Grand designs

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When Chris McCutcheon hit 30, he decided it was time to do something that he wanted to do.

Nearing 40, he now commands a successful landscape design, consulting and maintenance business, counting some of Sydney’s elite among his clients.

Originally hailing from New Zealand, McCutcheon is softly spoken with a broad smile. As co-founder and namesake of Sydney-based Chris McCutcheon Landscape Design, he is now, officially, doing what he wants to do.

“I’ve always been interested in gardening, and interested in design,” he says. Grafting the two together seemed, then, the obvious solution.

“It’s just doing what I enjoy doing. There’s nothing better than going to work and doing what you want to do. A job is more than a job – it’s a lifestyle as well.”

McCutcheon believes in business you will reap what you sow. He hit the books with the end-goal of starting the best business he could. He was no stranger to study – already holding diplomas in business and exercise science, and yet another in landscape, horticulture and design.

Halfway through his last diploma, his partner, Darran Clark, surprised him with a certificate of business registration and a mobile phone. A not-so-subtle hint that it was time to turn the study into business success.

“He just said, ‘Now it’s up to you.’ I was freaking out! All [of my] confidence issues came through. But it was the best thing that could have happened,” he says.

He says it’s important to have a positive attitude and confidence in your own ability – only then will you see your plans come to fruition.

Growing the business

Vision, says McCutcheon, is crucial to success in business. “I can walk into a property, take a look around and in less than a minute I can visualise in my head what I can do,” he says. “A lot of people can’t visualise – you can tell them, but they can’t see it.”

Passion is also key. “[When I see a property] this excitement comes through me and I’m raring to go. I want to be on the drawing board, drawing away, or on my computer designing. It just flows.”

Some challenges remain, however. “Some people can’t see the value of a design because it’s not actually in the ground,” he says. “They want to put the money in the plants.”

This is where McCutcheon’s business systems come into place. “I need to educate them,” he says. “I tell them it’s a false economy if they don’t get me in first because later down the track, mistakes will occur and it will cost them more money in the end to fix the problem. By then it might be too late.”

In this way, he works to create value – both in the processes his business offers, and in the products it produces. This methodology can be seen in the success of his consultancy and maintenance services. The latter started with a solitary house in the upmarket Sydney suburb of Woollahra – and currently caters to a client-base inhabiting a large portion of the suburb. 

McCutcheon places great emphasis on cultivating client relationships. For those clients who are not home when McCutcheon is tending their garden, he makes the effort to see them when it is most convenient for them. It’s this communication that informs his business practices. 

“I work on a quality, not quantity business structure,” he says. “There are people out there who work on the amount of jobs, not on the quality of the jobs. I am the opposite.” 

McCutcheon is concerned that his business will grow too fast for him to maintain this presence. As a result, he has tempered the maintenance side. 

“If I get really busy and have to get in another person, I might lose that personal touch,” he says. “That could come back and bite me. People like getting me in because they like my presence.”

Bouncing back

When you are the business, personal injury can be disastrous without the right support systems in place. 

McCutcheon knows the reality of this all too well – around six years ago he broke his foot in six places, severing all the tendons and the ligaments in a fall while on the job. 

“The business stopped,” recalls McCutcheon. “I couldn’t walk. I was in hospital for a month, then I was in a wheelchair, and then crutches.”

Learning from his mistakes, he took some valuable lessons from this experience. At the time, McCutcheon didn’t have personal insurance. Needless to say, he does now. 

“I was out of action for six months, but it was the best thing that could have happened because it taught me the things you need in business. And insurance is something that you hope you never have to use, but when it’s there, jeez it’s good to have!”

McCutcheon says that being knocked down helped him build his business up again. He used his time off to build his business. As he couldn’t work in his business, he had no choice but to work on it. He changed the name and the branding, did small courses and read up on industry trends.

While he was out of action, McCutcheon got a contractor in to handle the labour, but still liased closely with clients.

He has his fingers crossed that it never happens again, but if it ever does he has strategies in place to cope – including an apprentice and a heavier emphasis on the design arm of the business, which he can do from anywhere (a hospital bed included). 

McCutcheon’s dedication to his client base ensured that the business was never in any danger – he kept the channels of communication open throughout his convalescence. “It’s all about keeping in contact with people and not just sending them an invoice. It’s a relationship.”

McCutcheon monitors this system with the help of computer software, which he updates regularly. The system holds a complete client history of all communication, which is reviewed monthly by McCutcheon and his partner as they look for ways to further improve. 

“It’s always important to improve,” he says. Of late, they have switched from fortnightly to monthly invoicing, saving both time and stationary, and now facilitates electronic payments for the convenience of their clients. 

To combat cash flow problems, McCutcheon has had a good accountant since “day one” and has set up accounts, and established great relationships with, his suppliers, which gives him flexibility in payment. 

“This saves me the time of going to the bank,” he says of using online services. “And it also gets me out of the office doing paperwork and into the business of designing and going to see clients.” 

Thanks to his systems and organisation, he spends only a few days each month in the studio which he can dedicate to running the business. 

“You may be good at what you do, but unless you can run a business you’re not going to succeed,” McCutcheon says. 

House and garden

McCutcheon works from a studio in his waterside home. “My office is outside,” he says. “There’s no need to go to the expense of having a shopfront. A lot of others out there have shopfronts, but I just feel it’s not an option at this stage.” 

While McCutcheon loves the flexibility that working from home offers, he believes it’s important to have structures, and to know when to stop. 

“You need to set boundaries on when you’re at work and when you’re not,” he says. “When I’m at home doing a design I will go and put on a nice shirt or some clothes that I would go and see a client with. I won’t walk around in tracksuit pants. I need to feel the part. If you’re dressed another way, you might take ten minutes out to put the washing on, or you might go and do something else. There’s all these distractions around you, but you need to get a full day’s work in. 

“It’s also important to have your lunch break … and your afternoon and morning tea breaks,” he laughs. 

While he considers his home studio as something that will remain in the years to come, in the immediate future, McCutcheon sees the focus of his business shifting to concentrate on the design element. 

“I’m not getting any younger,” he says. “It’s physical. It’s an exciting time because there are so many different opportunities as to where the business can go – and I’m just fortunate that I’m in that position.”

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