When a tornado destroyed the landscaping and tore out trees at Mary Liljequist’s Raleigh, North Carolina, home in 1988, the avid gardener determined that rebuilding the property herself would require skills she had never practiced outdoors.
So, she signed up for a landscaping class through the continuing education program at local Wake Technical Community College.
“That heightened my interest,” says Liljequist, who had been working in the pharmaceutical industry. She signed up for the second part of the class and continued learning and working in her yard. One day in class, the landscape architect teaching the course said something that flipped a switch for Liljequist.
“He said he knew nothing about plants,” she says. “That is when it clicked that this career could be a niche for me.”
Liljequist did know quite a bit about plants as a gardening hobbyist and a student of landscape design.
Meanwhile, she was not all that fulfilled in her corporate job, even though it paid well and provided handsome benefits. “I was sort of the square peg in a round hole,” she says.
When her employer downsized following an acquisition, the timing worked out perfectly for Liljequist, who used some of her severance pay to return to school and obtain an Associate degree in applied science and landscape architect technology.
At age 40, Liljequist was ready to start over and pursue a creative path.
“I felt so optimistic,” she says, maintaining that today, after 13 years running her landscape design business, Earthly Delights, and 20 years working as a landscape architect, the universe seemed to be pointing her in this direction all along.
Liljequist runs a landscape architecture firm focused on residential design, and acts as a contract administrator identifying ideal subs and overseeing their work until project completion.
Liljequist’s career is all about reinvention: changing industries, starting a business in 2003, and now rebranding her firm in 2016 to focus on high-end residential clients with the type of outdoor spaces that demand a creative eye, design skill and experienced craftspeople to carry out the work.
“I took a leap,” Liljequist says of pursuing her dream and continuing to hone her business into a respected North Carolina firm.
While Liljequist was attending college to earn her landscape architecture degree, she worked a co-op design position part-time at Bland Landscaping, where she had an opportunity to work on interesting projects and grow relationships with skilled subcontractors. She stayed there from 1996 until 2000 before moving to a downtown-Raleigh firm, Sears Design Group.
While on a company errand for Sears, Liljequist’s car was struck by a driver who blew through a red light, leaving her with a broken collarbone and knee trouble. Liljequist says, relating that she took a break from Sears to focus on her health, and started Earthly Delights the following year in 2003. “I was recovering from knee surgery so it was good for me to get out and walk, so I made a bunch of fliers and bought door-hanger bags, and I would go out and walk neighborhoods,” she says, noting that at that time she was targeting homes in the $200,000 to $300,000 range.
Liljequist also set up a booth at a home show and ran advertisements in the local newspaper. Her first gig came from a flyer she left at a resident’s door. Similar to her own situation 15 years prior, this homeowner needed a new front yard after a storm destroyed the property.
From that project came more referrals, and then Liljequist landed her first large-scale job, a client who learned about Earthly Delights from a home show. “It was a master plan for a home in Apex, North Carolina, and it involved a patio and garden wall, and plantings along the property,” Liljequist says. The property was tricky because it was surrounded on three sides by street and had very little privacy.
“We built up a slope,” Liljequist says, noting that she drove by recently and the plants are growing in nicely. Liljequist always keeps tabs on the properties she designs to see how her designs grow in. This is also critical for building long-term relationships, which is her goal with every client.
The way Liljequist works, she meets with potential clients at no charge, then walks the property. “I provide a proposal and produce my designs on a flat fee based on an hourly rate,” she says. Depending on the project size, Liljequist might ask for 33 to 50 percent of the fee upfront, before the design is created. Following are a couple of design reviews with the client before a final plan is settled.
Then, Liljequist works hourly as the contract administrator on the job, bringing in appropriate subcontractors and managing the project. She’s particular about making sure plant replacements and other changes to the design do not happen without her and the client’s approval. In fact, there’s a clause stating this on every plan.
“Some subcontractors can make substitutions and they may change your spacing on plants and things like that,” Liljequist says. “That might not seem like a big deal, but it is.”
Centered on subs.
Just as caring for plants requires time and attention, fostering relationships with subcontractors also demands TLC. “I have worked for years to develop relationships with specific contractors. I know them so well,” Liljequist says.
Liljequist dedicates time and attention to honing these relationships, and her business success is due in part to her ability to create an appealing design and follow through by escorting clients through the installation project, even if she is not the one physically performing that work.
She is the visionary on a project, and its “general contractor.” While she does not have in-house crews, she relies on a stable of respected subcontractors to bring her designs to life on clients’ properties. She’s involved every step of the way.
“I like going out in the field and being involved, and the installers I work with are used to me being hands-on,” Liljequist says. When a site is “active,” she’s there at least daily. “With landscaping, there are sometimes changes necessary in the field – obstacles you didn’t realize were going to be there,” Liljequist says.
She recalls one project in particular where crews discovered an underground spring. “I ended up redesigning the project,” Liljequist says, noting that the key elements remained in the plan but were adjusted.
“Being a liaison can put me in a perilous position sometimes,” she says. One project called for a cobblestone driveway. Once the crew started digging and laying down gravel, the clay soil just soaked it up. “Raleigh soil can be like walking on a mattress,” Liljequist says of preparation sometimes required for hard surfaces.
This was a bit of a surprise. “I stopped the crew and said, ‘Let’s back off. We have to call an engineer,’” Liljequist says. The crew had to dig 18 inches deep for the sub-layer in order to properly install the cobblestone.
“I like going out in the field and being involved, and the installers I work with are used to me being hands-on.” Mary Liljequist, owner, Earthly Delights
“That wasn’t the original plan, but you have to explain to clients that sometimes there are circumstances that are beyond our control, and we need to take care of those and there will be additional costs,” Liljequist says.
Of course, those conversations, while rare, are never easy. “But it’s important that you explain that up front, after the design is completed and before installation,” she says.
Liljequist’s role as a liaison between subcontractors and clients is critical because she can communicate progress on the job. Clients want to know: What’s happening? What’s next? Even if the report is status quo, they need updates. “I may say, ‘We’re still working on this and when I have something new I’ll get back to you,’” Liljequist says. She also ensures that subs show up on site when expected and informs clients of any scheduling changes.
Liljequist values the relationships she has with subcontractors. In fact, the lighting professional she works with was her mentor at Bland Landscaping. But, Liljequist is not interested in acting as the subcontracting designer. She tried that once for a local nursery that asked her to produce designs for its clients.
“It didn’t work out well because they wanted me to use their plants and sometimes, by the time we got through the design process, what we specified was no longer in the inventory,” Liljequist says.
So Liljequist likes her solo design operation and role as project orchestrator. It’s a sweet spot that suits her creative talent and communication skills.
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