J. Mark White Ten Money QuestionsJ. Mark White has become a household name in the residential landscape business. Mark is the founder and president of GardenWise, Inc., a leading residential landscape architecture firm in Washington, D.C. Perhaps you’ve seen his work on HGTV’s popular, Curb Appeal, where politicos and pundits have enlisted Mark’s expertise for a variety of landscape improvements. I asked Mark to get personal about economical design, business ownership and spending money during the current housing crunch.

1. You cater to a high-end clientele and likely interact with a lot of wealthy & prominent homeowners. Are rich people happier or do they just have better yards?
If a great garden makes people happier, then having more money expands the possibilities. In this case, it means more space for things like a swimming pool, a tennis court, a putting green, multiple water features, larger outdoor entertaining spaces equipped with outdoor kitchens and fireplaces. However, beauty and comfort in a private space that inspires us each day is something that can be affordable to all homeowners.

2. What is your most significant memory about money?
Being right out of landscape architecture school and having a job without health insurance; then having emergency surgery to remove my right kidney and being responsible for the very large bill. It took many years to pay it back, and I used to joke that it was like making a car payment without actually having the car. The experience taught me at a young age that unexpected or sudden debt can land right in your lap, and managing it in a responsible way can be very empowering.

3. What is your worst habit around finances?
I can be too extravagant, especially when it comes to gift giving around the holidays. I like to find unusual and interesting gifts for my close friends and family, and I’ve been known, at times, to go overboard. I used to be more of a clotheshorse; sometimes I find myself going a little crazy when I’m shopping and my partner tells me how good everything looks on me!

4. I understand you believe business owners should always give back to the community while creating a new business. How did you do this with GardenWise?
That’s so true; the most important thing a person can do while starting a business is give back to the community. It’s like creating good business Karma, and I needed to know that while I went after my dreams, I was helping others create similar opportunities for themselves.

I have several “communities” – I’m active in the Washington, D.C., PFLAG chapter. I invite different friends, employees, and clients each year to be with me at my table during the annual PFLAG dinner, and I donate my design services for their silent auctions. I hire summer interns from my alma mater, Virginia Tech, and do my best to employ them after the internship, or find them jobs at other firms.

In addition, I’m involved in my neighborhood tree stewardship program where we enhance the neighborhood by getting the city to donate trees for both public spaces and for neighbor’s private properties.

5. Do you and your partner see eye-to-eye on money?
We do see eye-to-eye most of the time, which is great. But he can be more on the *economic* side when it comes to buying gifts — is that a nice way to put it?

6. Is good landscape design only for the rich?
No, a good design can be developed that is money conscious. The development of a Landscape Master Plan for each of our clients is customized with budget in mind. In addition, the beauty of the Landscape Master Plan is that it allows us to look at the big picture and then calculate the best way to phase the installation within the clients’ budget. There is definitely a proper order to each installation, which must be taken into consideration.

7. What’s your view about big vs. small yards? Is one better than the other?
They both have their own set of challenges. In this age of going ‘Green’, I believe smaller is better.Generally, as long as you have an area for a patio large enough to dine or lounge in, the space for the added benefit of lush plantings that add seasonal interest, texture and color, and a water feature to bring a calming sound to the space; in my book, that’s plenty.

Cutting down on the amount of grass to maintain is good for the environment. Grass is the most labor-intensive part of the garden to maintain properly. It requires the most work with constant watering, mowing, fertilization, herbicide applications, etc. However, if you desire a swimming pool, tennis court(s), a putting green and acres of rolling lawns, bigger is the only way to go!

8. Is there a price attached to being a small business owner? Do you have any cash-flow horror stories?
Being a small business owner has given me the freedom to pursue my goals and dreams on my terms, which has been a wonderful experience. The smartest thing I ever did was to hire a good accountant/bookkeeper from the very beginning to handle taxes and tax payments, pay bills, invoice my clients, and handle payroll. As my business grew, I added into the mix a full-time office manager to run the day-to-day office functions, including managing invoices from vendors, ordering materials for jobs, and staying in contact with our clients. She also keeps a very close eye on client invoices and works with anyone who may fall behind on their payments.

Your company is only as good as the employees that represent you — clients that are satisfied with the project and the result will pay their bills on time and come back for future projects. I don’t really have any cash flow horror stories, but I tell new business owners two things: do not to fear your bills – set time aside each month to go over your debt before you write the checks. And be very careful about who you allow to sign your company checks — one mistake early in the game can lead to a long and bumpy road.

9. What did your parents teach you about the value of dollar?
My father is a pharmacist and he worked well into his 70’s. He and my Mom are very conservative with their money and were able to save so that they could have a stress free and very happy retirement. They encouraged me to work and earn money as a way to reach my goals. I had many jobs when I was younger — a paper route when I was a kid to earn spending money, working as a life guard when I was in high school and college, and summer internships that led to my very first job out of college.

10. How has the current economy and housing crunch impacted your business?
It has not adversely affected my business. There are definite problems in the housing market right now with sales of existing homes down 8% in Sept 2007 vs. 2006, according to NAR. My favorite business journalist, CNBC’s Erin Burnett, said just this week that it would take a few years to work through this weak period in the real estate market.

One significant way homeowners can set their properties apart from others is to improve their outside spaces and outdoor entertainment areas. Once a project is underway, I often find myself managing the clients’ desire to overspend on unnecessary improvements. I do ask my clients to think carefully about the resale value of their properties, and I encourage them not to overspend on particular improvements so they will see a healthy return when they sell their home.

More about J. Mark White
J. Mark White is the founder and president of GardenWise, Inc., a top residential landscape architecture firm in Washington, D.C. Mark is a native Washingtonian, and has enjoyed a long and congenial history of creating estate gardens and inspiring outdoor spaces for homeowners in the Washington, D.C.-area. Mark’s work can be seen in numerous publications and television programs, including Southern Living Magazine, Chesapeake Home magazine, and Home & Garden Television’s (HGTV) long-running and popular signature program, Curb Appeal, among others.

Read other Queercents interviews in the Ten Money Questions archive.