Fielding a niche business

Brad Sutton uses athletic field maintenance to strengthen and grow the residential side of his business.

August 25, 2011
Lee Chilcote
Industry News

Brad Sutton began taking care of athletic fields at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., in the 1990s. A huge fan of Wolfpack athletics, Sutton reached out to someone he knew at N.C. State and asked if he could donate to a local booster club or contribute his services. When the field manager at N.C. State hired him to do some work and saw what he could do, a long-term relationship was the result.

“Not only am I a huge fan of university sports, but I figured it would be a win-win for both of us,” says Sutton, the owner of Eastern Turf Maintenance (ETM) in Raleigh. “We could attach our name to a field that looks really good and everyone admires.”

Although Sutton developed that initial relationship while working for another company, when he founded Eastern Turf in 2000, he brought with him a wealth of relationships.

Today, ETM is the exclusive lawn care provider for the outdoor athletic fields at N.C. State, University of North Carolina and East Carolina University. Not only is this specialty challenging and highly rewarding for Sutton and his crew, it has also helped them grow to become a $2 million company with 18 full-time employees.

Treating athletic fields is not for everyone, of course. Yet ETM’s growth offers insight into how lawn and landscape companies can develop expertise in niche markets and use it to attract customers. By building relationships and marketing its success, ETM has created a playbook for a winning strategy.

Carving out a niche

Treating university athletic fields is different from standard residential lawn care in the ingredients used and the intensity of services. For ETM, carving out a niche in this area has meant paying close attention to detail and demonstrating a passion for results.

“For a long time, I was the only one that would really touch the fields,” says Sutton, who acknowledges being a perfectionist about treating turf that receives a regular pounding from players and is viewed weekly under the media microscope.

While Sutton’s close attention to the service is part of his personality, he’s made the company’s niche successful by adapting to what the market calls for – a personal touch to care and communication.

“The schools like to deal with one contact, and they want to be really comfortable with that person,” he says. “If I sent a tech out they’d never seen, it would make them uncomfortable.”

Today, there are only two or three ETM staff members that work on athletic fields. “It’s a specialty part of our business, and we treat it completely differently,” says Sutton, who maintains a single line of communication between ETM’s application staff and the university staff that are running the facility. “You can’t afford to make a mistake.”

According to Sutton, ETM has thrived in this arena because of its relentless pursuit of quality and results. “When I first started doing this, the field managers would say, ‘I saw you out there spraying by hand – how can you do it without using a tractor?’” he says. “I told them, ‘Let me show you.’ Now I know some of their fields better than they do, because I walk every inch of it, and they want us to do treatments by hand.”

Marketing success

In addition to being featured prominently in sports programs and banner advertisements on the field, ETM markets itself as the exclusive lawn care provider for the outdoor athletic fields for each of the universities it services. This has helped to generate plenty of business over the years, Sutton says.

“It’s a great way of marketing yourself,” he says. “People see the field and your name attached to it, and they call you.”

Those looking to expand into the nontraditional service segments of the lawn care industry must make their name know and brand their expertise. That means going above and beyond the traditional methods of marketing, which Sutton does in the form of seminars.

In addition to maintaining strong relationships with the staff at N.C. State’s turf school and groundskeepers at regional universities, Sutton organizes a seminar on turf maintenance every year. He invites more than 100 coaches and athletic directors from universities and high schools throughout the Raleigh-Durham area, provides them with helpful information on turf management and demonstrates hands-on techniques.

“We give them ideas about making their fields look better,” says Sutton, who cites attendance averaging 30-40 coaches and athletic directors per year. “It’s not just about getting business – it’s also about helping people, too.”

Building relationships

Developing a successful niche market not only requires companies to build long-term relationships, but also to go the extra mile to achieve top-notch results.

“If your sole reason for going into field maintenance is for a source of revenue, it’s going to be tough,” Sutton says. “It’s hard to get your foot in the door, and once you do, you have to prove yourself. You have to be dedicated to making a difference.”

Although a lot of work goes into developing a niche market, it can pay off in the long run. ETM’s ongoing relationship with universities in Raleigh-Durham, far from detracting from its residential lawn care business, has helped it earn customers.

Nonetheless, Sutton still chuckles when he recalls the questions he gets from his clients – especially the sports fans that wish their lawns looked more like athletic fields.

“People have no idea the kind of maintenance that goes into a football field – it’s at least 10 times what goes into residential lawn care,” he says. “These universities are willing to go all out to make it look perfect, so they’ve got people mowing it every day.”

After quarterbacking ETM for more than a decade, Sutton says his greatest satisfaction comes from watching games and knowing he had a hand in making the field look perfect. “There’s a real satisfaction in seeing it on national TV,” he says.