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A natural fit

Jon Russell kept things in the family when he bought Christchurch-based Sculptural Landscapes from his cousin nearly five years ago – since then he’s taken his crew to winning heights

With a history working in construction and an affinity for the outdoors, Jon says getting into the landscaping industry was a natural fit.

“One of the things I loved about working in construction was being outdoors, especially the gardening and landscaping side of things, so when my cousin offered me the job, I was straight into it.”

Founded eight years ago, Jon has been with the Christchurch-based firm for seven years – buying it after his second year with the company. He says it’s an interesting place to work as it specialises in unique job requests.

“We love working with natural materials to create sustainable solutions that transform outdoor spaces. Our speciality is carrying out bespoke landscaping jobs from design to completion; we did a kidney shaped deck the other day and really enjoyed that.

“A lot of people contact us because they’ve seen one of our projects on Instagram and really like our style – we’ve developed a bit of a reputation for using materials like railway sleepers to create a real rustic look.”

The successful style is encapsulated by its Lyttelton Oasis project, which won a Landscaper of Distinction gold medal in the under $50k category at the 2021 Landscaper of the Year awards. Read more about this on pages 20-21.

As managing director, Jon spends his days ensuring his team of seven perform to the best of their abilities, while also juggling his responsibilities on the tools.

Pandemic problems

Like most other landscaping firms, Sculptural Landscapes struggles to recruit – but mitigates that with a homegrown source of labour.

Running an active apprenticeship system means the business always has landscapers who are schooled in its way of doing things – an important pipeline given the restrictive staff shortages.

“We’ve been training apprentices for a couple of years and we’ve got two on at the moment,” says Jon.

“We like putting everyone who works for us through their qualifications so they can be recognised for their skills. Ideally, we’d like all of our staff members to be fully qualified in something.”

Despite an industry known for ‘going out on your own’ shortly after completing your apprenticeship, Jon says he’s been lucky to hold onto his apprentices.

“We haven’t had anyone leave yet, fingers crossed! We just try to treat our staff well and keep them happy!”

While things are looking good on the apprenticeship front, Jon says it doesn’t completely relieve the skills shortage, and blames Covid-19 for exacerbating the situation.

“It creates a domino effect where restrictions have led to a smaller pool of overseas workers,” explains Jon.

“We’ve found that as there are more available jobs, New Zealanders are moving into positions that were previously occupied by immigrants and aren’t giving landscaping a look. As a knock-on effect, it’s much harder to recruit good foremen than it is labourers.”

Covid Gives with one hand, takes with the other

For Jon, as the pandemic takes with one hand, it gives with the other. A common industry insight is that order books are bulging as people try to ‘Covid proof’ their homes, and he agrees.

“I think people are willing to spend more money on their backyard because of the fear of lockdown and being stuck at home. They want a nice space to relax in if we’re confined to our houses again.”

Covid-19 has ushered in a new way of working for many, but for Jon, it changed things in a way he might have struggled to predict. Sculptural Landscapes has had to learn how to say ‘no’.

“We’re getting a lot more enquiries than ever before, so I’ve had to start turning people down or saying we can’t help them in the short term. The trick is trying to keep everyone happy, but at the same time you need to say no to some jobs – which hurts a bit!”

RML Business Benefits

During busy periods, even the best sometimes need some help to get the job done on time and to a client’s satisfaction – help that appears to be on hand for members of Registered Master Landscapers (RML) – at least in Christchurch (read more about this community approach on pages 22-23)!

Eighteen months into being an RML member, Jon says Sculptural Landscapes has already felt the benefits in ways he couldn’t have imagined.

“Having extra support and being able to talk to other landscapers and people in the industry is brilliant.

“I’ve even had other members help me finish jobs – something that would never have happened before I joined RML. For example, I had to have some pool coping finished by the time concreters came in, so I reached out to other RML members, who came in and helped me finish it at short notice.”

Jon hasn’t had the chance to repay the favour just yet, but says he would at the drop of a hat.

“If someone else needed a hand, I’d definitely step up. Everyone needs to stick together and work as a community these days – the only thing I can’t help with is finding people new staff!”

Membership helps provide credence, authority and weight to any organisation, explains Jon.

“There are a lot of cowboys in the industry and we wanted something that showed people we weren’t one of them. Having an RML badge we can display demonstrates that we’re a highly professional outfit.”

With a commitment to customer satisfaction, a team of skilled individuals, a love of the unusual and a winning mentality – all backed by the RML badge – Sculptural Landscapes hopes to carve a path for themselves across Canterbury for many years to come.


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