April 1 2008 12:00 AM

When Tom Penning graduated from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, he and three buddies took a long “spring break” and went to Florida for some vacation time. Since he had no idea of what career path he wanted to pursue, his focus was just to kick back in the Florida sun and take things as they come.

After a while, he realized that he had to work, so why not look for work in Florida, where the sun shines most of the time, he thought. That’s what Penning did and he never went back home. “I wanted to get away from Ohio, because I was tired of snow,” said Penning. He stayed for 22 years.

For a time, Penning worked in retail, and then took an outside position selling welding equipment for a wholesaler. When the entrepreneurial spirit hit, Penning went into business for himself, opening a marine equipment fabrication shop. But the marine industry took a downturn, and he closed his business and took a job in the irrigation business as an outside salesman, working for a distributor, where he gained a lot of experience.

“I liked the irrigation business and wanted to stick with it,” said Penning. “I enjoyed working with people in the landscape, ag, water well and water works markets; I learned a lot from them.” After spending nine years working for a distributor, Penning was offered a position as a regional sales manager with Ag Products, Inc., still in Florida. But then in 2001, he went to work for the Irrometer Company in Riverside, California, relocating his family there. Today, Penning is president of the company.

The Irrometer Company had its beginnings in 1951. Tom Prosser, a local inventor in Riverside, saw the people at the citrus experimental station at the University of California, Riverside, using homemade instruments to do research studies. He felt he could design a unit that he could sell to the citrus growers, which he did. However, he realized that he was a designer, not a marketer. Needing someone who could market his product, he got together with Shel Pooley, a businessman, who basically took over operations. In 1951, the Irrometer Company was established.

“Pooley put the company on the map,” said Penning. “He believed in the product and had a passion for it.” He was focused on establishing and growing the company. By the mid 1980s, Irrometer grew to a point where it needed more management people. Bill Pogue signed on as sales manager and continued to help grow the company. A few years later, Pooley passed away and Pogue succeeded him as president, staying with the company for 24 years.

In 1971, the company was acquired by an investment group that felt that using water properly was a good business. Today, acquired by yet another investment group, Irrometer reports good growth worldwide and is financially sound.

Around the turn of this century, when Pogue began looking for his replacement, he was looking for someone to function not only as national sales manager, but to eventually lead the company when it was time for him to retire. He hired Penning, and as they say, “The rest is history.”

Moisture sensing devices were the mainstay of Irrometer. In fact, the devices sold today are very similar in design to the original. Taking a page from Pooley’s book, Pogue introduced a new product called Watermark. Since then, additional products have been introduced and the company has become known as the ‘water conservation products’ company.

Penning has added his own contributions since joining the company. In addition to his duties as president, Penning has been and is extremely active in the water industry. He is a member of: the Irrigation Association and works on many of its committees; the California Urban Water Conservation Council; the American Society of Irrigation Consultants; the steering committee for Water Efficient Product Labeling for EPA’s Water Sense program (now becoming a sub-committee of the Alliance For Water Efficiency); and the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers.

With his total commitment to the water industry, Penning’s spare time is spent just kicking back and enjoying his family. He, his wife Kathy, and their daughter Molly, 17, reside in Loma Linda, California.

Tom Penning meandered into the industry and has enjoyed the journey. He likes the people in the business and he has developed a good feeling for helping others to conserve water. A quiet, unassuming person, Penning is making his mark for water conservation.