Turf Magazine - February, 2014


Family Affair

Controlled Rain grows beyond its irrigation-only roots
By K. Schipper

Brian and Libbie McClafin grew Controlled Rain from a small irrigation business operated out of a garage into a full-service landscape company with 22 employees.
Photos courtesy of Controlled Rain.

Brian McClaflin didn't start out wanting to be a landscape contractor. However, after starting Controlled Rain in 1993, he quickly learned that it was something he'd have to add to his irrigation installation business to nudge the bottom line into the black.

Controlled Rain

Founder and President: Brian McClaflin

Founded: 1993

Headquarters: Olympia, Wash.

Markets: Olympia, Wash., and Puget Sound area

Services: Irrigation systems, sprinkler system maintenance, commercial landscaping and landscaping

Employees: 22

Website: www.controlledrainwa.com

Fast-forward to the company's 20th anniversary, and he admits that one of his greatest pleasures is looking at installations the company did years ago to see how nicely these landscapes have matured and the pleasure they have provided to his clients.

What's made the difference? Probably McClaflin's ability to hire people to complement his own skills, a commitment to train his employees to understand the nuances of each job and follow his systems and then to retain them over the long term. He followed this plan almost from the beginning.

McClaflin's affinity for the irrigation part of the business is easy to understand. His first full-time job out of high school was working for a wholesale distributor of irrigation products. After moving up through the company over several years, he was lured away by one of its competitors.

"That's when I got to see the good landscape contractors versus the ones that weren't doing so well," he says. "They didn't seem to have the business tools to be able to succeed."

He adds that those were the people who always seemed to be struggling with accounts receivable. In short, they were the people he didn't want to emulate.

Controlled Rain started modestly in the McClaflins' garage with a couple employees, and his wife Libbie joined the business full time in 1998. McClaflin says the real turning point for the company came when it was hired to do its first large commercial project, a Ford dealership in Olympia.

Owner Brian McClaflin describes his experienced employees as being among his "greatest pleasures" in running Controlled Rain. "It's seeing a whole team of people be successful," he says.

"At that point our focus became more on the commercial market," he says. "On an historical basis our business divides up about 80 percent commercial and 20 percent residential."

Helping that shift in emphasis to the commercial: the move into landscaping.

"When I started I found out really quickly I was going to starve to death unless I learned to landscape," McClaflin says. "Because of the work I'd done on the distribution side, I was able to hire a couple really key people that had landscape horticultural experience with construction management. That's when we started going after the commercial work."

It's an approach that's continued to work for Controlled Rain, although 2014 will likely bring a new profit center to the mix: irrigation maintenance.

"We get asked for it all the time, and there's definitely a need for it," McClaflin says. "I also know we have to be geared up for it properly. Because of the reputation we have now, I take it really seriously as far as making sure it's done right."

Brian McClaffin discovered that he needed to expand beyond irrigation and into landscaping in order to grow.

Regardless of the job, hiring good people, training them right and then holding them to a high standard is still McClaflin's formula for success. Today, the company has grown to 22 full-time employees (and the owner would like to grow to as many as 50), with approximately 80 percent of them working in the field. He notes that many of his employees have been with the company for more than a decade.

"We have some technicians that will float back and forth from the service department to doing installs in the field, but we're pretty diverse with our crews," he says. "They're cross-trained in both residential and commercial work so that they're able to understand the blueprints, able to follow the plans and specs, and also able to design in the field for the different types of systems that are required."

Because so much of the work Controlled Rain handles is commercial projects, the company doesn't employ a landscape designer. McClaflin says most jobs have already been professionally designed and the company is bidding to what's specified.

However, it does have a certified water auditor on its staff. "There are some situations where we're doing large ball fields and park projects where water auditing is required," McClaflin explains. "We do quite a bit of central control systems, too."

However, McClaflin says it's always possible to learn more about what's required for a particular job. Earlier this year, Controlled Rain installed a solar controller system for a local school district that utilized a solar panel to provide power.

"We just assumed we were OK to install that, too," he says. "We found out there are some deeper regulations that maybe a lot of contractors need to be educated on. Sometimes you don't know those things and you have to learn the hard way."

The people factors

Still, for the most part, regulations seem to be Controlled Rain's friend. Although his market is generally regarded as an area of the country with a reputation for rainy days, McClaflin says that water costs are expensive for irrigation systems.

"There are typically a lot of fees involved with it," he says. "And, in Olympia, the assumption is everything flows to the wastewater treatment plant, whether it's going down the drain or on your lawn, so if you can make somebody's sprinkler system more efficient, especially if it's a commercial development, you're helping them save money."

McClaflin seems to know a lot about saving money. Given that so much of his work depends on having the low bid, he's figured out how to determine direct costs associated with each job while not sacrificing quality.

"We track our KPIs (key performance indicators) so we know how many man-hours go into each task," he says. "That way, during the life of the project, we're able to look at it and see exactly how we're coming out and be reactive to it, rather than getting to the end and saying, 'Gee, what happened here?'"

Employee training is an important part of that process, and the company's 5,000-square-foot office facility includes a training room. He also has a 5,000-square-foot shop and enclosed yard on 2.5 acres.

"We can always do a better job of training, but it's something we know is going to be a key to our success. We set our employees up to succeed out in the field and be able to come within the budget that we've set for the project," says McClaflin. And, he adds that well-trained employees also help pass that ethic along to the seasonal people, as well as helping to keep an eye on quality control.

Being blessed with good quality employees - in fact the whole human side of owning a business - is his greatest pleasure.

"It's seeing a whole team of people be successful," he says. "As I get older, I realize the relationships you have with your employees and your clients are so important. I have friendships that will last forever because of this business."

That doesn't even include the third leg of the human triangle: his family. "My greatest success is being able to work with my family," McClaflin says. "Every day I get to go to work with my wife, and I have some of my kids involved in the business, too. At the end of the day if you can work every day with your family and enjoy it and really value it, you're being a success."

K. Schipper is an experienced business writer who lives and works in Palm Springs, Calif. She is a partner in Word Mechanics. Contact her at kschipper@wordmechanics.com.