Jason Rathe never felt completely fulfilled in the corporate world. After a decade of ignoring the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, he decided it was time to make a change. His goals for the next chapter were simple: find a creative profession, work directly with people, and spend the majority of the workday outdoors. He found all of that and more in a landscaper job and was energized by the fact that there was so much to learn about the art and science of cultivating beautiful gardens and outdoor spaces. “I realized I could be learning forever,” Rathe said. “And that was really exciting to me.”
It wasn’t long before Rathe set his sights on developing his own landscaping business. He began pursuing a master’s degree in horticulture at the University of Minnesota and launched Field Outdoor Spaces in Northeast Minneapolis in 2005. He knew he’d focus on urban landscapes in the Twin Cities, but he also wanted to create the kind of workplace culture he always imagined being a part of, one that empowered its people and put them first.
Over the past 13 years, Rathe has realized that vision. Field evolved into a design/build company that specializes in maximizing small urban spaces, as well as creating and installing beautiful and sustainable landscape designs for public spaces including businesses, schools and churches. “What Field does really well is help homeowners get the most from their limited outdoor spaces,” Rathe said. The business serves primarily South Minneapolis and the Highland/Groveland area of St. Paul—areas where yards are typically a bit smaller.
The Field team has grown to 24 people with three dedicated designers. Rathe is quick to note that the business wouldn’t be what it is today without the people. “It’s all about our employees’ creativity, their love of what they do, and their hard work,” he explained. And Rathe says he is committed to finding and keeping great people by providing a living wage and offering solid benefits. But beyond that, he includes his team in business decisions and makes sure the highly physical aspects of the work are being addressed on a daily basis.
But no small business is without issues. The seasonal nature of the work has been a challenge, and Rathe has long considered tweaking the business model to provide year-round employment opportunities. Then, two years ago, he began to wonder if what had been the company’s ideal space and location could be at risk. With breweries and cideries popping up in the industrial area all around Field, and a seven-year lease ending in October 2018, he contemplated the next stage of growth. He thought it might be time to buy a building, but he concluded that Field wasn’t ready for it from a financial standpoint. He reached out to the property’s owner with a request to extend the lease.
At the same time, he began having conversations with Roger Hamilton, senior vice president of commercial loans at BankCherokee. The two connected years earlier at a small business networking event and Hamilton had become a trusted partner for Rathe and the business. “He told me not to rule it out,” Rathe said. “Which allowed me to get out of my own way and see it as a possibility.”
A year later, after he hadn’t heard back from the property owner, Rathe knew he needed to take action. He touched base with Hamilton, who asked him to put together a real estate plan. “Jason is a smart and strategic business owner, and I knew from my experience in working with him over the years that he’d develop a compelling plan that would support financing a building for Field,” Hamilton said. “My job would be pulling all the pieces of the puzzle together to help make it a reality.”
And that is exactly what happened next. Rathe made a case for purchasing real estate. Field had been growing and profitable for more than a decade. His overhead wouldn’t increase after purchasing and he could build equity in the property immediately. The only hitch was the required 20 to 25 percent standard down payment for commercial real estate. On the estimated projects costs, Rathe didn’t have the cash available to put down.
Hamilton got to work, connecting with BankCherokee’s network of resources to help solve the problem. He started by working with the U.S. Small Business Administration to secure an SBA 504 loan, a program designed to expand access to capital for small businesses and fill a gap in the market for long-term financing. The loan would require just 10 percent down and offered a 20-year fixed interest rate. “Even with the smaller down payment requirement, Jason didn’t want to deplete the cash reserves for his growing landscaping business, so we took it a step further,” Hamilton said.
Next, Hamilton called on two local agencies committed to supporting the development of the Twin Cities business community—the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers (MCCD) and Minneapolis Community Planning and Economic Development (CPED). In partnership with those agencies, he was able to secure funding to help Rathe cover more of the down payment. As a result, Field was able to purchase a property with only 5 percent down.
While every small business financing situation is different, Hamilton and BankCherokee are dedicated to solving each business’ unique funding challenges and providing the resources they need to succeed. Hamilton’s dedication to doing so for Field has not gone unnoticed. “Roger is so knowledgeable and so well-connected,” Rathe said. “Throughout the process, I did so little I wondered if I was supposed to be doing more.” Rathe added that he cannot recommend BankCherokee enough and has already referred several friends and business owners.
Field Outdoor Spaces moves into its new location in Minneapolis in early fall, and Rathe is ready to take the company to the next level. “The timing is perfect,” he said. “Now we can begin to realize our vision of creating a design/build firm with an incredible team of people available to tackle design and installation challenges all year long.”
About the author: A strategic storyteller and an inspired graphic designer, Chris Olsen has devoted her career to connecting individuals and organizations using the power of words, images and experiences.