By Mike McMahon
Growing up in Buffalo in the 70’s was generally depressing. Buffalo was a dilapidating steal belt city and part of what was called the rust bucket of the country. The infrastructure of the city was decaying in front of my eyes. The economy was very bleak as the five major US steal companies and the General Motor Plant laid people off an eventually closed along with most
other core industries. The population in and around Buffalo actually shrank from when I was born consistently until after I left 21 years later. The weather was dismal. It seemed like it was either raining or snowing and was almost always cold. The sun would only occasionally be visible. The 70’s also represented a decline in the national economy as manufacturing began
moving out of the country.
I came from a relatively large family with five siblings. Money became tight as my father’s charter business withered away due to OPEC oil shortages and the deregulation of the airline business and planes got too large to easily fill for small charters. With this recession there was less disposable income and less people traveling. My siblings and I all had jobs. At the age of 12 I built a small business taking care of lawns and landscapes and the snow removal of 17 homes in my neighborhood. Although not apparent at the time I gradually came to realize I was undercharging for my services but did good work and had a difficult time firing clients or asking for more money because several of my clients were elderly and on fixed incomes or with limited finances themselves. I took pride in doing a better job and getting their yards in better condition for the price they paid than they had seen before. I could tell when they knew that they got a good deal and were satisfied and loyal to me. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I developed my sense of value. It isn’t about the price it’s about delivering better value.
Throughout high school and college I held many jobs including working the night shift at a grocery store, construction of an RV Park one summer, bartending, cooking, waiting on tables, and working as a security guard all for minimum wages and tips. Although I had a roof over my head sometimes food seemed scarce as my mother tried to stretch the meals. If I wanted any
new clothes, or supplemental food (I was a growing teenage boy and always hungry) I would have to buy it for myself. This seemed quite normal at the time. Clothing wasn’t as much a disposable commodity as it is today fortunately.
Because my options to go to college elsewhere in the country were not financially feasible, and if I went, I would have to pay for it myself. So, I went to (SUNYAB) State University of New York at Buffalo otherwise known as UB.I was not motivated to go there nor did I want to go there. I did not get funding from my parents, but I did occasionally move back into their home in
between apartments and would visit their house to raid what they might have in the refrigerator or to use the washer and dryer. Sometimes even small support makes a difference in the game of survival. Although I wouldn’t say we were in extreme poverty nor homeless as I look back, I realize these struggles all made an impact on me.
The 1970’s began with the US being in the Vietnam War and as a child it was difficult to understand how people could be so divided on their opinions toward it. I couldn’t understand how many people could treat the young men and women who went to serve so poorly even though many of them were drafted into service or how those who resisted and protested against the war were also so demonized. I struggled to form an opinion. As the decade
continued our President was impeached in a process that took a long time and played out on television in front of everyone in the country. There was a pervasive sense of shame over this. Later in that decade the recession hit hard with double digit inflation and interest rates. Also, during this time there was civil rights unrest as prejudice was pervasive and people of all races and backgrounds fought for what little work there was. In Buffalo I saw firsthand the impact of racism although at the time I didn’t think much about it because I wasn’t the target.
There seemed to be a pervasive negativity among the public and a lack of hope as opportunities were limited and attitudes seemed to match the dismal weather. As I look back at that culture I now recognize a lack of hope is the most severe condition that effects a society and how difficult it is to rise out of poverty and how a cycle of despair can start with joblessness and
hunger as there becomes more and more unwanted people followed by civil disobedience and crime becoming what seems to be the only option for people. The companion for a lack of hope is anonymity as unwanted people get lost and left behind and many of the rest of us ignore their pain and suffering as we all become anonymous. To this day I don’t accept this ignorant negativity.
During my college summers I desperately wanted out of Buffalo, but I also had to work to raise money to support myself and pay for school. My first college summer solution was to travel across the country and find a place to work. Without a mode of transportation, I decided to try hitchhiking. I made my way to Denver Colorado and got a job in construction demolition (slab
sawing and core drilling and jackhammering concrete). At the end of the summer I hitch hiked to California and then thumbed my way back a to UB (a little late) for the next semester of school.
The second summer of college a friend of mine came up with the great idea of riding twelve speed bicycles across the country and the only person who apparently would agree to such a hair brained idea was me. Thirty- One days of torture later I was in Torrance California working as the night manager at a Jack in the Box (a title which paid .25 cents more than minimum wage). I don’t think I had ever been on a bike ride more than ten miles at a time before that trip.
