|By DENNE GOLDSTEIN|
The youngest of three children, Christie, who wasborn to a hard working family, was raised in Indianapolis, Indiana. He learned midwestern values by living them. Upon graduation from Indiana University in 1972 with a bachelor’s degree, he attended Oregon State University and then Purdue University, although he never finished his advanced degree.
“I liked the golf business, even when I was in school. A friend of mine, who was a golf course superintendent, kind of got me interested in the turf management business,” said Christie. “It was at Purdue that I probably got involved in the green industry.”
Once he finished school, Christie took a job at the Broadmoor Country Club in Indianapolis, working on the grounds crew. He worked under Oscar Miles, who in those years was well known in superintendent circles. A year later he was promoted to assistant superintendent. After two years, he realized that the opportunity to become a superintendent did not look promising. No new golf courses were being built back then.
He took a job with Dixie Irrigation, in Louisville, Kentucky, where he worked for a year, then moved back and worked out of their Indianapolis branch for a couple of years. At that time, Rex Dixon was district manager for Rain Bird and he told Christie about a position opening in the training department at Rain Bird.
“I was 28 years old and single, and the opportunity to move to Southern California attracted me,” said Christie. “How could you pass that up? So I applied for the position. Dave Davis, who is now an irrigation consultant and president of the American Society of Irrigation Consultants, hired me.” In those days, Rain Bird had people who traveled to schools and universities to teach irrigation design. “I was in that job for about a year, and I just loved it.”
“Probably the best job I ever had was as area specification manager for Southern California,” Christie recalled. “I called on irrigation consultants and landscape architects in that market.”
A few years later, Christie took a position as district sales manager for Rain Bird for the same area. Three or four years after that, he was promoted to western sales manager for turf, and was later promoted to commercial marketing manager and then to director of sales and marketing for golf, under Ed Shoemaker. Christie stayed with Rain Bird for 15 years.
“Back then, working with distributors and specifiers in the Southern California market gave me an opportunity to not only be in the thick of the emerging irrigation business, but also afforded me a great learning experience. I called on the top irrigation consultants and landscape architects of their day. I learned from the best; it can’t get any better than that,” said Christie.
When Christie married and began to raise a family, he found that his extensive traveling left little time for his family. His kids were young and growing up without him. In 1993, when an opportunity presented itself to buy into a distributorship back in his hometown, he began to think about making a change. Also, the chance to do something on his own was compelling.
Dave Wheeler, who had also worked at Rain Bird, had left the company about five years earlier to work for Automatic Irrigation in Indianapolis. When he heard that the owner was willing to sell, he contacted Christie and they put together a partnership deal to buy the business. “Automatic Irrigation at that time had two locations and seven employees—including myself, my partner and my partner’s wife,” recalls Christie.
“I remember leaving Rain Bird, which was obviously a good job that was very secure and a good place to work. While driving to Indianapolis, I began thinking to myself, ‘What did I just do?’ Here I am moving my family half way across the country. It was a major risk.”
All the experience Christie gained while working for Rain Bird began to pay off as Automatic Irrigation grew into a six-store chain (one in Michigan). “We are a small business with a hometown environment,” said Christie. “We learned how to grow in a small market.”
Some years later, Christie’s partner moved to Michigan. He eventually sold his interest in the Indiana stores to Christie and kept the Michigan store. “We’re not good at working in major markets like Chicago or Detroit, but we excel in smaller markets where we offer a high level of service and work hard to sell a product,” explained Christie. Meanwhile, he is continuing to explore growing his business by adding additional locations.
Christie is married to Bonnie, who is a registered nurse. They have two boys, Michael, 20, who is in his second year at the University of Houston in Texas, and Tim, 18, is still in high school. So what does Christie do in his spare time? He loves to play golf. “But running a small business is a full-time job,” said Christie. “It really doesn’t leave too much spare time.”
Little did Christie realize that as he was working through his career, all his experiences would pay off in the end. “I was in the hotbed of what was happening in the irrigation market back then. They were exciting times,” said Christie. “If you have an opportunity to work under a Ken Mills or an Ed Shoemaker, and learn from them, you’re off to a pretty good start.” Steve Christie learned his trade well.