July 4, 2022
Longevity in landscaping:
How Plan B turned into a long career
We have big shoes to fill.” That’s how Claudia Baun described the situation facing the landscape design/build company she co-owns with her husband Brian. A well-respected employee of theirs is retiring and they wanted to share his story as a testament that it’s possible to enjoy a long career in the landscape profession. So I sat down with Brian, his partner and project manager Jamin Strate, and soon-to-be-retired Ricky Samyn. Together, over cups of coffee, they recounted Ricky’s 25-year-career at B.K. Baun Landscape in Ajax, Ont.
First, a little context. Although born in Canada, Ricky grew up in Belgium. After graduating university there in 1983, he found a career in South Africa, got married and had a couple of kids. The complex political climate in South Africa prompted a move, so Ricky immigrated back to Canada in 1997. With no income, he quickly set out to find a new job.
Despite being armed with a degree in landscape architecture and 15 years of landscape management experience with the South African National Roads department, finding equivalent work as a consulting engineer for the Canadian government proved difficult. “I soon realized I don’t have Canadian experience,” Ricky said. “I studied and qualified in the Northern Hemisphere, so I know all the plants there. And when I went to South Africa, I had to learn all the Southern Hemisphere, which was great. I just loved starting plants and getting to grow them, but then coming back to Canada, that didn’t do me any good.”
Plan BThree months later, with no job prospects, Ricky realized it was time for Plan B: landscape construction. He put his steel-toed boots to the ground but let his fingers do the walking.
Ricky flipped open the once ubiquitous phone book and began calling landscaping companies. “I literally took the Yellow Pages in this region and I sent out resumes. Anything that kind of looked good, and I just waited for replies,” Ricky said.
B.K. Baun Landscape, as you can imagine, was positioned near the top of the alphabetical phone directory. They were also one of the first to invite him for an interview.
Now, they joke around as old friends do, but Ricky remembers meeting his boss for the first time: “We had a pretty short chat.” Ricky presented his CV and was explaining his experience when Brian cut him short with two questions: “‘Can you drive standard?’ I said, yes. He said ‘can you start on Monday?’ I said, no, I have to get my G license converted from my international driver’s license, but I can start on Tuesday.”
And so began Ricky’s long career at B.K. Baun.
It meant starting out at the bottom of the ladder again. “Yeah, way down bottom. Wheelbarrows and stuff like that because I didn’t have any practical experience,” Ricky said. He had book knowledge of landscape architecture, designing and plants, but no experience with construction or hardscaping. “So it’s basically from the ground up. I worked myself up over time.”
He didn’t expect this new job to be a long-term commitment. “I started with Brian in September and I thought, okay, this is going to be good. I’m going to go until Christmas.” Ricky planned to resume his hunt for consulting jobs in the spring. However, he said Brian “reeled me in and yeah, then one fall season turned into 25 seasons.”
Brian recognized that Ricky’s experience with documentation, managing projects, as well as extensive plant knowledge was exactly what they needed to propel their business forward. “We were just starting to expand our small company,” Brian said. “It was perfect timing. To be organized, that became a big part of our business.”
Fellow co-worker, Jamin quipped, “that’s where I’m a little concerned that the wheels might fall off the wagon when Ricky walks out the door.” Jamin, who will soon take over for Brian, acknowledged that Ricky has a knack for catching things that might otherwise fall through the cracks when everyone was busy.
Safety firstRecognizing Ricky’s versatility, Brian gave him more and more responsibility. Soon, Ricky earned his AZ license and operated the crane truck. Then, with insurance rates for landscape construction and maintenance companies rising higher and higher, he also took on a health and safety role.
Ricky was sent to Landscape Ontario workshops on the topic and joked that he was “‘volunteered’ as the health and safety representative for the company.” As the H&S officer, he learned about legislation and participated in safety groups — first as a worker and then as a supervisor. He also began to standardize training and operating procedures for staff.
“Brian was always a stickler about safety,” Ricky said. Because they employed a lot of young people who only stayed for the summer season, Ricky delivered the necessary training to ensure everyone followed safe practices.
“That’s one of the first things we say to anybody coming into our company,” Brian said. “It’s what we’re all about. Nothing is done without first making sure we know what we’re doing and how to do it safely.”
"You have to love the outdoors."
