A daughter's question

After seeing a movie with his little girl, John A. Taylor decided to change his business.

December 19, 2013
Lindsey Getz

John A. Taylor, president and director of operations with Taylor Irrigation Service in Houston, went to school to become a teacher. While majoring in fine arts with a literature minor kept him busy in the classroom, his side job became more and more interesting to him.

As he worked his way up the chain at an irrigation company, it became harder and harder to walk away from the work. Plus he enjoyed what he was doing. Taylor realized he had a passion for water conservation and management – and he decided this was the field he wanted to pursue. Years later, he’s become a true success in the industry

A passion for conservation. Flash-forward to present day and Taylor has gone from someone who was on the fence about his career path to someone who is fully dedicated to the world of water management. In fact, he recently became the first Texas-based irrigation designer/contractor to win the Environmental Protection Agency’s WaterSense Partner of the Year Award. During his acceptance speech, Taylor shared the story of what changed really changed his focus in the field.

“A couple years ago I had taken my youngest daughter to see the movie Rango, which is the story about some characters – including a chameleon voiced by Johnny Depp – that live in the desert,” Taylor says, as he recalls the story he shared in his speech.

“One day when their water runs dry, they set out on a journey to find what happened to their water. There’s a scene of them coming up, over a hill in the desert to Las Vegas with its lush green grass and the sprinklers going everywhere as water runs into the gutters. For the kids it might be a subtle message but for someone in the industry it’s right in your face. My daughter’s first question when we got to the car was ‘Is that what irrigation is really doing?” I had to be honest and say ‘Yes. It can be very wasteful.’”

Taylor says that he’d never thought about the victims behind the misuse of water. Even though Rango was just a kids’ film, Taylor says it put “faces to the problem,” plus it invoked difficult questions from his child. “I felt that in the crosshairs of her questions I needed to do something,” Taylor says. “I felt I had two options. I could get out of irrigation and just go into consulting or I could do something about it.”

He chose to do the latter. From that point on, Taylor made a conscious decision that it was no longer good enough to just offer a highly efficiently system as one of the choices. He decided it was the only choice. It meant completely remodeling the company. “I felt like it was a real gamble and I was nervous,” he says.

“I knew we’d lose the bottom 25 percent of our client base. There are plenty of people out there that don’t know about ROI – they just want pipes in their front yard as cheap as possible. I knew that client base was gone, but I decided that wasn’t who we were aiming to reach anyways. I felt like it was a gutsy decision and it could possibly put me out of business.”

But it didn’t. In fact, Taylor found that the market responded in an amazing way. He just needed to show his customers that he was doing something different – something that was worth the extra cost. “We approach everything we do in a completely different manner,” Taylor says.

“When a homeowner says they don’t want to spend the extra money we just refer them to other companies. We are no longer willing to put in a low-quality system just to get the work. We don’t compromise and as a result we have become a very unique company and have actually created a standing line. People see us as the best and they want to get on the list even if that means we’re booking jobs four months out.”

The Cadillac system. Taylor calls the system the company installs the “Cadillac System” because it’s the premium option. And of course it’s also now the only option. “If we want to be serious about water conservation, we have to put in the best system possible,” Taylor says. “There is no reason to put a product in the ground when we know it’s 30 percent less efficient.”

In the past, Taylor says he made a mistake in “counting on everyone’s passion for water conservation” when pushing the upgraded system. “I thought we could sell them on the water conservation point alone,” he says. “That didn’t happen.”

When Taylor aimed to sell the top-of-the-line system, which conserved more water, customers balked at the price point. Often people like to be “green” until it costs them too much money. But Taylor says instead of giving up on the better system, he realized they were going about the sale in the wrong way. “We were trying to sell irrigation systems instead of return on investment (ROI),” Taylor says.

“The truth is that most people don’t know anything about irrigation – or even their landscape – and they probably don’t really care to know the nitty gritty details. So we found that we had to stop selling irrigation and we had to start selling ROI. Once you speak the language of ROI, you seal the deal.”

This change in the sales approach has also changed the way Taylor sends out estimates. When he bids on a job he will actually let the client know what the competitors will bid. “We’re not trying to hide anything,” Taylor says. “I tell them outright that we’re about 40 to 50 percent higher than our competition. A line item on all standard estimates actually says what the competition charges. But then we get into ROI from there. A year and a half down the road you’re already recouped the difference between our system and the cheap system – everything else after that is money in the bank.”

On a recent job, Taylor was able to save a historic church a lot of cash when they upgraded their existing system. Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston was renovating their small-sized system with smart technology.

“We monitor the water bills for the first year whenever we renovate an old system,” Taylor says. “In the first year we saved them about $900. They had spent around $3,000 to convert their system to new, smart technology with ET based controllers, rotary nozzles, taller heads, and other advances, and we told them they’d make that money back in a three-year period – every dollar spent. Anything after that is money that can go into the church’s mission.”

What lies ahead. While Taylor is proud of the changes he’s made within his own company, he’s concerned about the rest of the industry. He knows that water is a precious commodity but he wishes that more would share his viewpoint. Taylor points to Atlanta and its suburbs, which rely on the Chattahoochee River for almost all of its water supply. As the Atlanta region booms, it’s obvious that the current pattern of usage cannot be sustained.

“If we don’t start making some changes, someone is going to step in and making them for us,” Taylor warns.

“Right now these are friendly requests and recognition for companies and individuals who make an effort to conserve. But there will come a time where things are going to be regulated. If we don’t find a way to change as an industry, I think our days are numbered. Our role as irrigators in creating sustainable and healthy landscapes requires being flexible and adaptable. We have to not only change the services we offer but change how we market our products. In the past our industry has always focused on upselling and the idea that more is better. As irrigators we have to be better than that. We have to go with quality and efficiency over everything else.”

As for Taylor’s daughter, he believes she is pleased with the changes he’s made to his own company and his effort to conserve more water. “She’s very aware of what we’ve done,” Taylor says. “She heard my acceptance speech and was quite proud.”