Irrigation Infiltration


N.E. Irrigation serves markets in eight states, and keeps growing

N.E. Irrigation

Owner: Eric Zima
Founded: 1966
Headquarters: Danbury, Conn.
Markets: Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire, New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Rhode Island
Services: Irrigation, including sprinkler systems, fertigation and nightscaping
Employees: 24 during peak season

After many years working as Northeast regional manager for a national landscape firm, Eric Zima was looking for a new challenge. “I wanted to find a way to do my own thing and do something unique, but I wanted to stay in this industry,” explains Zima, who has a degree in landscape architecture.

So, back in 2005 he purchased New England Irrigation in the Boston area. He had experience overseeing both irrigation and spray services within the national landscape company he had worked for. “I realized that those are two of the highest margin services in this industry,” he says. Zima decided he wanted to start a business in a field that he personally enjoyed, and chose to focus on irrigation. “I really didn’t want to go out and spray chemicals all day. What I liked was working in blue jeans and a T-shirt and getting out there and working in the field – I love it. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Even from the beginning, Zima’s plans were to grow the business beyond its initial location. His past experience in the landscape industry had given him an understanding of both the challenges and efficiencies of operating in multiple locations. “We had been opening up about a branch and a half every year, and that gave me a comfort zone with that process,” recalls Zima. “It helped me understand the trust level, organization and other factors involved with basically giving someone ownership of their own little kingdom.”

N.E. Irrigation provides irrigation work in New England and the Northeast for national companies and some of the largest regional landscape firms.

That past experience had also showed him that many large regional and national landscape firms sub-contract out their irrigation work, so Zima saw an opportunity to service this market. When he had been the one contracting irrigation services, he discovered that many of the irrigation firms he hired would perform well for a year, but then become overwhelmed by the amount of work and become less responsive.

“Next week isn’t acceptable in this business, you need to be able to respond right away and get things working right,” he explains. “So I set out to develop a really great service company that really took care of the trades, the other landscapers out there.”

Most landscape companies don’t look at irrigation as a business, they see it simply as an add-on to their core business, says Zima. “They consider it a supplemental revenue stream, but it’s very haphazard and fragmented. And they consider it a royal pain in the neck, because they don’t understand it. So if they can figure out a way that they don’t have to actually do irrigation and still make money on it, they think it’s great. And that’s where I come in.”

N.E. Irrigation discounts its rates to landscapers, allowing those companies to make 15 to 20 percent on every irrigation job completed. This allows landscapers to add to their revenue stream without having to take on the complicated business of irrigation. Just as important as making sure landscapers profit is making sure the process is smooth, Zima emphasizes. “I become their guy. If I have to wear their hat, I wear their hat. If I need to wear their T-shirt, I wear their T-shirt. Our guys know how to walk and how to talk and how to represent their company properly [to customers]. We really try to build relationships with the landscape companies.”

It’s paying off as N.E. Irrigation handles irrigation work for national and some of the largest regional landscape firms, and operates out of four locations covering territories in eight states. The year after opening in Boston, Zima opened a branch covering Connecticut and Westchester County in New York. After that it was on to New Jersey and beyond.

As word spread within landscape companies that one territory was having good results working with N.E. Irrigation, another territory would seek out those same services. “That’s what’s really stimulated our growth,” says Zima. Under the umbrella of “N.E. Irrigation,” the company operates as New England Irrigation in New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and as North East Irrigation in Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and northern Delaware.

Hooking his wagon to the large landscape firms has also allowed him to grow his business without a sales force. “As long as we’re providing great service for them, we’re getting brought into new areas and opportunities,” says Zima.

The growth has been mainly by opening up branches from scratch in new locations, but there have also been a total of eight “strategic acquisitions” along the way. For example, N.E. Irrigation recently acquired Oasis Irrigation in Massachusetts. “With start-ups, there’s a lot of risks because it’s difficult to gauge the amount of work you’re going to be able to do. With an acquisition, you at least have an idea of a revenue stream you can expect to have,” says Zima. When it comes to acquisitions, he’s firm on one key point: “I don’t take on owners. They’re not coming. I cannot have the influence of someone else’s culture and management style influencing what I’m trying to do.” That company may have a great senior or junior technician who could be an asset to N.E. Irrigation, though, so Zima is open to that possibility.

Also, Zima rarely looks to take on equipment as part of an acquisition. “People always value their equipment at more than it’s really worth,” he explains. “With acquisitions, I really only want the accounts.”

Eric Zima uses the experience he gained as a regional landscape manager to service the irrigation needs of landscape contractors.

This approach has allowed him to diversify the business with residential irrigation accounts. The company has about 4,000 customers. About 40 percent of its overall work is done through landscape firms, 20 percent through independent commercial accounts, and about 40 percent is from working with individual homeowners. “This way I can spread my exposure out,” Zima explains.

