During his time in aviation school, studying to be a professional pilot, David Fairburn continued to build his irrigation company, which he started after doing part time work as an 18-year-old. When he did graduate with his professional pilot’s license, Fairburn realized he was making more money with his part-time sprinkler business than he would as a pilot at the time, so he chose to put his effort into building the company.
Maybe not the glamorous choice, but it looks like the right one. North Point Holdings and Blue Eagle Irrigation, both based in Windham, N.H., have grown from $450,000 in revenue in 2010 to $1.15 million in 2012, with $1.65 projected this year.
Fairburn, who serves as the company’s owner and president, attributes much of the rapid growth to the company’s focus on smart irrigation and new technology. The company has always aimed to be ahead of the curve. “From the very start we’ve incorporated technology into the business and I think that’s what began to set us apart,” says Fairburn, 26. “Part of my passion for technology came from my experience in the aviation world but I think it also helps that we’re a young company and very interested in the latest technology.”
Parent company North Point Holding has incorporated smart phones and tablets throughout the business by providing them to crew leaders in the field and in estimating trucks. “By providing the operations manager, account managers and landscape installation manager with the ability to access customer information, invoicing, estimating and payments received, we have reduced the amount of work that needs to be completed when they return to the office from the field,” says Andrew Pelkey, company co-owner and vice president.
“It’s definitely an upfront investment, but the very quick access of information going from crew leaders in the field right back to the office offers a very valuable opportunity,” Fairburn adds. “For one, it provides consistency to crew leaders every day because everything is set and scheduled. We use company software that ties right into those tablets and smart phones, allowing crews to get to a property, check in that they arrived, complete the service and invoice any parts that were used that day. When they complete the job, they can invoice the client from their device, immediately.”
A new market. That instant communication between not only the crews and the office – but also the crews and the client – has been incredibly valuable. That’s because the company services a particular type of clientele. They have specifically targeted a customer base that values technology (“the guy with the smart phone” as Fairburn puts it) and that often works long hours. But Fairburn says that this client is part of a “new marketplace” – where technology facilitates much of the communication process. Even as a young business owner, that took some getting used to.
Even young companies can give good advice about what not to do in business.
Show you were there. “With irrigation you’re doing work that’s all buried under ground and since we also focus on doing a nice clean-up job, we ran into some trouble with clients not knowing we were there,” Fairburn says. “Many of our clients aren’t home when we work on their property so we made sure that we’re always leaving door hangers to let the client know service was completed.
Get financial advice early on. “It’s important to have a good financial portfolio from day one – particularly in this economy,” Fairburn says. “Right now we’re at a point where we have to start subbing some work out because we don’t have the capital to grow the business in house. That’s not a bad thing – a lot of people grow by subbing – but I do wish we’d gotten more direction on our early portfolio.”
Keep employees engaged. “When we first implemented all the technology we use we realized that we weren’t seeing our employees enough,” he says. “So we had to find a middle ground and we make a definite point to still have one-on-one time with employees. They have to know who they’re working for so that they remain engaged – and so they care.”
“What’s very interesting about our particular market right now is that we’ve never met about 50 percent of our customer base on a face-to-face basis,” Fairburn says. “That’s been a bit strange as I know the traditional way to build business is meeting people. But these days, we’ve found that our target client is the individual that works 60 hours a week and doesn’t have the time to meet us – or simply doesn’t want to spend his or her free time walking through the property with us.
“So we provide such good communication via technology like email and texting that the client never feels like they have to meet us. They feel like we’ve built a relationship even though we’ve never met face-to-face. We’ve never done any traditional advertising – we’ve always relied on word of mouth – so we know we’re building client relationships even though we aren’t meeting everyone we work with.”
With the company’s clients spending much of their day at work or away from the home, instant invoicing is a service that has become incredibly valuable. Clients are kept on top of any billing that was done even if they’re not there. Many clients have a credit card on file so they receive an invoice that says the job was “paid in full.”
“They’re able to receive an email as soon as our crew is done with the work so they’re kept in the loop even though they’re not home,” Fairburn says. “With so many people doing online banking or making purchases online, they expect that kind of prompt service from other companies and we feel it’s appreciated.”
Since clients typically aren’t home when the Blue Eagle Irrigation crew does their work, Fairburn says that facilitates special training for the employees. “One thing that is very different about an irrigation contractor as opposed to a landscape contractor is that our techs are physically entering the home,” Fairburn says.
“The home is a very private place and since many of our clients are not there when we enter, we have very strict procedures in place to ensure the experience is positive. We use floor mats and boot covers and we talk to our crews about minimizing their impact.
“You have to build the trust that the client knows you entered the home and that you left everything the way it was so that they’re comfortable with you returning.”
Though technology has helped build the business, Fairburn says it does have some drawbacks.
“While technology has facilitated more efficient communication, it’s also taken away that face time which can be a bit worrisome. Because management isn’t regularly seeing crews, we have to be diligent about keeping them engaged and dedicated. So we make sure that we’re still getting one-on-one time with employees – though not on a daily basis – so that they know who they’re working for and that we value them.”
Keeping crews motivated is important in effectively managing the team, Fairburn says. “We try to provide an environment where people enjoy coming to work and feel self-motivated to keep achieving,” Fairburn says. “We do that with meetings, by running classes, and by sending them to training.”