Aug. 14 2009 12:00 AM

Some people are born into the irrigation industry. For others, the industry finds them. In the case of Travis and Shelly Komara, it all started - strangely enough—with a ’50sthemed Internet cafe.

“During school, I was working at a ’50s diner, waiting tables,” explains Travis, who grew up in San Diego, California. “We got a booth at the Los Angeles County Fair, selling milkshakes. The goal was to make enough money so we could venture out on our own.” “We couldn’t afford a booth on our own, so we partnered with a local Internet service provider to have computers set up so customers could set their milk shakes down and surf the web. I thought it would be a cool juxtaposition— it was a way of tying the old and new together,” he says. “This was around ’96, back when the Internet was still starting to come into its own.” The young married couple was attending Cal Poly Pomona while trying to make ends meet. Travis was studying marketing and sales, and thinking outside the box was something that came naturally to him. The event was a success.

With the money they had earned, Komara and his wife, Shelly, both 19 at the time, started Superior Sandblasting, specializing in sandblasting industrial parts. Together with the DuPont Company, they developed a unique way to utilize synthetic sand so they could strip products down to their bare metal without distorting them. This was in 1997. The following year, they sold the company and purchased the Fontana, California-based Salco Products, a leading manufacturer of drip irrigation systems. It was here where they were first exposed to irrigation.

“Neither of us knew anything about irrigation,” says Komara. “We basically acted as sponges and absorbed everything we could from [Salco President] Sam Tobey. He had some really sound strategies as far as the industry was concerned.”

The lesson the Komaras learned from Tobey was invaluable. Rather than simply trying to sell a product for the sake of selling it and turning a profit, Tobey’s strategy was to educate his clients on which products would best be utilized in any given scenario, even if that product wasn’t made by Salco.

“If you tell a customer, ‘Hey, use drip in every single application,’ and drip doesn’t work well in one application, then that customer will assume that drip systems don’t work in general,” says Komara. “So if we had cases where drip wasn’t the practical way to go, we’d recommend a different product. We’d lose the sale, but gain the client’s trust while also educating him.” The Komaras continued working at Salco for several years, overseeing new product development, scheduling and learning as much as they could about drip, hydraulics and other facets of irrigation. In June of 2007, they sold Salco but continued to work there. However, after a year, the couple decided it was in their best interest to part ways and go in their own direction.

They relocated to Rancho Cucamonga, California, and started their own irrigation business, which they named GPH. Their concept was to establish a company that would specialize in large-area drip irrigation installations. Most drip irrigation systems are marketed towards small residential properties, but the Komaras saw a growing demand for drip irrigation in the commercial market. Their systems would be installed on larger sites such as parks, slopes along freeways and so on. Explains Komara, “Our strategy with GPH was to engineer and develop a higher-performing product than what existed in the industry. With our product, we’ve actually engineered it to the point where it could fit just about any application.” As president of the company, Travis’ role is all-encompassing.

On a typical day, he will design products, work with the production managers to schedule the manufacturing of those products, answer phones and help customers with technical questions. “There’s a lot of strategic planning and customer relations involved in what I do,” he explains.

Shelly works as vice president of sales and marketing. She handles the sales of all GPH products, working closely with distributors, irrigation designers and landscape architects, in addition to managing the company’s sales force.

Taking with them the knowledge they gained during their time at Salco, the Komaras make education a key ingredient in their company’s operations. They will spend a great deal of time talking with their customers face-to-face, walking with them through jobsites and explaining the various factors that determine what kind of irrigation system they should install. This way, not only do they get to know their customers, but their customers truly get to know them and what it is they do. The Komaras also pride themselves on paying attention to small details. “Shipping top-quality products in a short turnaround time frame is a top priority for us,” he says. “We want to match the quality of our products with the service we give our customers.”

Away from the office, the Ko maras live a healthy family life. Their hands are often full looking after their four-year-old daughter, Elle May, and anticipating their second child, who was only weeks away from birth at the time this article went to press. When not playing the role of dutiful parents, Travis and Shelly spend much of their off-time rebuilding old trucks and taking them on off-road adventures.

They also enjoy camping and cruising for local spots where they can relax and enjoy the great outdoors. Thirteen years after they started, Travis and Shelly Komara have traveled far. Although they’ve ended up in an industry they never could have imagined back in the days when they were serving milkshakes to World-Wide-Web-hungry customers, they’re exactly where they want to be.