By Sarah Gianelli EBS Senior Editor
Alan McClain launched Big Sky Landscaping (BSL) in 2003 with an ’82 Dodge truck, a homemade trailer, some hand tools and one piece of leased equipment. The original focus was landscaping installation but once established, McClain would add additional services each year. Today BSL offers the full range of landscaping services, and has two retail locations. In 2013, BSL opened the Garden Center in West Fork—what McClain likes to think of as a boutique retail outlet. In 2015, BSL moved their installation and maintenance operations to 2.5 acres of commercial property in the Lazy J subdivision, now the site of a large greenhouse and dubbed the Supply Center.
As part of this ongoing series, McClain shared his thoughts with EBS on what it takes to make it as a small business owner in Big Sky over the long term.
Explore Big Sky: What has been the key to your success?
Alan McClain: The support of my wife, Danielle. Early on especially, the weeks and days were all very long. Without that support at home, BSL would have never made it off the ground. Awesome employees. The employees are my co-workers as well as my friends and we all work hard. Community support. We all know it is a small town. The referrals and recommendations from community members have been a driving force for our growth.
EBS: Do you remember your first customer or first sale?
A.M.: First summer of business, we stuck business cards on houses that needed a landscape. A couple in Sweetgrass Hills caught us in action. They were first concerned by the car parked in front of their house but ultimately hired us to install the landscape at their new home. It was a big job and a I learned a lot. We still provide some services to their landscape.
EBS: What are the biggest obstacles to operating a small business in Big Sky?
A.M.: Finding and affording a place to operate the business. A long-time Big Sky family leased their horse pasture to me for over a decade. It was always either muddy or dusty. However, without the great relationship with that family, BSL would have never survived.
EBS: How has the business landscape changed since you started out?
A.M.: It is a lot bigger. Fifteen years ago, homeowners in Big Sky were part of a small community and expected to personally know everyone who worked at their house. We still develop new, great relationships every year. However, there are many homes now that are managed by property management companies that take care of hiring the landscaper or other service providers and we never meet the owners.
EBS: What is it about Big Sky that compels you to stick it out through the hard times?
A.M.: All types of skiing just outside the front door, ever-expanding mountain bike trails, the safe environment to raise children, great friends … the list goes on. At this point, it is difficult to imagine ever living anywhere else.
EBS: What is one of the most memorable moments you have had as a resident/business owner in Big Sky?
A.M.: There are many. However, that first Willie Nelson concert at the old canvas pavilion. It was the concert where it poured rain all night and Willie just kept playing.
EBS: What was a business idea that didn’t work?
A.M.: I purchased some property down in the Gallatin Valley to store overstock trees. It led to too much driving and added expenses. My gut feeling was that it would work. I didn’t take the time to test it with a business plan. Lesson learned.
EBS: What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
A.M.: Just as I was getting started a business owner who has a house here told me, “Don’t worry about getting jobs; worry about getting employees.” I really took that to heart and have amazing employees to show for it. I have their backs and I know they have mine.
EBS: What advice would you give to small business owners just starting out in Big Sky?
A.M.: Live simply. Just because one year is good doesn’t mean the next will be too.
EBS: Where do you see your business in 10 years?
A.M.: I think Big Sky Landscaping is here to stay. I don’t have any false expectations about a big cash out. However, one day it may be someone else’s project.
EBS: Where do you see Big Sky in 20 years?
A.M.: There is a lot more change to come. No one is going to stop that. But, as I tell my kids, “Big Sky has always been changing.” It will be different, but it will still be a beautiful and fun place to live.
Big Sky Landscaping– by the numbers
- Staff: two year-round, 45-plus seasonal
- Years in business: 15
- Longest serving employee: Eric Porter, 14 years