April 21 2008 12:00 AM

Irrigation Station

In 1957, a young man left Toronto, Canada, to find his way in the world. His desire to study civil engineering was thwarted by a lack of funds, so he headed for Los Angeles.

When George Burtch hit town, he found his first job working for Moody Sprinkler Company. "I'd never heard of an irrigation sprinkler before that, but it didn't take long to overcome this lack of knowledge. I learned a great deal about irrigation working in manufacturing at Moody."

Burtch spent 25 years studying every aspect of the irrigation and landscape industry, and then the company he worked for transferred him to Texas to oversee its expansion. This assignment successfully accomplished, he looked at his own life.

"I decided I wanted control of my own destiny," he reflected. The result of this decision changed the destiny of three lives. In 1987, son Sam, wife Paula, and Burtch opened the doors of Irrigation Station, a wholesale supply house for irrigation contractors, in Houston, Texas. "Our office had a desk made of a door over two sawhorses," he chuckled as he reminisced.

Today, Irrigation Station still has its corporate store in Houston, and also a satellite store in Oklahoma City. Burtch is a customer-oriented businessman, and he quickly built a bond of admiration and trust with the contractors. He has often taken his experience to the field, helping with design, troubleshooting or bringing in vendor support when necessary.

Many of the programs implemented at Irrigation Station mirror his loyalty to the contractor. They founded a club called "Precision Makers," for contractors authorized to install Calsense controllers. This club meets once a year with the manufacturer to bring the contractor up to date.

They also offer landscape lighting classes taught by lighting manufacturer's representatives during the winter months when business is traditionally slow.

An especially important offering for contractors in Texas is a continuing education class. They're required to take a class each year to keep their contractor's license up to date. Irrigation Station invites their customer base to take an eight-hour class once a year, usually in February, taught by a representative from the Texas Resource Commission.

On the lighter side, towards the end of the season Irrigation Station holds a golf tournament for the contractors. Then, to launch the next season, in January they have a contractor appreciation dinner.

Burtch also has very loyal employees, one of whom has been with the company since it first opened its doors. They have an unusual way of promoting this loyalty: Burtch doesn't believe in the concept of having employees who work for him.

"We hire people with experience, so we don't have to watch over them like a mother hen. We all work together. We are a team.

I sweep floors, make deliveries... I do anything that needs to be done when things get tight. The employees respect me for this."

They offer their employees a benefits plan that includes a 100 percent employer-provided health insurance plan, one of the few in the country.

"The benefits the company receives back are boundless. Our employees are loyal, willing to work, and have great respect for us. They give us 110 percent back on the job."

Burtch and his wife love to travel, and have made several trips to Germany over the last few years. On each trip, they've taken bus tours to various little towns, enjoying the scenery of the countryside. Every five years, they travel to Hawaii. And when time permits, they like going on cruises as well.

Starting to ease up on their work schedule and back off a bit from the business, Burtch and his wife bought a house in Georgetown, about 160 miles from Houston. They work four days a week in Houston, staying in their condominium, and spend their weekends in their "future retirement" home in Georgetown, where they relax and play golf.

Burtch also enjoys deep-sea fishing and fresh water fishing. Over the years, he hasn't had the time to indulge in these sports as much as he would like, but he hopes this will change in the future.

In addition to their son, Sam, who is a partner in Irrigation Station, the Burtches also have another son, Steve, who has his own marketing communications firm in Houston, and handles the marketing communications for Irrigation Station.

Onlookers often have the perception that, at times, working together as a family presents problems. Burtch contradicts this. "Working with my family has been great. You can trust family. When we get to work, we aren't married. When we leave the office, we go back to our personal life. When Sam invites us over for dinner, nothing comes up about business. It's not difficult; there are no cat fights. The rule is when we are at home, we're at home; when we're at the office, we're at the office. It's what works for us."

Burtch has this advice for anyone starting out on his or her own. "Start small and grow with your existing financial situation. Don't try to start too big. If you get too far into a financial hole, it's hard to dig your way out."