Incredible Journey

Features - Cover Story - 2018 Leadership Awards

More than four decades after immigrating from Mexico for a new life, you could say Jesus “Chuy” Medrano has lived the American dream.

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September 14, 2018

photo: Rick Dean Photography

He came to Colorado from his native Mexico as an 18-year old, with little more than the clothes on his back and not knowing a word of English. But Jesus “Chuy” Medrano was determined to make a better life for himself.

More than four decades later, he has done just that, not just for himself, but for his family, his employees at Co Cal Landscape in Denver, for the landscape and snow industries as a whole, and for his community.

Medrano is a renowned figure not just in the realm of the snow and landscaping industries, but also in Denver’s Hispanic community. His efforts have brought him recognition from Snow Magazine, which recently honored him with a Leadership Award.

“Chuy’s just a guy that knows what the right thing is and is not going to give up,” Accredited Snow Contractors Association executive director Kevin Gilbride says. “He is going to make the right things happen and he is going to fight for absolutely everything. And I think it’s part of where he came from.

“I don’t think he came from a lot and he’s made himself almost a large-than-life character. If you don’t know Chuy, all you have to do at a trade show of 10,000 people is look for the guy in the cowboy hat.

“He’s always got a smile on his face, he always listens, he’s always thinking of the next step. He takes care of people and not only his own people. He takes care of people in the industry, whether it’s fighting for his own guys within his company or representing all Hispanic people that are looking to work in the green industry.”

Medrano’s success can be attributed in part to the fact that, as Gilbride points out, he remembers where he came from. He was raised on a farm in the Mexican province of Chihuahua. At 18, he was working a series of odd jobs when he and some friends got to talking about coming to America.

“We thought ‘Why don’t we give it a shot?’” he recalls.

The group crossed the border, which was three strands of barbed wire and made it to just north of Tucson, Ariz., before being sent back to Mexico.

Not long after a second effort proved successful and Medrano and his friends found themselves with work in New Mexico, helping remove seeds from two semis full of red chilies. After three months, they received by prearrangement, a ride to Albuquerque and from there a bus ride to Denver, where Merdrano eventually found work in landscaping. He also did snow removal work in the winter. When there was no work, he performed various odd jobs to make ends meet.

Around this time, he also met Johnny Santos, who was technically his boss at the time. Santos, who was born and raised in the United States, knew very little Spanish and Medrano spoke no English, but the two young men, trying to make their way in the world, became friends.

Santos, who today is a successful real estate broker, noted that the work ethic that is one of Medrano’s defining qualities was not yet in evidence.

“At first he was stubborn,” Santos recalls, “and he didn’t want to learn English, so I said, ‘OK, you’re going to be a laborer all your life, you’re too stupid to learn English.’”

Santos’ words stirred something in his friend.

“He started going to Emily Goodman to learn English,” Santos says. “He took a business class, he had a family he was supporting.”

Medrano spent a long tenure with the landscape firm before he and partner Tom Fochtman went out on their own in the fall of 1992 and launched Co Cal Landscape. Medrano’s son, Jody, the oldest of his three children, who today serves as Co Cal’s general manager, vividly recalls how the company’s snow removal business got started, on a cold December night in 1992.

“It was with a little 89 Chevy pickup,” the younger Medrano says. “He woke me up in the middle of the night and said, ‘Help me put the plow on.’ I want to say he was gone for a day-and-a-half out working. He came home and fell asleep all the next day and from there we continued to grow. Multiple trucks multiple sites, people, and we’ve been very successful.”

Today, Medrano’s teams serve much of Colorado’s Front Range, an area just east of the Rocky Mountains. The area includes a 133-mile stretch between Fort Collins and Colorado Springs.

A major storm requires a major effort, but Medrano is a master at finding ways to get things done. He can put up to 160 trucks on the road during a storm and his full-time snow team numbers roughly 150, including supervisors, foreman, technicians and mechanics. He also has an abundance of subcontractors he can call on or farm out work to during a storm.

“Sometimes they’re in (snow removal) and they don’t have all the equipment they need or the money or the resources to do it on their own, so they come and one or two things for me,” Medrano says. “We supply the communications, and the materials, and the appliances, and we both make a little money on it.”

Much of Co Cal’s snow removal work is done in various municipal districts. His company also has contracts with a number of hospitals. He no longer contracts with large commercial sites, such as shopping centers, because of increasing liability concerns.

Medrano works to see that his crews have the right equipment to do their jobs. “There’s always a better way,” he says, “and we are always upgrading. We used to use mostly trucks that were plows, and shovelers, and snowblowers. We’ve been discovering that pushers are better and they make more money. The big Chevy equipment, it doesn’t break down as much.

