Education is at the foundation of everything for Conserva Irrigation. Whether it’s detailed training for employees at all levels or informing customers and prospects about the latest products to help save water, knowledge is instrumental.
The company’s Founder and President, Russ Jundt, says he started Conserva with water conservation as the objective.
He founded the company in December of 2010 and opened the first shop in August of 2011. Between 2012 and 2016, the company expanded from Minnesota into eight other locations. Jundt started franchising in June of 2017 and now there are 75 locations in 32 states.
Conserva Irrigation reached over $32 million in revenue in 2022 and was No. 93 on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 List. In 2023, Jundt says projected revenue is around $50 million.
With 75 locations and 385 employees, Jundt says the company was desperate for a way to unify training and streamline the onboarding process. He says they knew they wanted a standard online education platform that new and veteran employees could use. Eventually, Conserva settled on building its own Learning Management System (LMS).
“We looked around and there wasn’t any one thing that made sense,” he says. “There were a lot of great tools from manufacturers who have their universities and the Irrigation Association is a wealth of knowledge, NALP (National Association of Landscape Professionals) is as well — so we gathered all this data and hired a company…they created this beautiful LMS. We call it Career Tech Academy.”
Jundt credits Career Tech Academy with making it easier than ever to solve an industry-wide issue — labor.
“We decided we needed to cast a wider net for employees,” he says. “That meant following what we did at the franchise level. At the franchise level, about 90% of our franchisees are from outside the industry. We decided to hire based upon cultural fit and work ethic and with the ability to work autonomously in mind.”
And hiring people from so many different walks of life made the need for standardized training even more important.
“We had to create a training program that was scalable, repeatable and comprehensive,” Jundt says. “It had to be homogenous — so that every technician at every location would go through this. Everyone, even admin, goes through this at our company.”
Career Tech Academy spans a wide variety of topics that progressively get more in-depth.
“It’s 22 different learning modules,” Jundt says. “It starts out with the very basics and the Conserva story…and goes into how to use a shovel, proper digging techniques, the tools and how they work all the way up into hydraulics, smart controllers and pressure regulation.”
Jundt adds that by breaking the training down into easy-to-learn modules, the onboarding process at Conserva is more efficient and new technicians are in the field faster.
“In a 60-day period of time you can take someone who has the willingness to learn, and they can be in their own vehicle handling 85-90% of the irrigation world’s problems and working autonomously,” he says. “Also, (they’re) continuing their training of course to become 100% proficient.”
Jundt says having the ability to easily train those with little to no experience has been extremely beneficial and something that’s been improving the company’s overall culture.
“By going outside of the industry we’re hiring on those soft skills,” he says. “Those are tough to teach. It’s easier to teach the irrigation fundamentals than it is those skills.”
The mandatory learning program is also great for weeding out any bad fits early, Jundt notes — adding that sometimes it’s easier to take someone with no experience and teach them your way than try and teach an old dog new tricks.
“They can be a breath of fresh air,” he says of employees new to the industry. “They don’t have to unlearn bad habits. Now we’re not taking people who have an unwillingness to learn and think they know it all, which none of us do, that’s hard.
“It enlightens them, and many will dive right into it,” Jundt adds. “For others it quickly turns them off. That helps disqualify them at an early level.”
Jundt says the company is already seeing the LMS pay off financially.
“We’re able to attract, hire and maintain more,” he says. “The number of technicians has grown nicely and secondly, through this approach, the average ticket size has gone up. That tells us they’re having greater confidence in expressing to the consumer what they need.”
Jundt says he attributes this to technicians feeling assured of their knowledge and therefore skill.
“I always say, competence breeds confidence and confidence breeds results, and great results breed greater confidence,” he says. “It’s cyclical.”
Treating the trends
Better educated employees is translating into better educated customers — something Jundt says is vital in terms of water conservation.
“Water is a very scarce resource,” he says. “With that, we knew that it was a trend coming around. I saw it back in 2010. It’s really a reaction to climate change and a shift in what’s happening in terms of water availability.”
Jundt adds that whether or not a customer comes to them for eco-friendly irrigation services, that’s exactly what they will be getting.
“We have always used it as a differentiator,” he says. “Whether someone asks for a water conservation product or not, they get it. They can’t opt out. We force that change.”
Since starting the company over a decade ago, Jundt says the irrigation industry has seen numerous trends that always target saving water.
“The trends typically tend to follow the gadgets,” he says. “And gadgets are exciting for people. But the very concept of a smart controller is not new, the definition has just changed. Now, smart controllers and what’s trending among homeowners is connectivity.”
Jundt says the most common problem he sees with smart controllers is homeowners are not optimizing them properly as they don’t truly understand the most effective way to use them. He says that just having the app on your phone does not make a device smart.
“That’s where we come in with education,” he says. “The most important part of water conservation isn’t trendy, sexy stuff — it’s the day-in, day-out stuff. It’s tackling leaking heads, clogged or broken nozzles, line leaks, valve malfunctions — all that below ground infrastructure stuff is true water conservation.”
Jundt likes to use a simple analogy when educating customers on water conservation — when it comes to financial independence, it’s not the one-off stocks that earn you the most it’s long-term disciplined savings.
“You can throw on all these awesome things and you could be communicating with Mars if you wanted to,” he says, “and none of that helps if you’ve got all this arterial bleeding.”
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