Still, he recognizes that it’s his business relationships with landscape firms that represent the key to N.E. Irrigation’s success. So Zima works to be sure those relationships work for the landscape companies as much as they do for him. “My goal is to make sure that they make money off me. It’s important they make money off me – they’re helping me grow my business, and I don’t expect anything for free. As long as I’m doing the work, they should be getting something for it. And hopefully we’re doing a great job for them so they can mark us up.”

Internally, Zima is just as focused on running N.E. Irrigation as efficiently as possible. Individual locations are not elaborate affairs, for example. “We have a few little storage areas to work out of and places to park our trucks,” he explains. “I’ve learned that your office doesn’t mean anything, it’s what you do out in the field and how you take care of customers that matter. We don’t entertain at our shops – we can wash our trucks, we have some supplies, and that’s it.”

In fact, for all practical purposes, the offices are run mainly out of the homes of three “administrators.” These administrators are charged primarily with being accessible to customers at all times. “I don’t care if they work in their pajamas or if they go grocery shopping and take their phones with them, so long as we’re taking care of the customers,” explains Zima. “But the key is that they don’t work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They work 6 a.m. to midnight; they need to be accessible Saturdays and Sundays.”

It’s important, he says, that anytime a customer calls the phone is answered by a person who can then respond to their question or schedule a crew to handle a problem. “The customers get to know them, they know them by name,” says Zima. “We’re not bringing in temps.” If someone is out sick, their phone calls get forwarded to one of the other administrators. Each of the administrators has access to the others’ crew schedules and information through a computer network. N.E. Irrigation is run off of HindSite software. “We’ve tried other software, but HindSite seems to be the best for what we need,” he states. “It’s not cheap, but its functionality is good.”

One business hassle that N.E. Irrigation doesn’t need to deal with is inventory. “I negotiate all of my parts costs up-front at the beginning of each season. So whether I buy one head or 2,000 heads, it’s going to be the same price. I don’t want to shell out the money and I don’t want to warehouse a whole bunch of parts,” says Zima. “I’m not a store, so I don’t want to manage inventory.” Plus, delivery is free from many distributors so it’s easy to get the parts for any job when they’re needed, he points out.

Another combination of efficiency and effectiveness can be found in the vehicles used by N.E. Irrigation. Zima has downsized over the years in order to boost profitability. He started out opting for Ford F250’s, but found the payments and gas bills too much to handle. Switching to Ford Ranger’s and Toyota Tacoma’s with utility caps has lowered costs all around, he explains. “We can probably do 90 to 95 percent of the things we need to do with those smaller trucks,” states Zima. The larger trucks allowed him to pick up some plowing work for the landscape firms in the winter, but the savings from using the smaller vehicles has made up for the loss of plowing income, says Zima. (NE Irrigation does do some landscape lighting work, mostly maintenance, as supplemental income.)

Even the management structure at N.E. Irrigation is formed around efficiency. There is a branch manager at each location, and both that manager and the techs work to develop and build relationships with the landscape firms and other customers in their area, says Zima. He says that one of the priorities within the company is to be sure that not only the techs but the managers at each location are billable for their time, meaning they are out working on jobs as well as managing.

N.E. Irrigation operates as New England Irrigation in three states and as North East Irrigation in five other states and has about 4,000 customers.

“Even our branch managers are billable for 85 percent of their week,” he emphasizes. “I don’t have anyone who sits in an office all week. The business is not that complicated, we don’t need to have a lot of charts and graphs. It comes down to how many stops you did that day, what were your costs, what did you bill and were your customers happy. That’s what it all comes down to.” Even Zima is billable for 80 percent of his week. He’s based within a two-hour drive of each location and will show up to work wherever help is needed. “Everybody has to earn their paycheck every single day,” he states.

The crews also are given a lot of responsibility. “Our managers are smart guys, and I empower them to do things like budgeting and hiring. I’m not one of those people who calls my managers every single day. They know what they need to do,” says Zima. “I want them to feel good about what they accomplish.”

That responsibility helps them to develop as professionals, as does the fact that they are true irrigation specialists. The irrigation crews for many landscape firms are kept busy on irrigation through the spring, but then get assigned to plant flowers or weed or spray or aerate, Zima observes. “But, good true irrigation guys don’t want to do that stuff, they want to do irrigation. So the opportunity to grow as an irrigation professional within some landscape companies is very limited. One of the things that’s unique about us is that we have a career path for techs to grow within the company.”

He needs that growth among his employees, because Zima wants to continue growing his business. “My ultimate goal is to have a business with more than 10,000 customers,” he states. “And I still love being a tech myself – I love being out there, meeting with the customers and taking care of their needs.”

Patrick White is a freelance writer and editor who has covered every aspect of the green industry in the past 15 years. He is based in Middlesex, Vt., and is always on the lookout for unusual stories. You can contact him at [email protected].