Haute hardscapes

Haute hardscapes

Capturing the summer cottage market on northern Michigan’s lakeshore, Matt Esch and his team create high-end outdoor living spaces that garner industry attention.

January 21, 2015

The lakeshore cottage properties on Michigan’s “thumb” are a canvas for creativity at Esch Landscaping in Pigeon, Mich., where the home offices are just a mile from Lake Huron and the client base appreciates high-end design-build work, including the complex hardscaping projects that Esch and his crews master.

Matt Esch grew up mowing lawns there, maintaining vacation homes when he was just 13 years old. Once he got his driver’s license, he could travel “out of town” to the communities dotting the lake – geographic expansion is important when you live in a town of population 800. “I have the same story as a lot of landscapers,” Esch says, though his target market and business approach distinctly separate him from the lot.

Esch has grown the company from a one-man band to an operation of up to 24 team members during peak season. The people who work for Esch Landscaping specialize in one of the company’s three divisions: landscape design/build, maintenance or commercial asphalt. “We are known for our hardscape work, and we love challenges. We try to create different, unique designs rather than the regular brick paver patio with a running bond pattern,” Esch quips, relating that dedicated hardscape crews focus on those detailed projects, while maintenance crews manage everything from cleanups to mowing and enhancements, and a cross-over crew does asphalt, which has grown to about 30 percent of the business.

“Our clients value quality,” Esch says. “They recognize that we are professionals.”

Esch Landscaping has received numerous design awards, including a 2013 HNA Hardscape Project Award for a 3,000 square-foot concrete paver project on Sand Point, Mich. The company also has garnered awards from the Michigan Nursery and Landscape Association.

The lakeshore properties lend opportunities to play with elevation, and provide an opportunity to stretch crews’ technique and artistry. “Some of the homes have walk-out basements, so that gives us design options in terms of what we can do with grade and retainage,” Esch says. “That is some fun stuff. We love coming with cool ideas for outdoor living environments.”

Cultivating the client base.

Identifying the sweet-spot client is critical for a company that has 150 days to landscape in a year. “Today, we talk more about our ideal client than ever before,” Esch says, adding that doing so helps the company control growth within the 10- to 20-percent level he’s comfortable with on an annual basis.

“We want to make sure a project is a good fit for the client and our business plan,” Esch says. That’s why the company charges for its designs, while competing companies do not. Esch says that gives his firm an advantage. “We want to make sure that we have 150 days of great work for the ideal client.”

Those clients don’t mind paying a fee of $500 to $1,000 for a design, and Esch subtracts this from the project cost if the prospect signs on with Esch Landscaping. If not, the homeowner owns the design. “Clients are more than willing to pay for the designs because they appreciate the value of that,” Esch says, adding that those not willing to pay for the design likely will not invest in a quality landscape design/build project – say a $40,000 outdoor living space.

In a way, charging for designs is a method of screening clients and maximizing Esch Landscaping’s time in the field during the limited landscaping season in northern Michigan.

Meanwhile, Esch Landscaping takes full advantage of that time by providing maintenance services, which keeps the company in front of clients on a weekly basis. Esch learned the hard way that ongoing face time is important for feeding projects of all sizes to the design/build division.

Esch Landscaping got out of maintenance in 2003 for a few years. “The economy was so great and I was frustrated with that part of the business. I didn’t feel as though I wanted to be there,” Esch says. “But the downturn in the economy made us realize that we were doing great projects for people and we lost that weekly relationship with them. Then, their lawn-mowing guy was doing the small projects we would have liked to do.”

So five years ago, Esch Landscaping got back into the maintenance business. The company’s full-service contracts include cleanups, mulching, irrigation system startup and winterization – everything related to keeping the landscape looking polished. This service is valued by those who own second homes and live elsewhere fulltime.

Meanwhile, Esch Landscaping has grown the commercial maintenance sector as a prequalified contractor for municipal accounts. That includes caring for streetscape. “We have great commercial maintenance accounts that really appreciate that we will be there every week for them doing what we said we were going to do, and that has created opportunities for us on the landscape and asphalt divisions because we are on the jobs weekly and clients think of us for those specialty projects,” Esch says.


Fine-tuning systems.

A critical part of growing the business has been managing crews’ time. “Job tracking is just very big,” Esch says, noting that the company utilizes estimating software called Manage360 that is a part of its design software program, dynaSCAPE.

Implementing the software helps Esch and team understand and calculate man-hours. “It is frustrating if you are a team member and it feels like you are working hard and doing a good job, but then the owner is not giving clear expectations of how long projects should take,” Esch says.

Estimating helps manage crews expectations for work. And, it gives the team precise targets to meet on jobs so the company can ensure profitability.

Esch says the software was partly responsible for the company’s 20-percent revenue increase in 2013. “We had a really good year, and we discussed why,” he says. “We decided that our estimating system is really helping us make sure that we have our right overhead recovery, and our job tracking is on the mark.”

The system will help Esch review maintenance contracts and identify areas that need to be tweaked based on the time and cost.

Meanwhile, the design software allows Esch Landscaping to produce three-dimensional designs with animation. “That has really helped sell projects rather than just a 2-D black-and-white design on a sheet of paper,” Esch says. “It’s hard to explain how upper and lower patios will look, and the software helps.”

Esch and team are constantly seeking ways to raise professionalism, whether by fine-tuning systems or learning from others in the industry. Esch participates in a peer group, which has resulted in valuable relationships (and friendships) with other landscape company owners across the country.  

Because the members of his peer group are located in different markets, there’s no concern about competition. “I like networking with other companies that have been through the issues that I’m going through now,” Esch says, relating that finding good people is always a challenge.

Esch visits peer group members’ facilities, and they dig into numbers and share best practices. Lately, those conversations are focused on compensation packages, employee reviews and fine-tuning some financial dashboards.

“We walk around with blinders on when we are in our own marketplace,” Esch says. “It’s really good to step away from it and check out different operations.”