The story of how AGC of California 2015 Specialty Contractor Award winner, Marina Landscape, Inc., got its start – and then grew to become one of the state’s largest independent specialty contractors – is a classic, pull-yourself- up-by-your-bootstraps tale if there ever was one.
It started in 1971 when Bob Cowan was just 12 years old and his brother, Richard, was 16. Determined to get their family off welfare following their parents’ divorce a few years earlier, the two brothers began mowing lawns to earn some cash. Their ingenuity and determination led to more work and, as Bob Cowan recalls, he and
his brother were running two and three-man crews when he was just 13 or 14 years old. “I remember hiring people to drive me around until I was 16 and got my license,” he notes. “We learned through trial and error and were just able to figure the business out early on.”
The brothers incorporated in 1974, initially as Cowan Landscape Maintenance. In 1983, Richard Cowan went back to school to get his business degree. They then applied his newly acquired professional business skills to growing and running the company, which by the early ‘80s had about 20
or so employees.
Also in the early 1980s, the company branched out into the public works arena, which offered more steady and reliable pay than some of the private developer work they had been doing. Around that time, Marina made the pivotal decision to unionize, becoming one of just a few landscape
companies signatory to all three of the Pipefitters, Laborers, and Operating Engineers unions.
“I think one thing that sets us apart is our pro-union outlook,” Cowan says. “We’re proud to be a union contractor, and it allows us to staff our jobs better. We’re one of just a handful of landscape companies in California that is signatory to the Operating Engineers.”
Standing Out Through Performance
Over the years, Marina continued to grow in the breadth and scope of its business ventures, taking on increasingly complex jobs and building a strong reputation for performance, competitive pricing, quality work, and service. “We’ve always worked hard to find out what the contractor or
owner needs, to be competitive in price, and most importantly, we’ve never failed to perform on a job and never had a claim on a bond,” says Cowan.
Privately held and run by Bob Cowan since his brother moved on about 20 years ago, Marina now boasts six offices throughout the state and a total of about 750 employees. Many of them have been there for the duration of the career; Marina is a company that hires from within and puts high value on
employee retention and development, Cowan points out.
“Watching our employees grow, develop, and take on more responsibility is the best part of this company for me,” comments Cowan. “Just one example is our General Super- intendent of Construction, Antonio Hernandez, who has been with us 22 years. He went from sweeping floors to becoming a tradesman
to becoming an apprentice, journeyman, assistant superintendent, superintendent, and then general superintendent. He is just a great guy.”
Cowan estimates there are at least 80 employees who have worked for Marina for their entire career, with an average employee tenure of about 19 years. There are a handful of third-generation family members now employed at the 45-year-old firm.
Market Fuels Growth
While landscape maintenance work was the company’s initial focus, Marina long ago diversified into construction projects, which account for about 60 percent of company revenue today. Landscape maintenance projects currently account for about 30 percent of revenue, and erosion control and design-build projects share the
remaining 10 percent of their portfolio.
Although Cowan prefers not to disclose financial numbers as a privately held company, he sees a bright outlook for the year ahead. “2016 is looking to be our best year yet,” he says. “We expect to grow our sales by about 20 percent and are actually looking to expand in the San Jose
area.” That will double the company’s Northern California presence, which currently includes an office in Livermore. In Southern California, Marina maintains branch offices in Orange, Sun Valley, Santa Clarita, and Riverside, in addition to its original Anaheim headquarters.
Marina Landscape has built deep roots and long-lasting relationships with owners and general contractors during its nearly half a century in business, delivering many notable projects over the years. Among
them are a 25-year maintenance partnership with the Anaheim Resorts Districts, the award-winning landscape construction of Petco Park in San Diego, Disney’s California Adventure, and a large scale design- build job with SKANSKA / Rados JV on the Exposition Metro Line
Construction Authority’s Expo 2 line last year.
Over the years, Marina has forged strong business ties with the general contractor community, including such AGC member firms as SKANSKA, Kiewit, The Washington Group, now part of URS, and Hensel Phelps, among many others. Cowan says that membership and participation in AGC of California has
also been integral to their success.
“We got involved with AGC probably 15-20 years ago, realizing it was the premier construction industry association,” he comments. “We wanted to support our industry and to support the general contractors.” Currently four key Marina employees are particularly active in various AGC regions, including Cowan, who chaired
the Orange County District in 2015 and is now active on the Construction Education Foundation (CEF) board; John Gutierrez, 2016 Chair of AGC’s Specialty Contractor Council; Hue Ta, who is active in the Los Angeles District; and Bill Ayers, an active participant
in AGC’s Bay Area District.
In addition to serving on CEF, Bob Cowan is also Past President of the California Landscape and Irrigation Council, Inc. (CLIC). As such, last year he was instrumental in securing a $50,000 grant from CLIC to establish a joint endowment account for annual scholarships to be awarded to
worthy students pursuing construction-related careers.
Helping secure the industry’s future through workforce development and other efforts is just one-way Marina Landscape works to give back and pave the way for future generations in the construction industry, Cowan says.
As he reflects on where he started, to the thriving company Marina has become and to the bright outlook it sees for 2016 and beyond, Cowan points out it is a degree of success he didn’t necessarily envision when he began mowing the neighbors’ lawns at the tender age of 12.
“It’s just very humbling to see what a great group of people we have at Marina and to know I am able to come to work with them every day and see the many things we’ve been able to accomplish,” he concludes.