Man with a plan

March 12, 2015 -  By
Bill Dysert, owner, Exscape Designs, Chesterland, Ohio

Bill Dysert, owner, Exscape Designs, Chesterland, Ohio. Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

In seventh grade Bill Dysert wrote an essay about what he wanted to be when he grew up. His dream? It wasn’t to be a pro athlete, doctor or teacher, like a typical kid. He wanted to own an excavating company.

After all, one of his first work experiences was helping out at his neighbor’s excavating business. Moving dirt seemed like a pretty good way to make a living.

In high school his grades were adequate—good enough to keep his parents and teachers off his back—but when he learned about Auburn Career Center, a local vocational school, he knew it was the place for him. He entered the landscape horticultural program, which was as close to excavating as you could get.

Dysert worked for local landscape companies and went to college for business, but after a few years he realized he didn’t want to wait any longer to get his own gig. So, he founded Exscape Designs in 2004. It wasn’t easy, and he worked himself ragged for the next few years, learning along the way.

“I’ve always considered myself a student of the green industry,” says Dysert, 33. He’s a member of the Ohio Landscape Association (OLA). He belongs to the Professional Landcare Network (PLANET), has participated in its Trailblazer program and attends its annual Green Industry Conference as often as he can. For a few years, he joined a landscape industry peer group.

But his studies extend beyond what the landscape industry has to offer. He watched his parents navigate their own small businesses: His mom ran a cleaning company, and his dad started a small building firm. He completed a 10-month leadership program offered by a nonprofit in his county. And he’s now a member of Entrepreneurs’ Organization, a network of business owners with chapters in many cities globally.

But all the education in the world is nothing without execution. And Dysert has proved that once he’s mapped out a plan, he and his team can see it through.

The result has been great growth for Exscape Designs. The company was named the No. 1 Upstart category winner on the 2014 Case Western Reserve University Weatherhead 100 list of the fastest growing companies in Northeast Ohio for its 454 percent growth over five years.

The growth hasn’t been without challenges. Thankfully, Dysert has had the self-awareness and support of a strong team to course correct along the way—for the good of the company and his own well-being.

Building a brand


Photo: Exscape Designs

One of Exscape’s first moments of truth came in 2008. At the time, the company, which had about six employees and was doing about $500,000 in annual revenue, derived most of its work from bid/build arrangements with a pool of landscape architects and designers with whom Dysert had established relationships. Then the effects of the Great Recession began to set it, work dried up and revenue declined. He realized what he had wasn’t really a business. He still had a job, but it was one with many more burdens such as payroll, taxes and risk.

“It quickly became a 5 a.m. to midnight schedule,” he says. “I thought, ‘If this is what owning a business is all about, I don’t know if I want it.’”

Like many small business owners, something clicked when Dysert read “The E-Myth Revisited” by Michael Gerber. He realized he was still a “technician,” as defined by the book. Often, he was still the guy moving dirt. To have the business—and the life—he really wanted, he’d have to develop into a manager and, eventually, transform into a true entrepreneur who spends his time on strategy, focusing on the future and creating a vision for the business. He made a plan to move down that path, deciding he wasn’t going to get there doing bid/build work for designers and architects as the primary source for projects—being at the mercy of their ability to generate leads and sell work.

“It was time to build a brand, and I felt we could compete in the design/build space,” Dysert says. He secured a line of credit, purchased some more equipment and, most importantly, mapped out a marketing plan. He worked with a graphic designer at a local printing company to create a logo and some marketing collateral, he used data to determine what clients he’d be most successful working for (see sidebar on page 54) and he began pursuing relationships with home remodelers, builders and architects to generate referrals from this type of client.

Dysert didn’t disassociate with the landscape design professionals he previously worked with; in fact, he still worked with some of them, but now he was the one selling the jobs.

Finding balance

Exscape Designs’ offices are located in a retail business center in Chesterland, Ohio. Its shop is housed about 12 miles east. The company plans to move together soon. Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

Exscape Designs’ offices are located in
a retail business center in Chesterland, Ohio.
Its shop is housed about 12 miles east.
The company plans to move together soon. Photo: Laura Watilo Blake

By 2010 it was evident the marketing plan was paying off, Dysert says; plus, the economy was rebounding. Exscape Designs doubled its revenue from 2009 to 2010, hitting $1 million. The next year the company grew another 30 percent and added a production manager, which allowed Dysert to exit the field to spend more of his time running the business.

There was good news. He and his wife, Kali, welcomed their first child, a daughter. But the 80 to 90 hours he was working per week weren’t sustainable. He gained 20 pounds and felt depressed with his lack of work/life balance.

“I realized if I didn’t make some changes now I could lose everything,” Dysert says.

He took up running and cycling to relieve stress, and he even completed a marathon in December 2011. He knew he needed to put wellness first, lead a more balanced life to be the husband, father and leader he wanted to be.

Again, the company grew, reaching $1.6 million in 2012.

He hired a full-time designer/salesperson, freeing him up more to focus on management and strategy. A baby boy joined the Dysert family, and things seemed good.

The following year brought more growth—another 30-plus percent. Exscape added an administrative assistant, and the company moved out of its home office to an office complex in town to be closer to its customers.

In September, Dysert scheduled a mountain biking getaway to Utah with his father. On day five of a seven-day trip, they received devastating news. His younger sister died unexpectedly. She was 29, and she left behind two children.

