Chris Strempek never thought he’d own an award-winning full-service landscape firm. What began as a “temporary” job while getting his real estate and finance degree became an actual career, including 36 impressive years as founder, president, CEO, and co-owner of Complete Landsculpture.
One of the largest commercial and residential landscape firms in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana, Complete Landsculpture delivers a variety of services including design, installation, and construction by skilled consultants, arborists, installers, and maintenance specialists.
“Initially we started out as more of a residential design-build firm. We were struggling to get our pools built, leading to loss of control of the client experience and delays so we added a pool division to better service our clients. From that point we determined that we did not want to be limited to the residential market, so we started going more heavily into commercial with design building and hard bid work for general contractors,” says Strempek.
“Over the years we’ve grown those sectors but have also significantly increased our presence in the property maintenance space, and about 22 years ago a client that we serviced in Dallas asked us to take over her portfolio in Oklahoma City, which led to opening our branch in the OKC area. It’s more geared toward commercial there, and we have a satellite presence in Tulsa that we’re looking to expand into an independent branch as well.”
As a design-build and maintenance after-care firm, Complete Landsculpture can handle all aspects of a project from conception through to completion. Whether it’s construction, complex house structures, cabanas, masonry work or outside kitchens, the company has the knowledge, experience, and skill at their disposal.
“Typically, our primary focus is non-air-conditioned space, but we have on occasion incorporated an addition, guest house or cabana that has some air-conditioned space and bathrooms as well as typical outdoor living which involves things like fireplaces and kitchens,” says Strempek. “It’s about comfort and comfortable outdoor living.”
Outdoor living is a large part of Complete Landsculpture’s expertise, due to the area’s almost year-round temperate climate.
“We work with all of the elements to tame the outdoors to create year-round outdoor living comfort,” Strempek says. “We create unique spaces according to clients’ requirements; whether it be a simple open air arbor or extensive addition tied into the roof structure, we pride ourselves on creating a seamless transition from the interior to the exterior. We also do a lot of climatization of our spaces with features such as drop-down screens to help with mosquitoes, keeping it warm in the winter time, and keeping the sun off you in the summertime.”
Some options include ceiling fans, wet fans or another unique feature – a popular item with clients – where compressed air and water are blown into an air conditioning duct system, creating flash evaporative cooling, which simply means you get the cooling effect but do not get wet as long as it is done correctly, which typically requires 11 feet of ceiling clearance.
“It could be 100 degrees, but when you turn on the cooling system, that controls the blower motor speed like a ceiling fan. You can have it with or without the cool water, and it really does drop the temperature about 18 to 20 degrees.”
Fireplaces, fire pits and infrared heaters in the ceilings are very effective in taking the edge off on cooler evenings or to create year-round ambiance, and are also popular when looking to transform the outdoors. Backyard resorts are one of the company’s award-winning specialties, starting with Strempek’s own.
Complete with an outdoor kitchen and radial cabana that sits up against the edge of the pool and swim-up bar, the family enjoys outdoor life 12 months of the year.
“Barring 20 degree weather, you can be comfortable year round out there,” says Strempek. The oasis also includes a large-scale, 110,000-gallon pool with a lazy river component, an island at one end, a bridge, and sunken fire pit. “It has pretty much all the elements you’d want at a resort, only it’s in your backyard. It’s a wonderful venue to create your staycation.”
This was and is especially desirable during the ongoing and post-COVID travel restrictions and difficulties, says Strempek, as clients look to make their home-base the place to get away from it all.
“That’s really the trend we’re seeing right now overall. People want to spend time at home, not travel and get in an airplane to somewhere like Miami or the islands with all of the testing and extra requirements to travel. They really want to use their personal space for that staycation experience. We’re focused on delivering that and creating a complete outdoor experience. And we do it in a fanatical way.”
Rooftops like treetops
Other recent large-scale projects include numerous commercial rooftops – transforming the tops of parking garages into office parks to create a “live, work, and play” experience, with amenities such as putting greens, deck areas, arbors, fireplaces and firepits, outdoor kitchens, and parks.
An example of this was performed at Mandalay Towers, in Irving, Texas. This includes a rooftop garden set between three commercial building towers, a one-acre park that connects the campus’ three towers and includes an outdoor living area with kitchen, fireplace and eating space. The project received recognition from several organizations, including the 2017 Award of Excellence from the National Association of Landscape Professionals.
“Our programming included sculptures and site furnishings, a fire pit, a library for folks who want to read during lunch hour, an herb garden, and a putting green,” says Strempek. A serpentine wave form was integrated into the planting design, and lightweight materials were utilized such as wood, spray deck, synthetic grass and steel, which created a more welcoming space.
“There were two different large water features that were remolded as part of the scope. One was an iconic feature that was leaking so severely in the parking garage below that they wanted to tear it out. We went in and re-purposed that with a liner to become an aquatic feature with a biofiltration system to support the beautiful Koi fish and aquatic potted plants in the new ecosystem. It was a liability before, but now it’s an amenity for them,” says Strempek.
“This was in a commercial environment which we would never have seen 10 years ago. Now it’s a trend and the new standard, creating that very comfortable work space.”
Complete Landsculpture also worked on the renovation of three office buildings known as Towers at Park Central in Dallas, with the main objective of reducing the amount of paved surface and creating a relationship between indoors and out.
