Nov. 16 2012 04:20 PM

BORN AND BRED IN HATTIESBURG, Mississippi, exudes confidence—it’s in his DNA. His father worked for the Mississippi Cooperative Service as a county agent. “Like many kids in high school, I was trying to earn a few dollars mowing lawns,” he said. “ever since I could remember, my father has urged me to be an entrepreneur. One day, we saw a broken liquid fertilizer machine; we had to almost completely rebuild it. But once the machine was working, we sold several fertilizer services to the neighborhood,” he remembers. It inspired him to do more.

All during his high school and college years, Mason started a number of small businesses. He entered the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, where he continued to try his hand at different ventures. Not only did he want to earn some money, but more importantly, he wanted to learn about business. “Some companies were successful and some weren’t,” said Mason. “But I sure learned a lot.”

One of his most successful ventures was a janitorial service that he started.

By observing and talking with the principals—and the secretaries—he began to find out about different businesses, what they did, how they operated. It took a while for him to see which companies were more successful than others and why. He was making a lot of money, and expanding his knowledge base.

In addition to the janitorial service, he started a number of other service-type businesses. “I began to realize that I had that entrepreneurial drive,” he said. He learned early in life that he was a passionate person, and he was very competitive. “In high school, I won the State Powerlifting Championship. I played football and baseball and I hated to lose,” said Mason. His competitive attitude would stay with him, even to this day.

By the time Mason finished college, he had a few small businesses working. What he did came easy. He was making some decent money, paid for college, and was driving a nice car, but in his mind, he felt he needed to get a ‘real’ job.

He got a sales position working for Bristol Myers, selling soap and over-the-counter drugs. His territory was Shreveport, Louisiana, so he moved there. He took a 50 percent cut in pay to take this job. Though he exceeded his sales quota by 200 percent, at the end of three months he received a $300 bonus. That didn’t seem fair to him, so he left the company. Still trying to find himself, Mason went to work for New york Life Insurance Company. In the three months that he stayed, he won Salesman of the Month every month, but he didn’t find it satisfying.

Mason had a distant cousin who had worked for the republic Bank of Dallas. “He was the only successful business person I knew at that time,” he said. “Every time I would achieve some sort of recognition or award, I would send it to him and his boss and say something like, ‘Don’t you wish you had someone like this on your team?” Republic Bank finally offered him a position in the funds management department. “They told me I didn’t have the education, I didn’t dress right, I was too country, but the one thing I did have was that I worked harder than anyone else. The more they said, ‘You can’t,’ the more I said, ‘I will.’” He was doing well and making good money. But still, he wanted more from life and business.

It wasn’t that Mason had wanderlust; he just wanted to see how high is high. He began thinking of starting his own business, and again, his father encouraged him. He remembers his mother telling him, “reach for as high a star as you can, because if you ever need a place to land, you have it with us.” Having that kind of security at home allowed him to take the risk.

He left the bank and opened his own investment banking company. A lot of people thought he was nuts. One of the first deals he did was to turn around Anchor Crane & Hoist in Irving, Texas, and then merge it with another company. It was a homerun for all. By 1988, Mason had orchestrated a string of mergers in wireless communications, cable TV, and entertainment venues. His reputation grew, along with his ability to start acquiring companies personally.

In the Dallas, Texas market, Mason became known as a turn-around guy. When the big banks and attorneys said it couldn’t be done, they went to Mason.

One day, an attorney for Weathermatic called Mason and asked him to help find an investor for the floundering business. The founder had died, and so had the passion. The son, who was then in his 60s, was getting ready to retire.

Mason did his research. Weathermatic was a small manufacturer of irrigation components, transitioning from a regional manufacturer to a national company. Here was an opportunity for him to build and grow a business. So when he was offered a majority ownership opportunity, he jumped in with both feet. The year was 1993; Mason was 29 years old.

“I thought I knew it all. After all, I had been around horticulture my entire life,” he said. The industry seemed relatively small and simple, compared to his three-piece suit world of high finance, corporate turnarounds and leading edge technology. “Well, now at age 49, I realize how little I knew at 29.”

What Mason didn’t realize was that in the irrigation and landscape industry, it isn’t just a business; it’s about a family. He was stepping into a very different environment. In the banking business, it wasn’t about people, it was about profit. you don’t become emotional, you just turn it around and sell it.

“I was frustrated; Weathermatic always had loyal customers. I couldn’t figure out why the business wasn’t growing exponentially,” explains Mason. Attracting new customers proved difficult. It took a few years, but Mason finally got it, building business relationships.

About the same time, in 2004, Weathermatic introduced their SmartLine controller series. “It wasn’t all about money,” said Mason. He wanted his company to be known for helping the environment, helping their distributors, and helping property owners conserve their most precious resource—water.

“When Matt Piper, who was instrumental in working on SmartLine, passed away at age 45, my outlook on life really changed,” Mason said. “When I looked at the quality of people in our company and industry, and the emerging opportunities in water, I rededicated myself to the business and doubled down on a new vision built around innovation,” he said. And innovate he did.

Mike Mason is a different man today than he was 20 years ago, when he first started in the irrigation business. He is a ‘people person’; he is a devout man. Active in his church, he prays and works daily to take care of the people in his company. He wants to make sure they won’t have to worry about a job or making a living. Has he succeeded? Just ask anyone who works in the company.

Mason dedicates much of his personal time to Freedom Alliance, where he is working with other patriotic Americans to develop a $20 million endowment that awards scholarships to the sons and daughters of American heros who were killed or recently injured in the line of duty.

One thing is for certain: Mason, at age 49, dressed in khakis, is a changed man from the 29-year-old in the three-piece suit who thought he knew everything. He says it best, “I came to change a company and an industry, and found that what really changed was me.”