Flight delay

Instead of flying the friendly skies, David Fairburn decided to stay grounded and start an irrigation company.

March 21, 2013
Lindsey Getz

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.”

The company also makes use of satellite-based estimating. “By incorporating satellite-based measuring, we were able to reduce the trips and non-billable service support to our clients,” Pelkey says. “By reducing the amount of driving we have undoubtedly saved fuel, vehicle and labor expenses. The only way to effectively incorporate these generated values into our pricing structure was through the creation of exponential estimating software. This ability removed the responsibility from the owners and enabled the account manager and estimator to provide consistent pricing for a range of services.”

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.

“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.” It’s a simplified process for everyone.

“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. Plus it’s always ideal for us to be able to invoice immediately.”

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 Fairburn feels that technology has had a number of benefits in the company, he does admit that it can pose challenges as well. One of those challenges is the lack of face-to-face time with employees. “It used to be that we were interacting with crews on a daily basis because they were coming in the office and we were handwriting orders,” Fairburn says.

“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. We don’t want to be faceless management. We want crews to know us and to feel committed to us and the company.”

Keeping crews motivated and wanting to learn is important in effectively managing the team, says Fairburn. “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.”

Developing a brand. As a young company, developing a brand has been an important focus for helping the company become more established in the community. Management believes that having uniformed employees is incredibly important. “Our crews go out in professional-looking uniforms – a polo golf shirt with matching pants and boots – which shows that our crews care about what they’re doing,” Fairburn says.

“I think that builds a strong image for the customer. But it also has benefits to us by helping build a sense of team camaraderie. I think my employees are proud to walk into a Dunkin’ Donuts together, dressed alike. They look professional and confident – definitely better than the company who comes to work in old jeans – and I think that by dressing the part, they act the part, too.”

In addition, the company also implements reflective vests. “Of course that’s a safety thing, but it also contributes to our image,” Fairburn says. “For one it shows that we value safety and that helps create an image of true professionalism. It shows our clients and prospective clients that we know what we’re doing. They know that if we take safety seriously, that means we also take the job seriously.”

The creation of a logo was also part of that overall branding experience. Easy-to-read logos are branded on trucks and other vehicles, making them easily spotted and even “creating the illusion that we’re a bigger sized business than we actually are,” Pelkey adds. “We are concerned about our image and we maintain and clean our equipment constantly,” he says. “We also outfit all field employees with uniforms that include our logo.”

The logo doesn’t have the company phone number, Fairburn adds. “We purposely wanted to keep it simple,” he says. “These days everyone Googles everything anyways and we know that they’re not going to try to write down a phone number. So our focus was more on a name and logo that was easy to Google.”

But the branding is just one small part of an overall effort that is focused on developing a strong, long-lasting company. “We’re still a young company but our goal is to really establish ourselves and continue to grow,” Fairburn says. “We feel we’re on our way to doing just that.”