Mr. Burton S. Sperber
by David Wurth
Driving westbound on the 101 freeway, many of us have marveled at the picturesque three story commercial building just past the Parkway Calabasas off-ramp. It’s perched atop the hill overlooking the valley like a paternal guardian with no signage, yet displays seasonal arrangements like that noticeable monstrous pumpkin during Halloween. Although only 4-years-old, this architectural masterpiece houses a history respective of the CSQ vision, stretching far back into the first half of the century and was built by a man that exemplifies the American Dream.
Sixty years ago, Burton S. Sperber had no college education but a passion for horticulture, and had just married his high school sweetheart Charlene. “She is my motivator and my mentor,” he says 60 years later.
The North Hollywood High graduate and San Fernando Valley resident since 1937 was working at a local nursery and landscape company in the blazing summers of the late 40’s. Those years were a landmark on the road-map of Sperber’s path to success. Through the sudden passing of his boss in 1949, Burt was given the key that unlocked the rest of his life, and he purchased the nursery and landscape company from his former boss’s widow for $700. He was a 20-year-old with some plants, a truck, a few used lawnmowers and a new business. Sperber reflects about the early days of his business, “Charlene managed the shop and I was out doing the work.” Coming from humble roots, Burt has never had an aversion to hard work and entrepreneurialism. “At 16 I went door to door selling newspaper subscriptions for the Valley Green Sheet (now known as the Los Angeles Daily News),”says Sperber. He earned close to $70 per week even though he was paid only $1 for every subscription. Burt has always been dedicated to success and was always willing to work as hard as it took to get it.
Aside from horticulture, Sperber’s favorite pastime is magic. At 10-years-old, Sperber was inspired by his uncle, who was a regular at the Magic Castle in Los Angeles, and he soon became captivated with the hobby. He has always enjoyed inventing tricks as much as executing them, and as a young student, Burt specialized in escapes. Once he tied himself to his school’s flagpole during an assembly and by the time all of the students got into the auditorium, Burt had already made it to the stage; no one saw him move. Since then Burt has accumulated one of the largest libraries of magic in the U.S. including numerous books like the rare “A New and Rare Invention of Water-Works” by Isssac du Caus (first edition 1659), trade cards, optical illusions, shadow-graphy and variety acts. He is recognized as a Member of the Inner Magic Circle (MIMC) in London, one of the most prestigious honors in the world of magic. Burt has published multiple books of his own and as his interest in magic has grown, he has also become more enthralled with the magical acts of mentalism, or the ability to use mental acuity to appear clairvoyant to his practitioners.
"Believe it or not, I am actually better known in the world of magic than I am in landscape world.”
That quote is hard to believe considering that his $700 investment has parlayed into the largest private commercial landscape business in the country. Topping $1 billion in revenues, the ValleyCrest Companies have been responsible for the landscape construction and maintenance of some of the most recognizable properties in Uptown and beyond. A few notables are Lake Sherwood Country Club, the Commons at Calabasas, The Getty Center and the Getty Villas. From one truck 60 years ago to a fleet of over 3,500 signature red trucks, ValleyCrest is now a vast nationwide institution employing more than 10,000 landscapers, designers and horticulturists and the company holds a who’s who list of clientele.
Burt owes a lot of his success to his family and employees. ValleyCrest has always been a family-run business; Stuart, Burt’s younger brother, came aboard in 1960 to run the Valley Crest Tree Company and help innovate the process of putting trees in boxes for transport. Stuart was loved by all he came in touch with and worked side by side with Burt for nearly 50 years. Stuart unfortunately passed away last year from cancer, but the family continues to persevere. Burt’s son Richard attended Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and has helped manage the company for decades. Richard was actually responsible for helping build their old headquarters in 1980 and won awards for its innovative design. He has recently been promoted to President & Co-CEO, a title shared with his father Burt.
In 1969, amidst steady revenue growth of 10-15 percent per year, ValleyCrest recognized that they needed excess capital to realize its growth potential. In order to capture funding, Sperber brought the company public with the help of California investment bank Kleiner, Bell & Co. In December of that year, ValleyCrest issued 140,000 shares. This funding helped ValleyCrest reach new heights and within 15 years they had bought the company back and ValleyCrest became privately held once again.
