Independent Contractor Spotlight — Landscaper

Landscaper Tim Merello talks about his trade and being his own boss

Tim Merello fell into landscaping through his father, who opened the first Merello-Sons Landscaping business in St. Louis in the mid-’50s to supplement a teaching career while raising a family. Now raising a family of his own in Chicago, Tim finds running his own Merello-Sons Landscaping the perfect career—offering a mix of flexibility, creative freedom, and a healthy amount of challenge.

Landscaping is basically in your blood. Talk about its pull on you.

Tim Merello: After college I sort of stumbled around trying to figure out things to do. I circled back to St. Louis, and by that time, my brother was a grown man running the business with my dad, and I sort of joined in. And then I moved to Chicago, and I thought, OK, well I’ve done this landscaping thing for a while. I want to try and do something different. But I never really found anything that really struck my fancy. Spring would come, and I’d always feel like, Oh, should I be a landscaper again? Then fate would have it, I think it was 2004 or 2005, my sister was selling a pickup truck. And I thought, OK, well this is a sign from someone that I should just go back to doing what I love and what I know and something that makes me happy.

What type of landscaping projects do you do at Merello-Sons Landscaping in Chicago?

TM: The bulk of it is sort of small garden redesigns and yard designs—everything from deciding where to put a planting bed and what trees to go in and then actually doing the installation. And then there’s a fair amount of annual container gardening that gets done as well. A lot of people have been wanting to redo what in Chicago is called the parkway: the spot between your sidewalk and the curb. I put in these big boulders that create a border and plants like a raised bed.

What do you like about being in business for yourself?

TM: I think the best thing about being my own boss is knowing I have creative control over everything. Or maybe this is the biggest thing: I get to take the jobs I want to take in. I can pick good clients. Because it’s just me and I don’t really have a lot of people depending on me now, I don’t have to go out and get every job. I’m not necessarily going to take a job I don’t want to because I think, Oh shoot, I’ve got 20 guys I’ve got to pay.

When you first started, I’m sure you were eager to take most jobs just to make ends meet. Were there some growing pains at first in figuring out when to say no?

TM: Truthfully, there still are. When you’re a small business landscaper, it seems like year to year there’s always, pardon the pun, the perennial issue of, Do, I think I have enough work this year? Do I have to really hustle even further?

Aside from deciding which jobs to take and managing workload, what’s another challenge of being self-employed?

TM: The hardest part about running my own business and being small, is that I am the landscape designer, I am the PR person, I am the media person—I’m all of those things. I think probably the most challenging part is finding time to wear all those hats.

It’s definitely a lot to manage. Do you enjoy the flexibility of not having a rigid nine-to-five schedule though?

TM: Absolutely. If my son’s got a field trip and he wants me to go, I could rearrange my schedule. Or if I want to go to the botanic garden and do some field work research, I can say I’m not working that day. I think it has been an immensely good thing to have the flexibility while raising a child because the first couple of years, you know, he was not in school.

What are your main methods for seeking out clients?

TM: I’m now going all on word of mouth, and hopefully my work stands for itself. I’ll do a great job in your yard and make the yard look beautiful so that you’re that person whose friends say, Oh, I love your yard. Who did it? I’m doing all right by recommendations from friends. Or there’s social media. Every neighborhood now has a listserv. So I’ve gotten a lot more jobs even that way from internet referrals.

Do you have a great story of your work speaking for itself?

TM: A client of mine was walking around, and she took a photo and sent it to me, asking, “Could you do that.” I said, “I can because I did.”