Working Together

          Chris Le Conte's water conservation business model forges
           contractor-client-consultant relationships in the name of efficeint
irrigation. July 2008

In 2004, Chris Le Conte was a green industry newcomer with a background in sales and entreneurship. As a sales manager for an irrigation distributor, it was his job to convince irrigation contractors to offer the latest and greatest water-saving products.

But Le Conte soon learned many contractors didn't fully embrace new technology. As he acclimated himself to the ins and outs of the industry, becoming certified in landscape irrigation auditing and contracting through the Irrigation Assiciation, he also quickly became ticked off. "About two years ago, I just started to get really upset that people basically weren't trying to be as efficient as possible and weren't offering smart controllers, water use audits, etc.," Le Conte says. "We're using treated drinking water on our lawns - and in many cases it's spraying onto sidewalks and parking lots. The least we can do is irrigate efficiently."

As his frustrations grew, so did the prospect for a business opportunity. "Basically, I just got passionate about saving water," Le Conte says. Today, he is the owner and president of SMART Watering Systems, which he founded two years ago to bridge the gap between property managers who need water-saving solutions and irrigation contractors who often don't devote the time to learn about the most efficient options on the market.

In Le Conte's experience working for an irrigation distributor, many contractors said they were interested in products like smart controllers or central control systems, but didn't have the time to learn the technology themselves let alone train their staff on how to sell and install them.

"I've seen what happens to most irrigation contractors - they're answering hundreds of phone calls, moving so quickly that they don't have the time they need to spend on a site to make it as efficient as possible," Le Conte says.

The seasonal nature of the irrigation business in his area fuels the pressure to install as many systems as possible to maximize profits, Le Conte says.

Additionally, on new home installations, builders generally don't request water-conserving systems - just the most inexpensive option possible.

"That's one of my frustrations - contractors say they want to save water, but they're so busy putting out fires that even if their customer is asking for ways to save water, they may not be getting that service," he says. "That's the void we're trying to fill."

Eventually, one of Le Conte's irrigation contractor customers just asked him to upgrade a clients' system for him. "I thought it was an interesting concept, and because I had been paying attention to what was going on with water and had become such a believer in these products, I thought it was a good opportunity."

In only his second year in business, it looks like he was right. With an aging infrastructure, population growth and munucipalities raising their water rates five to 11 percent a year, property owners will be seeking relief as their cost of water may double in as few as six years. Le Conte is positioned to quadruple SWS's business this year.

HOW DOES HE DO IT. SMART Watering Systems doesn't consider itself an irrigation contracting company, as it doesn't provide installation or servicing. Rather, Le Conte considers himself a water conservation specialist. "The word consultant in this market has the stigma that we're here to tell contractors what they're doing wrong," he says. "But we're here to put more focus on conservation."

About 80 percent of the time, SWS works directly with municipalities or property managers to evaluate, upgrade and manage their irrigation systems. The situation can get sticky with irrigation contractors who don't fully understand SWS's goals.

Le Conte has made it a point to contact the incumbent service contractor as soon as possible. "We approach them and tell them whate we're doing - that we're not a servicing company; we're not trying to steal a contract," Le Conte says, explaining that instead, SWS is essentially recommending product and system upgrades after conducting audits and inspections.

A lot of the time the contractors are pleased and understand it may be a revenue opportunity for them, as they'll be called on to do the installation upgrades. But sometimes they feel threatened, Le Conte says. "Some contractors tell us, 'You're making us look bad.' But we're not telling the clients their contractors are bad. We're just saying, "This is the way it's been done in the past, but there's an opportunity to change that.' If we can fix the problem of overpressurization or improve distribution uniformity, for example, we can save a lot of water."

Some contractors do understand and appreciate SWS's business model. About 20 percent of the time SWS works as a subcontractor for irrigation companies.

STEPS TOWARD EFFICIENCY. SWS's recommended "conservation solutions" are different for each client, as is the way their contracts are structured. One of SWS's primary services is the irrigation audit/inspection.

"We often get in front of a client who's interested in saving water and they say 'How much can you save us?' Le Conte says. His reply? "I can't tell you how much you can save until I know how much you're using. It sounds simple, but very few places here submeter water, so they don't even know how much they use."

So the first step for the client would be an irrigation audit to find out the clients' total water used per irrigation zone. SWS also conducts inspections to get an overall picture of the system's condition, including management practices, equipment, water pressure and any deficiencies.

Often, SWS discovers during this process that plant and soil relationships have not been factored into the irrigation schedule. "People are rarely using cycle and soak," Le Conte says. "They assume the worst and write a schedule based on that. We find we can usually save 15 to 20 percent in water use just be rewriting their schedule."

Another service SWS provides is remote site monitoring. SWS monitors single sites (typically corporate campuses or large estates) or uses central control systems that allow multiple controllers at mutliple sites to be controlled from one computer. These accounts are typically parks, universities, property managers or municipalities.

Though the monitoring duties vary by account, they include services such as regular site visits, dialing into the control system to monitor and detect any breaks or other issues and alerting the client and their irrigation service contractor to the problems. In addition SWS provides clients with end-of-the- year site visits and water use summaries. "A lot of property managers have decided to make an investment in technology and smart watering systems, so we try to give them the information that proves they're saving water," Le Conte says. "They present it to their tenants or board of directors and use the information in their green initiatives to prove they're doing the right thing."

Like the service offerings, the contract terms for site monitoring services vary on a case-by-case basis, Le Conte says. Typically, though, cost depends on the size of the account and is billed annually.

WATER MANAGERS. Le Conte knows the water manager role is not a brand new business model. It's common in Arizona, California and other regions with water scarcity issues. In Ontario, and many parts of the U.S. where population growth and deteriorating infrastructure may play a larger role than scarcity, property owners will soon be pushed into conserving because water rates will eventually rise.

In Ontario, the government launched a water-saving campaign promoting low-flush toilets. "That was the low-hanging fruit, and as people start to look at the next big issue, it's going to be landscape irrigation," says Le Conte, who also serves as the chair of the irrigation commodity group for Landscape Ontario, a trade association. "As they start looking into it, it's going to be a problem. Because the irrigation industry doesn't always do the right thing."

In conservation-savvy regions, the firms who've stepped up to take on the water conservation specialist role are often landscape and irrigation contractors. It can be a smart business model for them, says Le Conte, emphasizing that contractors need to learn these skills themselves or be willing to work with a firm like his. "At some point, the customer will be concerned with how much they're paying for their water bill. If the contractor isn't willing or able to sit down with the customer and give them water-saving options, someone else will." SI

Article as appeared in Lawn & Landscape Magazine, July 2008, page 8 - 17.