Aric Olson is a ‘turn around’ guy. As successful young man, he has helped turn around a number of companies that seemed to be spiraling downward. As the new president of the Irrigation Association for the ensuing year, Olson hopes he can help contribute to the growth of the association.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Olson’s parents were divorced when he was in second grade; his mother raised him and his brother. Although he loved playing sports, he knew had to hold down a part-time job to help his mother out. So, from the time he was five years old until he was 15, Olson worked summers at his grandparents’ produce farm. At the age of 15, he got his first real job at rainbow Foods and worked there until he was 22.
While attending the University of Minnesota, where he received his B.S. degree in chemical engineering, Olson worked as a technical aid for the 3M Company. He would work at the supermarket from midnight till seven, attend school from nine to two thirty, then he would go to work as a technical aid for two or three hours, two or three days a week. He did this for the last three years of school.
Upon graduation, 3M offered him a position on a contract basis—a job, but no benefits. After working so hard to get through school, Olson turned down the offer, but continued working as a technical aid through the summer.
He finally was offered a job as an applications engineer; he was 23. About a year and a half later, he moved to another company as an applications sales engineer. He stayed for six or seven years, getting his MBA degree along the way.
He married in September, 2000, and five months later, he received a turn-around assignment offer to work with Kennametal. They were located in California, so he picked up his wife, Jenny, and moved. Within a year and a half, he helped turn a really hopeless situation into a profitable, sustainable business. He received accolades from the financial community.
“I was introduced to some private equity business and they basically told me, ‘Look, if you can turn these companies around, you can get a portion of that action. If you can do it again, it’s a way to make a lot of money.’ I was a little bit enticed by that type of opportunity,” said Olson.
Olson went to work for Euro Design—also a turn-around. When that company was ready for sale, the CEO wanted a chief operating officer with 30 years of wood or cabinet experience. “He wanted me to stay, continuing in my vice president operations role. I said that I really wanted to be the COO or CEO of the company, because I felt that I turned it around. I wanted a shot. And he said, ‘Well, that’s not gonna help us sell,’” continued Olson. “So we agreed to part ways.” I actually left the whole investment group.”
“I was looking for a job, and I had a number of different job opportunities,” said Olson. However, during this time, his sons were born, prematurely. Luke, his oldest son, was born at 26 weeks and weighed two pounds. His twin brother passed away; he died after being in the hospital for 21 days.
“We had a real tough time, personally,” Olson admitted. So he took a job at Aquarius Brands, because he thought it would give him better family balance. “When I was doing these turnarounds, I was working 60 to 70 hours a week. This would allow me to have a more quality time at home.” It turned into much more than that right away.
On his first day on the job, they announced that the company was going to be sold. He was the vice president of operations, but no one had told him this during the interview process. Said Olson. “I thought that was kind of weird. We were a non-core asset to the company that bought us, so I knew it would probably be sold again.” But he thought he should stick it out, because it might be a good opportunity.
The India-based Jain Company eventually purchased Aquarius Brands. Before the purchase, Olson met the people from Jain and fell in love with their management team right away. During this transition, he was made executive vice president—basically, running the company day to day. Six months later, he was made CEO.
When he joined the company, it was a $28 million company, and all of the divisions were losing money. Today, “We’re number two in market share, so it’s really a pretty awesome story our teams been able to put together.”
Every company that Olson has managed, since 2001, has seen growth each year, despite some really challenging economic downturns. “I’m having a lot of fun here. It’s a great industry.”
As president of the IA, there are a number of challenges he would like to accomplish. “The first thing we’re going do is establish an ag focus group, to see what we can do for that sector.”
And, with the drought in California, grant money has become available for educating people in irrigation about drought-tolerant techniques, and educating people who are out of work. Olson would like to see the community colleges and universities getting these grants use IA the curriculum, rather than creating it on their own.
“We actually have faculty session this summer at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo,” Olson said. “Then, we can use it for getting more people trained, and focus on ag irrigation for the drought. We’re making a big push with these community colleges to tie into IA’s education. And we’re hopeful that an IA certificate program can be completed.”
For family time, Olson spends as much time as he can with his family—his wife, Jenny, sons Luke, 8, and Adam, 4. They love to go to the beach and try to get there once a month for a long weekend.
They also like to travel, going all over the country. “I try to spend as much time with the boys as I can. I coach both of their baseball teams. I’m pretty active with the boys,” he said.
With all the experience he’s gained, and still only 42, Aric Olson has a tremendous future in front of him. He will make a great contribution to the Irrigation Association.