Before he joined the Navy or started an irrigation company, Joe DiBlasi learned about service in a Long Island deli. One of his first jobs at age 15 was bagging groceries, then racing outside to load customers’ cars.
“If I didn’t beat a customer to her car, I’d be in trouble,” he says. “One time a lady beat me to her car, and the owner let me have it. I’ll never forget it.”
Forty years later, that lesson still drives DiBlasi to stay ahead of customer needs at JKJ Lawn Sprinkler, the irrigation company he started in 1984 in Denver. When people ask how he makes a living, he says, “I take care of people. Putting in sprinkler systems is what we do, but my job is to take care of clients and make sure they’re happy.”
Affinity for irrigation.
JKJ Lawn Sprinkler has steadily grown to $1 million in revenue by specializing in irrigation.
“We focus on irrigation maintenance services, first and foremost,” DiBlasi says. “We have cautiously grown by doing good quality work and following up with our clients. … We get an opportunity to put in a whole installation, but then we don’t go away.”
After installing sprinkler systems, DiBlasi’s crews return to shut them down in the fall and activate them the next spring at no charge. Following that, many new clients invite JKJ to keep coming for regular maintenance.
“When you have 700-plus people who already know and trust you, you don’t have to spend hardly anything on advertising and marketing.” Joe DiBlasi, founder
Others request services for their business properties, slowly growing JKJ to a mix of 80 percent residential and 20 percent commercial clients. DiBlasi didn’t just pursue irrigation because he enjoyed the outdoors, although he did – as a kid, he held multiple paper routes and mowed lawns around his neighborhood. He drifted toward the technical aspects of sprinklers because of his engineering background. DiBlasi spent 22 years in the Navy and Naval Reserve, where he “learned a lot about pumps, valves, auxiliary equipment, diesel engines,” etc. as a Navy Engineman before retiring as Senior Chief.
When DiBlasi moved to Colorado in 1984, he found a gap of certified irrigation contractors.
“Nobody liked doing it, so I saw an opportunity,” he says. “I found out there were only 14 certified contractors in the whole state, so I became a Certified Irrigation Contractor and Certified Landscape Irrigation Auditor through the Irrigation Association.”
Since founding JKJ Lawn Sprinklers, DiBlasi has stayed focused on irrigation – but if loyal clients request related services, DiBlasi may make exceptions. Out of nearly 750 residential irrigation clients, DiBlasi mows a handful of lawns – mostly for elderly ladies to whom he just can’t say no.
“I’ll do it if I have to, but I don’t look to grow it. (Mowing and landscape maintenance are) just too competitive in the Denver metro area,” he says. “We take care of clients’ sprinklers, and if they need a tree or edging or deck or fence, they call me. Either we do it or I bring in a trusted subcontractor that can do it for me.”
Over the years, DiBlasi has assembled what he calls “the gray beard team” – a group of seasoned contractors like himself with industry certifications and decades of experience in their respective trades.
When he needs to subcontract an electrician, plumber, landscape architect or design/build contractor, he calls one of them.
“It helps to team with other contractors,” DiBlasi says. “It leverages your time and money.” It also expands his capabilities to take on larger projects than JKJ could do alone with eight employees.
A new pipeline for growth.
For 20 years, DiBlasi subcontracted plumbing work to his friend Dave, a licensed master plumber.
With Dave nearing retirement – and DiBlasi’s son, Joey, taking an interest in plumbing after growing up in the family business – DiBlasi saw an opportunity to leverage Dave’s skills.
He hired Dave to run JKJ’s plumbing division while mentoring Joey who is a Landscape Industry Certified Technician through the ALCC and is in the process of earning his plumbing license.
“Now, we can do the point of connection for the sprinkler system and the indoor plumbing,” DiBlasi says. “People think outdoor spigots are outdoor plumbing or irrigation, but it’s actually indoor plumbing; you have to have the right license and insurance to do that, and we have that now.”
The new division helps JKJ tap into a steady flow of yearlong plumbing work, balancing the seasonality of the sprinkler business. DiBlasi see growth potential in plumbing that will augment JKJ Lawn Sprinkler’s revenue.
“The profit margins on plumbing are astronomically better than irrigation and landscaping,” he says.
“Everybody’s got a hot water heater, a toilet and a faucet, and when you have 700-plus people who already know and trust you, you don’t have to spend hardly anything on advertising and marketing.”
Upgrades that save.
During irrigation maintenance, JKJ’s crew may suggest water conserving upgrades. A Certified Water Conservation Specialist, DiBlasi writes client case studies to document these upgrades – and the resulting decrease in water bills – to illustrate the benefits and act as a sales tool.
“Water bills are pure math that show people the return on investment,” he says. “You can show them right on the water bill how they’ll save 2,400 or 3,200 gallons of water in one season. They truly save 30 percent, just by changing parts.”
“We get an opportunity to put in a whole installation, but then we don’t go away.” Joe DiBlasi, founder
Clients aren’t the only ones who benefit from water conserving upgrades; DiBlasi also rewards employees with incentives for selling them. A rain sensor earns $25, and for more involved system upgrades, the reward increases to a percentage of the project costs.
With water rates rising in Denver, JKJ is positioned to serve water-conscious customers.
“We live on the high plains, so we’re always just waiting for the next drought cycle,” DiBlasi says. “The population on the Front Range has doubled since I moved here in 84, and it’s going to double again in less than 10 years.
“The water supply’s not doubling, so what’s going to happen? We’ll see more cities offering rebates to take out turf grass and put in xeriscape landscaping – but that’s got to be irrigated, as well.”