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Progress: From the ground up: Esser Construction excels at homebuilding

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Paul Esser, founder of Esser Construction, poses for a photo at a home his company is building on Gull Lake. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch2 / 7
Esser Construction employees work on a home on Gull Lake this summer. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch 3 / 7
Esser Construction has been building homes in the Brainerd lakes area since 2003. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch4 / 7
Esser Construction is building a home on Gull Lake this year for Tim McGough and his wife. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch5 / 7
Esser Construction employees Luke Williams (left) and Jeff Jackson work on a home on Gull Lake this summer. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch6 / 7
Esser Construction employees Jason Rakauskas (left) and Luke Williams work on a home on Gull Lake. Steve Kohls/Brainerd Dispatch7 / 7

The bug to work in construction bit Paul Esser while he was working at his parents' liquor store in high school.

A part-time employee got a job at Nor-Son Construction and raved about how nice it was to work outside, Esser said.

"Back when I was 18 I thought that was a great idea," Esser said.

Esser worked for local construction company Kuepers Inc. for five years, during a time when the housing market was booming, he said. It was a bit of an odd fit, he said, because he never took a woodshop class in high school, but he did take metal and welding classes.

"Right at the beginning I was bottom of the totem pole," Esser said.

Esser moved up to a foreman position, he said, and got the chance to run bigger projects during the end of his time at Kuepers. Then in 2003, he founded Esser Construction, with the desire to take on more challenges.

Esser Construction's main focus is homebuilding, Esser said, but the company does pretty much everything. Through the homebuilding process, Esser develops a close connection with his clients, which he said he enjoys. Esser's business philosophy is simple, he said, and it's to make sure every customer is 100 percent satisfied, no matter what it takes.

"Making their dreams come true, and making it a smooth process for them," Esser said. "Just seeing their enjoyment when it's all done and they move in, and it's beyond their expectations."

There was a lot of learning during those first few years on his own, Esser said. Luckily, a friend was starting his own construction company about the same time, he said, so they were able to help each other out along the way.

"Just a ton of learning," Esser said. "I'm still learning, there's quite a bit I still don't know."

Finding work during those first years was easy, Esser said, because the homebuilding business was booming. But the 2008 housing market crash made it tough to find clients, he said, and there was about a year-long stretch when he didn't build a new home.

"We really had to work to get the jobs we had and appreciate what we did have," Esser said. "Because many guys didn't make it."

Esser Construction stayed busy throughout the Great Recession, Esser said, but there were about four years of slower business. Thankfully, the last few years have been very busy, he said, and he's had to turn down a lot of work this year.

"There was a period of a month where I was turning down about a job a day," Esser said. "Just can't handle as much work is out there."

Expectations exceeded

Esser Construction built a new lake home on Crooked Lake for Mike and Jill Mertes in the fall of 2015, with the home completed in the spring of 2016.

Mike Mertes heard of Esser through a neighbor who knew and worked with Esser, Mertes said. Mertes called four to five contractors, including Esser, before selecting him. What impressed Mertes was Esser's professionalism and his eye for detail.

"His character, his personality, that drove us to him, more than what the price was," Mertes said. "His price could have been way higher and I still would have used him."

Mertes was looking to add on to a cabin the family purchased about 27 years ago. Because the cabin was too close to the lake and required a variance, he said he didn't think he'd get a permit to do a demolition and rebuild. After meeting with Crow Wing County, he learned he'd be better off with a rebuild as opposed to adding on to the current cabin.

Mertes wanted to start the build after Labor Day, so it could be completed by the following summer, he said. Esser Construction ended up sticking very closely to this roughly 6-month timeline, he said.

The first set of plans, completed by Mertes' daughter-in-law, were revised after Esser suggested a few ideas, Mertes said. Esser was patient while the plans were revised and redone, Mertes said, which required the plans to be bid and rebid.

"I don't know if all builders would be that patient," Mertes said. "Because bidding is not a cheap thing."

Esser started demolition the exact day he said he would, Mertes said, and as the project progressed, things went smoothly. Mertes went through projects and builds with other contractors before, he said, and saw projects planned to take six months stretch into two years.

"I've had just nightmare-type stuff trying to get contractors out to do anything," Mertes said.