In my last year of college I did a search in the university library at census information (this was before personal computers and the internet with search engines) and realized the City of Buffalo did not have one new home building permit pulled during my entire four year sentenceat UB. This wasn’t a good omen for someone looking for work in development or the building
trades. A further search showed that Phoenix Arizona had the most sustainable growth between World War 11 and up until the time of my graduation and had the extra benefit of sunshine. With almost no money left (but college paid for without debt) I bought a $98 ticket on a Greyhound bus and fled Buffalo for the desert with $400 in my pocket and one duffle bag
with all my worldly possessions. I knew nothing else about Phoenix and only knew one friend who I lent a few hundred dollars to when he fled Buffalo a few years earlier. My goal was to find him and get that money back and start a new life in Phoenix. There was to be no safety net and asking my parents for money was pointless and would have been a shame I could never bare.
After a few months of looking for work unsuccessfully (it was yet again another recession and I had no contacts) money ran out as did my week to week sleezy one room with a shared bathroom apartment accommodation. Phoenix was very spread out and presented a difficult commuting issue for someone without a mode of transportation, but I found restaurant and
landscape work for minimum wage within running distance. This was depressing because I had already done work like this before and had received a college education. It took me several years to gain ground and during that time I went back to school commuting by bicycle at Community Colleges and then ASU for a master’s degree. Once again, I was working to pay for school and was constantly exhausted. I think back at those eight years as my lost years. If I had any financial support, I could have achieved what I did in two years instead of eight. By then I had become a landscaper. I did not want to be a landscaper but through the process of working to pay to survive and go to school I put my 1,000 hours in the industry and became pretty knowledgeable and good at it.
During Grad School I worked for three different landscapers each with specialized scope of services including residential, golf course irrigation, native plant salvage (early experimental days) and hydroseeding. After a one-year internship at a large International Planning and Engineering firm I got pulled back into the landscape industry and found a partner with different yet complimentary skill sets.
After struggling for a few months to come up with a name for the new venture I shouted a question out at my wife who was in the other room what she thought the name should be. She said how about “AGAVE” for a name? I thought about it and it seemed like a good idea. The name started with an “A” so first in the phone book (yes phone book). Agave was named after a
family of succulent plants and is father of tequila which I liked. I like the colors of the Agave plant which became our brand colors. The name Agave checked off all the boxes in what I was looking for in a name. When she got out of the shower, I told her I agreed it was a good name. She said what name? I apparently was having an imaginary conversation and was just talking tomyself when I had asked her. That was even better, I thought this is providence and that sealed it and the company began with the name Agave. In Buffalo I received a Bachelor of Science in the Engineering School @ UB. The specific degree was in Environmental Design which emphasized “wholistic problem solving”. I wanted the scope of the new company to be more than just landscape contracting because I wanted it to include bio-remediation and devegetation/revegetation I thought using the term “Environmental” was more in descriptive so the complete name became “Agave Environmental Contracting, Incorporated”.
Our first years were very difficult. We lived off our wife’s meager salaries much to their consternation (this is not an advisable path for newlyweds). We had minimal sales and no funding to cash flow any sales even if we had any. After our third quarter of our third year we were on track to reach our annual sales goal (one that didn’t budget salaries for the two new
entrepreneurs) and then we came in second on every bid for fourth quarter work. At the end of the third year we had five part time workers who spent as much time washing our trucks as landscaping and we had little more capital than when we started. My partner contemplated going back to law school and I thought I had made a big mistake leaving the planning/engineering world. I told myself and him we knew this was a five-year journey and so we got stubborn and leaned in.
Year four started with getting a 640-acre native tree inventory at Terravita in Scottsdale for Del Webb Corporation. My salvage foreman (who still works for Agave today) and I worked every weekend with the field operations manager for the Del Webb corporation and the site engineer
designing around bosques of trees and magnificent Saguaro specimens and literally field designed natural areas and drainage tracts piece by piece for the whole subdivision. For one reason or another I thought they like us because we knew the desert and we were reliable, and we ended up doing all the plant salvage and landscape on the project for the next four years
and it became our flagship project. It was the turning point I waited for my whole life up to that point. It was the first semi mass grade subdivision of its kind in Scottsdale which had a newly adopted Native Tree Ordinance. This Ordinance I will admit I had helped write.