“You begin to think about things in a way you didn’t before,” Dysert says of the impact his sister’s death had on him. “You kind of reprioritize your life and the things that are important to you. You begin to lean on people in a way you didn’t before. Maybe it’s not as important as it was before to get right back to a voice mail or email within an hour. Or maybe you realize you have to rely on team members to add support in that area.”

He’s grateful for his staff members and how they helped him during his family’s difficult time. Many of them stepped up, and he says he hopes sharing this detail helps other owners realize they don’t have to wait for a tragedy to strike before allowing their teams to take on more responsibility.

“Delegate and empower the people you hire,” Dysert says. “That’s why they’re there and, ultimately, that’s what they want, too—the opportunity to step up and grow.”

Looking to the future

Photo: Exscape Designs

Photo: Exscape Designs

In 2014 Exscape Designs hit $2.8 million in annual revenue, added a full-time landscape architect and a director of operations. More importantly, the company executed a plan Dysert created in 2012.

“I cast a vision to 2014 and we hit it almost spot on,” he says. The plan encompassed financial benchmarks, but it also outlined the customer, culture and values-based goals for the company. Dysert is working on a new strategic plan for 2015-2017, and there’s no reason not to believe the company won’t meet his three-year vision to be a $10 million firm.

Growth will come from a few areas, he says. A natural step is maintenance, which makes up about 15 percent of the company’s revenue today. Exscape added the service five years ago, realizing that by not offering ongoing landscape care it was walking away from a service its customers wanted. The company added a maintenance account manager in 2011 and has let the service grow organically to date. The goal in the short term is to get maintenance to about 30 percent of the company’s mix—with a long-term goal of getting it to 50 percent to provide stability.

“We’ve found it to be very rewarding in terms of longer-lasting relationships, more projects that spur from that network and also that reoccurring revenue stream that you don’t have to rebuild every year,” Dysert says. He has his eye out for other opportunities, too.

But the true test of Exscape’s ability to execute will be whether by 2017 the leadership team is running the day-to-day operations, with Dysert focusing totally on vision and strategy. Achieving that goal would mean he’s met Gerber’s definition of a true entrepreneur.

Finding its sweet spot

Photos: Exscape Designs

Photo: Exscape Designs

When Dysert decided to move away from his company’s original bid/build model and become a design/build company, he knew he needed to define his ideal clients so he could market to them effectively.

To do so, he looked at his historical customer information to see where the bulk of the work came from. It’s something any business owner can do, either with pen and paper, a spreadsheet or by using QuickBooks, he says.

“You can pretty quickly put together a spreadsheet and understand the profile of the customers you’re working for and the referral sources that are feeding you that work,” Dysert says.

Beyond just identifying from where the company was getting most of its work, he looked at which jobs were the most profitable and what work he and his team members enjoyed performing the most. For Exscape, high-end residential design/build was the answer.

“Although profit is very important and we need to be a profitable business, we want to enjoy the work we’re doing because if we’re not happy doing the work, (customers) are going to see that, they are going to feel it.” And the result, Dysert
concludes, will be a less-than-excellent customer experience, which could inhibit referrals.

Photo: Exscape Designs

Photo: Exscape Designs

There are no silver bullets in marketing, he adds, but referrals are about as close as you can get.

“For us, focusing on existing customers and referrals has been best,” he says. Exscape doesn’t have a formal referral program nor does it offer an incentive for referrals, but Dysert’s team does routinely ask clients for them around the time the job comes to a close.

They simply ask, “Do you know of anyone else who could benefit from our services?” And if the client says yes, they follow up with, “Would you be willing to set up an introduction?”

About two-thirds of the company’s work comes from referrals; the rest comes from a mix of efforts, such as social media, Houzz, print advertising and the company’s website.

Meetings with purpose

Photo: Exscape Designs

Photo: Exscape Designs

One challenge Exscape Designs faces is having its team split between two locations. The management team is housed in a 1,400-foot office in a business complex in Chesterland, while production is located on a 1-acre lot about 12 miles east in Claridon Township.

The team is used to being apart; it’s operated this way for years. Still, Dysert plans to move the entire company together as soon as possible.

In the meantime, to keep the lines of communication open, it has weekly Tuesday morning meetings where the whole team gathers at the production location.

In addition to discussing the schedule and upcoming jobs, the meeting includes company updates, like announcing birthdays, anniversaries and team outings. Additionally, Dysert rotates which member of the leadership team presents at the meeting each week.

As the company grows, maintenance services, like snow, will expand. Photo: Exscape Designs

As the company grows, maintenance services, like snow, will expand. Photo: Exscape Designs

“It’s good for everyone to get the opportunity to lead in front of the team,” he says.

For several years Dysert also hosted quarterly business development meetings with the whole company. These meetings have gone on hiatus for the time being, but he recommends them to others who are developing their culture and looking to gain employee buy-in.

Exscape primarily used them to show team members how they could help “fill the gap” between where the company was at any given time and where Dysert wanted it to be.

“A lot of low-hanging fruit comes out and (team members) feel like they’re part of something bigger,” he says, explaining how one crew had an idea about how to better organize the shop and another needed a new set of inexpensive tools, unbeknownst to the leadership team. “It’s a lot of the little stuff that you lose focus on when you’re growing so fast.”


Marisa Palmieri

About the Author:

Marisa Palmieri is an experienced Green Industry editor who's won numerous awards for her coverage of the landscape and golf course markets from the Turf & Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA), the Press Club of Cleveland and the American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE). In 2007, ASBPE named her a Young Leader. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Journalism, cum laude, from Ohio University’s Scripps School of Journalism.

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