Profile: James Korak, Dallas, Texas - Lighting Lights Up Your Business
By Leslie McGuire, managing editor
This is James Korak’s fifth year in business as a landscape contractor and his third year as a lighting contractor. His business has grown exponentially since adding the lighting—his sales have quadrupled in the last couple of years. The lighting has helped incredibly, with last year’s sales for lighting at around 90 thousand dollars. His landscaping business gets him so many referrals, he’s turning jobs away.
Korak made the decision to add lighting to his landscape contractor services when a friend in the nursery business, Ted Metter, called him in to help out on large projects and even now they do the design together. Korak got in touch with a sales company that did nothing but irrigation and lighting and went to some classes to learn lighting installation techniques specializing in low voltage. That firm, the Longhorn Company, deals with contractors only and has several offices in the Dallas Fort Worth area. They supplied him with the materials. He now uses nothing but Kichler, who along with Vista, sponsors the classes. Those are offered free of charge because ultimately, that is what generates more in sales, but he’s looking at doing more work with other companies such as Contractor’s Choice Lighting in California.
Korak took his existing clientele and sent out a letter announcing his new service. Several people enquired and from there on out, he’s had more business every day. A few people also stop when they see the branding on his trucks and want installations. His advertising costs are minimal since right now it is a pure referral business. Now he services five different cities in the area. Says Korak, “Who you know in business is best, but being friends with people in real estate helps quite a bit. In addition, when he’s giving clients a landscaping estimate, he also includes a landscape lighting estimate as well. Clients can either decide later, or make that decision at the time they decide to do the landscaping because it may cost a bit less to do the installation work and the landscaping at once.
Streamlining the Process
The process of doing an installation is quite straightforward. On large properties, they use a computer program to create the design proposal. First they walk around the house to decide what features to light, and how to create depth. Depth can be achieved by staggering the lighting package. For example, if nine large oak trees are together, they light one and skip the next, then light the one behind it. Creating a not very uniform pattern achieves the look of depth. Since they’re already doing landscaping for the client, they already have all the measurements they need to do the lighting estimate. All they have to add in are the kinds of lights and transformers. They give the client a computer generated blue print, which is the landscape design, but the lighting design is added on top removing all the planting labels, and showing the lighting features with the appropriate labels.
For smaller jobs they meet with the homeowner and get a formal estimate to them at that time. Not charging for the estimate seems to be the best way to go. However, 80 percent of their jobs are ones for which they’ve done the landscaping. The rest are referrals or inquiries.
“Lighting is such an easy way to generate extra income,” says Korak. “If you’re already doing a landscape installation, everything is already dug up. You just need to add a little more. On a new installation with no landscaping involved, it a little more time is involved to trench out the land by hand or by machine.” Korak advises renting a gas-powered trencher from a rental company. With low voltage, you don’t have to go down that deep. That’s a sales point for low voltage because the voltage is less expensive and less dangerous.
“The jobs that are the biggest challenge are the ones where you have to deal with another landscape contractor and you have to get your wiring in when they’re doing their landscape installation,” says Korak. “Sometimes your lines get cut, and mortar is a source of frustration because you can’t always be there when the hardscaping is going in. With a low voltage system, of course, there isn’t that much in the way of trouble.
Korak has enough with his residential profit margin to avoid commercial installations. Commercial profit margins are not as high because the permits might be a problem. In Texas at least, residential properties don’t need any permits. If he needs a line drop an electrician is called in, he deals with it in the invoice and is therefore covered for insurance. He doesn’t need a low voltage license in Texas, just general liability, which covers lighting.
They do lighting installations on the landscaping, the house, the path lighting, the deck with a lot of up-lights, wall washes and light certain areas to brighten up the corners. Korak likes lighting the big trees best “because those look great and catch people’s eyes from a distance if you use three 50W bulbs and only low voltage.”
“Security issues are helped most with good lighting, and I mention that in our brochure,” says Korak. “I use a digital timer and program it so the lights will go off and on at irregular as well as regular intervals.”
Says Korak, “Kichler had preprinted brochures that show people all the different kinds of features they can choose from. They give people all the materials they need to make a sale. A lot of the work is already done for us.” He’ll go back to the client after a full year when the warranty is up and offer them a new guarantee and that becomes a new source of income. Most people don’t want to maintain their lighting, clean lens covers, change bulbs or adjust timers.
Overhead for the lighting part of the business is minimal. Korak might buy lots of wire and hold it if prices are going up. If he needs a large piece of equipment he rents. He owns shovels and tractors of course, which are part of the equipment he uses for the lawn care. Drills and other small equipment are also standard. Korak says. “All you need is labor.”
He has no trouble finding labor. Korak uses a temporary employment agency, and is therefore covered by their general liability and extra worker protection. “You may pay more an hour,” he says, “but you save because you don’t to do their payroll or taxes. FICA also drives the cost up a lot, along with benefits. Worker’s compensation fees are very high as well. He uses a nationwide company called Labor Ready. “I can call and have them send more people if I need them at the last minute, or ask them to send some one else out if someone isn’t working out well,” says Korak. “However, I’ve never had that problem. You can also request the same people over and over again if you want. There is no additional insurance, either.”
Lighting has been a great avenue for increased profit and jobs. Korak can eventually do lighting and nothing but lighting. Not only does he love what it does to a landscape—but it’s so easy and the profit margin is so high, it’s a good way to make a living once you get established. He might make $25 to $30M per large project, and can do three or four a year easily. Right now he does 15 to 20 per year, both large and small.
“Anytime I do a lighting installation that looks so beautiful when completed, I get a huge feeling of pride. The fixtures should be well hidden and create the kind of setting you can enjoy in the evening,” he says. “When the homeowner sees it and says ‘Wow, that’s incredible, and I love it’, I know the owner is happy and so am I.”