March 2010

Bruno Landscape And Nursery: It’s All About Family

Author: Paul deVere

It was a cool, sunny morning. In the unpretentious offices of Bruno Landscape and Nursery, Gary Bruno looked over at his wife, Mary Ann, who runs the office, then at his brother-in-law, Mark Nizolek, who runs the maintenance program. “How long have we known each other? Thirty-four, 35 years now?” Bruno asked. It came out as if he was surprised.

“And I’m only 36,” Nizolek attempted to say with a straight face. It didn’t work. The three friends laughed. Mark Nizolek very recently became a grandfather.

The Brunos and Nizolek grew up together in Connecticut. Mark and Mary Ann went to high school together and Mark married Mary Ann’s sister. When you call Bruno Landscape and Nursery, you’re bound to get a family member. Family is an important part of the mix for the company. “That makes us a little different,” Mary Ann said. “It’s still run by family.”

Nizolek said, “When a customer calls, one of us is going out to see them. We have a really loyal base of customers. Some have been with us a very long time. We’re all about building relationships. It’s nice to walk into Publix or Harris Teeter and see people you’ve become friends with.”

“It’s the same with our employees. We’re working right there with them. I think that develops loyalty. We’ve had some of the workers with us for over 14 years,” Mary Ann said. In the winter months, the company employs about 30 people; in season, the number will grow to 50.

It was 1989, two years after the Brunos arrived on Hilton Head Island, when Gary Bruno came home one evening and told his very pregnant wife he had just quit his job. He had been a construction manager for a large landscape company on the island. The job was good, too. He liked the people (still does), liked the pay. “I about had a heart attack,” Mary Ann said.

But Gary Bruno wanted his own business. “I like taking chances and I wasn’t afraid of work,” he said. He wanted to make it on his own. “In 20 years I haven’t been late for an appointment. And I don’t wear a watch,” Bruno laughed. But there was pride in that laughter.

Over those 20 years Bruno Landscape and Nursery has grown into a full-service design, build and maintenance landscape company and nursery. The Brunos grew the business steadily. They focused on what they felt they do best: residential properties. “We’re also ICPI certified paver installers. We do driveways, patios, walkways. And we do tons of drainage work’, Nizolek explained.

Ten years after Mary Ann Bruno’s first surprise, the founding of the company, the other shoe dropped. “Gary came in and said to me, ‘There’s this property we need to buy. We can have a nursery.’ I figured we be eating peanut butter again,” Mary Ann said.

They bought a four-acre parcel on Dillon Road. The nursery takes up two acres. “When I meet customers, I meet them out there,” Bruno said, pointing to the nursery beyond the office. “That’s my showroom.”

After the move to Dillon Road the business did grow, and with it, a costly problem: debris. “We used to pay big money to haul everything away,” Bruno said. So he bought a large grinder. Problem solved. “We grind everywhere,” he added. They have ground their way from Daniel Island in Charleston to Hutchinson Island in Savannah, and all points in between. “We make our own mulch and top soil and sell it to our customers. It’s good for business, good for the environment,” Bruno said.

The business is also good for the extended families of the Brunos and the Nizoleks—those relatives they left behind up north. It seems every member of the family—sons, daughters, cousins—has worked at Brunos.

Mark Nizolek said, “All of our kids have worked here in some capacity: answering the phone, selling Christmas trees, working in nursery. We have relatives back in Connecticut who call and ask, ‘Gary, you have a job for my kids? You don’t even have to pay them. We’ll send them there; you put them to work, keep them busy, make them sweat,’” Nizolek laughed. Even his daughter, Kylie works at Bruno’s on occasion. Her other two jobs, being an eighth grader and a member of the Bluffton High School Lady Bobcats golf team (the five-person team that won the 3-A state title last fall)—keep her well occupied.

There is also a long string of local school kids who have found their way to Bruno Landscape and Nursery, even though they knew Gary Bruno could be a tough boss. “I like to tell them that if you haven’t bled for me today, you haven’t given me a full day’s work,” Bruno said.

Laughing, Mary Ann Bruno added, “And the kids would go to our son, Steve, and say, ‘Your dad’s really not right.’”

But Gary and Mary Ann Bruno and Mark Nizolek have been right often enough. When Gary saw the need to build up the maintenance side of the business, he got Mark to join them. Nizolek was working in Charlotte, doing corporate landscaping. He had worked with Bruno before.

“We lured him here,” Mary Ann said. Gary’s area has always been construction, hardscape. Mark’s area of expertise has been maintenance. So he came back. He’s built our maintenance program.”

Nizolek said, “Educating new customers about the Lowcountry, setting expectations of what you can do, that’s an important part of this job. We’re in a unique environment.”

“A lot of people coming from the north don’t realize it’s so much more than mow, blow and go,” Mary Ann Bruno said. “They’ll ask, ‘Why doesn’t the grass just grow? What’s this fungus thing? We didn’t have this up north.”

“My job is to show new customers that the Lowcountry is a one-of-a kind place. That they are now in a unique environment,” Nizolek said.

He suggests to them the rules of Mother Nature change here, and maybe rule number one should be to point out a fire ant mound to the newcomer.

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