Matt Esch’s early start in landscaping set the course for 20 years of success.
ike many professional landscapers, Matt Esch attended school to learn the fundamentals upon which to build his career.
He worked on lawns all the way through high school and college, as is the case with many in the green industry. But he actually got his first big break in middle school.
Regularly driving his dad’s lawnmower the mile from home to the small Michigan town of Pigeon to cut grass for a family friend and apartment building owner Lowell Kraft, Esch discovered that his area’s school superintendent, Bob Drury, owned a condo complex in need of lawn maintenance.
“He used to mow it himself, and I remember the grass would get tall,” Esch says. “So, I went into his office one day – I was in the seventh or eighth grade – and asked him, ‘Are you interested in a quote on mowing your lawn?’” Drury accepted the offer.
“We still continue to work for him to this day,” Esch says.
“This day” is 20 years later, and Drury remains Esch’s second-longest customer, after Kraft. These early clients are examples of Esch’s staying power with his clients, which has been the basis of his ability to grow his business and expand his territory.
Esch Landscaping is a full-service business, concentrating on landscape construction and maintenance, as well as asphalt services. Esch and his wife, Lisa, who is co-owner and office manager, typically employ four to five self-sufficient crews who focus primarily on properties in the Michigan Thumb peninsula area.
“Eighty percent of our work comes from 20 percent of our cus tomers, year in and year out. So, you always take care of them.”
The Thumb rises out of lower eastern Michigan between Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron. Its crown jewel is Sand Point, a 4 1/2-mile stretch of land that contains 1,200 mostly higher-quality second homes.
Many of the homeowners are weekenders from the Detroit area two hours to the south, and a growing number of them have come to rely on Esch and his crews to keep their properties in showcase condition.
Growing the Business
In the early years, while Esch was attending Michigan State University and studying in the Landscape Design Build certificate program, his father Denny helped keep up with mowing jobs while he was away at school.
During his first year in college in 1996, Esch enrolled in a sprinkler systems class, and one weekend while back home and mowing a client’s property, he mentioned the class to his customer. That conversation resulted in his first sprinkler system installation work, which grew from two projects that year to 30 in 1999 – the year Esch, at age 22, bought the 19-acre site from which the company now operates.
The full-service shop and seasonal retail store, built in 2003, provides a showcase for the company’s capabilities and is advantageously located along the main road connecting Pigeon to Caseville, within a mile of Sand Point and in perfect view of the coming and going vacationers who call on Esch for installations that range from backyard paver walking paths, patios and fireplaces to installing trees, waterfalls and asphalt driveways.
The growth of Esch Landscaping’s services include planting installations, irrigation, hardscape and residential and small commercial asphalt paving. Each job is handled by one of the company’s two- or three-member crews, which head out equipped to not only complete the job at hand –– but also to be versatile enough to change work on the fly if need be. Esch says the thought of “guys standing around waiting for somebody to run back to the shop to get something drives me crazy.”
Fresh on his mind was a day when one of his crews “was landscaping at a new school in Bad Axe (30 miles away) and got rained out, but we had a medical care center job right next door where they could quickly go and do a little stone work.
“When they have all the tools, and have them organized, they can be a lot more efficient. Systems, systems, systems . . . that’s huge.”
In large part, the expansion of his company’s services boils down to loyalty – a word prominent in Esch Landscaping’s listed core values. “Relationships are built on trust,” he explains.
“Tell people what you’re going to do and do it, and you’ll be successful. Those are the basics in my opinion.” And, on the two-way street that is customer service, you’ve got to give it to receive it, he says.
You are less likely to catch Esch operating a skid steer or mower now than just a few years ago,
although his continual jobsite drop-ins often lead to him pulling some levers or grabbing a shovel.
On the whole, though, “the more I’ve been in business, I really enjoy the business side of things,” he says.
Sales and marketing – building upon those relationships with customers and others who have found their slice of heaven on the Thumb – is not only where Esch feels he needs to focus, but truly where he enjoys putting that focus. He is supported in the sales area by staff landscape architect Christina Martens, as well as construction manager Steve Kaufman and his father Denny, still an intergral part of the business.
Extending the Work
Landscape work on the Thumb is seasonal. “A couple of years ago, we got a lot of snow at Thanksgiving, and it never quit. So, we were done right then,” Lisa says. “Then, there was one year Matt was working two days before Christmas. You just never know.”
Despite the annual layoffs, which Esch hopes to reduce by increasing the company’s winter maintenance jobs, attracting and keeping employees has not been a major challenge.
“That continuity is making our employees better,” Lisa says, “and they’re making us better.”
By Mike Anderson