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After An Owner’s Death, Hope

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After An Owner’s Death, Hope
Nanci Angle takes over Lawrence

Cesar Rogelio Ortiz, 50, the owner of Lawrence Landscapes Inc., had always been prudent about making “what if?” arrangements. On a daily basis, everyone on the management team left a list of scheduled tasks in the spirit of “this is what needs to be done if I fall off the earth.” When Ortiz took a family vacation, he would always show a longtime employee, the operations manager Nanci J. Angle, where to find the important documents if –– God forbid — something happened to him and he didn’t come back.

On August 30, in the floods of Hurricane Irene, in a tragic and sudden work-related accident, Ortiz died. Angle had worked for Ortiz for 25 years; she had a key to the safe deposit box and was a co-signer on a checking account. Among the “what-if” documents in the safe deposit box was a paper naming Angle the president and owner of the company.

Three months later, she still has difficulty calling herself the owner. “If I didn’t have all these 15 people and more, I wouldn’t be anything. It’s a team. It’s a family. We’re a very tight group,” says Angle. “He gave me the greatest gift I never wanted.”

Reeling from the loss of her boss and friend, Angle has rallied the team to move the business forward. She emphasizes how everyone pulls together so that Ortiz’s mantra, “Good Enough is Not Good Enough” stays at top of mind. The sadness and grief “is still close to the heart,” says Angle, “but it brought out the best that we already knew that we had.” On the morning after the tragedy, Angle called a meeting to give everyone a choice –– go home and grieve or stay and work. All chose to work.

At a late October interview, Angle sits in her former boss’s office – her office, now. She has put up some of her own photographs, and her collection of antique crop sprayers sits on the radiator, but the room still has a masculine, no-nonsense decor: two big, clunky desks that were in the building when Ortiz moved in six years ago, an overstuffed beige leather sofa and chair, and a giant TV for entertaining Ortiz’s son after school. The small wooden bookcase, by the door, contains gardening books and some of Ortiz’s knickknacks, such as a metal Don Quixote statue. Laid casually on the shelf is a printout on Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief.

The firm focuses on estate maintenance, full-service design/build in all aspects of landscape services, as simple as lawn care to building outside living spaces. For its maintenance contract clients, in a 50-mile radius, services include everything from mowing lawns to pumping out basins in a storm. One customer called to get a bat removed from her kitchen. “We will do anything within reason,” says Angle. “Right now we are just maintaining status quo, as per Cesar’s legacy.”

The son of a physician who was chief of staff at Hamilton Hospital, Ortiz grew up in Lawrenceville and went to the Hun School. His home was in Lawrenceville, where he lived with his wife, a teacher, and their school-aged son.

Ortiz got his start by mowing grass along I-95. He founded Lawrence Landscapes Inc. in 1980, just after graduating from Rutgers’ horticulture school. He bought five acres on Bakers Basin Road and, with Angle in charge, had a retail store there, complete with a petting zoo, from 1987 to 2005.

Five years ago, leasing the Bakers Basin property to Shemin, a wholesale landscape supply firm, he moved to a Lower Ferry Road property with 4.5 acres, 4,000 square feet of office space, and 8,000 square feet of warehouse space. Two or three times a year Ortiz would stage a cookout for workers and vendors.

At that time he had 25 to 35 employees, depending on the season. In these recessionary times, the workforce has dwindled to 15 to 20 workers, but the same managers are still on board: horticulturist and production manager Angle (25 years), landscape architect Peter Mahony (18 years), landscape designer Brett Russ (10 years), artisan/mason Roger Nieto (23 years), and Julio DelValle, job supervisor (16 years)

Citing family privacy, Angle declines to provide details. “It’s a private company, and therefore all financial and legal information will remain private.”

However, inquiries reveal many ways to deal with transfers of a business. The surviving spouse might be poised to take over. “Generally owners of a closely held business, in addition to their will, will have buy/sell arrangements to provide cash for the family,” says Hall R. Terr, partner at WithumSmith+Brown. “These arrangements sometimes are funded with life insurance, or the heirs receive a note receivable, and payments are made from the earnings of the business.”

