Judith Benson knows that starting your own business requires perseverance and time to grow. And she knows that despite tough times, irrigation is a value-driven service that will survive. In fact, it was the recession of the 1980s that put her on this path in the first place. Today, she’s grown her woman-owned business into one that’s become well-respected in her Central Florida community, as well as the irrigation industry.
“In the early 80s, when the economy was crashing, I was out on my own and in the middle of a job change,” remembers Benson. “I was determined to find something that was always going to be utilized, regardless of the economy. So I got into water – specifically, fluid-handling pumps and valves. I worked with municipal and industrial systems back then.”
In 1997, after relocating to Florida, and parting ways with the company she’d been employed by, Benson saw an opportunity to start her own business. “I combined my background from the water technology field with my hobby of gardening and created Clear Water PSI,” she says. “One of the companies I had worked for did irrigation, so I did have some indication as to what was involved with those systems and was able to utilize that knowledge. But I definitely had a lot to learn and threw myself into it.”
Benson says she literally started from scratch. She borrowed her husband’s truck and, initially, took on all the responsibilities on her own. “I was the contractor, the advertiser, the salesperson – I basically handled all of the key positions in the beginning,” says Benson, who is president of the Winter Springs, Fla.-based company. “It was a true startup business. But we’re in our 14th year now and things are going well. I’m very happy with where we’re positioned in the industry.”
Of course, Benson acknowledges she’s had to weather a tough economy like everyone else, and that’s certainly affected her business. She says one of the recession’s biggest effects has been drying up some of her commercial accounts. While she was formerly doing about 40 percent commercial and municipal work, today about 80 percent of the field work is residential. Benson says the political climate in Florida has also contributed to the disappearance of a lot of municipal work. Clear Water PSI currently has six employees, but Benson plans to expand the business and add employees within the next year.
Growing the business
Over the years, the primary responsibility of growing the business has rested on Benson’s shoulders and she says one of the smartest things she did in the early years was to introduce the company to local government. “Working with local government gave us a nice stable base, which was under contract,” she says. “In the beginning, stability counted for a lot.”
Today one of the features that Clear Water PSI has become known for is what Benson has termed an “irrigation evaluation.” It’s something that the local municipalities were very interested in, as they did not have the budget for a full audit.
“Irrigation audits are extremely detailed and that can also equate to being costly,” Benson says. “I designed a copyrighted method that basically scales down an irrigation audit. It takes some of the irrigation audit perspective but dials it down to a more hands-on inspection. An evaluation includes water scheduling, maintenance that may have been overlooked, and sometimes may even include a bit of a tweak to the existing design. It’s a service that we’ve become known for and that clients have appreciated. In Florida, Clear Water PSI has done approximately 6,000 irrigation evaluations and audits, combined.”
In addition, as general public knowledge has grown about water conservation and smart irrigation, Benson says it has opened up more and more opportunities for her company. Clients are more receptive. “There’s more opportunity to talk to property owners about the benefits of improved coverage and using less water,” she says. “Clients are interested in reducing the amount of landscape maintenance they have to do and also reducing the need for chemicals.”
The chemical issue has become a bit of a hot topic everywhere, but may be particularly pertinent to Florida. “Florida’s ecosystems are a bit unique in the fact that water is so heavily integrated into everything we do,” says Benson. “A large amount of our irrigation water is being pulled out of drinking wells, and that drinking reservoir is reported to be over-used. So we’re always promoting the idea of water efficiency. We also promote using lower quality water for irrigation to save the better quality water for drinking.”
Along with that, Clear Water PSI is certified by the American Rainwater Catchment Systems Association (ARCSA) and Benson says the company is always trying to stay on top of the latest sustainability technology. That’s an area where Benson has seen tremendous change over the years. While practices like rainwater catchment were practically unheard of when she was starting out, today clients may ask about it first. “As we get the word out about rainwater harvesting, we find that the general public is more interested than ever before,” she says. “When I first started doing this, people looked at me sideways and didn’t get it. Today they are all ears.”
Benson says this shift can really help the industry but it will mean getting on board with the latest trends and technology. “We’re always trying to adapt our business to the changes we see coming and that’s a primary reason we’ve been able to grow,” she says. “As the industry becomes more regulated and sustainability issues surface, businesses are going to have to adapt to those changes in order to survive.”
This story is one of three that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Water Works e-newsletter. To continue reading about Judith Benson and Clear Water PSI:
Fresh ideas: Judith Benson offers trends in the irrigation industry.
Selling smart irrigation: Getting clients onboard with more efficient – and sometimes more expensive – technology means showing them the ROI.