July 10 2018 03:00 AM

Conserva had exactly what Target was looking for in a partner to help it save water at its stores across the country without losing sight of its small-town values.

With more than 1,800 stores in the United States alone and over 350,000 employees worldwide, Target’s famous red bullseye logo has become an iconic part of Anytown, America, right up there with McDonald’s golden arches.

For Russ Jundt, vice president and founder of Conserva Irrigation, the logo symbolizes much more than a place where people can stock up on high-quality merchandise at bargain prices. For him, the famous red bullseye has become synonymous with “team,” a value almost as near and dear to his heart as saving water.

Started in 2010 in Minnesota, Conserva Irrigation is a landscape irrigation company founded on the concept of water conservation. The company now has 44 franchises throughout the United States. Increasingly disturbed by the tremendous amount of water wasted by typical irrigation systems, Jundt created Conserva to find a better approach. Using studies published by the Irrigation Association, Fairfax, Virginia, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, he developed a proprietary process for auditing irrigation systems and arriving at a “System Efficiency Score,” which rates their water efficiency according to a numerical scale.

Joining the team

In the summer of 2015, Jundt had a meeting with the Target Corp.’s operations and sustainability teams. The meeting was set up by a Conserva franchisee who’d done some snow removal for the retailer. Prior to this meeting, Jundt and his team had audited three store sites and were confident they could improve their water efficiency.

Two and a half hours into the meeting, Jundt recalls, “Someone on Target’s sustainability team asked me, ‘What are you selling?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I just want to solve your water problem.’” That’s exactly what Target had been looking for, having made a public commitment.

“To make sure we leave our planet in better shape for future families, we integrate sustainable practices throughout our supply chain and operations with an eye on using resources responsibly and maintaining healthy, vibrant communities,” Target states. “In that vein, Target has put in policies and set goals regarding climate policy, chemical strategy and a freshwater stewardship approach.”

At the initial meeting, Jundt and his team reviewed the results of the three audits and shared a water budgeting tool. He told the Target teams, “We know how much water you used and how much you need to cut it to achieve a 75 percent application efficiency score.” The team’s response was, “How do we obtain that score at every one of our stores?”’ By December of 2016, a pilot test was created for nine Target stores in Florida.

While Jundt’s pitch regarding water efficiency surely grabbed the attention of Target’s sustainability team, he believes it was his closing remarks that really sewed up the deal. Jundt talked about being part of the hometown team. Both companies call the Minneapolis area home, though Conserva is now based in Richmond, Virginia.

For Jundt, who grew up in a small town west of Minneapolis, sharing a hometown conveys a sense of camaraderie. “My dad said, ‘take care of the people in a small town because you’ll see them around later. You have to treat them right.’” Jundt took that to mean being responsible and appreciating relationships. How often does a company as large as Target hear such sincerity from a potential business partner? Clearly, relationships matter to even the biggest of companies.

Updating the irrigation system

Even before Conserva had visited any Target stores, a number of them had already installed smart controllers to run their landscape irrigation systems.

But as many in our industry know, installing a smart controller alone does not guarantee efficient use of water. The investment did however show Target’s sincerity regarding water conservation.

When a Conserva franchisee makes an initial visit to a Target store site, he checks 120 different data points. The goal, according to Jundt, is to “figure out where the wasted water is going and to do that, you need boots on the ground.”

Jundt uses a football analogy to explain further. “It’s not complicated — it’s about blocking and tackling, being out there every day, charting and identifying assets such as controllers, water sources, meters, valves, zones and heads.” The Conserva employee will determine to what level assets are malfunctioning, with a focus on identifying low-hanging fruit — obvious things, such as broken sprinkler heads — and fixing those first.

Once the auditor has assessed the site, he puts a model together based on Conserva’s proprietary algorithm showing what needs to be repaired. Once everything’s in game shape, the auditor’s focus turns toward optimizing the smart controller.

As to why Conserva focuses on fixing the hardware first, Jundt says, “Water moves through pipes, not around them. Having a beautiful high-tech system means nothing if you don’t focus on the fundamentals. You can’t cut corners; you need to methodically march down the field to get to the end zone.”

Water conservation

The number of Target stores that Conserva has worked on has steadily grown. From the original nine in Florida, Conserva will be in over 300 locations by the end of this year.

Since the partnership between the two companies began, Conserva has saved Target over 36 million gallons of water, helping the retailer fulfill its sustainability mission.

In March 2018, Target announced a new initiative: a freshwater stewardship approach, created in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund. Building on Target’s existing water management efforts, the freshwater stewardship approach aims at improving water quality, optimizing water efficiency and increasing access to clean water.

Target has expanded its water efficiency program to include its direct operations sites. The goal is a 15 percent absolute water use reduction by 2025 for its stores, distribution centers and headquarters locations. As noted in the press release, water conservation work to optimize the outdoor irrigation systems at Target’s stores and distribution centers will be handled by Conserva.

Target has developed a number of key performance indicators as part of its push to reach its sustainability goals, notes Jundt. “We’re regularly asked where we are in our water savings efforts and how much is being saved on average,” says Jundt.

While the amount of water savings has varied from store to store, Jundt says the overall average is approximately a half million gallons per store per season. “If we could be in all 1,200 Target stores, we could save 600 million gallons of water,” says Jundt.

The conservation effort doesn’t end after the 120 data point check and its indicated repairs are done. As part of its contract with Target, Conserva franchise employees return to the stores monthly to perform “wet checks.”

The inspections ensure that nothing has broken in the interim, that all sprinkler heads and controllers are properly adjusted and that everything in the system is functioning as it should. These wet checks are part of Jundt’s “boots on the ground” philosophy.

For Target stores in areas with four distinct seasons, Conserva winterizes their systems in November, blowing water out of the pipes with air compressors. When April rolls around, Conserva performs spring startups. “This is a significant process,” says Jundt. “We slowly introduce water into the systems, making sure everything is functional and conduct a number of tests.”

Looking ahead

When Conserva crews are working at a Target store, they do not feel like outside vendors. “While we are on those properties, we are Target team members, and we treat those locations with respect. When I drive by one of the stores, I think to myself, ‘that’s us,’” says Jundt.

The industry also is taking notice of the special relationship. In July 2018, the project earned the Vanguard Award from the Irrigation Association, which honors collaborative execution of an innovative installation project in the irrigation industry.

As for the future, Jundt says, “We suspect that this significant and prideful relationship with Target will continue to expand.” Within three years he expects Conserva to work with all Target’s stores.

While the joint venture is clearly working for Conserva and Target, they aren’t the only beneficiaries of their joint venture. When water is saved, it’s saved for everybody who lives in those communities. Using a football analogy once again, when this team makes a touchdown, everyone wins.

The author is a freelance writer. He can be reached at larry@larrydbernstein.com.

Valued partnerships

Conserva Irrigation, Richmond, Virginia, is just one of many valued partnerships Target has formed with water conservation entities. The company recently donated $1 million to Water.org, a nonprofit aid organization that offers smart solutions to help people in developing countries gain access to clean water. On its corporate sustainability site, Target says, “We’ll work together to empower people in the communities where our goods are produced, enhancing their lives by removing barriers to access affordable financing for water and sanitation.”