Mike Merlesena got his first exposure to the industry while working at his father’s irrigation installation company in Cape Code, Mass., the town he grew up in. Working there during the summers during college, Merlesena knew he liked the work but eventually wanted to go out on his own. That led him across the country, to a sales position in Bakersfield, Calif. From there he’s made several moves that eventually brought him back to installation. He founded his own company – Environmental Enhancements Irrigation – and just completed his first year in business.
Working for the manufacturing side in outside sales was a “whole new ballgame” from doing installations, Merlesena says. After moving on from his first sales position in Bakersfield, Merlesena moved to San Diego to become a Southern California territory sales rep for a manufacturer specializing in solar-powered solutions. He called on distributors, municipalities, and landscape architects, among other entities that would buy or sell irrigation products. He enjoyed the work, but after five years got burned out from traveling four out of five days a week. So Merlesena started thinking about getting back to his roots with an irrigation installation company of his own. Mike Merlesena receives his first $1 of profit as owner of Environmental Enhancements Irrigation.
“It was something I was familiar with and enjoyed doing,” Merlesena says. “I had received other job offers but I decided I wanted to get back into installation. I decided I wanted to start my own business and do it somewhere I could get more involved in the community. Southern California was an oversaturated market and I knew I needed to go somewhere different.”
That’s how Merlesena wound up in Missoula, Mont., a relatively small college town that has the feel of a tight-knit community. Having done a lot with environmentally-friendly products at his former job, he decided that would be his focus. “I want to save people water with the proper head spacing and run times but also with the right use of product,” Merlesena says. “I really believe in the technology available today and I really want to push it so I’m doing what I can to make it as appealing as possible. That includes not marking it up a ton. I want to be able to give my customers a good price on smart controllers so that they’re actually utilizing the technology and saving water.”
Where applicable, Merlesena says he’s trying to put in as much low-volume drip as possible. “I’m always looking to keep running times down,” he says. “But of course you need to take into account the whole yard including considerations like sun, shade and adjusting run times accordingly.”
Having worked for a manufacturer that pushed solar powered irrigation controllers and smart controllers that self adjust, Merlesena says he is taking that knowledge to the customer. Even though the technology costs more, he says that customers are “getting it.” “People do understand that you have to invest more to save more,” he says. “These controllers will pay for themselves eventually, but I want to have hard data to show that. One of my plans is to start keeping track of customers’ data so I can reference it when talking to new clients – to be able to let them know just how much they can save.”
As the market becomes more saturated, Merlesena says it’s also important to find ways to stand out from the crowd. Knowing a lot about products and staying on top of the trends is how Merlesena says he plans to stand out. “It’s all about setting yourself apart from the competition by pushing technology and knowing enough about the products out there that you’re able to offer different applications and get creative. I want to be able to show my customers things they haven’t seen before.”
Merlesena believes strongly that water conservation technology is the future of the industry. He says that times are changing and the industry needs to adjust. “I believe it’s going to be survival of the fittest in this industry and those that survive will be those that do adjust to the times,” he says. “In many areas of the country, there is not a lot of new construction and irrigation contractors will need to learn to adapt.”
For Merlesena, one way of adjusting to the changing times is planning to add services as his company grows. Now that he’s completed his first year, Merlesena is already thinking about what’s ahead. One of those ideas is to get into lighting. “It’s a great little upsell,” he says. “I’m already on the property and it’s not a lot of extra labor.”
He also plans to get into fertigation, the application of fertilizers and other water-soluble products through an irrigation system. “I’m looking into getting involved with a landscaper or maybe even learning to do this myself,” he says. “But I plan to push an all-natural green alternative to using synthetic fertilizer. My business plans are all about going organic.”
While they do seem to be the wave of the future, Merlesena says that water conservation and going green are philosophies that he’s not just pushing to make a buck – it’s what he believes in personally as well. “This is something I’m sincere about and try to do in my personal life as well,” Merlesena says. “It’s not just about making money for me.”
This is one of three stories that ran in Lawn & Landscape’s Water Works e-newsletter. For more coverage on irrigation and Environmental Enhancements:
Full coverage: Mike Merlesena offers installers insight after years of working on the supply side.
Environmental enhancements: This irrigation company focuses on conservation and green alternatives.