When Judith Benson was between jobs, her father gave her some advice: “Find something that people can’t live without, regardless of the economy.”
That “something” turned out to be water. Although she didn’t know it at the time, the seeds had been laid for her future as an irrigation contractor.
She was born in Middletown, New Jersey, the youngest of five children. “My father was in outside sales with a chemical company. My mother, in addition to being a mother of five, was a full-time schoolteacher,” she says.
When Benson was about five, her father moved the family to Lenoir, North Carolina, a sleepy little town that he felt would be a better place to raise a large family.
Not being “the type to focus on a four-year degree,” Benson attended King’s College in Charlotte, North Carolina, following high school graduation in 1979. It was a school that offered a fast-track certificate course in business. “I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but didn’t know in what area.” The certificate from college was her entrée into the business world, albeit through the traditional female path—as a secretary.
Her first job was with the Mechanical Equipment Company, a distributor and manufacturer of fluid-handling equipment in Charlotte. She was a secretary/receptionist.
“After six months, I went to the president, who was also chairman of the board, and expressed my desire to go into sales. At that time, there were no women in industrial sales; it was considered a ‘male’ career.”
The forward-thinking president went out on a limb with the board, but they denied her request. “When I got turned down by the board, I thought I was in an industry that wasn’t going to recognize my talent, so I decided to move on. But when I gave my notice, boy did things change. Lo and behold, I got my first inside sales job.”
Her next job was with Pumps, Parts and Services, Inc., also in Charlotte. Here again, she was the first female in sales. “When I started, my department was doing $60,000 a year. When I left, it was doing just shy of $1.8 million.” This led the company president to bring in other women.
Benson felt that she was always being tested, and that she had to work harder than the men. At another job, she once again was the first female in the sales department. “Within two months, I’d outperformed all the other inside salespeople.”
She had to work in a ‘bull pen,’ an open area, with the other sales reps; it was something she found very stressful. “I had to sit in the middle of my cohorts, who were upset with me because I was smashing their quotas.”
Instead of rewarding her, the company chose to protect their salesmens’ egos. They let her go. “Their actual words were, my ‘activities within the branch upset their other inside salespeople.’” It was then 1997, and she was living in Winter Springs, Florida, with her second husband, Curt Benson (an expert on wells and a former client from North Carolina). She was in her mid-thirties, and she decided that it was time to do something on her own..
Curt reminded her that she’d always wanted to be in business for herself. He had a sixteen-foot box truck. “One day, I said, ‘I want to become an irrigation contractor; I’d like to borrow that truck.’ He looked at me like I was crazy.”
With that, and $1,000, Benson started Clearwater PSI, doing irrigation system repairs. This led to some humorous situations with clients, who didn’t expect to see a woman show up with a toolbox. Benson learned quickly not to tip them off. “I was losing sales. I’d say, ‘I’ll be there,’ and they’d say, ‘What? You’re coming? A girl is coming?’”
“I have a certain level of intuition; I call it ‘reading irrigation systems.’ I also have a strong mechanical aptitude,” said Benson.
Soon, referral business started rolling in. She became a certified irrigation auditor (just one of a long list of her certifications) and started doing water audits for local utilities.
Benson has used the perception of women being less threatening to her advantage. “I think that’s why I’ve been successful in sales; I don’t just go barreling in and show my true colors. While they think I’m just sitting there quietly, the whole time I’m mentally recording what’s going on, and will use that as ammunition later.”
Today, Clearwater PSI consists of Benson and five other employees, including husband Curt, who joined the company in May 1999. He’s field services manager for the irrigation, water well and water treatment sectors of the company.
“I’m a cash-and-carry business,” says Benson. “I don’t have any huge loans out there. For a company that started with $1,000 and a borrowed truck, we’ve accomplished a lot. I say ‘we,’ because I acknowledge that I could never have done this all by myself.”
At its peak, in 2009, the company’s volume was more than $750,000. After recovering from the down economy, the company is growing again. This year is projected at $425,000.
When Judith and Curt wed, they combined families. Her son, Scotty, now 28, by her first husband, joined her new husband’s three children: daughter Shelby, 31, daughter Brook, 29, and Curt II, 28. They have one grandchild, Shelby’s daughter Katie, who’s 12.
Benson made sure that her work ethic was transmitted to the children. “Curt and I said, ‘Okay, so you don’t like school. Let’s see what work is all about.’ All four of them have had an opportunity, and in some cases, a requirement, to work with us, doing manual labor. This made them quite fond of education,” she says, laughing.
Water conservation (she prefers to call it ‘water efficiency’) is her big cause. “I started a nonprofit called FL-WET, because I have a personal need to give something back.” FL-WET is dedicated to educating professionals, government employees and property owners in all aspects of water conservation.
What’s Benson’s proudest achievement? “I wanted to impact and improve what we’re doing with irrigation in this state. I believe we’ve had a positive impact on the industry as a whole. I get such a charge out of that.”
As for retirement, Benson says, “The water industry gets into your blood. I can’t foresee ever truly walking away from it.”