April 21 2008 12:00 AM

Chuck Huston Hunter Industries


"For me, it was a golden time: to represent an exciting new company that an entire industry was watching, and to help roll out a truly innovative product," Chuck Huston exclaims. It was 1983, two years after Ed Hunter had amazed the irrigation industry by retiring from Toro only to turn around and found his own company with his children Paul, Richard and Ann. The Hunter family was poised to introduce the first plastic, pop-up gear-driven rotor and literally launch the industry into a rotor revolution. And for a new manager of sales for their gear-drive brainchild, the Hunters chose Chuck Huston.

"I look back and kind of shake my head," says Huston. "I came from the Midwest to Southern California, so it was a new company and a new state for me. We were just setting up distribution and we had no assurance that the company would even survive. But Ed was an icon in the industry, and there was such a need for this initial product that we had instant recognition. There was a total commitment of resources, an incredible depth of talent in the Hunter family, so I felt that success really was inevitable."

In fact, over the next 19 years, Huston would see the company grow from 12 employees to more than 1,000 and he would increase his own sales force to 75-people strong throughout the world. He would see the company's products grow from that first Series 75 rotor (now called PGP) to a full line of irrigation equipment, totaling more than $150 million in sales annually.

Today, Huston is poised for an opportunity of quite another kind: retirement. At 63, he has announced his leave as executive vice president of sales for late this year or early 2003. For Hunter Industries, a business that prides itself on its friendly people and industry roots, Huston's departure marks a milestone.

"It's a celebration and sadness at the same time," says Richard Hunter, CEO. "Chuck has been with us from the beginning . . . we?re losing one of our pioneers. The green industry is a marketplace based on relationships, especially since a large percentage of the businesses are family-owned like we are. Chuck's ability to build relationships has been instrumental to our success. I think our reputation today of being a friendly, fun company to do business with has a great deal to do with him."

It's not surprising then that Huston entered sales because he enjoys people, and doesn't mind working hard. "I grew up on an irrigated farm in southern Nebraska," he says. "We grew corn and soybeans, and as you know on a farm, everybody works!"

A graduate of the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Huston began his business career with Aetna Life Insurance Company and Ford Motor Company. Following that, he entered the agricultural irrigation business with Valmont Industries, and in 1977, he joined Richard Hunter's Irrigation and Power Equipment Company in Colorado. They manufactured the Raincat center pivot irrigation system.

Richard sold his company in '83 and joined his family at Hunter Industries, inviting Huston along with him.

"I've grown up with Hunter, and the Hunter family made my career," says Huston. "I'd like to say thanks to them for giving me the resources and freedom to create this sales division. I have great respect for Ann Hunter-Welborn and Paul Hunter (both partners and company directors) and Dick (Richard), all of whom have allowed their managers to manage, and allowed me to hire the best people, freeing them to manage, too."

In a recent in-house newsletter article spotlighting Huston, he stated his philosophy on life and the job: "Work smart and have fun."

As part of his definition of working smart, Huston emphasizes commitment to the industry, which he's realized through involvement in industry trade associations. He served on the Irrigation Association's board of directors for two terms in the '80s and '90s to "give back to the industry that has been so good to me," he says.

As for fun, just being at Hunter has taken care of that.

?One thing I've loved about Hunter is everyone's commitment to the company as a way of life, rather than just a job answering to a stockholder. We have fun together socially, we treat our people well and we've got fabulous facilities in California, North Carolina, and overseas. We really enjoy visits from our customers, and I'll miss all that."

Huston has also enjoyed his world travel with Hunter, and plans to do more in his retirement. He is especially fond of Western Europe, where he likes to visit galleries and museums. Through his travels he has accumulated a fine-art collection, mostly original paintings and sculpture, which he also plans to continue.

The Huston name will live on at Hunter, as his son Charley is a sales manager for the company in Dallas. Huston also has a daughter in Dallas, and one in California. He calls Del Mar, California, his home.

As we've seen, full-on retirement doesn't seem to fit Hunter's pioneers, and Huston is no exception.

"After I retire, Dick has asked me to work part-time on special assignments, which I am happy to do for another year or so. It's important to me, however, to stay out of the way of my very strong replacements. They're the future . . . which, for Hunter, looks very bright."