot about how they stumbled into opportunity,” says Samantha Betancourt, Marketing Specialist at RCI, “but really they chased it down fervently. They took on growth by taking on bigger and bigger projects. They started with landscaping, progressed to irrigation and then eventually got their first million dollar project. By 1988 the company was voted the premier landscape company in the New Orleans market.”
The company’s first ten years in business saw steady growth, but with 1989 came a significant hurdle that nearly forced Joe, Kerry and their brother Rod Rotolo, who had recently joined the company, to close. Louisiana’s economy is closely tied to oil, and that year, a substantial price collapse in the oil industry resulted in a major recession. Many large-scale projects were canceled and thousands of people lost their jobs.
Opportunities were rapidly disappearing, and the company was in a desperate situation. The decision had been made to close the company. “While Joe and Kerry were in Florida on vacation, an unexpected opportunity arose,” says President and CEO Keith Rotolo. “It was a million-plus dollar project for Disney’s corporate office. It resulted in national recognition and it was a major turning point. It exposed the company to Team Disney, which in the landscaping business is a whole other level.” This project was a significant milestone for RCI and in 1992, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton presented it with the Best Commercial Landscape Company award in recognition of its success.
As that project was coming to a close, a burgeoning casino industry was just taking shape in Mississippi. Joe and Kerry were in Florida wrapping up the Disney project and their brother Rod was managing the Louisiana operation. They realized that the casino boom presented a significant opportunity and returned to Louisiana to focus on that. The company’s first casino project was the Lady’s Luck in Tunica, Mississippi and the success of that project resulted in many more opportunities in that industry. The company has landscaped 47 casinos since the Lady’s Luck, and casinos represent the high end of landscape work. RCI has become known for these high-end, complex, fast-tracked projects.
When Keith Rotolo joined the company in 2000 it was still focused entirely on landscape and construction, but things were about to change. American Civil Constructors was a Colorado-based company on the rise. RCI leadership felt that ACC could help expand RCI’s scope by exposing it to civil and light construction work. RCI was sold to ACC in October of that year. “We stayed with them for four years,” says Rotolo. “During that time we were exposed to additional scopes of work in landscape and civil construction as well as a much larger maintenance operation which assisted us in growing a scalable maintenance division.”
Eventually, ACC found itself in a state of financial difficulty. RCI’s leadership saw that it would be in their best interest to buy the company back, and they did so in 2004. A year later RCI would be tested again by one of the most devastating natural disasters in recent history: Hurricane Katrina.
“We all have that event in our lives where we remember things as happening either before or after it,” says Rotolo. “For many of the people around here we remember things as before or after Katrina. When I think about RCI and how our family has always approached this business, how we responded to Katrina really captures it.”
When the hurricane hit, it hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast the hardest. That region was RCI’s central market, and the core company was in significant jeopardy. At the time, it employed around 150 people and RCI’s responsibility to those people was the Rotolos’ utmost concern. More than 50 of those employees were guest workers that the company had put up in apartments, but their housing was lost to the storm. “I lost my home entirely,” says Rotolo, “but my brothers’ homes were mostly untouched. Between three of them and my in-laws’ home, we housed about 30 of our guest workers for two months until we were able to get them housing. Our wives were cooking for them and doing their laundry. I always thought that said a lot about us and how we approach business. Everybody stepped up and pitched in. We were one big family.”
Almost all of the company’s maintenance projects in the region were put on hold and landscaping projects became a low priority in the region, so it took on storm cleanup work to initially keep the company operating. “I think the employees, even 15 years later, remember our commitment,” says Rotolo. “The hurricane came through on August 29. It was a Monday and our payroll goes out on Friday. I drove to a Baton Rouge bank, took out a $20,000 cash withdrawal from a personal account, set up a table in the parking lot of our office with my brother Kerry and handed out cash as the local banks were not open to cash checks. We were very proud of the fact that we never missed a payroll.”
RCI was heavily involved in the cleanup effort during the aftermath of Katrina. It began that year as a ten million dollar company, but by 2006 it had more than doubled to twenty-two million dollars. It played a major role in the reconstruction of the New Orleans and Gulf Coast markets. During that time, every casino on the Mississippi Gulf Coast called on RCI for landscaping and pool reconstruction and the company completed them all within an 18-month period.
As the Rotolo family continued to grow their company, the original ownership group was approaching retirement. Kerry Rotolo retired in 2010, and Joe and Rod were considering retirement in the upcoming years. The company was poised for significant growth, but with equity partners exiting, Keith Rotolo and the executive team began seeking additional capital elsewhere. In 2015 the company partnered with two private equity groups. “While our existing ownership group maintained a meaningful ownership position, we brought in new equity partners with the capital required to pursue the growth we desired. Our ongoing growth strategy includes continued organic growth in our core markets along with acquisitions of quality landscape companies.”
As a result, growth has increased significantly. In the last four years, the company has doubled from roughly 40 million dollars a year to an expected more than 80 million dollars in 2019. A combination of organic and acquisitional growth has enabled RCI to increase its density in existing markets and to expand into new markets as well.
RCI’s slogan, “Rooted in tradition, growing the future,” represents a commitment to remembering what has made it successful while focusing on growth. As it continues to acquire new companies, each with their own staff, RCI’s leadership team is committed to keeping this culture intact. With four decades of history, there’s a lot to remember, but RCI’s dedication to its employees and its customers is a long-held company tradition.
Growing the future comes with its own set of challenges. The most significant limitation on the company’s growth isn’t a lack of opportunities in the marketplace; it’s a lack of capacity. Industry-wide, there is a shortage of qualified workers available to properly staff projects. One measure RCI has taken In order to help mitigate this is the implementation of a dynamic ten-week internship program. Interns are rotated through each of the company’s primary divisions, enabling them to work on landscape maintenance, construction, landscape architecture, and estimating. A diverse group of students is recruited from both community colleges and traditional four-year universities, and interns are paid and provided with housing.
“We’re shooting for 10 to 12 interns this year,” says Betancourt. “The hope is that after they do the first ten weeks that we will invite them back and at that time they can specify what they really want to do. We’ve picked some key players, mentors, industry leaders that will take the interns on to make sure they have a productive learning experience and something they can add to their résumé. We’re hoping to turn out students who are passionate about the industry.”
RCI incorporates creativity, professionalism, and integrity in the spirit of continuous improvement. “That’s the kind of energy we want our clients to be excited about,” says Rotolo. “RCI has an experienced and dynamic executive team that is poised to take us to the next level. With additional Rotolos now in key roles, Michael Rotolo as COO and Brian Rotolo as CFO, as well as an experienced group of vice presidents, Brandt Martin as Senior VP of Maintenance Operations, Jodi Corey as VP of Construction Operations, and Kasey Dorr as VP of Business Development, the future of RCI and our employees is very exciting.”