2022 LM150: Conserva Irrigation shows how modern problems require modern solutions

July 1, 2022 -  By
Finding a better way to train irrigation technicians drove Conserva to create its LMS training program. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

Finding a better way to train irrigation technicians drove Conserva to create its LMS training program. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

For Conserva Irrigation in Glen Allen, Va., the past several years brought increased levels of growth. The company added 25 to 30 franchisees per year and increased revenue, following what Russ Jundt, founder and owner, calls a “hockey stick” pattern.

The growth comes during a time when the U.S. faces an ice-cold labor market that forced Jundt to get creative with his hiring — and training — practices.

Jundt says he’s heard the excuses and reasons for the labor crunch, and while he acknowledges that they are legitimate, he isn’t willing to let that stop his company’s upward trajectory.

“I refuse to accept the anecdotal answers that ‘Oh, it’s COVID-19’ or ‘People are on their couches.’ They might be great reasons or excuses, but the reality is that none of them help us move forward,” says Jundt.

Conserva, making its LM150 debut at No. 119 on the 2022 list with a revenue of $21,579,227, sought to tackle the labor problem head-on.

Armed with a new approach to hiring technicians and an online Learning Management System (LMS) training program, the company moves forward with a bold strategy — having new hires field-ready, in their own trucks, within 60 days.

Expanding the search

Conserva trainees will still get field experience when using the company’s online training. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

Conserva trainees will still get field experience when using the company’s online training. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

Step one of Conserva’s new approach to hiring and training technicians is to expand its pool of potential hires.

“If there’s a massive shortage or a limited pool from which we draw, we figured we needed to extend that net,” he says. “In doing so, we’ve looked outside the industry to find people that fit culturally into what we’re looking for. They have a (strong) work ethic, an ability and a desire to work outdoors; (they) want to do something special and bigger than themselves.”

Extending its net isn’t something new for Conserva; the company has done it before with franchisees.
Conserva, which currently has 70 branches across 30 states, saw success in looking outside the industry for franchise owners, so Jundt thought it would be no different at the technician level.

“We attract talent and people with different business acumen backgrounds, experiences and cultural backgrounds,” says Jundt. “We bring them in and provide a system that they can plug into and change their career and their lives.”

Russ Jundt

Russ Jundt

Conserva started its technician search by looking within. The company took note of its best technicians’ key traits and characteristics and used that to focus its recruitment search.

“We’ve found that one of the key underlying factors of successful franchisees and technicians was an overwhelming passion for what they do,” Jundt says. “In other words, loving what, how and why they do it.”

Jundt says coachability, a willingness to learn and a desire to be a leader were other attributes the company found to make for a successful technician.

“We’re starting to attract bartenders, people that work at Home Depot and fast-food employees,” says Jake Mathre, director of franchise operations for Conserva. “I tell them there’s a different opportunity here. We’ll train you. We want to get you in your own vehicle within a couple of months.”

From the ground up

Jake Mathre

Jake Mathre

There’s more to this plan than just identifying the right intangibles, however. Once Conserva has those prospects in-house, the team needs to train them.

Enter Conserva’s online LMS training program. The online program is 22 modules long and aims to have new hires field ready within 45 to 60 days.

The program walks new hires through irrigation fundamentals, like the basics of digging a hole and the anatomy of an irrigation system, all the way to more advanced ideas like fluid dynamics.

“Then we start ramping it up with understanding flow, pressure, velocity and how those interact with each other,” Mathre says. “At its base, it’s about breaking it down to the most basic components. How does it work? How does it fail? How do you fix it?”

The program’s opening module introduces Conserva and its ideals and mission statement. Three modules focus exclusively on sales and customer interactions; others include leadership training and communication.

Employees that participate in the program also work with a crew as they would be in a traditional training program. But with the supplemental online training, the process of having them ready to work on their own accelerates.

“I think (the idea behind the program) was twofold of needing it and then wanting to bring new blood into the industry,” says Mathre. “There’s nothing out there that makes it simple to add new people. It was always, well, you’re going to just have them ride along with us, and they’ll pick up stuff over the year, and maybe they’ll be in their own vehicle next year.”

Collaborate and listen

Creating the LMS was a collaborative process between Jundt; Mathre; Conserva’s top franchisee; Toro District Sales Manager Chris Keating, CID; and a third-party company, Unboxed Training and Technology.

Unboxed — based in Richmond, Va., 20 minutes south of Conserva’s headquarters — works alongside companies to develop online training programs.

“They’re education experts; they know how people learn,” says Mathre.

Tasked with condensing decades of irrigation knowledge into an easy-to-understand training program, Unboxed asked for everything Conserva had available on the topic.

“We kind of balked at it. We said, ‘Well, we’ve got an operations manual and some technician training manuals.’ I mean, the real robust stuff, you know, I don’t think you’ll find much value there,” Jundt says. “But they said, ‘No, no, bring it on.’”

Conserva obliged, sending their own operations manuals in addition to Environmental Protection Agency and Irrigation Association manuals on best practices, design and fluid dynamics and YouTube videos on irrigation.

“They jumped all over it and digested it and broke it down into bite-sized pieces and put together a strategy of how they could pull this off,” Jundt says.

A five-month process followed where Unboxed worked closely with Mathre to ensure the material was on point.

Conserva officially launched the LMS in mid-April this year, opening it to franchisees and existing employees. Mathre says the early returns are promising and Conserva still receives feedback and plans to fine-tune some of the information.

“So far, what we’re seeing is it’s building confidence,” he says. “That’s the biggest thing; confidence in the skill and knowledge of the industry. It’s empowering people.”

As the program evolves, Mathre says the next step — in addition to translating the entire program to Spanish — is for franchisees to leverage it into the recruiting process, hiring for work ethic and character, with the confidence that the program will turn new hires into successful technicians.

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Rob DiFranco

About the Author:

Rob DiFranco is Landscape Management's associate editor. A 2018 graduate of Kent State University, DiFranco holds a bachelor's degree in journalism. Prior to Landscape Management, DiFranco was a reporter for The Morning Journal in Lorain, Ohio.

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