After the project had been completed, I asked the operation manager why he gave us the job. He said that he knew we had a relationship with the city and Del Webb had the intention of just removing the plants and using their typical Sun City palate of grass and palm trees and thought that my relationship would help accomplish that (of course it wouldn’t have nor would I have tried). During the inventory process however, the operations manager fell in love with the desert as we had. More importantly they had opened the project up to early sales before any construction had truly began and had people camping out to buy into the new desert landscape project. With a projected 8-year absorption Del Webb sold and built out in four years with much higher home prices than anticipated. It was a win for everyone involved and it launched Agave.
By the late 1990’s we had established ourselves as the salvage contractor who helped pioneer new techniques of salvage to increase survival and reduce costs and we were now digging themost plants in the Sonoran Desert. We also landscaped most of those projects and many others throughout the state. We grew and as the economy went into the boom market in the late 1990’s we started maintaining our projects. Our clients realized we knew everything about the build out, the horticulture and the irrigation and soils and they wanted us to maintain their projects. I think because most maintenance companies then and now only focus on mowing blowing and trimming projects and lack any true landscape understanding.
The boom was strong and lasted until the end of 2007 and it ended abruptly with the great recession which was for our industry a great depression. At that point we were the largest landscape construction, salvage and maintenance company in Phoenix, and we had expanded to southern California. We performed close to $50,000,000 in sales and had over 700
employees. By the end of the downturn we did annual sales of only $2,00,000 in 2013. We had developed systems and processes for every aspect of what we were doing. We attracted the best workers in the southwest and they learned from us and we learned from them. The size
wasn’t as important as being the best at what we did.
We had attracted venture capitalist in 2006 & 2007 and had 60% of Agave sold in an offer too good to be true until the bottom fell out of the economy. The acquisition process took almost two years and although it was a great learning process (every company should operate on the
assumption of selling to develop best business practices) it also distracted us as the economy was starting its melt down. Instead of shrinking and reducing overhead early we underestimated the impact of bad government fiscal policy and corrupt banking practices and were late to the gutting party. It took almost five years to sell equipment and facilities and layoff (with severance) employees and reduce overhead.
As we hit rock bottom, I had the same sinking feeling of negativity around me like I did as a kid growing up in Buffalo. I took up triathlon to channel my rage and frustration and to keep busy. There just wasn’t any work to be found. I actually had friends that owned their owned construction businesses who took their own lives during this process. I had two children and that wasn’t even an option. My son was in high school and also doing triathlon in between rowing seasons and we would ride our bikes 50-100 miles in a day through all the subdivisions and along streets, parks and golf courses I was intimate with because we had built or maintained them. It was the first time I really paused long enough to contemplate the sheer volume of work our team had performed. It was actually depressing it seemed like all the work
we had performed had no value. Although we had finally got to a point of extreme efficiency at work I learned that no matter how good we might be there are external factors that are out of my control.
It was humbling and as I looked, I realized that the best part of what we had to do had nothing to do with my ego (which was undoubtedly inflated) and it wasn’t ever about just the money. It was about the people I worked with and worked for. It was about innovating and developingand executing processes. It was about building unique projects and maintaining them to the satisfaction of myself and my discerning clients (unfortunately many clients don’t know understand what they are getting). It was about my client’s clients (the end user the homeowners and people in the community). It was about the same thing I did with my loyal clients when I was a twelve-year puling my lawnmower and equipment with my bicycle. In the
end it is about giving better value. My attitude was that I had no debt at this point, and I had a company that had proved itself once and when the economy turned, we could do it again. We were the sleeping giant laying in wait to be the leader in the industry again.
We lost an estimated $300,000/month on average for five straight years which was a whopping $20,000,000 dollars between our business and investments by the time it was over, but we paid everyone (vendors, employees and subcontractors) we paid interest and penalties and avoided
bankruptcy. We worked during this period like we had when we first started - without salaries. By 2013 we were back to square one. Recovery wasn’t as easy as I might have expected and by 2017 my partner had had enough. He took our tool manufacturing company Metal Concepts and I took what was left of Agave. The market finally was recovering, and I went back after all
our employees we lost during the downturn and others in the marketplace who I knew were the best in the industry. It was a simple philosophy – hire the best create a structure with best practices, deliver value and the rest works itself out. We were to rebuild this time with nothing to prove to anyone but ourselves. We didn’t need to be the largest and I didn’t need to work out of town. Our focus was and is, to be the best in Maricopa County and after thirty years I know we are, and our clients are responding. One other regret I did not have after losing all that money was the time and money we had spent on charitable contributions. Although it seemed considerable at the time it was a drop in the bucket compared to our losses and it was something concrete.