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Features - Irrigation

Two former teachers run a business focusing on water conservation in an area where water cost isn’t an issue.

Lindsey Getz | July 5, 2013

As a special education teacher by trade, Matt Cline was doing landscaping and irrigation work in the summers to supplement his income. Working with his brother, Les, who was a former elementary school teacher, the company became known as Teacher’s Landscaping and Irrigation because of their background. The name stuck for the Kansas City, Kan.-based business and it wasn’t long before they realized there was a full-time opportunity in the summer gig they’d created.


The final bell.
Cline decided to leave the classroom and commit to landscaping and irrigation full-time 12 years ago. Spending his summers working in the field, he had really come to embrace the green industry and wanted to make it his primary career. He says that the name “Teacher’s Landscaping” resonated with customers and helped build their success so they kept the name as the business grew.

“It’s a unique name and a good conversation starter,” Cline says.

“People often inquire what it means and that gets us talking. Once they know what it means, it also ensures trust. We have found people like doing business with noble professionals and teachers seem to fall into that rank. Right out of the boat, it gives us a little leg up on the competition.”

When the company started out, the housing industry was booming and that was good for business. People were building homes and wanted complete landscapes to accompany those homes. But in 2007, when the economy had gone south, Cline says he and his brother knew they had to find a niche that would make up for lost landscape work.

That’s when they decided to get into water conservation. It was something that nobody else was doing in their region. But that also posed a challenge. There wasn’t a lot of focus on water conservation because there wasn’t a shortage of water in the Midwest. Despite that, Cline has become passionate on the topic and he’s found a way to approach it that works with his customers, which are primarily in the residential market.

Teacher’s tips

Matt Cline was a special education teacher and a high school football coach before leaving his teaching post behind for the green industry in 2000.

While he’s been in landscape and irrigation full-time for 12 years, Cline, who co-owns Teacher’s Landscaping and Irrigation with his brother (also a former teacher), says that he makes education a big part of what he does. He loves holding seminars and teaching others about some of the best water management practices his company uses. He also puts a strong emphasis on educating the client. Cline recently shared his three best tips for educating customers.

Educate yourself. First, become the expert in the irrigation field. Consume as much info as possible regarding current trends, new technologies, and practices going on in the irrigation industry. Obtain a professional certification with a green industry group.

Communicate. Build trust and credibility with your clients through various communication channels. Demonstrating your knowledge and expertise through your website, newsletters, and social media links will build confidence with existing and potential clients. People want to do business with companies who are leaders and innovators of their industry.

Be intentional. Have a written plan, system, and protocol for educating and communicating with your clients. Determine ahead of time when and what needs to be said.

“It’s definitely a challenge that the cost of water is so cheap here,” Cline says. “While regions like Texas and California are crying for water, we have never had any shortages and that makes water conservation a hard sell because water is cheap. It’s like selling a hybrid car when the price of gas is 10 cents a gallon. Why would you change anything?”

But rates have crept up a bit in the Midwest, not because of availability, but because of infrastructure. Cline says this is the first year he’s ever seen any water restrictions. Waterlines have to be replaced and other maintenance has to be done so the price of water has risen slightly in the region. That’s helped a little as cost will always drive the market. But Cline has found that there are other ways to help the customer see value in improving their water management plan.

“If we’re just focusing on the dollar amount alone, it’s a tough sell,” Cline says. “I could save the homeowner 20,000 gallons of water in a year and that may sound like it equates to a lot of money – but in reality, it does not. It may only be $80. Once the homeowner realizes that, the idea of saving money isn’t so significant. Therefore we don’t really focus on the dollar value. What we do focus on is overall value and peace of mind. We focus on the feel-good value of saving water – and how that helps our planet and our future. We also focus on how it can improve the aesthetics of the property once we ensure the system is running well.”


Setting a price point. The company has also become more strategic in their pricing. For one, they’ve almost completely gotten out of the installation business. While they’ll still do a handful of custom jobs where homeowners are willing to install high-end, super-efficient systems, Cline has found that most homeowners aren’t willing to make that investment so that’s no longer a focus. Instead, they’ve turned their attention to retrofitting systems and doing basic service work for their approximately 300 to 350 accounts. They also focus on doing smaller jobs that homeowners are willing to invest in.

“We’re just not getting those calls for $1,500 or $2,000 jobs for complete retrofits because homeowners aren’t willing to invest that kind of money when water is inexpensive here,” Cline says. “So our focus is on the $200 to $500 price point because we find people are comfortable paying that kind of money if they get a good service for it.”

Educating homeowners on pricing and what options they have is a big part of business, Cline adds. He enjoys working with people and educating them on the possibilities. “I think a lot of homeowners assume that implementing a water management plan is expensive but that doesn’t have to be the case,” Cline says.

“There are a lot of things that can be done such as raising sprinkler heads, identifying soil types, or implementing a base scheduling system that are pretty basic, fundamental changes. They don’t cost a lot of money and yet they can make a big difference. Those are the types of changes we’re finding people are willing to invest in.”

Cline also likes that focusing on these types of jobs has put him more in a consultant type of role. “I like the idea that we’re water managers – not just irrigation guys. That has helped separate us from the pack,” Cline says. “Now we’re selling our knowledge.”

 

Photo courtesy of Teacher’s Landscaping and Irrigation