Answer: I probably started with the company when I was about 5 years old. I've been working here my whole life. My dad started the business 58 years ago and he's been taking me to work since I've been a little kid.
Q: So you had a passion for it as a little boy?
A: When I was 5 I'm not sure if I had a lot of passion for it. I just liked the big tractors and thought it was cool getting dirty every day. I'd say it grew on me sorry for the pun. But I love being outside. And at the end of the day we make things beautiful, we create amazing environments and great places for people to hang out, live in and work in. This is apple pie. We're creating beauty every day, planting trees and making people smile. How can you not like it?
Q: Having worked here much of your life you must have held quite a few positions.
A: I've done everything from sweeping the shops to working in the yard to working in the offices to working in the field. I grew up every summer working with the crews in the field, landscaping projects, and was sort of brought up through the business, slowly taking on more and more responsibility. Today, after 40 years of hanging around here, I'm running the place.
Q: So what is your role here these days?
A: I spend my time where I can create the most value, which is with our customers and our employees. That's the fun stuff, right? We have over 10,000 employees now, so I spend a lot of time on people issues. I spend a lot of time on where we're going and how we're going to get there the vision and direction the company's going to take, short term and long term. I spend a lot of time on jobs, very field operational and focused on our customers, and making sure we're delivering what we want. We have a CFO where I dump all that insurance and all the banking and all the necessary boring business stuff. I spend very little time on that, though I'm definitely involved in it.
Q: Would you want your own kids to follow in your footsteps the way you have done with your father?
A: That'd be cool. That'd be sort of fun. My kids are now 6 years old and I bring them here to work.
Q: Has it been difficult to work with your father?
A: It's been a great relationship and we've been able to build an amazing business together. You hear about all the bad stories about family businesses with fathers and sons. It's been great because we've never gotten in a fight.
Q: Has he given you good advice?
A: He gives me good advice every day: Certainly one was to make sure we're always doing the best job we can, no matter what it costs. We want to make the customer completely happy. He always preaches that you should treat people the way you would want to be treated basic stuff. We treat people really fair around here and that's where that whole family environment comes in.
Q: How many Sperbers are there at the company?
A: My uncle started and grew the tree business. He just passed away six months ago. There's a couple more.
Q: Is it hard to have such a big family-run company?
A: We really do the same thing we did 58 years ago; we just do more of it. At the end of the day, we're still gardeners. It's still a family business. And we're a very family-oriented business not only my family, but we have generations of families that work here. The Ortega family has three or four generations who have worked here and they have 74 members that currently work here. Not a lot has changed except we have expanded.
Q: Has the Michael Dell investment changed things?
A: They're not your typical private equity firm. They really take a long-term view on the business. They've been very hands-off and left the business to the management.
Q: How did you first meet Dell?
A: We originally landscaped his house in Austin, (Texas). That was our first contact with him. Then we did a formal process of looking for a private equity partner. MSD had similar values and an outlook on how we could continue the business.
Q: What is an average day for you?
A: There's definitely no average day, and that's the fun part of the business. Every day brings on a new challenge. Every job we do is completely different.
Q: So give us one example.
A: A developer might want to build an office complex and we would walk them through everything outside the building. We don't actually build buildings, but that whole environment outside the building. What do you want it to look like? What type of landscaping and hardscaping? What type of environment do you want to create?
Q: So that means you are doing landscape design?
A: We've been doing design-build with other architects for 10 years, but as far as bringing on talented architects I'd say the last three years we've really concentrated on the design-build business. We can now design your projects, build your projects, maintain your projects.
Q: How did that come about?
A: Our customers really started to demand it. The old model, which really didn't work very well, was they would hire a landscape architect separately that had really no connection to what was going to happen through the building phase and the maintenance phase. It left a lot of things wide open and a lot of uncertainty with the owner. We can now deliver certainty of getting a world-class great design and then deliver it with the proper budget that the owner wants, the proper schedule. And we can control the long-term maintenance costs.
Q: What are some of the most interesting projects you have worked on?
A : I love all the projects. Every project is different and new and that's the great part about the job. We've done some great stuff. The stuff we've done with (casino resort developer) Steve Wynn and some of the hotels he's done are amazing jobs to be involved with because he has a great joy for landscaping and building great environments. We did this project in (Disney World) called Animal Kingdom, which is one of the most amazing landscapes installed in probably the last 25 years. It was a flat piece of property with just sand and a few trees on it, and we created two different environments: an African safari and some Asian villages. It's an animal park.
Q: How about locally?
A: We just finished up the Chinese garden at the Huntington garden. It's a replica of a Chinese garden and they wanted authentic Chinese people to handcraft every inch of this. So we actually brought over 50 craftsmen from China, and along with our workers built this Chinese garden. It was truly amazing. We had to have interpreters on the job that could translate everything into English and Spanish so all our workers could understand. That was a great job to work on.
Q: All these projects must take up a lot of your time. Do you get to see your family much?
A: I travel a lot and the days are long. I put in 12- to 15-hour days sometimes. But I have a family so I don't start work as early as when I travel; I get in a little later so I can spend some time with my family. I try to get home and spend some time with my family at the end of the day.
Q: You recently made an investment, along with developer Richard Weintraub, in a retail redevelopment of Malibu's old lumber yard. How did that come about?
A: We both live in Malibu and we are part of the community. We wanted to build a beautiful project right where we live. That was the main reason I got involved in it. This is just a fun outside investment I made that I thought would be a great opportunity to make an investment in something beautiful in my own backyard.
Q: For someone as passionate about landscaping as you are, your house must be beautiful.
A: I'm always changing my house because I'm always traveling around and seeing great ideas and beautiful things. I'm right in the middle of changing it again. I like my house. I'm going to love my house in another three weeks when I get done with my little project. I'm relandscaping, bringing a different look and feel.
Q: What kind of feel?
A: I'd say comfortable tropical.
Q: Do you personally do the work on your home?
A: Unfortunately I don't have time to personally do that anymore. But some of our best guys are here in Los Angeles so they are helping me do it.
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