Get a grip

November 8, 2018 -  By
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Grapids Irrigation CEO Aaron Katerberg (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

Grapids Irrigation CEO Aaron Katerberg (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

Aaron Katerberg didn’t set out to be an irrigator. He’s been a tennis pro, pursued a master’s degree in divinity and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro.

After college, he tried working for his father’s irrigation business, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based Grapids Irrigation, and that first stint didn’t pan out. A few years later, he finally made peace with the fact that irrigation runs in his blood, and he decided to dive back into the family business.

In 2002, when the company’s revenue was under $1 million, he began buying into the company. He has now been running Grapids for six years.

As a third-generation irrigator and second-generation owner of the company, Katerberg has set his sights on increasing Grapids’ revenue from $2 million to $6 million over the next 10 years. He is adopting a new way of running his business and assembling the right team.

“I have no interest in owning a yacht—those things just aren’t important to me,” Katerberg says, explaining his motivation to grow Grapids. “And I have all the backpacking equipment I need. I’d rather see my people have more opportunity and connection with what we’re doing.”

Business Breakdown: Grapids Irrigation (Graphic: LM Staff)

Graphic: LM Staff

Gaining Traction

Four years ago, Katerberg was looking for a way to grow his company when David Crary, owner of Hindsite Software in Minneapolis, recommended he read “Traction” by Gino Wickman, which outlined the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS).

The EOS identifies six key organizational attributes: vision, people, data, issues, process and traction. The system requires that a company:

  • Create a clear vision of its targets and goals;
  • Hire the right people and ensure they are in the right seats within the company;
  • Understand its data and metrics;
  • Solve issues that arise; and
  • Develop and execute core processes that allow the business to run smoothly.

Traction, the final attribute, occurs when the company turns its vision into actual results—through setting and achieving measurable priorities and monitoring that the company is on track.

After reading “Traction,” Katerberg was hooked. “It was my shiny object at the moment. I made all my people read it,” he says. The company integrated the lessons of the book for six months on its own before hiring an EOS consultant, called an implementer, who helps bring EOS principles into companies.

Members of Grapids Irrigation management team (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

Dream team From left: Grapids Operations Manager Tony Tiscareno, CEO Aaron Katerberg and General Manager Matthew Sullivan. (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

It was a big financial decision to take the plunge and work with Jim Coyle of Nexus Business Solutions. The engagement was a two-year process, but only for 10 days of hands-on time over those two years—at a cost of $50,000. “For a small company, that’s like hiring a new employee for 10 days,” Katerberg says.

Despite the cost, Katerberg says implementing EOS was a game-changer because Grapids needed some direction. “I know some people who have (implemented EOS on their own) and they have some good systems for that online too, but I just felt like I wasn’t the person to do it,” he says.

According to Katerberg, EOS has gotten everyone on the same page.

“That’s why they call it ‘traction’—the wheels are all pulling in the same direction,” he says. “We all know what our purpose is, who we’re looking for employee-wise, we know who’s not stepping up because we’re measuring it, we all know where our struggles are—you can ask any member of my leadership team.”

The new system has created an improved environment at Grapids, allowing team members to have more opportunity to succeed on their own with less micromanagement, Katerberg says.

Grapids Irrigation weekly meeting (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

Taking a pulse From left: Sales Manager Randy Small, Katerberg, Tiscareno, Business Manager Christina Edsall and Sullivan discuss goals in a weekly meeting. (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

The changes also have freed up more time for the Grapids owner to be the visionary for the company and focus on projects and initiatives that are important to him—such as planning to climb Mount Aconcagua in South America in 2019 to raise money for the Lifewater charity. The money will provide clean water and sanitation training in countries such as Cambodia and Uganda.

“For me, personally, I feel like I’m in the right seat for the first time in my career,” Katerberg says. “It’s a really good feeling.”

The integrator

For Katerberg to get into the right seat—the visionary role of president/CEO—he had to fill the integrator role, also known as the general manager or COO.

Ideally, the visionary and the integrator should have a yin-and-yang type of relationship, Katerberg says. “I’m the scatterbrained person who brings ideas like climbing mountains to raise money,” he admits. “The integrator is the one who keeps me from driving people crazy with new ideas, filters them and brings things down to earth that are actually functional—the one who makes things happen.”

Aaron Katerberg and his father, Will Katerberg (Photo: Grapids Irrigation)

Family business Aaron Katerberg (left), with his father, Will Katerberg, the original owner of Grapids Irrigation in 1987. (Photo: Grapids Irrigation)

Finding someone to fill the integrator role wouldn’t come cheap, according to his research, which showed that integrators command a salary in the range of $150,000 to $300,000, depending on the industry. That’s a high-ticket number, which is why $500,000 companies typically don’t hire one, says Katerberg.

Katerberg and his team agreed that the company would be stuck at the $2 million mark without someone to create structure and help move the company to the next level.

He went outside his organization to find his integrator, and after about three years of searching for the right person, he met Matthew Sullivan, whom he hired in April, through a mutual business acquaintance.

Sullivan’s background includes a management role at Enterprise Rent-A-Car, where he became a group rental manager, overseeing more than 20 locations and 100 employees on the western side of Michigan. He ran his own company in leadership and management development training for a few years and developed a sales and marketing strategy for an automotive parts wholesale company, before going into workforce management for Fortune 500 companies.

