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Horticulture Week Editorial | Why Has ESL Landscapes Undergone A Complete Brand Transformation?

06 Aug 20

In July 2020, East Sussex Landscapes (ESL), a 27-year veteran of the commercial soft landscaping sector, announced that it would be undertaking a complete rebrand to become the Cultura Group.

This was followed by the news that it planned to merge the landscape construction division of one of its competitors - Scotscape - with its own book of business. 

Given the majority of Cultura’s income stems from soft landscaping, the move indicated a strategic shift regarding future revenue streams. So why the sudden change?

The latest developments are the culmination of a series of events that began with the sale of ESL by the founder Stewart Christie to two investors, Brian Bolger and James Mahoney, in 2017. Two years later, the company appointed Phil Jones as CEO, who had just overseen the transformation of ISS Facility Services Landscaping to Tivoli, following a buyout by Sullivan Street Partners.

After nearly 40 years in the landscaping industry, Jones had planned to transfer his skills to another field but the prospect of reversing ESL’s fortunes was too great to resist. 

“I always promised myself I would do something slightly different with the last few years of my career,” says Jones. “But the opportunity came along to join ESL and that presented a real challenge.”

Cutting costs

When Jones arrived, ESL’s turnover had plateaued at around £8m annually from 2016 to 2019, but profits were being eaten into by soaring overheads.

“The business was not in great shape when I inherited it,” explains Jones. “It was very much a ‘stack it high, sell it cheap,’ type of business and that's not what we wanted to be. Our overheads were way too high for the size of business, so we had to look at rationalising the cost base.”

Jones’s first move was to bring in new senior personnel to oversee the transformation of individual departments:

“We brought in a new senior management team to make sure that we had people responsible for health and safety, compliance, and the quality side of things. I recruited a new head of operations, and a new head of sales, which happened fairly recently. 

“I also recruited a senior commercial quantity surveyor, which is absolutely key in the commercial landscaping world, especially when it comes to signing off contracts and commercial discussions. So we basically modernised the business, getting the right team in from fairly heavyweight companies in the landscape industry.”

Alongside a new management team, Jones turned his attention to reinvigorating the existing workforce:

“We had a lot of really good people in the business who just lacked direction, and that's always an easy fix,” he says. “If you're people orientated then you know it's about leadership and direction, but also letting them make their own decisions.”

Raising standards

With the right team in place, Jones was now ready to appease a disgruntled client base that had become disillusioned with the quality of service:

“We had a fair bit of work to do with the customers, because the previous few years had left a number of people not wanting to deal with the company any longer because of the quality they'd received.”

To get a clearer lay of the land, Jones issued a survey asking for feedback on ESL’s performance:

“We got a lot of mixed feedback,” he says. “Some of it was what we expected and it wasn't very good. We asked and we got what we deserved.”

The survey provided a platform for ESL to rebuild under Jones’ leadership and to try and win back client trust:

“We put it right, with those customers, and that's enabled us to have repeat business with people who said they'd never worked with the company again, just purely because we listened to them and we fixed it.”

Even so, Jones felt that enough damage had been done to the company’s reputation that it would need a new image to convey the transformation from top to bottom:

“It was always my intention that we rebrand the business because of the legacy,” he explains. “But I'm a great believer in not in not putting a new label on an old product. Make sure you've changed the product first.”

Pushing forward

After 20 months at the helm, and having ridden the turmoil caused by Brexit and covid-19, Jones now feels the company is ready to build for the future.

“We’ve seen a real upturn in the number of enquiries and the awarding of contracts since the middle of June,” he says. “We had no great ambitions to grow the business very much if at all in the first two years,” he says. “We felt it was wrong to grow when you're trying to restructure the business.

“Now we're pushing into hard landscaping a lot more because clients are asking us to price both packages to make their life easier. So rather than giving it to separate contractors, we think there's an opportunity there we can take.”

To strengthen the construction division further, Cultura entered into a mutual agreement to purchase Scotscape’s landscape construction business for an undisclosed amount.

“The principal reason for the deal from our side is to get a larger share of the market,” says Jones. “From Scotscape’s perspective, the owner Angus Cunningham wanted to concentrate on Scotscape’s maintenance services and living wall products.”

While the deal is not classed as an acquisition, Cultura has offered roles to two members of staff from Scotscape within its landscape construction business.

Looking ahead, Jones sees a highly unpredictable market where less agile landscaping businesses may struggle. For a new-look Cultura, the circumstances may present opportunities to further strengthen the businesses.

“With a fluctuating market this year, and who knows what next year, I think we need to be as lean as possible, like any business should be,” he says. “But we’re ready to take advantage of all the good things we've done in the business. I have a feeling that the current environment will expose weaknesses in some companies over the next 12 months, these things always take longer to show than what people think.

“I certainly don't want to see companies failing, but I think there's an opportunity there, and if companies have other priorities, like Angus had with Scotscape, then we're here to talk to them.”

Published in Horticulture Week Online 6th August 2020
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