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Woodfield's new owners plan to make the most of 'A Perfect Opportunity'

When Bill Esch joined Woodfield's Water Solutions as store manager in 1999, the Woodfield family treated him as one of their own, giving him plenty of responsibility and an insider's view of the business. That bodes well for the ongoing success of the company, which has never had a down year, and for the ease of transition when Esch and his wife, Cindy, purchased the Albuquerque, N.M., store last April.

"Going into ownership, my pride in the business was already there," Esch said.

With that edge, Bill and Cindy set a pace that upped their first season's sales of outdoor furniture by 45% and gave them an overall increase over the previous year of 18%. And this is only the beginning.

"I get excited about the vision Cindy and I have for the business," Esch said, adding the previous owners' focus on the future of the store had very naturally diminished as they began thinking about retirement.

"Cindy and I have time to build," he said. "Right now we are relatively small in the scheme of things, but we dream big. I would like to see more stores in New Mexico, and who knows, maybe we will have stores all over the country some day."

One of their first tasks was changing the name to Woodfield's Patio & Hearth Co., keeping the established Woodfield name but better reflecting the current business. Ronnie and Becky Woodfield had opened their store as a pool and spa supply and service business in 1989. As the Woodfields added other categories over the years, the original product lines gradually shrunk until the Esches phased them out completely by the end of 2006.

Today outdoor furniture accounts for about 50% of the business, hearth 30% and grills, islands and kitchens 20%.

Deemed "the new hot place to move" by Forbes, Albuquerque is experiencing a tsunami of home building both for new year-round residents as well as those interested in second or maybe even third homes. Many of these new homes have large covered porches and multiple patio areas, making their owners perfect customers for Woodfield's. The store also draws from Santa Fe and Taos markets.

The Esches are capitalizing on this growth trend by keeping full collections of outdoor furniture on the floor year-round and catering to custom orders. About half of all outdoor furniture and barbecue sales are special orders.

"We are getting a lot more of the decorator-oriented customer," Esch said. "If they aren't coming in with their interior decorator, they are coming in with ideas from or to give to their interior decorator."

Still, he sees a need for consumer education.

"There are still a lot of people who come in thinking they need a 48-inch table and some dining chairs," Esch said. "They are blown away when they see all of the other options ... and end up purchasing the sofa, the lounge chairs and the dining set. So we definitely do a lot of education."

Woodfield's biggest and fastest-growing category is deep seating, while cast aluminum and wrought iron are the top-favored materials. There is little interest in sling among the Esches' customers, but they are wild for Design Decor stone and marble table tops and cantilevered umbrellas from Treasure Garden.

Because they do so much special ordering, timely shipping is critical.

"We really need the vendors to ship when they say they will," Esch said. "If there's been any challenge, that's been it. We need to have the communication upfront and if there is a problem, tell us about it."

That said, Esch is full of praise for his vendors.

"Our vendors have been fantastic," he said. "We have had really good support from them in knowing that we are going through this transition and backing us up in any way they can."

The Esches have about 35 outdoor furniture sets on the floor. Until very recently, the showroom was a wide-open space, but it is now undergoing a remodel with new flooring and architectural structures to create display areas, which should be completed by the end of March.

"We are a Summer Classic Super Shop, so we get the benefit of consulting with their designers and decorators," Esch said. "Plus, Cindy and I both have art backgrounds, so this is something we like doing."

Woodfield's 7,500-sq.-ft. showroom is located in a small strip mall. Although there isn't any true outdoor display space, there is a porch. During the season, the Esches host weekly barbecue demonstrations there as well as use it for displaying products.

A perfect relationship

As others have seen, cart model grills have been a shrinking category at Woodfield's. To compensate, they have moved into outdoor islands and custom outdoor kitchens. The store keeps two or three full outdoor kitchens on the floor year-round, and Esch will go out to the customer's home and help them plan their outdoor cooking area from A to Z.

While that type of service has long been a Woodfield's standard, the new owners are taking it up a notch to reinforce the store's reputation for giving customers what they need.

"We will always go the extra mile, and I think that has made a big difference in our success," Esch said. "Our competitors will even send people to us when they have an unusual request. Sometimes that can be a little bite of a pain, but I think it pays off in the long run."

One way they keep up with their customers' needs is through tracking by their salespeople who do daily logs of their interactions with customers. In addition to noting names, addresses and items purchased, the sales people are asked to also note why a potential customer didn't purchase an item.

"If a customer didn't find what they wanted, sometimes Cindy and I can brainstorm about it and then follow up with them," Esch said.

The Esches have three full-time employees and one part-time. Turnover isn't a problem as most have been there for at least three years.

"There are actually fewer staff now than when I started even though the business has grown every year," Esch said. "I think that the better the staff, the fewer you need."

Esch started with the company in 1999, just when the Woodfields were making a serious commitment to outdoor furniture by expanding their showroom to its present size.

"I had worked as a manager in high-end furniture retail in New York state," Esch said. "When I came here, the Woodfields wanted to take outdoor furniture to new levels, so it was a perfect opportunity."

Since then, he has been doing his best to first and foremost build relationships with his customers.

"I think everything goes back to the personal relationship you have with your customers," he said. "We have a lot of customers who just come in to say hello or to bring us cookies or things they've cooked on their grills. We'll have customers come in to just hang around, and pretty soon they're selling our products to other customers."

Bill's passion for his customers and business is shared by Cindy, who started working at the store when the couple took ownership.

"I jumped in with eyes wide open," she said. "I find joy here ... we fulfill our customers' dreams."

Cindy and Bill Esch took over ownership of Woodfield's in April

A mix of casual furniture, hearth and grills drove the decision to change the store's name.

Both harboring art backgrounds, the Esches thoughtfully merchandise about 35 furniture sets on the floor at a given time.

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