Ian MacLean didn’t intend to preside over a landscaping business that would be celebrating two decades in business this year.
“God got us through a lot of challenges to get to 20 years, and beat all the statistics that you hear small businesses have to face,” he said.
MacLean, 42, is likely one of the few landscape business owners with a degree in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering.
Aviation runs in the family. MacLean’s father, John, had worked for American Airlines, so no one was surprised when MacLean attended the University of North Dakota to pursue a career in aviation.
Then 9/11 occurred. His aviation-related degree lost its luster as pilots were laid off by the thousands and the airline industry retrenched in the wake of tragedy.
MacLean returned home to Southlake, and the first jobs he found were in landscaping, an industry he had worked in growing up.
Sensing a business opportunity – MacLean notes he had a minor in entrepreneurship – he began Highland Landscaping 20 years ago with three part-time employees. The company has grown to include 45 employees and numerous sub-contractors. His father, John, and brother, Jason, also are heavily involved in the business, and he puts his three children to work when they’re off for the summer or on a break.
“As most entrepreneurs do, I was super hands-on early on,” said MacLean. “I was doing the irrigation work. I was planting the trees, moving the boulders, running the equipment, and meeting with the customers, and coming up with proposals, ideas, and designs.”
Still, as the small company primarily worked small residential jobs, it built a reputation for thoroughness and a flair for design. That reputation led to a small job that proved to be a breakthrough.
Highland Landscaping was hired to landscape a miniature botanical garden at the Chick-fil-A on Southlake Boulevard. The design included seasonal foliage and flowers that were switched out as the seasons changed.
“We were just starting to hire people to do those jobs we were all doing at the beginning,” said MacLean.
The Chick-fil-A franchisee at the time, Mark Guilbert called MacLean and suggested he post a small sign in the garden with the company’s name and contact information.
“I didn’t find this out until years later, but apparently we were holding up the drive-thru line because people were wanting to know who did the landscaping,” said MacLean.
The inadvertent marketing worked.
“Our phone started ringing off the hook with people calling us from the drive-thru,” he said. “That was a big stepping stone for us.”
That small sign also led to a contract with the city of Southlake to choose to landscape four roundabout intersections, a big project for the Hilton in Southlake Town Square, the Brian R. Stebbins Park in Town Square, and a flurry of major residential and commercial assignments.
When the Chick-fil-A manager left to become CEO of the Southlake Chamber of Commerce, he convinced a reluctant MacLean to join the organization, too.
MacLean began seeing the impact of being in the chamber had on his business and started to get other small business owners involved, too. The chamber then approached MacLean in 2010 to join the committee that ran the organization’s Oktoberfest, a fundraiser for the chamber. He went on to chair the committee in 2012.
MacLean says it wasn’t much of an Oktoberfest with attendance of about 25,000.
“It was just a typical street fest, a street festival,” he said.
MacLean hired a new management company to focus on putting on a more authentic festival with German beer and food. Organizers also added three stages with live music and brought in some German entertainment.
“We also looked at how to partner better with businesses, particularly the businesses that are involved in this event,” he said.
To add to the authenticity, Southlake Chamber’s Oktoberfest has formed a partnership with Altstadt Brewery, a Fredericksburg-based brewery that uses traditional German brewing practices.
“They got involved originally about two years ago, but they wanted to increase their involvement,” said MacLean.
The Octoberfest now has three stages with live music, about 30 food vendors, 700 volunteers and participation from more than 300 businesses.
“Between the chamber staff, the great committee we’ve built and abundant blessings, we’ve grown the event into a behemoth,” said MacLean.
MacLean does not have a German heritage, but he and his family are involved in their Scottish ancestry.
That’s the reason his company is named Highland, as the MacLeans originate from the Highlands in the Western Isles of Scotland. The Highland logo is the MacLean clan tartan.
“You’ll see the MacLean men wearing our kilts, and my brother Jason and I used to compete in the Highland Games,” MacLean said.
Anyone who has seen the film, “Entrapment” with Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones has seen a bit of the MacLean heritage.
“That’s the MacLean Duart Castle they live in during the movie,” he said. “It’s where they hold the global MacLean gathering every few years, and we’ve made the trek several times.”