Angle will say only that the business is fiscally sound, with no major debt other than a mortgage. “You’ll hear that contractors are not good businessmen, but Cesar was a very good business man and a great contractor,” says Angle. “He taught me the same practices, like how to run a spread sheet — and he did his own due diligence.”

In an earlier interview Ortiz had explained that he tries to make each client feel like they have worked with a person, not an assembly line. So encouraged, when it came time for the Fox household to rescue a front lawn ravaged by the geothermal well digger (U.S. 1, February 2, 2011), we solicited a quote from Lawrence Landscapes. We expected Ortiz to come in on the high end, but his price was not significantly different from others we received.

The real difference between the competing proposals was that Ortiz actually listened. Competitors kept designing more shrubs and less lawn, when we asked for the opposite.

He had such enthusiasm. With this exuberance he was able to persuade us to abandon a cheapo replacement and invest, instead, in a bluestone stoop and walkway. Just as he predicted, we were thrilled with the results.

Either Ortiz, or Angle, or Nieto, or all of them showed up to start the workers off, and then again to inspect at the end of the day. At least one supervisor visiting each site twice a day, Angle now explains, continues to be a hallmark of the firm. Without Ortiz to do at least some of the supervision, “clearly, we have all stepped up to the plate. We are all working more hours.”

The Fox family did not sign a garden maintenance contract with Lawrence Landscapes — we’d spent our budget –– but it provided E-mail ‘coaching’ services on how to take care of our new plants and when to do what. Angle kept using the word “family.” When last winter’s blizzard struck and we were out of town, she was ready to send snow shoveling service. Last August, when the hurricane cut power and flooded our basement, she was contacting clients –– by E-mail because the business itself did not have power — to see if any home needed to borrow a generator and/or pumping equipment.

We managed without outside help, but I look at the date on her E-mail. It was August 29. It was the next day, August 30, when Cesar Ortiz would try to help his tenant, the wholesale nursery on Bakers Basin Road. “Cesar called us to say we are going to help them –– because in 1999, in Hurricane Floyd, people helped us,” says Angle.

Lawrence Landscapes made the headlines then. Neighbors called to warn that the petting zoo was under water. “Cesar, Brady (Angle’s partner), and I waded through waist-high water. We put our goats and baby llamas in our upstairs office, and the next day we went in with a canoe. Our employees walked the animals across Route 1 to the Shell station and waited until the property was drained.” A front page photo showed an employee simultaneously carrying a baby llama across Route 1 and leading the mother llama, because she would not leave without the baby.

After Hurricane Floyd, Ortiz had helped to drain his property by removing a manhole cover. According to Angle, looking into manholes used to be a common contractors’ practice. But in 2011, when Ortiz removed the cover, he was drawn in by the vortex of water and lost his life.

Angle sent her next blanket E-mail to all the clients on September 6, after the funeral. “How are you doing. I want you to know we are still here and available to help in time of need. Frankly, Cesar would have wanted it this way. DO NOT, I repeat, do not hesitate to call tonight or tomorrow if weather has created any problems. This is what we do best, this is what Cesar wanted to continue on with our service to you, our valued friends and customer.”

At the interview, it was the 64th day since Ortiz died; Angle counts the days, and though one cannot imagine a more traumatic accident, she and the others felt warmly supported. “Such strength and comfort and outpouring love for this company –– it was overwhelming,” says Angle.

She is challenged by the need to make payroll without the ideas, energy, and inspiration of the founder. “We are not a big corporation; we have to generate our own work to sustain our payroll,” says Angle.

She points out that most of the 12 full-time and 6 part-time workers have been with Ortiz for a long time. Each of the three principal managers knows what to do in their specialty; it’s just that now they have no second opinion. “We had a friend, a boss, and a backup guy,” says Angle. “When you have a backup, you might not challenge yourself. Now we don’t have him to back us up, and we have to reflect on what we were taught and make our own decisions.”

What did Ortiz teach? “Do it right, and do it right the first time,” says Angle.

Angle also aims to carry on the “family” aspect. “Any man’s desire is to have his children to follow in the path of their parents, and certainly Cesar’s wife and son will continue to be part of the Lawrence Landscapes family,” she says. Cesar’s son had been going on jobs with his father, learning his work ethic and absorbing his enthusiasm for design. “Even at a young age, he is already showing many qualities of his parents, including his father’s design sense,” says Angle. “I predict that he will grow up to be a really good designer, and I hope that he follows in his father’s footsteps.”