The company created new exterior garden rooms while enhancing tenant safety with separate vehicular and pedestrian pathways, and well-lit areas using a variety of unique bollard light fixtures.
“We designed steel cabanas covered with Ipe Wood to soften them that serve as gathering nooks so people can have Wi-Fi during lunch hour and work there, hold small meetings, do catch-up or read a book,” says Strempek. “We also re-purposed the landscaping to more native grasses. We took out some rigid lines to create a softer flow so folks inside the building as well as outside can use that year-round.” A water feature that was not visible for drive-up impact was removed and replaced with a large custom Corten sculpture that is now the signature element upon arrival.
Basically, Strempek says, Complete Landsculpture can do it all: standard production work and unique projects. Challenges are always met head on, such as those created over the past year by COVID, particularly related to supply chain logistics in the pool division.
“They were behind before we had the big freeze down in this area where we had record-breaking cold weather that froze and damaged a great deal of equipment that had to be replaced,” says Strempek. “That put a lot of pressure on our suppliers, with equipment a little over a year out right now.”
Delays are commonplace in every area, he says, while lumber and metal has gotten exponentially more expensive, along with massive price increases in the PVC pipe used for irrigation and drainage. “We’re having to work hard to go get anything. Supplies are small right now, so we have to be really intentional about order lead times and resourceful to locate items in other regions to have the materials we need to keep projects moving forward.”
Finding skilled labor, however, is probably Complete Landsculpture’s largest obstacle, something seen industry-wide. Whether it’s Visa issues or problems related to the pandemic, it’s been a challenge to stay on top of everything and keep it running smoothly.
“When you’re doing these larger projects in different markets and they’re being shut down, that is very challenging in terms of logistics. However, we have been able to overcome that with strategic planning, but it has not been easy,” he says. “We’re always in need of skilled team members that are hard to find in the markets. We have aggressive signing bonuses, internal referral bonuses, retention bonuses for those that that we hired that stay, as well as cross reference bonuses for those we refer. We’re really aggressive about hiring, and then of course we have an onboarding process that we do to acclimate our team members into our culture and company’s values.”
Complete Landsculpture prides itself on being highly capable and creative to get a job done, but simply implementing a creative solution isn’t enough, if it’s not done in a fanatical way, says Strempek.
The “fanatical” way
“Our culture is really built on our company mission that we create Complete Fanatical Outdoor Customer Experiences. When we do that, we celebrate fanatical customer experiences with our whole team.”
Celebrating “fanatical” customer experiences includes monthly leadership team meetings where revenue track goals, hiring needs, employee and salesperson success stories, and company culture issues are discussed. Employees are valued and appreciated, from birthdays to work anniversaries and milestones, and to employee and crew of the month and year awards.
“Truly we want to celebrate these guys all the time. If you become crew of the year, that crew has that logoed onto their truck. That’s a big deal. We want to give these guys some swagger and let them feel it’s a significant accomplishment. We give them positive feedback as well as corrective feedback when necessary, but that’s a big part of our culture is really letting them know that we want them to have a career here and not just a job.”
That career path means directing employees to the areas they want to pursue. Whether it’s moving up from basic labor to foreman, or from production to sales, Complete Landsculpture lays out the necessary steps and skills needed, plus the monetary advantages.
“The career path is a key to the differentiation in our company culture,” says Strempek. “You want to value people. You want feedback throughout the year. Someone might say I never want to be a foreman, it’s not what I want to do. When we look for a foreman, we’re looking at two things: executive skills and technical skills. Someone can be a great technician, but they have to be a good executive, meaning they’re organized at running other people. You may be a proficient technician, but you don’t want to manage people.”
If that’s all they want, then that’s okay, says Strempek. He’s there to support the decisions employees make and help them make the best choices.
“There are three things we always preach to all the crews: 1) do a job safely; 2) do it technically soundly, which means correctly the first time; 3) do it efficiently and make profit for sustainability.”
But making profit without doing the job right or safely means it’s not a successful job for the company.
“We care most about the safety of the team members. It’s a pyramid, with safety at the base of it that supports everything else,” says Strempek. “If you know how to do it safely, then you’re more likely to slow down and do it the right way the first time. The natural next thing is, ‘let’s do it faster, but let’s make sure we do it safely and effectively first.’”
In the right place
Now in year seven of its 10-year plan, Strempek says Complete Landsculpture is headed where it wants to be, with possible expansion north of the Metroplex, and possibly Austin where it does have multiple projects going at any given time. There’s a lot of work to do, though, in Dallas Fort-Worth, as well as Oklahoma City and Tulsa, he says. For Strempek and the rest of his dedicated team, celebrating the company’s culture is just as important as growth and opportunity.
“A saying I always try to embrace is that change happens at the intersection of preparation and opportunity,” says Strempek. “We’re trying to grow to create opportunities and elevate people so they’re prepared when it happens, and that’s a key to our success.”
The company has completed many great projects over the years, and continues to look for interesting opportunities to serve its clients in a fanatical way.
“We take care of our team members and encourage them to grow with the company,” Strempek says. “We’ve been blessed to win more battles than we’ve lost over the last 36 years, and we’re looking forward to continued growth and opportunities, and taking on more challenges going forward.”