From an early age, Eric Santos knew his calling. Like many kids who aspire to be like their role models when they grow up, Santos was no different. The person he admired and aspired to be like was his grandfather, Jose Arias. And if his grandfather could see him now, he would surely be proud of all that his grandson has accomplished.
The now-vice president of irrigation services at BrightView Landscape, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, first became interested in growing and agriculture as a child.
Arias, his grandfather on his mother’s side was an irrigator who worked on an alfalfa farm in Nevada. He was from Mexico and came to the U.S. in the 1960s through the Bracero Program, similar to today’s H-2B program, to work for a rancher. He eventually brought his family over to the states.
“Growing up I would spend summers over at the farm, and I would always admire his work ethic and loved the fact that he worked outdoors,” explains Santos. “I just thought what he did was the coolest thing. I knew I wanted to pursue a career in agriculture, specifically on the water side of things.”
Growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area, Santos excelled in math all through school and decided he would major in agricultural engineering at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo is home to the Irrigation Training and Research Center. Dr. Charles Burt was his academic advisor, a man who has been recognized multiple times by the Irrigation Association for his industry contributions. Looking back, Santos now realizes how fortunate he was to study under such an industry icon.
The summer of his junior year, Santos started an internship for Jensen Landscape Services, Cupertino, California, in order to gain some experience in irrigation. Put to work on an irrigation crew, he quickly learned the true meaning of manual labor.
The following summer, in 1994, he decided to look for more formal training and a more structured internship program. ValleyCrest had what he was looking for.
“Even though I was studying agriculture, at that time, innovation in landscape irrigation seemed to be advancing quicker,” Santos explains. “Coming from where my family was, in the Bay Area of Northern California, there were many more career opportunities in landscape irrigation because it’s more geared toward urban areas.”
A lasting impression The internship at ValleyCrest made a lasting impression. Though the company now goes by a different name, Santos has stayed with it ever since.
Around the time Santos began that internship, California was in the midst of a drought. ValleyCrest had just formed a division called WaterWise under the maintenance side of the company, then knows as Environmental Care, in response.
“I specifically learned WaterWise irrigation and water management services for my internship,” says Santos.
Something just clicked. “I knew it was exactly what I wanted to do, and upon graduation I was offered a fulltime position,” says Santos.
“It was my dream job, doing something I was really passionate about. I really enjoy working with water.”
WaterWise was a small division of ValleyCrest when Santos joined the company. There were seven WaterWise branches across the country, and he focused on becoming a WaterWise branch manager.
“It started me down a path of always being focused around irrigation and water conservation and utilizing new technology to save our customers’ water.”
Being one of the most knowledgeable people in landscape irrigation was important to Santos, so soon after starting his new job, he began pursuing Irrigation Association certifications. “At the time, being fresh out of school, it was very easy to take these certification exams and pass them. In my first five years I had a majority of the certifications that were offered,” he says.
Santos learned the material needed to obtain the certifications inside and out. Because of his broad knowledge, in the early 2000s, the company asked him to start putting on irrigation training seminars for employees.
“Up until that point we never had a formal irrigation training program,” he says. “Being a teacher forces me to stay abreast of not just the basics but even the new technology.”
WaterWise and Environmental Care rebranded in 2002 under the ValleyCrest name and in 2014 merged with Brickman. That merger was a major deal for the landscaping industry and for the two companies that came together in it, Valley Crest, based on the West Coast, and Brickman, based on the East Coast. The combined company was renamed BrightView.
“Internally, it took a little bit of adjusting to get used to. No matter what side of the company you came from, you had a new name,” Santos recalls.
Both companies were similar in size and didn’t operate in many of the same markets. ValleyCrest had four divisions: construction, tree growing, golf maintenance and landscape maintenance. Brickman was heavily into the landscape maintenance side of the business and a major player in snow removal “so it was a very complementary merger between the two organizations,” Santos says.
Today the combined company has four divisions: the BrightView Design Group, which takes on large landscape and irrigation projects such as the new Apple campus in Cupertino, California; BrightView Tree Co., a tree growing operation with locations in Northern and Southern California; a golf maintenance division which cares for 80 golf courses; and a landscape services division, which is the maintenance arm of the organization.
Santos oversees irrigation and water management services, which falls under the landscape services division and has 600 employees. Companywide, BrightView has 22,000 employees.
