Drew & Matthew Thomas

As a young kid, Drew Thomas followed his father around the northeast region of Indiana. His father was playing industrial baseball and Drew was the bat boy. Thomas’ father had played professional baseball with the St. Louis Browns in the late 1930s and early ’40s until he joined the Army in World War II.

When the war was over, he returned home and got a job with Amoco Oil and settled down in Whiting, Indiana, only a half mile from the Illinois border and 15 miles from Chicago, and raised his family.

Following in his father’s footsteps, Thomas loved to play baseball; he was a natural athlete. He attended Whiting High School, where he played baseball. In fact, he was a pretty good ball player—good enough that when he graduated in 1964, he was recruited by the New York Mets, who offered him a $100,000 bonus to sign a contract.

Thomas, however, decided that he wanted to continue his education. He enrolled at Indiana State University, where he pitched his way through college (he holds the most records at ISU). He graduated in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration.

Hoping to have a career in sports, he again was recruited, but this time around much had changed in professional baseball. He played ball in South America for a year and realized he did not have a career in the profession. So, at the age of 23, Thomas left the sport and went to work in a management position at a local steel mill.

Looking to utilize his knowledge of marketing, Thomas was hired by IBM Corporation as a financial analyst, and eventually moved into a department that produced internal broadcasts. IBM found that they could better communicate with their worldwide staff by broadcasting lectures and classes internally, so they had set up broadcast and television studios in a number of cities. Thomas produced and directed some of these programs.

In 1993, after spending 20 years with IBM, Thomas retired at the age of 46. The very next day, he opened his new business, Thomas Irrigation, based in Schereville, Indiana.

Almost 20 years later, Thomas Irrigation is a successful, thriving business.

But how do you go from producing television and radio broadcasts to digging trenches and installing irrigation systems? Here is where his son Matthew came in.

Matthew attended Purdue University and at the age of 20, he went to work for a local irrigation contractor. He liked the work and really got involved in it, learning about backflow prevention devices, how to install irrigation systems, etc. and more.

Matthew spoke with his dad about starting up an irrigation business just about the time his father was preparing to retire from IBM. Before Thomas decided to tackle irrigation as a business, he did some due diligence.

What he observed was that some of the competition did not look very professional. They would call on clients in cut-off shorts and no shirts in dirty vehicles. He promised himself that he would not give that impression to his potential customers.

He would be the very best in the area.

It wasn’t very difficult for Thomas to enter the entrepreneurial world.

He was well known in his town, and many of his former classmates were now in management positions. He could call on them for advice. Matthew, on the other hand, had developed the field skills and was quite knowledgeable in the technical area.

Thomas insisted that their crews wear uniforms and look clean, that they have clean trucks with their logos on the vehicles. He also insisted that they not only do their job well, but that when they finished a client’s property, they would make sure they cleaned up afterwards.

By paying attention to the details, Thomas Irrigation has grown over these past two decades. The main portion of their business consists of winterization and spring start-ups, and backflow certifications. They currently service about 6,000 clients. Each client is on a contract, where Thomas will close down the irrigation system for the winter and then start it up again in the spring.

The one question marketing people ask over and over is, “How can I increase our business?” Thomas said, “If I could use the experience that I gained when I was with IBM, it could be a win for everyone.” He thought, “I could help give something back to the community and possibly generate some business for our company.”

So he went to the local radio station, and offered to do a weekly radio broadcast to help promote free community information—information Thomas felt you could not get anywhere. The radio station agreed and the first show aired three years ago. “I have a person on my show from Purdue University who is the lead instructor for obtaining a Master Gardener Certificate. She is a wealth of knowledge regarding plants, shrubs, trees, and almost everything related to the green industry,” said Thomas.” We also have horticulturists, arborists and lawn experts from time to time. Once we had Dr. Earth call in and talk about organic fertilizers.”

Now, hardly a day goes by that someone doesn’t stop Thomas and let him know how much they enjoy his show. Some even ask him questions while he is driving by. Others call his office to get more information. Not only has the community embraced this program, their business has grown as well.

This year alone they added another 350 new clients. Working with ten employees, the company is expecting to reach the $1 million mark in sales in 2013.

The old saying goes, “Build a better mousetrap” and the business will come. By helping to educate the citizens of the communities they serve—not only about irrigation, but anything and everything about landscaping and gardening—Thomas Irrigation has developed a reputation others will do well to emulate.