Patrick McEneaney shares his experience of success: starting and operating a new stone working business.
Written by Stone Trust Board Member Nancy Shepherd
Patrick McEneaney – Village Stonesmith Gardens & Masonry, Inc.
After over 20 years of gathering work experience, Patrick decided he was ready to start his own business four years ago. “We hit the ground running,” he assured me. His company, Village Stonesmith Gardens & Masonry Inc., has been carving out its own niche ever since. Patrick and his wife, Erika, a landscape designer, had a clear vision and they asked important questions: What will we be known for? Where are the projects? Who will employ us?
“We did the hard work up front,” Patrick reflects, about the years of preparation before going out on his own. A consultant from the Small Business Association was impressed when they showed up with a fifty-page business plan. Patrick and Erika made good use of the many mostly free small business resources available, such as the resources on the SBA website (www.sba.gov), and courses, seminars, loans, and consulting through the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center and the SEED Corporation (www.msbdc.org, seedcorp.com).
A landscape architect who was familiar with Patrick’s work gave Patrick his first large construction job, with a homeowner who had recently purchased an old property. The elegant 1800s oceanfront estate in Beverly, Massachusetts had a rundown and neglected landscape that included an overgrown grotto, a broken fountain, and five acres of wild land. “This was an ideal first client. She knew what she wanted and had the resources to implement the plan,” Patrick recalls. What he built for her was a restoration of the original landscape, with the special classical features fixed up and new walls and plantings installed to enhance the space.
Patrick brought a wealth of practical experience to his new company. When he was fourteen, he was hired to work with the summer landscape crew at the Mt. Feake Cemetery in Waltham, a Boston suburb where he grew up and currently lives. For five years he enjoyed the physical work outside of maintaining the cemetery greens, and even digging some graves: “Though a backhoe did most of the digging, I sometimes had to jump in the grave and hand dig some of the corners, or carry a casket… all part of the job.”
After his second year at college his father found an ad in the newspaper for ZEN Associates, a large landscape design & build company renowned for its Japanese gardens around the world, and Patrick was hired as a laborer. He began learning about the traditional Japanese aesthetics of stonework and plant design, and the firm’s large-scale creative projects opened Patrick’s eyes to what was possible. They used excavators to build streams and ponds that looked like they had always been there, crafted exceptional natural stone features, and planted large beds in a naturalistic style. Shin Abe, ZEN’s founder, was a master at setting huge boulders so they looked like they belonged. He taught Patrick & the crew how to keep massive stones pristine when setting them by using strapping to move them. “I expanded my concept of design and learned about things I didn’t know anyone could do,” Patrick recalls, and he also began to see how much money people spend on landscaping: project budgets were sometimes in the millions.
After two years of college at Fordham University in NYC, he decided to transfer to UMass-Amherst and major in Environmental Design, given his growing interest in the landscape field. During summers and after graduation, he continued to work for ZEN Associates. Seven years later he felt he wanted to explore other opportunities and gain more management experience. He was hired as a Foreman by what is now the largest landscape company in the world, BrightView (then ValleyCrest). He managed a crew of 8-10 men, learning basic Spanish on the fly to communicate with his laborers that did not speak English. One project he installed was a year-long restoration of a section of Fresh Pond Reservation in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They completely removed the invasive plants that were crowding out native species, as part of the bio-engineering plan for managing run-off on a six-acre slope into the drinking water reservoir. A stormwater mitigation system with a bioswale and a bioretention basin were installed, and open meadows were restored with carefully selected plants that would survive and reestablish the beauty of the grounds.
As a foreman, Patrick learned about project management, implementing designs, interfacing with other professionals, and managing a large crew. The projects were less artistic, offering practical solutions, and the clients were more commercial than residential. Due to the huge size of the company, he served in his specified role only, and there were strict bureaucratic processes to follow and safety regulations to uphold. While the experience was valuable, being a very small part of very big company was not a good fit. He missed the creative element the most.