“The same thing with materials. The (modern) spreaders are phenomenal, they do a great job. Tailgate spreaders you’d constantly have to be filling it. Now, you have spreaders that can handle two tons of material and will cover a few properties.”

Apart from Chuy Medrano the businessman, there is also Chuy Medrano the humanitarian who is committed to bettering the lives of his employees, his family, and his community. Medrano’s humanitarian qualities have manifested themselves in a number of areas.

Jesus “Chuy” Medrano and partner Tom Fochtman launched Co Cal Landscape in 1992. The company provides snow removal and landscape services in Colorado’s heavily populated Front Range.
photo: Rick Dean Photography

In the days before he started Co Cal Landscape and was working for another company, Medrano spent much of five years on the road, visiting high schools to encourage students, many of them Hispanic. His three children (all of whom now work for Co Cal Landscape) were teenagers at the time so the issue hit close to home.

Medrano would go into a school and give a presentation in English one day and Spanish the next in an effort to motivate the students in his audience and hopefully impress them with what it took to be successful in the working world, such as developing a strong work ethic.

“I spent five years going around the country training and motivating (students),” he says. “It was a big thing for me It was so hard because I was living out of my bag for five months and with my kids being teenagers and my wife was alone with them.”

Co Cal fleet manager Javier Oliva has known Medrano for more than 25 years. “I think Chuy has a lot of passion for whatever he is doing,” Oliva says. “Not only that, I think he’s always thinking about the people around him. We’re always thinking about doing something for our kids or grandkids, something to pass on to the next generation. He is a role model for the Hispanic community.”

Medrano has used his passion for baseball to bring the community together. Three decades ago, he played on a team that was part of a loosely organized six-team league in the Denver metro area that played its games on Sunday mornings. After one game ended early because of a dispute, the league president resigned and the organization was on the verge of folding until Medrano stepped in and got it back on its feet. In relatively short order, the league expanded to 36 teams, comprised primarily, though not exclusively, of Hispanic players. The organization now includes almost 70 teams, many located near Denver, but some as far away as Grand Junction, 240 miles. to the west.

Oliva oversees the league today. He notes the Sunday baseball games have become opportunities for families and community members to come together in a relaxed atmosphere.

In 2011, Medrano helped found the National Hispanic Landscape Alliance to support Hispanics working in the industry, including seeing to it that Hispanics attending industry conferences could attend seminars conducted in Spanish.

But there have been challenges along the way. Before the Great Recession, Co Cal was generating $45 million in revenue. The figure is now closer to $18 million. Medrano and Fochtman parted company in 2010-11 when Medrano bought out his partner’s share of the company.

But Medrano has never hesitated to search for solutions to problems. In 2003, when a severe drought affected the landscape industry, he launched a new division of the company that focused on repairing irrigation systems. Today, that division brings in roughly $1.5 million annually.

Medrano continually deals with the issue of finding the caliber of employee he wants in sufficient quantity. Ideally, he would like to hire locally but finds many American workers unprepared or unwilling to deal with the physical demands of the landscape industry. This reality forces him to depend on Mexican workers who come to the United States each year via H-2B visas. Because of his own background, Medrano finds it easier to connect with these individuals who have retraced the journey he made more than four decades ago.

“I know our culture,” he says, “and I know what we think and I know who’s real and who’s a fake. I know what they’ve been through. It makes it easy for me to train them. It makes it easy for me to understand them.

“There are some people with ambition. Good leadership (skills). So, it’s easier for me to identify those folks.”

But obtaining enough H-2B visas in a timely fashion is a challenging undertaking. Fewer visas were available in 2017 and Medrano didn’t receive his until last August, a circumstance that left him shorthanded although during this period he raised his starting wage to $14 an hour.

“At one point we got up to about $40 million in sales,” he says, “and there was no problem finding people. Starting around 2000 it started to get a little tougher and then after (the 2008 recession) it got really, really bad. Because there were no jobs, there was no work. A lot of people went home.”

Jody Medrano says the challenges that go along with hiring quality workers have always been part of the landscape/snow removal industry. “We’re not the government,” he adds. “We don’t know what documents are good and what documents are false. But we’re always hiring.

“Right now, one of our challenges is our unemployment rate is 2 percent, so if people want to work in landscape they work in landscape, or they can quit and go find another job somewhere else. It’s (about) keeping people. That’s why we’re always in the mindset of training them and showing them that it’s not just a job, it’s a career and helping go from A to Z.

“We impress guys, ‘This is a career if you want to make it. We have landscape architects, we have designers, we have accountants, mechanics. It’s not just digging holes, it’s not just cutting grass.’”

Medrano has faced an abundance of challenges during his 45-plus years in America. But his commitment to bettering the lives of those around him remains.

Rick Woelfel is a Philadelphia-based writer and frequent Snow Magazine contributor.