Ground Control

Weather or not, Matt Cohen is on the job

by Heleigh Bostwick

pinnacle_leadMatthew Cohen launched Pinnacle Properties, on Airport Road in South Burlington, in 2001 with a used pickup truck and a used lawnmower. Now about 65 percent of his clients are commercial entities such as Fletcher Allen Health Care, the Marriott Hotel, and municipal governments.

When Matthew Cohen decided to make Vermont his home 17 years ago, he was looking for a simpler way of life. He had no idea that his future would include owning Pinnacle Properties, a successful landscaping and property management business in South Burlington. Looking back on the path his life took, perhaps it was inevitable.

Cohen grew up in New Rochelle, N.Y., but when he was 14, he spent a year at the Pine Ridge School in Williston. Even though he had spent time skiing here with his family, attending Pine Ridge was his first experience living in Vermont, and it made a lasting impression.

After his parents divorced, Cohen moved to Brooklyn to live with his dad. When his father headed out west to California, Cohen went with him to Oakland, and graduated from high school there. After graduation, Cohen decided to take up surfing and moved to Santa Monica. “I was horrible at it,” he recalls.

He began taking classes at Santa Monica Community College part time while working various construction jobs to help pay for his education. “College wasn’t for me,” says Cohen, although he did earn an associate’s degree in accounting.

At age 19, he moved back to the Bay Area and took part-time work as a brewer for Triple Rock Brewing Co. in Berkeley. His days were full: He brewed beer in the mornings, worked construction in the afternoons, and in the evenings he returned to the brewery to work security.

Tired of the rat race, he says, he moved to Vermont when he was 22. “I wanted a more simplistic way of living and Vermont was the place that I remembered being that way,” he explains.

Once again Cohen turned to the construction industry to support himself. It was 1994, and the microbrewing industry he’d worked in out west was just getting started here in Burlington. Only one year after his arrival, Cohen was hired as the first assistant brewer — and the second employee — at the fledgling Magic Hat Brewing Co. on Flynn Avenue.

By ’96, his entrepreneurial spirit was making itself evident and he figured that maybe it was time to start his own microbrewery. He took time off to create a business plan for a brew pub in Burlington called Pinnacle Brewing, “after the Stowe pinnacle,” he says. “I even leased a space from the Redstone Group.”

Pinnacle Properties has grown between 20 and 43 percent every year since its inception. Michael Pratt is commercial foreman, and Francine Cote handles finances.

Unable to raise enough money to open the business, Cohen took a job as head brewer at The Shed Brewery in Stowe. After a couple of years, he says, “I couldn’t do the brewing thing anymore. I wanted to go back to construction.

He found a job with S.T. Larson Construction. “I was hired as a carpenter, but he had a small landscaping division,” Cohen recalls. “I asked if I could move over to run it. I didn’t have any experience but I was willing to learn and ended up working as the foreman in charge for about a year and a half. At that point I decided to go out on my own.”

He started Pinnacle Properties in 2001 with a used pickup truck and a used lawn mower that broke down a lot. “It was tough,” he says. “I had to figure out how to fix it all the time.

“I’d do odd jobs for people and worked part time at Smuggs in the winter as a chairlift attendant. Of course that didn’t last long, because whenever there was a snowstorm, I couldn’t work because I’d have to plow,” he says with a chuckle. Cohen estimates he made about $17,000 that first year.

Within four years Cohen had hired two part-time employees and one full-timer and owned four vehicles. “The company just grew and grew,” he says. “Our accounts were getting larger and the projects we were bidding on did, too.” He now has 12 employees.

Pinnacle Properties was soon moving beyond simple lawn maintenance and snowplowing into landscape installations and commercial clients.

“When I look at residential and commercial, we service a lot of condo complexes, so I’d say we do 35 to 40 percent residential and 60 to 65 percent commercial.” Commercial clients include Fletcher Allen Health Care, chain hotels around Chittenden County such as the Marriott Hotel on the Burlington waterfront, Goodwill on Shelburne Road, Church Street Marketplace, the city of Burlington, and the town of Colchester.

Although the ratio of residential to commercial clients has flipped since he started, Cohen says he’s seldom lost any residential clients over the years. “If we have, it’s because they wanted to cut costs. My whole philosophy is that I treat my first client the way I treat my newest one.”

Scott Rieley, who owns Rieley Properties in South Burlington, has used Pinnacle to manage his 200 or so residential and commercial properties for several years.

“When we met six or seven years ago, he was handling the lawn mowing at my house,” says Rieley. “He’s a talented individual and a good guy and we eventually struck up a business relationship. I found him very responsive and felt comfortable giving him work for some of our apartment buildings.” Cohen has since taken over virtually all of the landscaping at Rieley Properties.

In spite of the economic turmoil in recent years, sales have continued to grow and Pinnacle Properties is planning to go through another expansion this fall. Cohen says the company’s growth has been 20 to 43 percent every year he’s been in business, and is quick to add that it’s manageable growth.

“We don’t overextend ourselves and are always looking at new ways to save money, by buying high-efficiency equipment that uses less gas, checking the tire pressure on our trucks, or creating routes so that the crews drive less. ”

On a typical day, Cohen is at his 1,200-square-foot shop in South Burlington by 6:30 a.m. “I’ll go over any problems with my foremen and help them load up the trucks. If any equipment needs to be repaired or there were any incidents or accidents, we’ll discuss that, too. Then the guys take off,” he says.

Next Cohen heads to his office in Colchester, where he works for a few hours writing up bids or catching up on industry trends and news. “The business is very much a learning in progress,” says Cohen. “I read a lot of trade magazines, go to landscaping seminars like New England Grows, and do just about anything I can to gain knowledge about the industry.”

During the course of the day, he’ll go check on current jobs and work in the field as needed. He typically spends one day a week looking at potential jobs.

Cohen is very much into the scenic beauty Vermont has to offer and enjoys hiking and being outdoors. “I live very close to the water in Burlington and go for a walk every morning with Hershey, my chocolate Lab. I take in the beauty around me and it gives me chance to think about the day ahead.”

Although Cohen puts in long hours most of the year, he tries to make time for his two favorite sports whenever he can. “I love playing Frisbee,” says Cohen, adding that in winter he heads to Smugglers’ Notch to get in some snowboarding “whenever we’re not in the middle of a snowstorm.”

Weather is one of his biggest challenges. “We always have to be keeping track of the weather,” he says. “We never know what Mother Nature has planned. It might be a two-day snowstorm or torrential downpours, and we’re always on call from mid November to mid April.”

Another challenge is finding reliable, dependable people to work. “We are in the service industry. It’s hard physical work, and they’re out there in the elements. I’m very grateful for the crews and guys working for me. They’re dependable, honest young men — some of them have been with me for four or five years now,” he says.

Cohen believes it’s important to give back to the community and does this by what he calls “random acts of kindness,” such as sponsoring the Humane Society float in the Mardi Gras parade, donating employee time to prepare trails and build sets for the annual Haunted Forest at Halloween, or donating gift certificates for landscaping services.

One project that is especially meaningful to Cohen is one that he took on for the Boys and Girls Club in Burlington. Cohen worked with a designer to redo the gardens in front of the building.

“Claussen’s nursery donated the perennials and I donated the topsoil, compost, and mulch,” he says. “A couple of guys and myself worked with the kids to plant everything.”

“I’m always willing to donate labor and time,” says Cohen. “It’s not about the money, but about helping someone else. You’ve got to give to get.” •