That quality of always exceeding expectations of its customers is one of the catalysts, along with the company’s steadfast support of its employees and managers, to ValleyCrest’s continued growth and success. Burt acknowledges, “The key to my success has come from surrounding myself with hard workers and smart people.” Of the 58 officers in the company, the average tenure is 19 years and out of the 150 managers, the average tenure is 15 years. The reason is simple…treat them as you would wish to be treated. One of the ways that Burt and other members of his C- Suite give back comes around once per year during bonus time.
"Every year, Richard, myself and other top officers spend three weeks traveling from city to city hand delivering bonus checks. Sometimes three cities per day and that’s OK because our management really appreciates that we make that effort." This is a tall order considering that ValleyCrest has a presence in over 30 cities with more than 100 offices nationwide.
Not only does Burt work on the premise of strong executive support for his employees but he and the company value safety as the ultimate priority. “When you have 3,500 trucks, more than 10,000 employees and as much machinery as we work with, attention to safety takes precedent over everything,” says Burt, stressing that ValleyCrest employees worked 20 million hours last year.
While there have been multiple efforts to encourage more safety awareness, the Sperbers and their staff tried the traditional barbeque, safety awareness day and reward trips to remind workers to be more cautious. But six years ago ValleyCrest started giving away Ford F150 trucks. If an
employee completes one full year with no safety incidents, they are entered into a drawing for the truck. The program had over 3,500 participants last year and the winners are frequently brought to tears by this gesture and reward. Since the program got off the ground, ValleyCrest has given away over 30 trucks and the result has been double-digit reductions in the percentage of safety incidents every year.
“We don’t go to anyone other than Burt and ValleyCrest at this point. They are the best, work the hardest and in fact Burt has been there at every job site for us so far. He’s still not afraid to get his hands dirty and I really respect that.”
Rick Caruso, Caruso Affiliated
And with double-digit gains in revenue every year, ValleyCrest could be the best kept secret in Calabasas. VallyCrest uses the same systems and technology as other major corporations in the area (Amgen and formerly Countrywide to name a few), but it’s one of the few corporations in times of a national slow down that is still hiring new employees. “We believe this fiscal year will be our best yet,” says Burt. Aside from organic growth through the hiring of new workers, ValleyCrest has been aggressive in acquiring other companies, bringing aboard six new acquisitions last year alone. How do they continue to strive? Burt is quick to explain: “We do the same thing today that we did 60 years ago.” ValleyCrest has kept the formula simple and that has led them to be the best at what they do.
Burt mentions, “If you stick to what you know and focus on doing that really well, there will always be work. It is those that try to be all things to all people that end up spreading themselves too thin - and their work suffers.” It is obvious that Burt takes pride in his work and wants to ensure that his customers are satisfied - ValleyCrest has contracted Xerox to conduct customer surveys after every job.
As a pioneer in modern day landscape industry, ValleyCrest and Burt Sperber have seen their industry expand as well as the natural development of the San Fernando Valley and Uptown over the years. In fact ValleyCrest has been at the forefront of that expansion. After 60 years in the business, I asked Burt if he would ever retire. His response touched the surface of cliché, but with a direct and sincere tone he responded, “That would assume I’m actually working.” Doing what he loves doesn’t feel like work, which is one of those often talked about keys to success. Sperber has found it easy to bring in family members, investors, and innovation to the landscape business because his drive comes from the heart. He has not only put his soul into ValleyCrest but he planted himself in the company’s figurative soil before it began. But how is Mr. Burton S. Sperber today? He has a quiet and friendly demeanor and at almost 80 years old, he’s still as sharp today as he has ever been. As he fiddles with his CISCO phone and explains to me how the network server operates and connects his over 100 offices nationwide, I realize that this “gardener” has things pretty well figured out. Burt is the salt of the earth, a supreme example of the American soul that drives our own ambitions and provides a benchmark for success that proves that hard work will prevail in the long run. There are no short cuts in life and in business. It took him 60 years, but this magician managed to turn $700 investment into $1 billion a year company by literally getting his hands dirty. What makes Burton as strong as a rock is that he knows failure is inevitable, but rebounding from failure is what makes you and your business even stronger. “I’ve made every mistake you’re allowed to make and survived them.”
The fun goes on; ValleyCrest recognizes even more opportunity in the $50 Billion integrated landscape industry. A few years back Michael Dell (Founder and CEO, Dell Computers) took notice of the core strength of the ValleyCrest Companies and his investment firm MSD Capital bought a large interest in the business. Together, they are leading the charge at continual expansion and targeting an even larger market share in years to come.