Dean Herald started Rolling Stone Landscapes at 19 and has been at the helm for 26 years. Any business spanning 26 years is impressive and looking at Dean’s key staff shows that most of his key people have been along for the ride. Dean is known as an expert in bringing “lifestyle” to people’s gardens, and was an early exponent of the outdoor room, a trend that transformed our gardens from lawn-and-shrub monotony to an extension of the home that welcomed entertaining, cooking, swimming and all the rest of the good stuff.
Dean has won awards at several Garden shows, a testing ground for ideas that your clients wouldn’t necessarily allow. So he knows how to push a boundary or two. I sat down with Dean to discuss how he got started, a fair few landscape business tips, and why he thinks about failure a bit. Oh, and the garden show King may even be making a comeback!
It’s a beautiful crisp winter day when we catch up with Dean at his base in Sydney’s Hills District. The drive into Dural and then to Rolling Stone’s Offices is increasingly punctuated with views of polished, rural properties. This is a hub for Sydney’s nursery market, with most of the plants being planted on Sydney’s North and East coming out of this area.
Dean’s office is at the end of a country drive, set underneath tall turpentine and ironbark trees that look like they have been standing forever. A massive pivot hinge door swings open for us and we find Dean’s design team inside, comforted on a cold winter’s day by a lovely open fire. It is a very calm and serene environment. Also evident is the recent build – everything is neat & crisp in both a design and organisational sense. Dean’s office is tucked away around the back of the main large design office. Upon walking in you can see some distinct spaces; in the centre there is a large marble desktop, big enough to house multiple A0 plans, and at the end of the desk there is a computer and monitor. There is an old school drawing desk in the corner, and a meeting table that we sit down at.
The new office is very refined and relaxed, an ideal workspace. I was interested in how Dean came up with the layout. He explains he approached the project as he does any other, firstly by mulling it over in his head a fair while. “Driving around, day to day nonsense, that’s when you’re designing it here (points to head). Problem is I usually have 15 going at once, (laughs), but sometimes an idea from this one will jump across to that one and that’s really interesting. So the layout works like that, and then the textures come next, paint colours, surfaces….” His focus was on the tasks that needed to be completed by each department, and what they needed from the office in order to do that – is it just functional (like in the case of the project managers) or do they need inspiration (the design team has a fantastic view of the new landscape and turpentine forest behind). He also explains how he separated the parts (design/construct) so that each had the separation it needed to get their tasks done efficiently, minimising interruptions.
Dean speaks slowly but with fervour. You can see how passionate and serious he is about his work. I wonder how/why he got started so early in business, when most young men are still struggling to get out of bed in the morning! “I left school quite young, at 15, pretty much got straight into the landscaping. I was a kid that could always draw. I got into the landscaping trade because I was interested in working outdoors. And I loved drawing, but I never put the two together. I mean 30 years ago, the landscape industry was nothing like it was now. I was trained as a landscape tradesman, but I could always draw which made the development of my landscape design skills a little easier than most.”
Having taken that big leap so young, I wondered what his big take home was now he has a greater array of experience? His answer: to respect time. “I’m always talking to my young guys about this now. I think I had an idea about this back then, but I was impatient when I was younger. It takes time to build a brand, it takes time to develop skills, it takes time to fail and recover. That’s something that should never be forgotten. Technology has helped speed many things up but has probably made the respect for time worse. At the moment, time is a negative, I think it needs to be a positive. Ideas need time to work, whereas you always hear: this is taking too long, and people switch ideas.”
I hear the word fail in Dean’s response. Having a long standing operation, surely he has had a few failures. I’m surprised by his answer; he doesn’t shun failure at all. “I will tell you something interesting about failures. Our quote proposals have a paragraph shown prominently on the front page about our failures as a business being our client’s guarantee of success. Not many people like to talk about failures, but I can tell you that any successful business is the end result of how many failures you want to look at. We’ve failed all the time – costing failures, not allowing enough, I’ve had many times in this business where I have asked “Am I going to make it through this financial struggle?” I’m not immune to that, no one is. And even to this day, construction teams make huge mistakes. That’s construction. The difference is that we are used to this, we are ready to catch them, and how you respond to them is what you get with experience. That’s when you see someone’s character. Everyone at RS has to own their stuff. That’s the company culture here. And you always come up with a solution. You never just dump a problem on a client and walk away. It’s always about a response.
Having such a long career now and a varied portfolio, what would be his most memorable one? “That comes back to a garden I did for a family, and while I was designing it they unfortunately lost their son. He died in a very tragic accident, very unexpected. The whole project got put on hold while they dealt with this tragedy. About 6 months later they came back to us and said look we want to get this thing going again. And the site for this garden was on a large property, it was an old horse stable. It had no relationship to the house, it was separate, a destination garden. A very unique situation. “Now we want to change this to a memorial garden.” All of a sudden, I felt the weight of responsibility to do this opportunity justice. And it was very different, I felt like I was handling something fragile, it was tiring. The construction was incredibly detailed and its one out of the box, a very formal garden. So different from what I am normally known for. And once finished, the clients wanted to give back and the garden was open to charities etc. The whole thing was just a big journey. 3 years I think. And we went on the journey a little with the client, albeit nothing like the pain they were feeling. But I also had to educate our managers around dealing with a grieving client. It was such a journey.”
And after 26 years, what’s left to accomplish? “Well I thought I’d never do another garden show, I did 7 in 5 years. But next year is the 25th anniversary of MIFGS (http://melbflowershow.com.au/flower-garden-show-bloom-silver-25th-anniversary/) and they have invited all the past best in show. And I thought, you know what, it’s time to give back to the industry and go again. Slightly kicking and screaming, but why not?”
“I love shapes, but always a tidy shape. Controlled shapes.” – Dean Herald
In terms of design, I feel like I’ve got endless list of clients to design for, plenty of work to do. I want to bring staff through and train people. That’s a joy to me, bringing people through. You know, I have these young guys and girls start, do their trade, become a manager, watch their skills grow, then they have a mortgage, then they have 2 kids. I still enjoy having an impact and I really don’t feel like finishing anytime soon. And for me the bigger your profile is the more I can do for good causes, charities etc. So the more the business is around the bigger your profile is and the more change I can help effect. So there is plenty to do there.”
I decide to end with some quick fun ones.
Describe the perfect client to design for?
Easy, a trusting one. Trust in our design aesthetic, my sense of scale, the material selections, trust the timing I talk about, the recommendations I give of contractors.
If I gave you a free billboard, what would you write on it? And it can’t be advertising for Rolling Stone!
Take risks: If you win, you will be happy; if you lose, you will be wise
What’s the best purchase you’ve made for under $100?
Audiobooks, for sure. I’m not a huge reader, but I’m definitely an aural person and I love the fact you can multitask.
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Credit – Designed by Dean Herald & Constructed by Rolling Stone Landscapes.
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