Leighton Wainohu and Zeke Bennett never expected their weekend side hustle would turn into Sydney’s premier gardening services, Maintain Me.
More than a decade ago, Leighton was working for a Big Four bank during the week and mowing lawns “just to make some extra money” on the weekends. Until one day, he’d had enough.
“I hadn’t liked my job for a very long time and I got quite fed up one day and I just quit,” he tells Kochie’s Business Builders. “I didn’t really think there was going to be a problem finding a job, except it was the Global Financial Crisis and what I didn’t anticipate was that every job had about 70 other applicants attached to it. I think I became really jaded with finding work and I actually fell in love with gardening.”
The grass? A whole lot greener
Leighton decided to pursue gardening full time, but it took him two years before he felt comfortable telling people about it.
“Partially because I was embarrassed,” he says. “I feel very blessed now when I look back on it, but at the time there was a lot of ego around job title. Working in a bank is such a good job, now you’re a gardener – the preconception is like ‘why’?”
It wasn’t long before Leighton’s partner Zeke also quit his job at the bank and joined him for a life of greener pastures. In 2013, the pair launched Maintain Me, a garden maintenance service specialising in both residential and commercial gardening needs and landscape design.
“For the first time in my life I fell in love with something that was completely by accident,” Leighton recalls. “And that’s showed in our workmanship. We’ve learnt irrigation, soil designs, fully fledged designing. We do hard landscaping. We actually have one of the best gardening businesses in Sydney now. We employ 14 people now. Both Zeke and I aren’t on the tools anymore.”
From two to a team
Like most small business owners, Leighton and Zeke started small and focussed on delivering spot-on service to their customer base. As their reputation grew, so did their staff.
“I knew nothing about employment,” Leighton admits. “When I was hiring, I was looking at template contracts and had so many questions. I could never really get them answered, and by hiring an actual lawyer I think I got quoted $6000 just for the contract, no follow-up work… I just thought, ‘Well, that’s really expensive’ and we couldn’t afford it.”
Even before Maintain Me hired its first employee, Leighton wanted to make sure he was running the business correctly from a people management perspective. He reached out to Employsure, a 24/7 employment relations support service that gives more than 30,000 Australian small and medium-sized business owners advice on all matters of employee management and workplace health and safety.
“The main benefit of Employsure really is that it’s taught me how to be a better boss,” Leighton says. “Because they lay out the foundations and the rules and regulations [for you], and it’s made sure I’m steered in the right lane. And the rules and regulations around employment are all fair, they’re all reasonable.
“I highly recommend it to everyone primarily because it’s such a broad subject it’s nearly impossible to know everything about employment,” Leighton says. “For the first year, I think I called Employsure once every three weeks. Do you do full time? Do you do casual? Do you do part time? How does that work? What are the rules and regulations around it? Are we allowed to do this and that? You just have so many questions.
“It took me probably three years to really come to understand what my obligations are because you learn bit by bit as situations arise.”
Maintaining the momentum
With an experienced team of full-time and casual staff, Leighton is proud of how Maintain Me kept its momentum during COVID-19 and the lockdowns.
“We didn’t see a drop in revenue – we stabilised,” Leighton says. “We were busy during COVID but we didn’t push the business. The business doubled in size the year prior to COVID,” he says. “So during COVID we just retained our business. Probably in the last six months we’ve brought on four new people and we are seeing quite a huge push.
“[But] our mode at that time was just to look after all of our customers, make sure they’re all a priority, and make sure we retain our staff.”
At a time when Sydneysiders have developed a renewed appreciation for outdoor spaces during restrictions, it’s a time of green shoots for Maintain Me.
And if you haven’t done it yet this spring, here’s one tip from Leighton about getting your garden ready for summer: “Get all your fertilisers in now. Soil improvement is top of the list.”
Find out more at maintainme.com.au.
Run a small business too? For employment relations questions, call Employsure’s free 24/7 Employer Helpline on 1300 487 906 or ask a question at employsure.com.au. Employsure operates on a fixed monthly fee service, with no hidden costs or hourly rates.
This article is brought to you by Kochie’s Business Builders in partnership with Employsure.
Feature image: Zeke Bennett from Maintain Me. Image supplied.