John Gulius Interview: Nature’s Business Partner

It has all the makings of a compelling television screenplay: A man in the corporate crowd one day decides to step off the career ladder, pull up stakes in Los Angeles and move across the country to Greenville, South Carolina, where he spends his days cultivating plants and designing landscapes. As his reputation grows, he starts his own business, and succeeds by defying the laws of cutthroat competition that governed his earlier professional roles.

For entrepreneur John Gulius, the experience was real — and liberating. His bold move from sales management responsibilities at William O’Neil + Company Inc. is an incredible success story, and an inspiration for everyone who has dreamt of starting a business and taking control of their own destiny.

Recently John joined us for an intriguing conversation about his entrepreneurial journey, including its many unexpected rewards.

Q: You made a dramatic career change, from corporate employee in Los Angeles to owner of an independent landscaping business in South Carolina. How did you go about making that decision?

John Gulius: I’ve always loved this quote from Mark Twain: “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Yes, I had a very successful career in Los Angeles working for a top investment firm. I was on an upward career path, but there’s also another name for that: the treadmill. Those days were invaluable, a time to look under the hood at what makes a large company successful and what goes into keeping it running.

I learned so much about sales management, and I enjoyed many aspects of the job; but I always thought back to my high school and college days, where I worked as a part-time landscaper during vacations and breaks. This is what I was meant to do — to work outdoors, in concert with nature; to cultivate, create, design and transform lawns, gardens, fields and landscapes into panoramas of beauty. When you’re stuck in Los Angeles traffic, commuting to the office and home every workday, that life has an added appeal. In the end, it wasn’t a difficult decision at all. And I’ve never looked back. 

Q: The treadmill is a good analogy for what many people, who are entrepreneurs at heart, feel when they are stuck in salaried positions. Would you say you feel liberated?

John Gulius: I remember an old saying — I might have seen it years ago on a coffee cup. It was, “The rat race is over. The rats won.” I would add: The rats think they won. In reality, reclaiming your freedom and independence is a much greater reward than any monetary compensation could be. Those are the obvious rewards of being an entrepreneur, but there are many side benefits as well.

For example, the fact that you are the captain of your own fate builds your confidence. It strengthens you, fortifies you, to know that you really have just two choices: sink or swim. And when you prevail, when your business thrives, you feel a type of satisfaction that you could never feel typing numbers into a spreadsheet, or sitting through a dull managerial meeting, or staring at the cork panel walls that define your corporate world.

And with landscaping, one of the great benefits is working outdoors, and developing relationships of trust with customers. Believe me, people remember who you are when you’re the guy who transformed a desolate yard into a beautiful lawn right in time for their daughter’s wedding. In the corporate world you’re often a number, an item of expense on a company’s balance sheet. As an entrepreneur you prove your value every day to customers who appreciate what you do. You build a reputation, and you strive to live up to that reputation every day. It’s an incredible incentive, and the ultimate reward.

Related: Essential Entrepreneurial Skills for Success

Q: Your approach to business has been referred to as laid-back. How do you make that work in a competitive service industry?

John Gulius: In my view, ambition and quiet contentment are not at all incompatible. The image of the cutthroat businessman is a stereotype, not a template.

I am patient both in the way I build my business and in the way I achieve results out in the field. And that tends to work out fine, given the fact that in landscaping you can’t rush your number one business partner, Mother Nature.

By working outdoors and within delicate ecosystems, you absorb nature’s pace, her seasons and cycles. You quickly learn that you cannot rush things. This perspective colors every aspect of the business. You understand that you cannot rush people either; you need to treat them with respect, communicate with them clearly and honestly, and leave them feeling good about your work and your integrity.

After all, treating others the way you would want to be treated is the Golden Rule. It’s not the bronze rule or the silver suggestion. And its incredible power lies in the fact that the more you treat others with dignity, you reward yourself. You add tranquility and satisfaction to your life, you build character and reputation. You do well by doing good. And in the end, that’s the best mission statement any profession, job or business could ever have.