Hittle Landscaping in Indianapolis has long offered irrigation, but President Scott DeNardin says it was previously a “hidden, embedded service.” Some clients didn’t even know they offered it, and the department only fixed problems as they arose rather than keeping track of their systems and clients efficiently.
Two years ago, the team set out to make irrigation an actual division at the company. They figured this would help them organize the team better, boost their brand and legitimize their ability to do irrigation jobs well. There were only a handful of other irrigation competitors in Indianapolis, so better establishing themselves could’ve led to being the leading voice in the area. Plus, potential and current employees might look at the irrigation division and determine that there’s more career paths to actually grow within the business.
When they started, Hittle hired a few workers with irrigation and management experience to join the team of 15-18 people. Hittle didn’t receive their H-2B workers this year due to COVID-19 concerns, but the team is still hovering around a dozen employees.
“What you don’t measure, you can’t grow it, you can’t define it, you can’t hold people accountable,” DeNardin says, adding that the irrigation division has been an excellent recruiting tool. “It also helps to attract and retain employees by having a division versus just having this unnamed, unseen role within the company. I think it’s brought a lot of energy and opportunity.”
Roughly 24 months later, and there’s been no regrets – in fact, leadership at Hittle Landscaping believes irrigation has the potential to blossom with their company, especially with technological advancements that only make life easier. Other landscapers nationwide feel much of the same: that despite COVID-19, the irrigation market is staying strong.
“There’s a large area of the new controllers and the technology that we’re going to start capturing,” says Eric Bensinger, Hittle’s irrigation field manager. “It’s a huge part of the business and growth of our division that’s just going to explode.”
COVID-19 is the elephant in the room when talking about how business is going – the coronavirus triggered sizable economic chaos, and the landscaping industry was not immune to that. But in Loveland, Colorado, Jackie Colson says her company hasn’t missed a beat. Colson Sprinkler & Landscaping’s sales are right on par with where they stood last year, and Colson says she never shut down her business for COVID-19.
While she sought out guidance from her state representative, she determined that according to the state’s guidelines, her business was essential. They work outside and could communicate with clients over the phone, who were often quarantined during the springtime. Colson says this may have actually played to their advantage in some ways.
“If anything, having people at home to see the disarray in their yards has made yard projects much higher on the priority list,” Colson says. “We kicked off the new year with a beautiful $8,000 waterfall install.”
“If anything, having people at home to see the disarray in their yards has made yard projects much higher on the priority list.” Jackie Colson, Colson Sprinkler & Landscaping
In Virginia, Dave Schrader’s Bio Green Outdoor Services saw a moderate dip in sales this spring – he estimates it was roughly a $300,000 hit when accounting for both his lawn and irrigation side of things. But as the governor’s orders allowed them to continue operating as usual, Schrader says the irrigation market has already started to rebound and his current sales aren’t far off where they were last year. There were several customers who said when COVID-19 started they’d delay their services, and now Schrader’s in the process of asking them if they’re ready to begin again.
"I'm always very hopeful,” he says. “We're about even from June last year which is the first time that's happened in a few months."
Back at Hittle Landscaping, Ryan Dippold helped his teams implement safety measures but never felt it impacted the workflow too significantly. The director of landscape maintenance says his employees came through a company checkpoint any time they came to the office, but logistically, it was also all about keeping employees apart as best they could during commutes.
“Really, it boiled down to how many people we could put into a truck and having enough resources to send two guys in a truck and send our crews out in two trucks. Historically, we’d just send them in one,” Ryan says. “The COVID-19 piece has definitely affected all of our business, not just irrigation.”
Meanwhile, Bensinger acknowledges that the pandemic is overall a negative – both for business and for public health – but he echoed Colson’s belief that having clients home made things easier in some ways.
“The COVID-19 piece has definitely affected all of our businesses, not just irrigation.” Ryan Dippold, Hittle Landscaping
“One of the more interesting things that happened because of COVID, which was more unintended, was that the service side of it was actually a little easier because scheduling wasn’t as hard,” he says.
One other perk: Schrader points out that the Virginia traffic has been much lighter since the pandemic began, even today as things open back up.
"Getting around has been pretty damn easy,” he says. “That's still the case, so I still think there's folks who feel a little unsafe. I’m cautiously optimistic, I would say."
Investing in technology.
Though this year will ultimately end with financial difficulties for nearly every company, one investment that will remain strong for irrigation businesses is in technology.
“The main thing is just the technology with these controllers,” he says. “From the service aspect of it, you don’t need to be home, so it shortens our time out in the field.”
Bensinger likens the smart controller technology to a “bar app” on the clients’ phones. They could whip out their phone and show their buddies that they can control when the water comes on and off in their yard. Plus, the technology allows them to play around a little more with their customizations. They can label zones whatever they want in some apps so they can easily track what areas are getting watered, for instance.
And, in the cases where clients go away for the winters, Bensinger says Hittle can keep track of the clients’ systems for them. It allows the company to also be proactive about fixing problems in the system like leaks that could lose clients money, notifying them about their issues before the client even notices.
“Customers are ‘warming up’ to the smart irrigation system clocks with WiFi.” Jackie Colson, Colson Sprinkler & Landscaping
“(The technology has) been very well embraced,” Dippold says. “Some of the bigger sites, because of cost (are a little reluctant) … but technology keeps advancing every year where that won’t be a problem. People love it.”
Colson says that some clients have a hard time understanding all the fancy irrigation technology, but overall, she’s receiving far less pushback and more overall interest in learning more. She views the technology as a way to educate the clients on how to maintain healthy lawns.
“Customers are ‘warming up’ to the smart irrigation system clocks with WiFi,” Colson says. “People who travel like that they can program their clocks while away. One gentleman has a very large yard and likes how he can change zones from his phone while walking around in the yard.”
For Schrader, clients have certainly warmed up to the technological advancements in irrigation. He says roughly 75% of their new sales over the last few years have been from their “ultimate smart system” package, which includes the smart controllers, high-tech sensors and more.
"We've always tried to stay on the cutting edge,” he says. “We tend to be a pricier system in our area. We've always wanted to offer a system that's focused on saving water."