It took Jeff Goller a long time to finally escape what he was born into and then replace it with his passion.
Goller, the second son of the founder of American Marine Bank, Lou Goller, started working in the Bainbridge Island institution when he was 13. He continued working in the banking industry until the pull of the outdoors finally grabbed him for good 12 years ago when he started Goller Grade and Gravel.
“For years, between bank jobs, I would do construction,” he said. “I spent a lot of time looking out the window wishing I was outside. So I’m finally doing what I want to do.”
He completely cut his banking ties three years ago when he resigned after 20 years on the AMB’s board of directors, and he now spends much of his working life outside building waterfalls and rock gardens. His small Poulsbo-based company also provides customers with light clearing, heavy landscaping – grading and paving, building driveways, berms and rock walls. But creating water features – basically, bringing gardens alive by creating an ecosystem – is what really feeds his pocketbook, and ego.
There’s money in it (creating a small ecosystem in a day will cost less than $10,000) and it invigorates his creative juices.
“It’s been pretty easy for me in that we make something that brings joy to our customers,” he said. “They know what we’re doing most of the time, but when we’re done they can’t believe what we just did,” he said. “There is a lot of ego reward in it. It’s great when you turn a rock until you have the best feature, but it doesn’t light up like a water feature does. That’s the best part.”
Certainly better than sitting behind a desk wishing you weren’t.
Goller started his new business with a skid steer and an old dump truck, and worked primarily moving earth around until seven years ago when he started landscaping gardens. That’s when he became less interested in maintenance and more involved in building.
He became “certified” as a designer of water features after training with Aquascape in the Chicago area.
“I still use their products, but I do my own design,” he said.
Goller is now on his fifth truck, and he and his two-full time field employees also operate an excavator, a grading tractor, an 800-pound rototiller and various other landscape tools. He expanded to two crews a few years ago, but returned to one crew six months later when he decided the extra work and the small increase in revenue wasn’t worth the additional stress.
These days, if he’s anxious, he hides it well. His business is in hot demand with nearly all of it coming by word of mouth from satisfied customers. He has some competitors, but it’s a select few. He figures if he continues to cater to customers by being professional and trustworthy, he’s got nothing to worry about.
He also enjoys the fact that about 60 percent of his business is on Bainbridge Island.
“People know me over there,” he said. “It’s nearby and still home for me in many ways. For a lot of islanders, their gardens are their hobbies. Just go to Junkoh’s (Bainbridge Gardens) on a weekend and it’s obvious they love their gardens. You see some of the greatest ones there, but there are a lot of beautiful properties all over the county.”
One of his most elaborate creations was built during four days in May in the backyard of the home of Wally Johnson and Barbara Barton off north Sunrise Drive. It features a 50-foot-long stream, a pond and two waterfalls.
Johnson was apprehensive about the project at first.
“I’ve never done anything like that before and really didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “But Jeff worked with us to find out what we wanted and then included us in the process from start to finish. He was fabulous. And he’s still there for us. He is available any time with questions about maintenance, taking care of the fish, making sure the water stays fresh.”
He said he finds himself just staring out his back window at the water feature, which snuggles up against the woods on his property.
“It’s a pretty special place now,” he said.
Many of Goller’s ecosystems feature a grotto-style pond created through the use of local river and glacial rock, usually granite or basalt, much of which he collects while working in the field and stores on his own property. But he also buys rock from local quarries and is always looking for unusual pieces.
“It’s a real interesting business because every job is different from the one before,” he said.
And he does it all outdoors.
Want a waterfall in your backyard, or a circular driveway? Contact Goller Grade and Gravel, (360) 286-3936.