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Embracing technology – and why you should, too

Irrigation

Lindsey Getz | February 10, 2011

Caption: GPS technology is becoming a popular trend in the irrigation industry. Quality Sprinkling Systems Services uses GPS on service trucks and is trying to sell it to customers for new and existing irrigation systems.

 

Quality Sprinkling Systems Services was founded in 1992 purely as an irrigation company. But in the past five years, the company has offered lawn health services and even repairs and installations for electronic fences for dogs. “The company has really evolved,” says the North Ridgeville, Ohio-based company’s owner and president, John Newlin, whose client base is 80 percent residential. Along with that company growth, Newlin has also seen some personal growth in the industry. He was recently elected chair of the Irrigation Association’s Contractor Common Interest Group.

While Newlin has become an industry leader, he says that he initially got into the field “by accident.” He started doing some side work with a friend. “A friend that I’d grown up with was in the industry and asked me to help him install a system,” Newlin says. “Another contractor pulled out a pipe and briefly explained what to do and we just gave it our best.”

That baptism by fire made Newlin realize he had a knack for the work, and enjoyed it as well. Though he had a full-time job, he found himself doing more and more of this side work. “It was one of those things where one thing leads to another and I eventually left my full-time position to get into the field,” Newlin says.

Organic growth
   
Over the years, Newlin has allowed his business to grow organically. It’s grown largely out of the needs of Newlin’s existing customer base and spread from there into more technology-based services like fixing invisible fences. While the dog fence repair and installation service may seem like an out-of-place offering, it actually made perfect sense for the company to add it to their mix. Newlin says it was his customers who “got him into it.”

“We were already doing repairs on any fence that we accidentally cut while doing irrigation work,” he says. “Over time, what began to happen was that our customers, who knew we had the skill to work on their fences, started calling us when they needed other repairs because their dog fence companies were giving them a two- to three-week wait period. We decided to just start offering the installation and repair as part of our service offerings. It’s not going to be any huge division for us, just something extra. We’ll be getting the word out through our newsletter and by word of mouth.”

According to Newlin, the company’s newsletter is one of their top marketing tools. They’re also in the process of revamping the company website. “We’re big on pay-per-click advertising and we have our trucks well-marked,” he says. “Still, we track where our work comes from and there’s no doubt that the biggest source is customer referral. So word-of-mouth continues to be number one for us.”

In addition to his day-to-day operations as the company owner, Newlin also does some side consulting work with long-time friend and industry consultant Jim Huston. Working with Huston, Newlin helps train contractors on how to use Huston’s bidding and estimating software. “On Thursdays we have a scheduled webinar and help run through the program with them,” Newlin says. “I address questions and just help them get comfortable with the software.”

Ahead of the curve

One of the things that has helped keep Quality Services ahead of the pack has been their inclination to embrace technology. That’s something the company owner really believes in and Newlin is always trying to stay ahead of the game. His efforts have included becoming completely paperless through the use of HindSite Software for all of their scheduling and billing. “That’s really been huge and probably one of the keys to helping us stay in business and profitable, even in a bad economy,” Newlin says. “The efficiency we’ve been able to achieve as a result of our software has been critical. It’s something I really believe in. And as a company we do a good job of adapting to the latest technology.”

Technology is often an area where companies struggle. Keeping up with the latest advances can be challenging, especially for business owners who aren’t that familiar or comfortable using technology in the first place. In shifting to a paperless environment, Newlin says it first requires getting over the psychological aspect and being able to let go of paper. After years of doing business on paper, that can be hard for some. “It’s definitely a comfort level,” he says. “But I’ve gotten employees to bite off on it and they were far from tech savvy. It can certainly be learned. Like anything else, there’s a learning curve, but it’s not that bad. Actually, the learning curve is the biggest for the owner because the implementation has to be from the top down. The owner needs to learn it first.”

The other tip Newlin would offer companies considering a paperless workplace would be to find the right vendor. Working with a good vendor can make all the difference in a smooth implementation. “HindSite has been here to our office, and I’ve been there, and they’ve been very hands-on in helping us with the system,” Newlin says. “We’ve been very happy with the product and the service.”

And it’s not just the office where the latest technology is being employed at Quality Services. “Our service techs use mini laptops out in the field,” Newlin says. “And all service trucks have GPS to help our office manager know where they are. This helps to answer customers’ questions, such as when they’ll be arriving, without having to call our service techs.”

Newlin feels that their use of technology has certainly set the company apart in a crowded market. “I definitely feel it helps differentiate us,” he says. “People are scared of technology, and there are many who aren’t using it. But it’s the future of the industry. These kinds of tools are needed in order to run properties as efficiently as possible.”

He only sees his company continuing to evolve. In fact, Newlin says that what he believes is a big part of the future of his business is already underway – applying GPS technology to new and existing irrigation systems. This is something relatively new for the company and Newlin says he is working on selling it as a service to both his existing and new customers. “So far I’ve been able to sell this service pretty easily,” he says. “In the past year, it’s really started to take off and we’re now looking at a handheld unit where I can go into the field and locate the valve box heads and main lines and all of that will be uploaded to our software. When the service techs then go into the field, they already have the information in front of them.”

Also part of the future is rainwater harvesting and the use of rain barrels. Newlin says that his customers have caught wind of the eco-friendly push to use rain barrels as collection agents, but they don’t know what to do from there. “We’ve put together a drip system that takes water from the rain barrel and can be used in small planting areas,” he says. “We’re also looking at utilizing storm water from parking lots and irrigating commercial properties with that water. That could be a significant savings."

The concept of rainwater harvesting continues to gain ground and Newlin says it’s partially due to the concern for the environment, but of course the savings are probably the biggest incentive. “When you can show clients a cost-effective way to irrigate, you’ve got their attention,” he says. “We’ve been involved with rainwater harvesting for about two years and the IA has been a big help with that.”

Newlin says that although a lot of these technologies and advances are new and might not seem that vital now, he believes they’re the way of the future. That makes it important for other contractors to start embracing what’s ahead. “There’s no question that many contractors are leery of technology, but one of the things I want to do through the IA is help them get to a certain degree of comfort with it,” says Newlin. “Change can be hard, so we’re trying to help.”

 

This is one of three stories that appeared in Lawn & Landscape's Water Works e-newsletter. To continue reading about John Newlin:

Perspectives on 2011: John Newlin sees technology as the main trend for the irrigation industry.

Connecting with contractors: As the newly elected chair of the CCIG, Newlin aims to improve communication.


 

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