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How I Made It: Burton S. Sperber, founder of ValleyCrest Landscape Cos.

Under Sperber's leadership, a tiny nursery with three workers grew to more than 100 locations around the world with 10,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue.

January 16, 2011|By Salvador Rodriguez

The gig: Head gardener and founder of Calabasas-based ValleyCrest Landscape Cos., the nation's largest landscape services company. At 81, Sperber no longer heads the company he founded as a teenager — he handed that responsibility to son Richard several years ago — but under his leadership, a tiny nursery with three workers grew to more than 100 locations around the world with 10,000 employees and $1 billion in annual revenue. ValleyCrest has worked on projects including the gardens at the Getty Center and Disney's Animal Kingdom and California Adventure theme parks. It counts resort developer Steve Wynn, real estate mogul Donald Bren and shopping mall magnate Rick Caruso among its key customers.

ValleyCrest's roots: Sperber became interested in horticulture early in life. His father owned a retail nursery, and he was a member of the Future Farmers of America in high school. When Sperber was a teenager, he worked after school at MG Nursery in North Hollywood, which was owned and run by Italian nurseryman Mossimo Giannulli.

"He took me under his arm and taught me the landscape business," Sperber said.

When Giannulli died, his widow offered the business to Sperber for $700. Sperber bought the nursery with his father in 1949.

Greener on this side: Sperber renamed the company ValleyCrest because of its San Fernando Valley roots but also because the Sperbers were aiming for the top, thus "Crest," he said.

It was steady growth over decades that turned ValleyCrest into the nation's largest landscape company, not sudden expansion or acquisitions, Sperber said. It has grown on average about 15% a year. The steady growth has allowed the company to keep its small-roots character.

"There's no difference," he said. "It's just a little bigger."

Recession-proofing: ValleyCrest has tried to shield itself from economic downturns by diversifying into other areas of the landscaping business. ValleyCrest It now operates eight companies, each one with a different focus, such as tree care and golf course maintenance.

With the slump in construction, ValleyCrest's landscape installation business has suffered in recent years. But Sperber said its tree care and maintenance business continues to thrive because "grass doesn't know we're in a recession and the lawns still need to be mowed."

The next one's the most exciting: ValleyCrest has worked on numerous well-known projects, including the Bellagio in Las Vegas, Walt Disney Concert Hall and several football stadiums and museums.

Yet only one project is Sperber's favorite: the next one.

"Our next project is going to be our most exciting," Sperber said. "It's like asking which one of my children I like best."

Taking a step back: In 2001 Sperber handed the keys to the company to his son Richard. Under Richard Sperber's guidance, ValleyCrest has gone international and has doubled in size over the last 10 years, Sperber said.

"There's no doubt in my mind that when this recession or whatever you want to call it comes to a normalization, we'll double again in the next five years," Sperber said.

It's not called work: Though Sperber no longer runs ValleyCrest, he hasn't stopped working. Sperber said he has no plans to stop as long as he is healthy and useful. He helps with office chores, advises ValleyCrest on acquisitions and serves as a mentor to the company's executives.

"Hopefully I can help people not make some of the same mistakes that I've made by guiding them," he said.

Sperber said he doesn't consider what he does at ValleyCrest work.

"Work is something you don't want to do," he said. "I love doing what I do, and there's nothing else in this life that I'd rather do."

business@latimes.com

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