Sept. 15 2009 12:00 AM

Building an irrigation supply business


From a job with the FBI to a career in the landscape industry seems like an unlikely leap, but that is exactly what Charles (Bud) Knowles decided to do when he learned that the FBI was going to transfer him from Dayton, Ohio to New Jersey.

Bud realized that he didn’t want to uproot his family. He was going to stay in Dayton. So, he left the FBI and in 1961 he started a small landscape and garden center called Wolf Creek Company.

By 1963, that small landscape maintenance company grew into a retail garden center with a landscape design/build division. He later added irrigation installation to the mix. Scott Knowles, the oldest of Bud’s sons, remembers working in the business as a kid. He was a crew member, installing irrigation.

The market was changing and around 1978, Bud was approached by the regional representative for Rain Bird, who asked if he had any interest in becoming a Rain Bird distributor. After lots of careful thought, he decided to take the shot.

Bud sold the garden center and the landscape maintenance company as well as the irrigation contracting company. He jumped into the irrigation distribution business with both feet. Bud Knowles had re-tooled the company into a distribution organization.

Wolf Creek Company was appointed as the Rain Bird distributor and served southwest Ohio, including Columbus and Cincinnati. They established their first location, in Dayton, Ohio, of course.

By 1981, Chris Knowles, Bud’s other son, began working at the company. He worked in the warehouse as well as driving a truck to deliver products to contractors. He was 16 years old. You could say both Scott and Chris grew up in the business.

Chris graduated from Urbana University. While attending the university, he worked part-time at the company. Scott graduated from Ohio State University and went on to open a computer retail operation, which he ran for five years.

The market continued to grow and with his sons entering the business, Bud saw more opportunities to serve this growing market.

Wolf Creek Company expanded and by 1990, they had three locations.

“We like to believe one of the strengths of our company is that we have a lot of good, knowledgeable personnel,” said Scott

Knowles. “Many of them have been with us for 15 to 20 years. They are very stable.”

“We started out as a distributor of irrigation components. We’re there to help contractors with their irrigation questions and needs,” said Chris. “However, as the market expanded, we too needed to expand to better serve our customers. As our customers began to include landscape lighting services, we were there to help them.”

Some years back, the Knowles’ decided to refocus their efforts. “We needed to get our staff to realize that we were not just a distributor of irrigation components any longer,” said Scott. “We were growing in many ways.”

The brothers encouraged their personnel into thinking and learning about areas other than irrigation. “To continue to help our customers, we had to re-train ourselves,” said Chris. “We had to expand our knowledge and learn about low-voltage landscape lighting before we could help our clients.”

“Our sister, Brooke, was our first lighting specialist. Her technical knowledge gained working with Honda’s research group allowed her to quickly grasp low-voltage lighting,” said Scott. “She developed our training programs for staff and customers. Her duties are to support our field staff customers as they build a lighting business.”

As landscape lighting became more important, the Knowles’ increased the lighting area in their stores. It wasn’t too many years later that Wolf Creek Company entered the water feature market.

“Water features, ponds and waterfalls started to gain momentum in our market,” said Scott.

“We wanted to be there with all the knowledge and information when our clients need us. It’s more than just selling a water feature, its offering training and advice as well. And now harvesting rainwater is gaining traction, and we’re there.”

Over the years, the Knowles’ learned their business the hard way. They’ve touched all the bases, from being contractors to retailers to distributors. It all began when a father, who didn’t feel moving from state to state would be a healthy situation for his family, decided to put down roots in Dayton, Ohio.

It took a lot of courage to give up the security of a job with a weekly paycheck to start out building a business. But you do what you have to; you make the sacrifices and make it work.

Bud taught his sons well. They have a good work ethic and a strong desire to help their customers, Wolf Creek has grown to ten locations and is looking for more. Bud Knowles, although he still comes into the office, handed the baton to his boys a while ago.

Is there a third generation out there? You bet. Scott is married to Jackie and they have two children, Amanda, 25, and Ben, 21. Amanda, an accountant, is taking the test to become a Certified Public Accountant. Ben is in his senior year at Ohio State University.

Chris is married to Susan and they have two boys, Trevor, 11, and Brannon, 13. Some years ago, anticipating the possibility that one day their children might want to enter the family business, the brothers set up a plan. Before any child could enter the family business, they would have to spend some time on the outside, working for others. The Knowles brothers feel that when or if one of the children wishes to enter the business, they would have developed a good work ethic, but equally as important, they would learn what it’s like on the outside. In addition, after those experiences, when they do join the business, they would bring value back with them.

The brothers and their families mirror each other in their love of outdoor activities. They spend their spare weekends hunting, fishing, boating and golfing.

What does the future hold for the Knowles’ and Wolf Creek? “We envision adding additional categories to our mix for value added, as the market demands,” said Scott Knowles. “We continue to strengthen our position in our region. We continue to explore additional locations and possible acquisitions.”

The Knowles’—Bud, Scott, and Chris—are pretty much down to earth. They know where they’re going . . . more importantly, they know where they came from.