By Nona Tepper
In January 1979, two brothers planted a landscaping business in a River Forest basement, with the aim of growing the firm beyond simply mowing their friends' lawns.
"You start something 40 years ago and you're using a calculator that you punch in and pull the lever," said Rob McAdam. "I'm not joking, that's how I used to add stuff up, doing payroll by handwriting it up. Everything has changed."
Forty years later, McAdam Landscaping has grown to provide maintenance, design, installation work and much more. The firm comprises 18 full-time employees year-round—including two generations of McAdams—and, during high season, hires another 65 workers to help out.
Fifty percent of the company's client base is now commercial, stretching from the Indiana border to Wisconsin, although owners won't gab about any famous gardens they've tamed.
"I was in the insurance business, [my brother, Scott] was still in school. When you're young you don't really feel like you have anything to lose," said Rob, now vice president of McAdam Landscaping, who founded the company with his younger brother, Scott.
Scott had just graduated college when he came home for Christmas and reflected on his next step. During the summers he was in school, he had been cutting neighbors' grass, and "I knew I was making decent money in the summer. I thought, 'OK if I do this full time I can make OK money," he said.
It didn't occur to him the challenge starting his new landscaping business in January would present.
"That first year it was hard," Scott said.
But the next year, McAdam Landscaping moved to a tiny building on Lake Street in Oak Park. Three years later, in 1983, they moved to a larger space in Forest Park, next to Goldyburgers, where they stayed until the early 2000s.
When the time came to move, Mayor Anthony Calderone helped them find a new space, connecting them with Woodlawn Cemetery, which he heard wanted to sell some their land.
"We wanted to stay in town, but we were out of space," Scott said.
McAdam Landscaping moved to its current location, 2001 Desplaines Ave., and has been there ever since.
Over the years, Scott McAdam, now president of the firm, said people would come in with plants in zip lock bags, asking employees to try and identify them. A customer once requested a colorful evergreen tree that would bloom year-round in the Forest Park area.
"People just sometimes don't have an idea of what a plant is," Rob said, noting that that tree doesn't exist.
Another customer, an avid birder, once planted a hawthorn tree in her backyard, so it could offer fruit year-round. When winter came and there was no fruit, she complained to McAdam that the tree was dead.
"The birds were always in the tree, which means they were eating the fruit," Scott said. "I said, 'Just wait in the spring and they'll come back and it will be absolutely fine.' It was. It was because nature was doing what it was supposed to do."
Scott, a landscape architect, is also a trained horticulturist. His passion for horticulture passed on to his son, Scott McAdam Jr., who went into college at the University of Illinois with a plan to major in political science.
A last-minute transfer landed him in the college of agriculture, where his sophomore year he enrolled in a dendrology course, where once a week he and his classmates studied trees by walking through a forest.
"The connection to nature is kind of what drew me in, I was kind of like, 'Wow, there's going to be opportunity there," Scott Jr. said. Now the business development director who also oversees corporate snow accounts, Scott Jr. decided to stake his claim in the family greenhouse he grew up in.
"There's such a negative stigma with landscaping," he said. "When you say, 'Oh he's my landscaper,' literally everyone thinks it's a guy with a pickup truck whose there to cut your grass. Ultimately it's so much more than that."
Scott Jr. named the recession as a turning point for the company, with the tough economic climate forcing McAdam Landscaping to rethink its business. While no one from the firm was laid off during this period, "it didn't come without personal sacrifice." Workers took a pay cut.
"We looked at every single process. It didn't matter what it was," Scott said. "We spent money on stuff when people were not spending money. We brought in new software, we started looking at our efficiencies, everything changed, because it had to."
The family invested in new software, which allows the firm to illustrate for clients what a landscape design will look like down to the shadows. They've hired a new marketing person. And although McAdam Landscaping began investing in green initiatives about 30 years ago, the firm expanded the work, adding cleaner-burning fuels for its mowers, incorporating battery-powered equipment and recycling soil.
"The way we've done business has changed over 40 years," Scott said. "We've become more responsible, not because we're getting older but we've realized that we have to be. I won't see the results in my lifetime of us composting and doing all that, but I know it's contributing in the smallest way and we all have to contribute."