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Kevin McHale of McHale Landscape Design: “Leave work issues at work. Family comes first”

Whether it’s a family business or not, operate it like any business in your industry. The advantage of a family business is trust and trust is the key element needed for any business to succeed regardless of the business model. Don’t create a business model that fits your family, create a business model that works […]

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Whether it’s a family business or not, operate it like any business in your industry. The advantage of a family business is trust and trust is the key element needed for any business to succeed regardless of the business model. Don’t create a business model that fits your family, create a business model that works and have your family fit into it.


As a part of our series about 5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin McHale.

Kevin McHale is the Co-founder and Principal of McHale Landscape Design, a high-end landscape architecture and design-build firm. With over 40 years in business and five locations throughout the DC metro region, Kevin and his brother, Steve McHale, have been recognized for their firm’s exceptional design, installation and maintenance for residential and commercial projects, winning countless Excellence in Landscape Awards from the Landscape Contractors Association (LCA), National Association of Landscape Professionals (NALP), and the American Horticulture Society.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Our story is typical of many landscape companies. My brother Steve and I mowed neighborhood lawns as kids and we both realized we had a shared interest in building a career that allowed us to work outdoors. We decided in college that we would build our own landscape company that focused solely on high-end residential properties.

Can you tell us a bit about your family business and your role in it?

As the older brother, I started the business while my brother Steve, who is two years younger, was still in college. Steve and I have different skill sets and we both bring something different to the table. Steve is artistic and a design visionary while I am entrepreneurial and operational-minded.

My role began focused on sales and anything to do with business and operational improvements and 40 years later, I run the day-to-day and focus on the financial, operational, marketing and people development side of the business. Steve is a Design resource to the entire company — he is a design mentor and quite an inspiration to our design staff. His creativeness has solidified our reputation as a leader in the high-end residential design-build industry

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this career?

Back in the late 1980s, I asked a client for a check right after we finished a job. His response was, “Just bill me.”

I politely responded, “It would greatly help if I could get the check now because we have to pay off our credit line tomorrow.”

My client looked at me and said, “How much do you owe?” I told him and he then wrote a check for the amount of our credit line. He allowed us to pay him back through work at his house over the next year or two. We are very fortunate in residential work that we get to meet some very generous and kind people. The client remained a client for over 30 years until they moved away from the area.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

After 40 years in business, our list of mistakes is several pages long! However, we always learn from them and so far, have not repeated any.

My team once purchased a stake body truck without a dump body. We thought we were saving money, until the first time we had to unload it by hand. We then had to pay 30% more to retrofit the truck with a dump body.

Another big mistake that ended up turning into a great opportunity was our first real estate purchase. We bought a property zoned commercial office thinking we could operate our business there. We were allowed to operate a commercial office but we were not allowed to have any outside storage or trucks.

Fortunately, we were able to sell the property at a substantial profit and use those proceeds to buy a property with the correct zoning.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our business model is unique — it’s very different than the typical residential design-build firm. We have five locations throughout the DC metro region. We hold a significant amount of inventory and we have in-house masonry and carpentry crews. Most residential landscape companies do not have multiple locations or much if any, in-house offerings as a part of their business model.

Aside from the business model, what clearly makes us different than most is our people. We work hard to hire and retain some of the most talented people in our industry. In addition to creative talent, integrity is the most notable quality in our people. It creates a culture of teamwork and lasting client relationships.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

We constantly have exciting and special projects happening all over the region. Currently, we are working with a team of historical architects and Landscape Architects to re-create a historical garden from the early 1800s.

It is quite unique and the attention to detail to replicate a garden from that time period is intriguing.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

We have received help and support from so many people along the way. One person always comes to mind though, our first employee, Phil Kelly. Phil has been instrumental in helping us build the company. He started with us while in High School and is now our COO and President of our Design-Build Division.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Giving back is an obligation every successful company must meet. We have found fulfillment in working with Hospice centers and with reclaiming several baseball fields in communities that are unable to care for them.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main parts of our interview. How do you define a family business? How is a family business different from a regular business?

A family business can be challenging. I believe the people of our company can answer this question better than I can. However, from my perspective, we are IN business because we are family.

