From their humble roots as a home-based business, Steve and Barbara King have bulit far more than a leading playground manufacturing company
Terms like “research and development” may carry a lot of weight in most industrial circles, but in truth, it is the simplest germinal ideas that spawn great innovation. In the case of Landscape Structures, Steve King’s notion of “continuous play” sprouted in the 1960s as a hands-on assignment for his studies in landscape architecture. Little did King—nor the professor who once scribbled a marginal pass on his project—ever dream that the concept would jumpstart a whole new industry.
Specifically, King had fostered the idea of connecting various play components together to form a continuous play opportunity for kids. As a potential building block for child development, it was a way of saving space while encouraging decision-making and social interaction.
“This was quite a contrast to the independent slides, swings, and merry-go-rounds of the time,” King says. Bucking against the conventional philosophy obviously didn’t help the student’s grade, however. His efforts fetched a mediocre mark of C+ for the project. “I was told it was interesting but not practical. Our projects were supposed to reflect reality.”
Few visionaries escape such early roadblocks, and King was no exception. But he was also blessed with the serendipitous discovery of his future wife, Barb—a person whose administrative and marketing savvy nicely complemented his own vision of design philosophy and product development.
“From early on, we wanted to be sure there was one of us with a full-time job,” Barb recalls of their new life in Minneapolis, Minn. “I had a job in consumer products, working for Pillsbury.” Meanwhile, Steve had secured employment at a planning and engineering firm, where he later became the director of park and recreation planning.
In 1969, Minneapolis finally installed its first play structure based on Steve’s continuous play concept. From that point on, ideas began to snowball, and two years later, the Kings found themselves on the cusp of becoming their own bosses.
Barb did continue her tenure with Pillsbury, but Steve had decided to leave his job and start his own site-planning firm. One of his first clients, a townhouse developer, had commissioned Steve to lay out a new project incorporating three play areas within an open space.
“The first loans were tough to come by,” Barb said. “For the most part, they really liked our story, liked our idea. But we had to get financed.”
Finally, after borrowing their first thousand dollars for some simple tools and legal fees, the couple found themselves in the construction business.
Building play structures turned out to be the easy part, they soon learned. The business side, however, was a different story.
Take out a loan, and banks expect to be paid back.
Insurance is not an option.
Hiring people is not a simple act.
Credit is not easy to get.
To boot, you need an accounting system to track it all.
“We found ourselves wearing so many hats, and the learning (curve) was non-stop,” Barb said. “Plus we had all the statistics thrown at us, spelling out there’s no way you’ll make it. You’re married. Neither of you has an MBA.” And so on.
Steve notes that while the early days certainly had their ups and downs, the business never looked back. “We eventually got the play structures built and that was the beginning of a new direction in our lives,” he adds. “Other developers saw our structures and wanted them. Park directors saw them and liked them. We were excited about the opportunities—but very broke.”
After the official incorporation of Landscape Structures in 1971, the Kings started putting their efforts and money into the manufacturing business. This meant selling and designing by day, building and installing by night, frequently putting in 24-hour days. It also resulted in begging for payment upon completion, paying cash for materials and doing it all over again the next day. “It meant yard sales, delinquency notices, repossession notices and little sleep,” Barbara says. “We were growing ourselves to death.”
In fact, by 1976 the situation grew so financially grim that they had to sell half the company to a venture capital organization.
Since then, however, Prosperity Road has opened up before them. The Kings not only went on to buy back the investor shares but also regained that interest in the company at more than 100 times their original investment. (Talk about a silver lining!)
The intermittent history of Landscape Structures speaks volumes about the promise of the American dream. Unfortunately, much of it goes well beyond the scope of a magazine article. Still, there are certainly a few details worth highlighting:
- 1984: LSI acquires Mexico Forge, a manufacturer of metal play equipment. This acquisition more than doubles the company’s size.
- 1992: Barb and Steve are named Minnesota’s Entrepreneur of the Year by Ernst and Young, Inc. magazine and the law firm of Gray Plant Mooty. They also are recognized with a national honorable mention in the manufacturing category. As a result of this award, Barb and Steve are inducted into the National Institute of Entrepreneurs.
- 1993: Steve is appointed to the Federal Access Board’s Recreation Access Advisory Committee. He is the sole playground equipment manufacturer to be named to that committee.
- 1994: Barb, now serving as president of LSI, is selected as the Small Business Administration’s “Small Business Person of the Year” for the six-state Midwest region.
- 2004: Steve is serving as the president of IPEMA.
Today, LSI ranks as one of the world’s leading manufacturers of play equipment.
The company has designed, manufactured and installed more than 50,000 playgrounds worldwide. LSI systems are well-known in the industry as accurately manufactured, promptly delivered and easy to install. They also oversee more community-built playground installations than any other manufacturer in North America. It’s an impressive corporate profile, to say the least. But the Kings seem far from surprised about their success.
“Being privately held—that is something that sets us apart,” Barb says. “We’ve been through a lot, and we’ve learned to focus on the unique situation of each customer, not just the product. We’re a values-based company, and that means taking care of our customers before, during and after the sale.”
Steve agrees. “We want to leave a legacy, and that legacy is about service and quality in everything we do.”