— Ricky Samyn
Finding a passionRicky became intensely interested in plants, growing trees, and garden maintenance. “My passion was the greenery and the softscapes,” he said, attributing the passion to early memories of helping his Belgian grandfather in their large vegetable patch. “I think that’s where my love started, while helping him out.” To continue his professional development, Ricky became a Certified Horticultural Technician through the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association.
Membership in Landscape Ontario is something Brian asserts was key for his company’s and Ricky’s growth. “I’m sure Ricky wouldn’t be where he is or who he is now without the help of Landscape Ontario and the courses that they’ve offered and what they’ve contributed to the industry,” Brian said, adding he thought it was important to be an active member and keep growing as a person.
Influence behind the scenesRicky became a trusted influence at B.K. Baun, not as a foreman, but more like a right-hand. “I told Brian I don’t want to be a foreman. I don’t want to be in charge of a crew,” he said. “The 14 years I worked for the South African government, I was in charge and mentally, it’s not my scene. I’m a good second guy in the background.”
“Ricky does play a big role in mentoring people in this company,” Jamin said. “That vast knowledge really helps us.”
“I’ll have the crews kind of fight over him,” Jamin added, nudging Ricky with an elbow and before teasing that he doesn’t want to “pump his tires too much.” Then he continued in earnest, “I think it goes back to that life experience and his work ethic. He won’t be the fastest guy ever, but consistency, if you want that, then he’s your guy. I would say he’s the first one here every morning, probably last one in here every day.”
Jamin pauses and glances at Ricky before looking away. “That will be very hard to replace.”
Ricky’s humble response is: “It’s just the way I’m wired. It doesn’t mean anything special.” He acknowledges that others have taught him valuable lessons along the way, too. “I’ve taken it in, and then I’m going to share because I don’t want nobody to get hurt doing something stupid, right?”
As the operations manager, Ricky continued to help keep the business organized. He created designs, prepared estimates, and updated documentation and policies. “It’s not something that’s written overnight,” he explained. “You’ve got to keep changing and adapting. We got a pretty good system in place.”
That system helped streamline training new hires, and allowed ample time for hands-on demonstrations. “You physically have to go and show all the guys this is the way we’ve known how to do it and it’s worked out best,” Ricky said. “And touch wood, we’ve had almost no lost-time injuries. I think it’s a good indicator of what we’re about.”
The long haulBecause landscaping is physically demanding, Jamin said, “I think a lot of guys are worried about burning themselves out early on.” He noted that Ricky taught him to slow down and be consistent. “You can have a good long career in the landscape industry.”
Brian agreed and loves sharing Ricky’s story as proof of longevity. “I just want to say that for young people there is a profession and we can have a great life in this business,” he said. “Ricky has done his 25 years. He’s done very well, drives his Mustang, and only now at 60 is he moving on.”
Life after landscapingMoving on, but not slowing down. Ricky and his wife are renovating a property to open a bed and breakfast. Brian and Jamin joke about staying there to drink sherry. Ricky responds with a grin, saying they’ll be charged double. The camaraderie is genuine.
When asked what kept him going day after day for two and half decades, Ricky said he found satisfaction in creating something from nothing. “We get a design, we get an estimate. You start from scratch and you build something that looks awesome. I mean, we’ve won awards for the work that we’ve done, so that speaks volumes, too.”
Jokingly, he admits he’s surprised he lasted this long. His colleagues rib him too, but there’s a real sense of loss as they consider his retirement. They list his honesty, professionalism, consistency, and humour as just a few of the things they’ll miss most.
Jamin is hoping Ricky might have a “Tom Brady” type of retirement and come back to play for one more season.
Ricky will also miss working with the B.K. Baun team. “They’ve been good to me. I mean, Mama raised no fool. If they weren’t good to me, I would have looked somewhere else. But I saw the company was growing. It’s taken time, as things do like that. And I think they’re in a good spot now. Unfortunately, I’m leaving because at 60 the body starts telling you ‘no, you can’t do this. You can’t do that.’” Instead of giving in to old age, Ricky prefers to step away to begin a different chapter.
With the wisdom earned through perseverance, Ricky has advice for younger people seeking a career in horticulture and landscaping. “You have to do some soul searching and see where your passion is. I think you have to have a love for the outdoors, which I’ve always had,” Ricky said, thoughtfully. “And be patient. Don’t be in a rush, but try to learn as much as you can and get good at a lot of stuff. You’ve got to have a little bit of knowledge of everything.”
With that, the crewmates-turned-friends took the final swigs from their mugs and pushed away from the table to head back to the job site. There is still plenty for Ricky to do before punching out one last time.