Sullivan credits the EOS one-page plan with driving organizations to identify 10-year, three-year and one-year goals; the company’s purpose; its differentiator; and its marketing plan.

The goals are broken down into “rocks” or 90-day priorities meant to keep the company on track. The team reviews goals, rocks and any issues in a scheduled set of meetings. Key performance indicators are listed on a scorecard, which is a weekly report of the main numbers in the business.

Aaron Katerberg on Mount Kilimanjaro (Photo: Aaron Katerberg)

Making the climb In 2017, Katerberg climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and raised more than $9,000 for Lifewater, which helps communities in need of clean water. (Photo: Aaron Katerberg)

Katerberg says the scorecard in particular has been a valuable tool. “I could get stuck on Mount Aconcagua next year, and they could email me that scorecard, and I can know exactly how the company is doing,” he says.

In addition to EOS, Grapids also uses some facets of the Great Game of Business concept, from the book of the same name by Jack Stack and Bo Burlingham. Sullivan says the value of the Great Game of Business is it’s a bottom-up system, geared toward educating employees about the numbers part of the company’s business. It opens the company’s finances to the staff, so they know where money is going.

“It allows people into the discussion of ‘If this is what we want to accomplish, what can we do to make a difference?’” Sullivan says, “which creates a line of sight to how they can affect the bottom line.”

EOS and the Great Game of Business are systems that create accountability, but discipline is really the key to making these systems work and growing the business, Sullivan says. “It’s great that you can have this format and the framework, but how disciplined you are is really the difference maker,” he says.

Grapid Irrigation employees communication (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

Talking it out The EOS system has allowed for better communication all across Grapids Irrigation, says Aaron Katerberg. (Photo: Ed Koziarski, Homesick Blues Productions)

The heart

While Sullivan keeps the EOS system running and ensures Katerberg and the teams are disciplined and accountable to the process, there’s a third person who holds the company together: Operations Manager Tony Tiscareno.

“He’s my rock, my right hand,” Katerberg says.

“There’s no doubt about it, Tony is the guy who is running this company,” Sullivan says. “He deserves a hell of a lot of credit for any success that we’re having, have had and will have in the future.”

Tiscareno started working for Grapids in 1998 when Will Katerberg, Aaron’s father, hired him as a laborer. Over the years, he worked his way up through the ranks to foreman, remodel manager, service tech and field supervisor. As Grapids’ operations manager, he runs the install and service department of the business.

Tiscareno says it’s the Katerberg family’s values that attracted him to the company and the quality that has kept him there for the last 20 years.

“They really focus on their customers,” he says. “More than money, it’s their name. That appealed to me and the way I think—be honest with people.”

Tiscareno carries that honest approach to the team members he manages, and it helps him assemble crews that work well together.

“I want to make sure I’m thinking the way they’re thinking,” he says. “I know their personalities, and then I can see what type of job a technician is better for and put together good crews.

“That’s the challenge, making sure everyone’s happy. I always focus a lot on my guys and try to help them with whatever they need,” he says.

The Grapids team consists of 13 techicians, two install crews of two to three men and a remodeling crew. The remodeling crew is responsible for midsize jobs such as working around new patios or pools, rather than full installations or small service calls. The company also runs another small branch in Kalamazoo, Mich., an hour away from Grand Rapids.

Staying updated with the latest technology has been one major change Tiscareno has seen since Aaron Katerberg took over from his father.

The company uses Hindsite Software, which he says has been easy to use, even for less tech-savvy crew members. The crews clock in and out via smartphone, and all work orders are done by smartphone and synced to technicians’ devices in the field.

As far as irrigation equipment, he says Grapids used to be loyal to one brand, but now it tries to source what it considers the best tools in the market, including K-Rain sprinkler heads, Hunter controllers, Irritrol valves and Toro irrigation equipment. The company offers three levels of irrigation systems: premier, standard and economy.

Tiscareno says honesty is a major part of his success as an irrigator. “You’re putting things in the ground and no one sees them,” he says. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself and with your customers.”

Education also is a major focus for Tiscareno, who holds training sessions once a week for the irrigation technicians on design and new products, such as water and moisture sensors.

The trainings sometimes cover non-irrigation-related subjects, such as the ins and outs of finances and educating employees on why it might not be a good idea to have a personal credit card. “I want them to be successful, too,” Tiscareno says. “Most of the time it’s about irrigation, but this is one example, I want them to be all right.”

Envisioning success

Between Katerberg, Sullivan, Tiscareno and the other members of the leadership team, the company is poised for success. The company’s projected revenue for 2018 is $2.6 million, but the team is thinking bigger.

“We talk now as if we were a $6-million company,” says Katerberg. “That’s our 10-year goal—and financially, we’re on track with that. From now until then, we’re continuing to find the base and find good technicians and field staff to tweak our processes.”

About the Author:

Abby Hart is the managing editor of Landscape Management. A native Clevelander, she spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was operations manager of a global hospitality consultancy. She also worked as managing editor of Illumine, a health and wellness magazine; and a marketing specialist for B2B publications. Abby has a degree in journalism from Boston University’s College of Communication.

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