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Boom and boom

Top Garden’s boom goes hand-in-hand with the explosion of construction work following the initial Covid-19 lockdown. Now, director Louis Wu says his plan is to reap the benefits of it by learning from the best

Louis says the year after lockdown propelled his company, Top Garden, to a whole new level.

“We went from 12 staff to 27, which includes two designers, two quantity surveyors, two project managers, an accountant, myself and our team of hard landscaping staff.”

The twin forces of people requiring prettier spaces to spend more of their time at home, and the furious pace of residential construction work, combined to propel Top Garden’s success.

Most of the company’s work is done on residential subdivisions, which Louis says is a blessing and a curse.

“As we do concreting, carpentry and excavation, we can handle a landscaping project on a sub-division from beginning to end. We’ve come in and done 70 lots before, including shared driveways, common access, garden, fencing and decking.”

Pining for fine dining

While the subdivision work has been lucrative, Louis admits it’s not really what Top Garden wants to do.

“Subdivisions aren’t really our thing. The gardens are small and outdoor space is limited, whereas we want to design and build areas that we’d like to live in. I’d say landscaping for subdivisions is like having takeaways for dinner. We want to build residential areas that match the owner’s taste exactly – I’d equate that to fine dining.

“Basically, we want to do fine dining, not takeaways!

“One job we were really proud of was a house in Spencer Street,” says Louis. “We designed the whole landscape, including retaining walls and extensive decking, and it eventually sold for $8m! I like to think we played a part in that.”

Another job he describes fondly is one in Mount Albert, despite it being a subdivision – an irony that doesn’t pass Louis by.

“It’s different to most cookie cutter landscaping in subdivisions," he chuckles. “It’s got rustic edging, acid-washing footpaths and planting that combines really nicely with mesh fencing.”

Investing in flexibility

To get the job done, Louis owns five tail lift double cab trucks, one 5T truck and a 2T FUSO Canter Tipper. He also has three excavators. He buys, rather than rents, equipment because he believes the overall cost of owning equipment is cheaper than renting over a five-year period, plus it makes it easier for Louis to move gear from job to job.

The right skills for the job

After graduating with a level 5 diploma in landscape design, he worked for Auckland Council as part of its parks and reserves unit, then had a six-month stint with a landscape company.

“I learned a lot about plant identification and maintenance from the council, and I worked on a mixture of hard and soft landscaping after that.”

Originally from China, Louis says he was inspired to start his own business, and contribute to the landscape of New Zealand, because of the way Kiwis look after their own.

“I really like how New Zealanders respect nature, enjoy being in it and maintain it for the future. Hopefully I can contribute to that through Top Garden.”

Nurturing the next generation

To make sure he has a flow of staff coming through the ranks, Louis takes on apprentices and provides work experience placements to students at the nearby Selwyn College in Auckland.

“I’m trying to attract Kiwis to work with us, which is why we’ve partnered with Primary ITO to offer apprenticeship places and the high school to give students taster sessions of the industry. Hopefully, in the next few years, this strategy will start to result in some new employees for us.”

In the future, those school leavers could be working on projects that take home gold in the Registered Master Landscaper (RML) Landscape of Distinction Awards. Top Garden hasn’t entered yet, but that will change soon, Louis says.

“We’ve only been members for 18 months, but I think next year we’ll be ready to enter the awards. I understand it’s a comprehensive process, but that’s to be expected in a competition at this level,” he says. “I also want one of our apprentices to go for the Young Landscaper of the Year.”

Louis adds that becoming a member is well worth it.

“The application is process is quite tough. The person who assessed our application asked us some thorough questions – it felt like I was taking a test! However, I wouldn’t want it any other way. It really shows that you have to be a professional, high-quality outfit to become a member.”

Learning and growing

The RML has members who have been in the organisation for years and, with big players in the Auckland region, Louis believes the regional meet-ups are an excellent opportunity to learn.

“You can’t learn from yourself,” says Louis. “You learn from other people, especially those more experienced than yourself. I went to the gala dinner this year and it was really interesting to see everyone sharing knowledge and their visions for the future. We learned a lot.”

With the help of his extended network, Louis wants to broaden his customer base and future-proof the business.

“Around 70% of our customers are Asian, but that demographic makes up a small percentage of the overall population in New Zealand. That’s not a big market for us to chase, so, in the next three years, I want us to diversify. Being part of the RML will help.”


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