Let your garden grow


For Justin Sam, Sanlam/ Business Partners Entrepreneur of the Year® 2014 entrant, building a sustainable business means getting your hands dirty, writes Jane Steinacker-Keys.

Even though Justin Sam knew little about plants when he started his vertical and rooftop landscaping business, what he did have was his training and experience as an aeronautical engineer – training which instilled in him a sense of systems, processes and planning, which allowed him to innovate and create self-contained gardens to add greenery and life in the most unexpected places. In essence, Vertical and Rooftop Landscapes gives homes, office parks and developments an opportunity to share a connection to nature.

Sam’s gardens, be they on a wall or a roof, have two distinctly unique features. The first is that Sam designs them personally, from the irrigation and drainage systems to the aesthetic design. The second is that he has spent a considerable amount of time and effort in understanding not only the world of plants, but what the South African décor market is looking for.

“We offer a variety of systems to suit different budgets and client expectations. We endeavour to offer a high level of customisation and artistic direction, not only to construct products that our clients enjoy, but also to continue to learn and grow our knowledge and expertise,” he says.

“We use plants that suit the conditions, but are conscious of the responsibility of landscapers to use indigenous plants wherever possible. We also do exotic indoor ferns, as well as herb and vegetable gardens.

“I always wanted to be an business owner,” Justin adds. He believes his passion for entrepreneurship probably came from his father, who immigrated to South Africa from China as a teenager, and built himself up from nothing through business. “And when the right idea came along, it made sense to take the risk. It was never all about the money. I really enjoy being creative every day. I like to challenge myself.”

The notion of starting from scratch is not a deterrent for Justin, but rather his inspiration, and his business is growing at a sustainable pace. His company offers its original hydroponic (soil-less) system, as well as less fully planted soil-based systems.

The original system is self-contained and eco-friendly, and the parts and components are sourced locally. “We proudly support local manufacturing, with an eye on practising sustainability,” says Justin.

But he believes getting his hands dirty is integral to his success. “I believe that to build the type of business I am aiming for, I need to understand every aspect of what my business is about. It’s important to know what you’re doing before you train others to do it.” And he believes in tackling what he considers the most arduous or difficult tasks first.

“In aspects of business that I wasn’t experienced in, I learnt and planned what I could, and then just tried. But when I get stuck, I outsource expertise,” he says. Justin says he has often bumped his head and knocked his knees while trying, but for a man who chooses the preferred route to the easy one, this is no deterrent.

What Justin has also realised is that learning about other aspects of his business, from marketing to finance, has engendered a sense of personal empowerment. “It was really fulfilling when I realised that I could, in fact, design, market and sell my products. Being an entrepreneur is an amazing experience. It teaches you a lot about yourself and the world around you,” he says.

But while he is still learning new skills, he still supervises most of his projects to ensure that not only is the job completed to the client’s specifications, but the safety of his crews is ensured. “We stress safe and stringent standards of construction,” he says.

“Last year in Eastern Europe, a roof collapsed while they were building a roof garden on it, killing dozens of people. With vertical gardens, irrigation and drainage are the main challenges to the viability of the project. So, technically, the systems and methods of construction need to be sound, and knowing and managing risks is key,” he says.

The company has been well received by the market, with not only architects picking up on how the installations can contribute to their design philosophy, but also large developments focusing on greening their estates. Landscapers are also looking to outsource work to specialists in a relatively new market.

The media, too, have taken note, with features including Vertical Landscapes and Rooftop Landscapes in notable publications such as House & Leisure and Garden & Home.

Sam believes that his business philosophy of steady and sustainable growth is what makes his concept such a success. “In the long term, I want my business to outlive me and continue to push boundaries and be innovative, while producing beautiful work and providing efficient service,” he says.