July 17 2012 12:42 AM

In everything in life, there are amateurs, and there are professionals. Take golf, for instance.

It’s a game that a lot of us in the green industry play (and often misplay!). Any amateur golfer can get himself outfitted at a sporting goods store.

However, no serious golfer, let alone a PGA professional, would buy gear at a chain sporting goods store.

If you’re serious about golf, you want the services of a professional—to fit your clubs and offer access to the greatest variety of shoes, clothing, balls, and the like. You want a shop that embraces the latest golf technology. A shop with reliability and accountability; a place that remembers you and asks about your overall game.

It’s no different in our industry. Your local big-box store may be the destination of choice for the average mow-blow-and-go guy, but a serious green industry professional needs more.

How do you determine what kind of landscape and irrigation supplier is right for you? In today’s competitive world, these stores are vying for your business.

Some will offer lower prices; others will offer you service, and still others will offer delivery, educational seminars, and more.

The place to start is by carefully and honestly assessing your business needs, and what you want from your supply store. Maybe you need a store where the only thing that counts is price. Maybe you want your supplier to have good prices as well as value-added services.

Possibly, you’re a contractor who needs a place that not only sells products, but can teach you how to use them. You might want a supplier who carries not only what you use today, but the products you might be using next year. And what contractor wouldn’t want a purveyor who doesn’t just sell gear, but can also suggest new revenue streams and show you how to tap into them?

There are many green industry stores that offer a variety of these services. You need to find the one in your location that best serves your needs. Two good examples are Central Turf & Irrigation Supply, based in Elmsford, New York, and North Florida Irrigation Equipment, with headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida.

Both businesses are family owned and operated. At Central Turf & Irrigation, the president, Bernardo Luciano, is a former landscape contractor. After many years in the landscape contracting business, he opened an irrigation wholesale supply store. His goal was to provide customers with the kind of service he expected back when he’d been a contractor.

At North Florida Irrigation Equipment, Harlan Eaton is at the helm. He established the business as irrigation-only in the late 1970s, back when you had to buy irrigation equipment from a plumbing supply house.

As with many other successful small businesses, Luciano and Eaton have each brought in family members, and one day will pass the baton. These days at Central, Luciano’s wife, Filomina, and their children, Camilla and Anthony, work in the business. By getting into the business early in their careers, they not only have learned from the bottom up, they should be well schooled when the time comes to transition to the next generation.

It’s a different business today than it was when each man started. In two decades, Central Turf & Irrigation Supply has grown to 36 stores in 14 states. With this growth, Luciano added more staff and they became part of the family. Eaton has grown his business too, adding another physical store in St. Augustine, Florida, and today, he ships equipment all over the Southeast.

“We try to serve our customers like we would have wanted to be served when we were still landscape contractors,” Luciano says. “The advantage that we have over other stores is, we’ve been in our customers’ shoes, so we know what it takes. Our philosophy is that our customers would rather talk to those who ‘walked the walk,’ as opposed to those who ‘talk the talk.’ Those are the experienced people we try to hire.”

One-stop shopping is a way for Luciano to show his concern about his customers’ time. He understands the time wasted to go from one store for irrigation components to another for landscape supplies. After all, time is money.

Central started out exclusively as an irrigation supply store, but quickly added landscape lighting as lighting became more important. Once ponds and water features began to catch some contractors’ eyes, pond components were added to the store. Over the last five or six years, they added trenching equipment, fertilizers, seed, some chemicals, and products for snow removal.

North Florida Irrigation Equipment has followed the same expansion trajectory. Eaton began in irrigation, then added services in response to customer interest and demand. Now, he covers landscape supply, landscape lighting, pond components, and the like. “We may not make much money on some of these items, like mulch,” Eaton concedes, “but that’s not the issue. The issue is in serving our customers.”

“When I was in the business, I hated to wait for a product because the store I went to ran out,” said Luciano. “We don’t make our customers wait for us while we order what they need, and then call them late in the afternoon or even the next day when it gets delivered to us. We have a well-stocked warehouse.”

In fact, Central Turf & Irrigation has a free service that will deliver to the contractor’s jobsite what they need. “It costs money to keep the warehouse stocked and the delivery fleet on the road, but that’s what we do, that’s the service we offer,” declares Luciano. “We don’t make people wait, even for a 10¢ item. We have 100 trucks, and they will get what they need when they need it.”

Central Turf & Irrigation doesn’t just sell products and equipment, they teach the contractor how to use them, even if it means sending a company trainer out on the job with the customer for a first-time installation. “Let’s say it’s an outdoor LED lighting installation,” Luciano posits. “And this is our customer’s first foray into lighting! We will not just sell the lights and say, ‘Good luck.’ We’ll help design the installation, and then send one of our experts to the jobsite to work with the contractor. We consider it an investment in the relationship.”

Eaton does the same kind of hands-on teaching. “For example, we’ve got something coming up we call a ‘pond build.’ We’re going out to a site with our pond specialist, and we invite contractors to come in, watch, and learn as we go step-by-step through an actual pond installation. It’s a great way to learn.”

In addition to sending consultants out into the field, the best suppliers offer training classes and seminars for local contractors to attend.

The right supplier can actually send business your way. If your supplier has cultivated its relationships, it should have a solid virtual Rolodex for cross-referrals. Similarly, your supply store can be an outstanding resource for you about other local green industry professionals.

“What you get from us is so much more than just the product,” Luciano maintains. “Our job is to help you make money. That’s why we worry about you like you’re our own family.” Eaton has the same philosophy. Both companies have customers that have been with them for ten, twenty, or even thirty years.

If what you want is a supplier that worries about you like family, you’ll want to find a company like Central Turf & Irrigation Supply or North Florida Irrigation Equipment.