There’s another connection to the film, one Sean Connery. Connery’s mother’s maiden name is a MacLean.
Fletcher Consulting president John Fletcher recalls meeting MacLean during a chamber meeting, sitting next to him at an event.
“He got up and spoke, and he was great,” said Fletcher. “Then he sat down and told me how much he hated public speaking. But he was a natural. He was great.”
Fletcher got MacLean involved with a local Dale Carnegie Training group to do some professional development.
“Ian was already a great speaker, but he won the most-improved in his class, so he has become really accomplished,” said Fletcher.
MacLean is a big believer in the training he received.
“As someone who doesn’t necessarily enjoy getting up in front of people, that’s a challenging part of leadership,” he said. “Any leadership role that has a public speaking component to it can be a big hump that you need to get over.”
The Dale Carnegie training helped improve his public speaking and it also provided additional tools as MacLean began to ascend to larger leadership roles.
“It really helped in learning to stay connected with the people you’re leading. That’s an important facet of leadership at any level, not floating off into outer space,” he said.
There is also the matter of encountering opposition as one leads larger and more diverse groups, MacLean said.
MacLean applied Dale Carnegie’s No. 1 rule in those situations, “Don’t criticize, condemn or complain.”
“You begin to encounter different ideas than your own, and you’ve got to be nimble and receptive to hear them out, work with them and find a common ground solution,” he said.
That Octoberfest success opened the door for MacLean to be approached by the United States Chamber of Commerce to serve on its Small Business Council. It almost didn’t happen.
“When I heard there was someone from the U.S. Chamber waiting to see me, I couldn’t think of any reason they would want to talk to me or vice versa,” said MacLean.
MacLean eventually got involved, serving on the organization’s Small Business Council. He served as chairman of that council during a tumultuous time for small business: the pandemic.
MacLean states it bluntly.
“It hit the fan,” he said.
As a member of the Small Business Council, MacLean was already familiar with the very different markets and businesses around the country.
“When the pandemic hit, it was really unbelievable how the vast array of experiences different business owners were having in different parts of the country,” he said.
Small businesses were trying to understand which businesses were allowed to be open, which ones were deemed essential, MacLean said. Those rules varied depending on where the business was located.
There were a vast array of new and surprising challenges, he said.
“In some cases, people’s employees just ran out the door and never came back, while others stayed,” he said.
The Small Business Council worked to help these businesses find a way forward.
“It was like threading a needle, finding help, finding counseling, finding some relief and talking to members of whatever level of government they needed to talk to in order to get help and find a path forward,” he said.
What was a viable solution for one small business in one market was not an effective solution for another small business in another part of the country, MacLean said. That’s one issue that MacLean believes the government doesn’t get right.
“Small business issues are rarely solved by a one-size-fits-all solution,” he said. “That’s why the federal government gets it wrong so often with small business issues, because they can only produce one-size-fits-all solutions.”
MacLean has some advice for young people starting their first job, particularly if they want to end up in a leadership position.
“Don’t just do enough to just get by,” he said. “Exceed that, and exceed it by as much as you possibly can. Do that, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll find yourself in a leadership role.”
Daughters Ella, 14; Clara, 11 and Magnolia, 10
Bachelor of science in aerospace, aeronautical and astronautical engineering, 2002, University of North Dakota.
Chairman of the Small Business Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, 2020: member of the Small Business Council of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce; helped create and implement Mission in the Marketplace, a Christian faith community event that has featured former Baylor Bears football coach Grant Teaff and Dallas Cowboys and NFL Hall of Famer Bob Lilly; Oktoberfest committee chairman at Southlake Chamber of Commerce
MacLean worked for a landscaping company in North Texas.
Advice for someone learning to be a leader
“Try to be open and watchful for where you’re being led,” he said. “God opens doors sometimes in a place where you don’t necessarily see that coming, and there could be wonderful things down that path.”
Best advice you ever received?
“I think some of the best advice I received was gleaned from modeling that was done for me,” he said. “My father has a very strong work ethic, and he instilled that in his four offspring. And so we observed his hard work and dedication to his work our entire life, and all four of us have adopted that in our own way.”
Highland Landscaping LLC
820 A Enterprise Place
Bob Francis is business editor for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.
Editor’s Note: This story was updated to correct some background information.