My brother Steve and I wanted to be in business together because we are brothers first and our interest in the landscape industry was secondary. Although we have had disagreements, Steve and I have never let issues get between our families. Our family will always be more important than the business.

Some of the reasons things have worked for us for 40 years is that we are different, we bring different skill sets to the table, and we fully trust each other. Although it may not be apparent to all, we set up our children to work in the business beginning at entry-level positions and work their way up the ladder just as every other employee. This is a tough task because sometimes the family is under the microscope and sometimes people have misperceptions.

In your opinion or experience, what are the unique advantages that family owned businesses have?

Trust is truly the best advantage a family business has. We know that we are in this together and that there will be good times and bad times. The key is that we don’t get too proud of the good times and don’t get too down in the bad times.

What are the unique drawbacks or blindspots that family-owned businesses have?

I’m sure there are more than I am aware of but to me, the hardest part of being president of a family-owned business is to truly evaluate family members objectively. It’s just as easy to be too hard on a family member as it is to be too lax on them. On occasion it can be difficult to find the middle ground, so to avoid this situation, we typically have other key employees evaluate our family members.

What are some of the common mistakes you have seen family businesses make? What would you recommend to avoid those errors?

  1. Never put a family member in a position that they do not have the skill set for.
  2. Don’t overcompensate a family member because they are family. Pay them commensurate with the job they are performing.
  3. Leave work issues at work. Family comes first.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders of family businesses to help their employees to thrive?

Whether it’s a family business or not, operate it like any business in your industry. The advantage of a family business is trust and trust is the key element needed for any business to succeed regardless of the business model. Don’t create a business model that fits your family, create a business model that works and have your family fit into it.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean with a story or example?

Leadership is the ability to inspire others.

We have two examples to share as it relates to my role and Steve’s role as leaders and how we inspire our team.

We have a number of Hispanic employees and crew technicians who demonstrate an amazing work ethic and industry knowledge day in and day out. We put two leaders,Tony and Julio, who rose up through the ranks with McHale, in key positions overseeing many of these employees because of not only their talents, but also to inspire them to stay and grow with the company.

Also, at the onset of COVID, we began sending weekly emails to our team of more than 300 people. We share company updates, inspiring messages and stories, and process improvements. Steve and I had shared this type of information in various ways pre-COVID — but never in one all-encompassing consistent update. We have received such positive feedback — we didn’t realize how inspiring the team would find these messages. We wish we started sending these sooner.

Here is our main question. What are the “5 Things You Need To Run A Highly Successful Family Business”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Fair treatment of all employees. For example the right to take home a company vehicle is earned by position and/or seniority, not by name.
  2. Trust between family members and between family members and the non-family employees. We have built a core group of leaders — made up of family and tenured non-family members who all trust one another and hold each other accountable.
  3. Objectivity- consider that maybe a family member is not the best choice to lead the company. There are six McHale children employed by the company. Each started his or her career at entry-level positions ranging from Assistant Account Manger to Assistant Production Manager to most recently, our youngest McHale is an Assistant Landscape Architect. Every second-generation McHale is promoted or moved to another division only when the person has proven ready and when there is an appropriate opening to be filled.
  4. Clear and respectful understanding of the role of each family member. A good example of this is how my role and my brother’s role have always been clearly defined. I was a plantsman and was creative, but early on I became the numbers guy, the businessman, and looking forward to the next challenge and opportunity to grow our business. Meanwhile, Steve was the landscape architect, the artist, the creative mind, looking forward to the next project. We do not step on each other’s toes and have been diligent in keeping that silent rule for 40 years.
  5. Accountability- family members must be held accountable. No double standards.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have 2.

“Who are They?” Fifty years ago my Father gave me this quote carved on a piece of wood. It is still in my office. He gave it to me to remind me that it is important to be your own person and think for yourself and what others (“They”) say or think about you is irrelevant.

“Life is Under No Obligation to give us what we Expect”

I saw this quote at a nursery 30 years ago. I wrote it down because it reminds me that no one is entitled to anything. That we must work hard and be committed to achieving our goals.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Warren Buffet. His humility and practicality are impressive.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Education. I would enjoy knowing that every person is able and has the opportunity to complete high school and college if they chose to do so.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

https://www.linkedin.com/company/mchale-landscape-design-inc/

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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