Today: Burt Sperber, a gardener who began with $700 and built a global landscaping empire.
Burt, who passed away at age 82 on September 30th, 2011 was founder, Chairman and longtime CEO of Calabasas, CA based ValleyCrest Companies, one of the world’s largest landscape firms, with 9,000 employees, 150 offices in the U.S. alone, and $835 million in annual sales. Yet it all began so modestly.
After World War ll, soldiers came home, got married and bought new suburban tract homes. And in North Hollywood, CA Burt was there to help them landscape and to mow their lawns and trim their shrubs. As a teenager working from his dad’s home, he saved $700 and in 1949 bought a tiny nursery. He had an old station wagon, a lawn mower, trimmer, some shovels and other hand tools and 3 other guys working with him.
Burt did landscape and yard work from early morning until late afternoon, and then would knock on doors around the San Fernando Valley into the evening, asking the homeowners to hire him and his small crew. After a time he could point to a neighbor’s beautiful yard he had landscaped and to the lush grass and gardens he maintained for them to persuade more customers to give him a try. Customer by customer he began building a business. His partner and bride Charlotte, whom he married at the age of 20 in 1949, kept the books and collected the money.
As the business grew, Burt kept hiring people. To motivate and keep them, he created incentive programs, profit sharing programs and then he established divisions so the best performers could be promoted in some cases, all the way to top management. Meanwhile his projects kept getting bigger as Burt’s firm landscaped the rapidly growing numbers of schools and colleges, offices and freeways that mushroomed throughout California and the nation.
Eventually, he was doing so many projects that when Disney needed 400 Florida acres converted to African Savannah or an Asian Rainforest, no problem. When Abu Dhabi needed a huge master planned community landscaped, no problem. When the Atlantis Paradise Company needed 1,500 fully grown palm trees in a Bahamas resort, it was no problem. Burt, who called himself “the head gardener” and his team readily handled all these projects.
Yet as much as Burt loved landscaping and built a giant landscaping company, there was much more to him than that. From the time he was 10 years old and his Uncle Maury, a magician taught him magic, it too was his passion. Burt became a famed master magician, including his selection for membership by the prestigious Inner Magic Circle of England. This lifelong passion led him to become a writer of magic books, and he assembled one of the largest collections of magic books in the world, including books that date as far back as the 1500s.
Burt was also a devoted family man. He and Charlotte were married for 62 years at the time of his passing and they were always marital and business partners. Today, their son Richard is the CEO of ValleyCrest. They also have two daughters Ellice and Michelle. A third daughter Wendy Jo passed away. There are seven grandchildren.
But there was more yet to Burt, for he was devoted to his extended family: through his charitable, community and educational endeavors. He helped to build Temple Ramat Zion in Northridge, the American Jewish University in Los Angeles and was so involved with the renowned cancer center The City of Hope; they once named him person of the year. He also helped the U.S.C. School of Architecture, Cal Poly’s Horticulture program and the list seems endless for Burt was determined to make this a better world.
One of the most beautiful ways he did this was something he did late in life that was very dear to his heart. It was the Garden of Flowing Fragrance at the Huntington Library in San Marino, CA. Its 12 acres may make it the biggest Chinese themed garden outside of China. For Burt knew better than most of us that through the beauty of color and scent, he could help mankind to set aside its differences and find peace and joy together in the sharing of nature’s wonders.
Success Tip of the Week:
As Burt showed us, business success doesn’t need a fancy education. It does require doing what one loves for he loved landscaping, a love for one’s customers, which Burt had his entire career and a willingness to grow, which he never stopped doing.
In the next KazanToday:
As happened to 3 song writers, great fortune may come when you least expect it.