Esser Construction kept on a strict work schedule, Mertes said, for the build to be completed on time. Mertes met with Esser once a week at the job site, Mertes said, and during the week, Esser would send Mertes a photo each day of the job's progress.

"He called it the picture of the day," Mertes said.

Esser would respond promptly to questions, Mertes said, and would bring up ideas about alterations during the build. This included things like moving closets, shifting a wall or reconfiguring a space, he said.

"Basically, he was 'the customer is always right,'" Mertes said. "Whatever we wanted, he would do. It didn't matter how big the thing was."

It was rare to see a contractor defer to a customer's judgement like this, Mertes said. Esser would give Mertes reasons why something might not be a good idea, he said, but Esser left the decision up to Mertes.

"A lot of times we'd listen to him and say, 'Yeah, you're right, we better not do that, that doesn't make sense,'" Mertes said. "He was with us every step of the way all six months. It's like you're almost married to him."

After being in the home for a little more than a year, Mertes said he's "150 percent satisfied" with the job Esser Construction did. Mertes is currently redoing the guest cabin at the property and has hired Esser Construction for the job.

"I didn't even look for another builder," Mertes said. "If I want to do anything, I would go to Paul. I won't even get another bid or ask around."

Mertes is confident in Esser Construction because the work quality is unbelievable, Mertes said. Esser's attention to detail flows down to his workers, Mertes said, and he doesn't take shortcuts or use subpar materials.

"It all goes back to Paul, he is just a perfectionist," Mertes said. "He won't build anything that's not super-quality."

Esser Construction is currently building a home for Tim McGough and his wife on Gull Lake. Construction started in early May and the McGoughs will be in their home by the end of this year, McGough said.

It's been a great process working with Esser, McGough said, because they both speak the language of construction. McGough is an executive vice president at McGough Construction, where he started as a carpenter. McGough Construction is a large commercial contractor headquartered in St. Paul.

"He understands that I know what's going on and I get what he's doing, and vice versa," McGough said. "I think there's a mutual respect around that."

McGough was looking for a home or property in the area for three years, he said. They found a lot and their realtor suggested Esser Construction for a homebuilder. McGough met with Esser and they agreed they would be a good fit for each other, he said.

McGough has found Esser to be a contractor with high integrity who focuses on transparency and honesty, he said. Esser follows good work practices and treats his customers well, he said.

"I feel fortunate to have gotten hooked up with him," McGough said.

Project process

When Esser first meets with new clients, he talks with them about rough sizes for their home and starts drawing up plans. Once the plans are made up, Esser prices out everything needed to build the home, from materials to labor. There's often some cutting back once the initial bid is finalized, he said, as clients make changes to make the home fit within their budget.

"Most people always want to build more than the budget allows," Esser said. "It's pretty typical."

Many issues can come up during the homebuilding process, Esser said, but proper planning helps alleviate them. Part of the challenge for a client is making tons of decisions during the process, he said, so guiding them through those decisions is key.

"Work them through the process with plenty of time in advance, so they don't get overwhelmed," Esser said.

A common desire for clients is to include as many conveniences and automated features as they can, Esser said. Current popular aesthetic choices include cement board siding and other low-maintenance touches, he said. Granite countertops and ceramic tile backsplashes are also popular choices.

"Maintenance-free is a lot higher priority nowadays than it was years ago," Esser said.

Esser Construction builds two to three houses per year, Esser said, which is enough for him. He's thought about expansion, he said, but prefers the status quo.

"Now would definitely be the time to expand, but I don't know if I really want the extra headaches and overhead as well," Esser said.

It's a good feeling at the end of a build to turn the house keys over to the client, Esser said. The client is in awe, he said, and very excited at that point of the process.

"It's also a relief, because the last couple weeks before handing over is always the most chaotic, busiest time on the whole job," Esser said. "So it's a great feeling."

• Business: Esser Construction.

• City: Brainerd lakes area.

• Number of employees: Six.

• Interesting fact: After he decided to go into construction, Paul Esser applied for a job with Nor-Son. He didn't get the job and instead worked for Kuepers. It was the only time he applied for and was turned down for a job.

Spenser Bickett

Spenser Bickett covers the Brainerd City Council and education. A native of the Twin Cities, Bickett attended the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, where he majored in journalism with a minor in political science. After graduation, he worked for the International Falls Journal as a staff writer before coming to Brainerd.

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