When the company changed hands, Patrick left to become a project manager for a smaller residential design & build landscape company. He developed proposals and designs, communicated with clients and learned to manage their expectations, and supervised a construction crew. Projects were often small: building walls, patios, or steps, and he gained more project management experience. Yet he was particularly drawn to hands-on stonemasonry, and wanted to improve his skills in that area. He found a Mason position at a small local artisan landscape construction company, and began to work with stone almost exclusively, including building hundreds of feet of dry-laid Goshen stone walls as part of his first large project. While working for several years daily as a mason, the vision of his own company began to crystallize. This was the work Patrick enjoyed, and he saw a niche demand for high-craft stonework.
When Patrick and Erika created their company, Village Stonesmith, they knew they wanted to employ a New England vernacular and a sense of timelessness, by using materials such as local fieldstone & Goshen stone, antique granite, and native plants. They wanted to be known for natural stone installations that honor the spirit of the place, creating inviting outdoor living spaces that appear to have been there forever. They feel successful when they return a year later and there is evidence that the client has enjoyed using the space for family gatherings, entertaining, and daily living. Patrick enjoys the creative and physical work of turning concepts into beautiful landscape features, and the challenges of solving problems while running a business always keep him on his toes.
Their clients find him by word of mouth, or through internet searches on sites such as Houzz. Patrick and Erika also network with their landscape architect and designer colleagues, who provide the designs to be built or seek to collaborate on designs. Some leads also come from Patrick’s Professional Membership listing on The Stone Trust website, where there is a link to his Village Stonesmith website. Gordon Hayward, a landscape designer and the author of many books about landscape design including Stone in the Garden, found Patrick on The Stone Trust website and provided the plans for the current project Patrick is installing. A complete yard renovation around a historic home, the project features a series of dry laid stone retaining walls, a sunken garden room made of dry laid stone, and plantings that honor the home’s farmhouse history.
Patrick credits The Stone Trust for his excellent training. He enrolled in his first dry stone walling workshop about five years ago. A few years later he earned his Level I certification. Last spring he passed the physically demanding Level II test, and completed a course to become a certified instructor. He’s expanded his skills with Scottish and Irish Wall workshops, a retaining wall workshop, and the batter frame workshop. He raved about this workshop, that “It’s not glamorous, but the extremely useful and practical skills you learn are put to use immediately.” The Level III test will be challenging, but he anticipates feeling a great sense of accomplishment when he finishes building his test walls.
Patrick appreciates the Dry Stone Walling Association certification process. Certification insures that stonework is high quality, but also, it gives the waller the language to educate clients about what a well-constructed wall entails. More and more, clients are interested in what a DSWA certification represents, and are receptive to learning of the benefits of dry stone walling. Especially in New England, dry stone walls can last longer and be more cost-efficient than traditional mortared masonry walls. The waller must be trained in the craft, however, for a dry laid wall to be both structurally sound and beautiful.
As the company grows, Patrick and Erika have been establishing their niche. They want to stay small enough to create personal relationships with the people they’re working for: “The more information the client has, the better the relationship.” Patrick enjoys working on one project at a time, staying physically involved, and even getting dirty and sweaty. The more time he takes to get to know the personality of the land, the more creative he becomes. He appreciates homeowners who believe that the aesthetic of the outside of the house is just as important as the aesthetic of the inside of the house. Projects that offer creative challenges become opportunities to build a repertoire and portfolio that can provide inspiration for other clients. He enjoys trying new and creative things: “Lately we have been experimenting with a few aspects: installing stile steps cantilevered into dry laid walls, working boulders into walls as cheek ends and backings for firepits, and using reclaimed granite pieces in the walls with fieldstone and Goshen stone.”
Finding and retaining a good crew– people with a strong work ethic who take pride in what they do– is very important. Patrick provides instruction, tools, and guidance, and then expects his employees to take responsibility. “When a project becomes difficult or frustrating, if they’re willing to stay with it until they’re satisfied, they’ve done a really good job. Even if no one is looking, everything must be done right.” Self-evaluation is ongoing: What could have been done better? What can we improve the next time? And the crew has a good sense of humor that gets them through the long days.
Patrick, Erika, and their faithful crew work hard from early April until the end of December, then they take a deep breath and take a few months off. “We like to head some place warm,” but it’s also a time to review last year and begin planning next year.” One possibility on Patrick’s list is developing a class about how to estimate a project for the Stone Trust: “Though this is a labor of love, it’s very important not to give away your work for free!”