Not only must Angle run the company, and run it in such a superior manner that no one else gets the idea that they could do it better, but she must excel in an industry sometimes harsh to women. All her adult life she has been working in a man’s world.

Angle and her brother spent their summers on the 180-acre farm of her paternal grandparents in Dingman’s Ferry, Pennsylvania. It was in those apple orchards, hay fields, and giant vegetable gardens that she learned to love the land. Her father, a former Marine, was an FBI agent, based in Jamestown, New York. Her mother’s father had been in the Coast Guard.

Angle wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, but then “The Bureau” didn’t take women. So she prepared for another male-dominated career, majoring in agriculture and minoring in ornamental horticulture at the University of Florida. She worked for an interior plant maintenance company while she was in school and after graduating in 1978 was put in charge of two large greenhouses.

“My big moment came when I got to design a movie set, for ‘Moonraker.’ When a snake came out of the ravine, and the star’s double had to fight the snake, I managed the plants in the ravine.”

Soon she left the indoor plant business. “People were disrespectful to the plant material,” she says, disapproving, “and, plus, I’m an outdoor person.”

Her next job was as “right-hand man” for a company comparable to Lawrence Landscapes except larger. Rood Landscape had 130 employees and served estates on Florida’s Jupiter Island. “That boss told me, ‘keep your shirt tucked in, and your hair pulled back. You are here to do a job you’re being paid to do.’ I had priceless experience,” she says. She was responsible for the crews, for making a profit, and she was site manager for certain properties.

Angle left Florida in 1986 to return to New Jersey after a divorce. She doesn’t talk about it. “It does not define me,” says Angle, who lives in Hopewell with her partner, Brady Hill. When she stayed with her brother, an electrician, and his wife in Plainsboro she saw a Lawrence Landscapes ad that her sister-in-law had posted on the refrigerator. Bingo. It was the perfect job for her, and she has worked for Ortiz ever since. But, as she says, “He wasn’t just my boss. His family and my family vacationed together –– they are my friends.”

The work wasn’t always easy. “A woman is always being tested by the guys to see if she has the ‘ganas’ or ‘the drive to win’ to service the clientele,” says Angle. “You get on the tractor. You get in the hole with the guys. You do what you need to do to get the job done.”

In 1987, to keep full employment during the winter season, Lawrence Landscapes opened a retail store on Bear Brook Road, selling name brand plants from California and Florida, with Angle in charge. “We were a destination store,” she says with pride. “It was exhilarating, and we generated a loyal customer base for the landscape business. Customers saw how much we enjoyed our jobs.”

“Cesar and I used to put flyers on windshields at Quakerbridge Mall to sell Christmas trees. We flyered until we ran out of paper,” says Angle. “One year we sold 1,800 trees. I loved it –– until I couldn’t find responsible employees willing to work their assigned shifts.”

Frustrated, Angle tried to quit. Just as in families, the course of getting along in a small business does not always run smooth and Angle admits to quitting at least four times. Asked why, she just smiles and says “Contracting isn’t easy. It wasn’t just me who sometimes wanted to quit, but didn’t. Cesar calmed you down and tried to work out your problem, whether it was not being happy with your job or needing a loan.”

She credits the company’s strength to her boss’s flexibility, which resulted in fewer turnovers. “I fully intend to carry that forward,” says Angle. “Turnover sucks. It costs money. You would rather help.”

When they closed the store six years later, Angle took a new job as operations manager. “I started out with it, I’m good at it, and I know how to do it. We reinvented me.”

Angle has some heartfelt advice for business owners: “Every company should have a backup, have someone else’s name on the accounts at the bank. When someone dies, your accounts are frozen. Fortunately I had access to an account and the safe deposit box.”

“If you want to give something to the people you leave behind, leave information,” says Angle. “No one ever plans on dying.”

#b#Lawrence Landscapes#/b#, 1383 Lower Ferry Road, Ewing 08618; 609-883-3999. Nanci Angle, president. www.lawrencelandscapes.com

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