Just another day
Santos works out of BrightView’s Pleasanton, California, branch. But he’s often out in the field, providing support to irrigation managers, training employees and assisting with large proposals, estimates and client presentations. He’s worked with some big clients.
“I’ve been very fortunate that my position gives me the opportunity to work on some large innovative projects,” says Santos. Apple, Google, Facebook and Walmart are just a handful of the companies with sizable projects that he's been involved with at BrightView over the years. “And on those projects and others, I get to work with the industry’s best irrigation designers, irrigation consultants, manufacturers and distributors. There’s definitely never a dull moment, and it makes for a very rewarding career.”
The maintenance aspect of the projects is also interesting to Santos. “It’s not just the construction of the projects that I get a lot out of,” he says. “It is the long-term maintenance and managing of water on these properties.”
But the thing that gives Santos the most satisfaction in his work is when he can find a way to save water. “What really drives me is when I see water being wasted and I have the opportunity to save it. It’s definitely fulfilling when you see that you can cut a customer’s water use in half and deliver those financial savings.”
The best clients are the ones who choose to reinvest that savings. Santos says customers want to save water for a myriad of reasons: regulatory, financial or simply because they want to do the right thing. When the money saved is used to continuously invest in more water efficiency, Santos says, “Those are the fun customers to work with.”
Working his way up through the ranks over the last 24 years has never gotten boring for Santos. He enjoys training others and was taught that the company's future success depends on having successful people who can fill the pipeline. “That approach has really made me enjoy my time here,” he says.
Santos remembers the words of ValleyCrest’s founder, Burt Sperber. “Treat your employees and your customers well,” he would say, “and everything else will fall into place.” Santos has not only adopted that philosophy, he’s taken it a step further and applies it to manufacturers and distributors as well.
Santos plans to continue doing what he’s doing for BrightView “as long as I have the opportunity to learn new things and work with extremely intelligent people.”
He adds that the company has always given him the green light to pursue further industry education and certifications.
It is that type of commitment from the company that gets him out of bed every morning, not fully knowing what the next water challenge will be. Whatever it is, Santos will be ready.
Want to have an effective team? Eric Santos, vice president of irrigation services at BrightView Landscape, Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, says one of the biggest things you can do is speak their language, literally. “My number one piece of advice would be to learn Spanish.”
In Santos’ role he often encounters irrigation managers that are extremely intelligent but have a communication barrier with their team. “A lot of our irrigation technicians understand English, but English is not their first language; and they feel a lot more comfortable communicating in their first language,” he says.
Santos admits his Spanish isn’t the greatest, but when he works with a Spanish-speaking team member he tells him, “Please speak to me in Spanish.”
He finds that making that gesture puts the interaction on a completely different level. The team feels more comfortable if they’re able to discuss the issues they’re up against on a project in their first language.
He notes that it’s easier for most people to understand a foreign language than to speak it. “I clearly see a huge difference in how an irrigation team at at a Bright- View branch operates when that irrigation manager can communicate effectively with the team members. It’s pretty amazing.”
Slice of Apple
Apple’s new campus in Cupertino, California, contains some landscaping features that are really testing the capabilities of modern irrigation, and BrightView Landscape is at the helm.
The Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania-based company is making sure it is irrigated right. The main building is a ring-shaped, 2.8 million-square-foot building clad entirely in panels of curved glass, but equally as impressive at the 175- acre campus is the landscape.
The site is more than 80 percent green space. It includes orchards of plum, apple, apricot and cherry trees; shrub beds containing rosemary; and 15 acres of native grassland. But the most interesting part of the site has to be man-made hills and the transfer and implantation of oak trees.
Steve Jobs reportedly wanted the campus to include rolling hills and majestic oak trees that replicate the Palo Alto, California, area where he grew up.
BrightView has installed a two-wire irrigation system, which works off of soil moisture sensors. Eric Santos, vice president, irrigation services, explains the process: “With soil moisture sensing systems, sensor placement is very important. In addition, pressure regulation is key on systems with flow management and flow optimization capabilities.”
During commissioning, the system has to undergo a sort of training process called “learned flow.” Just as it sounds, the flow sensor “learns” or memorizes patterns and the amount of water allowed to go through each valve. Irrigation is initiated on its own based on the soil moisture conditions in different areas.
“Working with innovative products is very gratifying,” says Santos. “Water management is more than simply installing water-efficient products and walking away, its utilizing technology as a tool to manage water more effectively, making sure everything is dialed in to the customers’ expectations.”