Feb. 26 2020 06:00 AM

Drygala looks for lessons from the oil and energy industry to improve the turf market.

Unlike many working in the landscape and irrigation industries, Reinie Drygala, director of agricultural science, specialties, for HollyFrontier, didn’t start his career behind a push mower. Straight out of university, he started work for Petro-Canada.

Taken in under the management training program, he picked up experience across the company in several roles before reaching the company’s finance segment. There, he spent time learning and developing strategies in the business-to-business market.

“Part of that was a skill I started to develop in becoming more of a problem-solver,” Drygala says. There were sometimes problems in the organizations or industries, and he was sent in to look into those issues with fresh eyes.

“Sometimes it’s best when you go into a business where you don’t have all the connections and all the biases,” he says. “You can ask a lot of good questions because you’re just there saying, ‘I’m just here to understand.’”

With that starting point, Drygala was able to help turn several businesses around and developed his own insights around the industries, he says. About 15 years ago, he moved into a new role commercializing green industry products for turf diseases using the company’s oil products.

“What I quickly found out was that what they had was an idea or concept, right? So utilizing my background, we went right back to the start saying, ‘What’s the market dynamic? What are the market issues?’”

The process was almost like starting a new business, though with a very large financial backer, he says. With his entrepreneurial thinking, the business expanded into fungicides and herbicides and most recently into overall plant health. He helped develop a team that was specially suited to the turf market, including members with agronomic backgrounds, crop advisor licenses or history as golf course superintendents.

“Even though we work for a large oil energy company, we really focused on making sure that we understand the market, understand the customer and we’re supporting them properly,” he says. “We really started getting into the plant health aspect in terms of what our products can do for it and allow growers to manage their plants rather than managing diseases.”

Finding similarities

With his background in the oil and energy industry, he dealt with some big differences in the transition to working in the green industry. But his training as a problem-solver also helped him see some surprising common points between the two.

“There are a lot of similarities between that side of the business and what I would call the professional lawn care business, really,” he says.

First, at the customer level, both are treated like commodities, he says. For gas and oil, “what other market can you be in where you can be driving at 60 miles an hour and price shop, because there’s three gas stations on the corner and they all have their price signs up?” While it’s not quite that easy to compare prices across lawn care companies, “both industries are extremely price sensitive.”

The barriers to entry are higher in oil, as the cost for refining equipment is much more expensive than a mower and a truck, but the differences aren’t that great. Even with all the effort that goes both into refining crude and developing strong turf, to the customer, the end result is often commodified, he says.

“In terms of the service, everyone can provide the same type of service,” Drygala says. In talking to industry professionals, he’s heard of customer turnover of about 30% each year. “To me, that just goes to show there’s no real hook there that allows them to differentiate themselves.”

If companies in either arena don’t do things differently to provide other services for customers, the end user comes to view price as the main differentiator, he says. That ends up feeding a race to lower prices without a long-term view.

“Eventually, profitability ends up drying up for everyone unless you can start adding additional value into your business,” he says.

The oil and the turf industry both share one more major characteristic, he says. “Both industries over the course of time have always been trying to redefine themselves,” Drygala says. Both are trying to show how they work to support and integrate with their respective communities, whether that means a rig off of the Gulf Coast or a neighborhood with water level concerns.

“You’re seeing a lot of energy companies now redefining themselves in terms of what sustainability actually means,” he says. “It’s not just that they have recycling programs for their paper.”

Energy companies like ExxonMobil Corp. and BP PLC have put an effort into commercial messaging showing efforts to protect endangered species.

“That’s where I think the oil industry is maybe a little bit further ahead than the green industry,” Drygala says. “Whereas the green industry still needs to define themselves in terms of what their sustainable position is. It’s going to take some time, but I think they could look at other industries to say, ‘This is what we could do to make a change.’ This is how you make the green industry green.”

Being proactive

Given his background as a problem-solver, it’s tough for him not to look for ways to improve difficult areas for the turf market. One aspect of making a more sustainable industry is being proactive about taking on those practices, says Drygala. Based in Ontario, he’s felt the pressure from regulations on pesticides personally, and he has seen multiple turf professionals caught off-guard because they hadn’t prepared.

“It had a serious impact on the industry here,” he says. “Many people lost the equity that they had built up in their business because they really had no solutions that the customer wanted. They still wanted their lawns and properties to look pristine, and all of a sudden they didn’t have the tools for that.”

Drygala cautions those in the U.S. green industry to start looking into sustainable practices and prepare. Producers are working on finding more products that can be used under organic or sustainable circumstances. “We’re looking for products that work but also allow them to address issues in terms of what’s the impact it’s having on the soil? What’s the impact it’s having on residue? What are the human health aspects? You need to bring all that to the table.”

Starting to incorporate those practices doesn’t have to be a scary prospect for a business. Because they’re still new across the industry, professionals can use them to stand apart from others in a way that doesn’t have to immediately compete on price. On top of that, as green products become more prevalent, professionals can show regulators that they’re being proactive, he says. “You can still have a business that differentiates and take charge by showing the government that, ‘I’m taking the active approach by starting to search out and implement these products.’”

By being in front of the change, it could help prevent blanket bans like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, he says.

Drygala and his team work with distribution companies to connect with lawn care operators for sustainable product testing, finding the right ways to integrate the products into an integrated pest management program. Even if an operator doesn’t immediately switch the entire business to organic products, it can provide more options for those customers who are looking for it.

He also works with customers through training programs to provide guidelines on implementing sustainable practices and talking to customers about what’s being used and what to expect. One part of that is learning how to develop marketing materials around those efforts and communicate how they set the company apart from others and open up new potential revenue sources, he says.

One area where Drygala says the oil industry is pulling ahead from the green industry is having an overall strategy. Turf professionals would benefit from deciding how they want to be viewed from various perspectives, from clients to regulators.

“Creating that vision or understanding in terms of where they want to go is critical for them,” he says. “Or else, they’ll just be spinning their wheels going around in circles.”

Drygala says while there’s always some resistance to change, in a few years, he’d like to see a green industry where that change is happening on a broader scale, and outsiders can see “we want to be different.” That wider change could come in the next five or six years, as companies like his continue to develop more and more effective new solutions.

“I want to be part of that,” he says.

The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry and can be reached at kylebrown@igin.com.