Norm Bartlett: Going with the flow
|By Kristin Smith-Ely|
Irrigation has taken him on many journeys throughout his career, and the Creative Sensor Technology founder isn’t done evolving yet.
So many stories of how green industry professionals end up in the business start out the same way. They get their first taste of it in childhood, maybe go off to college for a while and then, like a boomerang, they find their way back. Even if it’s happened to you and 500 people like you, that story never gets old. In fact, that phenomenon about our industry is pretty darned special.
Even when irrigation meant manually moving each sprinkler around a golf course green, it was something Norm Bartlett enjoyed doing as a teenager. At 73 years old, he still remembers vividly spending timeas a kid at the golf course across the street from his house in the small New England town of Sharon, Massachusetts.
“My father was a member and my brothers and I viewed the course as our playground,” he says. They didn’t so much play golf, rather they hunted golf balls that landed in the rough and traded them for sodas at the club house. Times were much simpler back then and so was the irrigation.
When he was 14, he landed his first “official” job at the course, working with the grounds crew. How did he pull that off? He was big for his age and his father was chairman of the greens committee.
“Part of my duties involved watering the greens, the only part of the course that didn’t solely rely on the rainfall to keep it green,” he says. Every evening after the last golfer quit at twilight, Bartlett got started.
He would check the suction line in the irrigation pond the crew referred to as “the watering hole.” Then, he would prime and start the pump, drag the roller-based
“After a couple of hours, I’d move each sprinkler to a different location and then repeat the process two hours later,” he says. He did this process three times to cover all the greens. Then he would shut off the water, drag the sprinklers off the greens, coil the hose and shut down the pump.
“I enjoyed the quiet of the night, and I was allowed to sleep in long after the crew had arrived in the morning to mow the greens, rake the traps and set cups,” he says.
Too cool for school
Bartlett graduated high school in 1964, entering young adulthood amidst the Vietnam War, civil rights protests, the Kennedy assassinations and Woodstock. And his father was pressuring him to go to college.
It only took one semester at a liberal arts school for Bartlett to realize he wasn’t quite ready and it wasn’t a good fit. He took a year “to find himself,” working and taking night classes. He kept going back in his mind to the work he did at the golf course.“So I enrolled in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts,” he says. The school was well known and had produced some of the best superintendents at many of the top golf courses in the Northeast. Bartlett majored in turf management.
“I enjoyed the academics and life on a big university campus, but my favorite time was on the summer placement job at Rhode Island Country Club,” says Bartlett.
It was there that Bartlett got a new “toy” to play with: a semi-automatic irrigation system. Not only did it water greens, tees and fairways but it was “more or less automatic,” he says.
The zone valves for the tees and greens were operated hydraulically by Aquadial controllers. The fairway zone valves operated a battery of three quick-coupling valves. Each fairway sprinkler location was watered once every three days by the selection of a quick coupler. “By today’s standards it was a Model T, but it got me hooked. I was fascinated by irrigation,” he says.
Bartlett earned a Bachelor of Science degree in plant and soil sciences from the Stockbridge School of Agriculture.
A historic mission
Bartlett figured his education would serve him well on the West Coast where irrigation was more prevalent, so he reached outto dozens of irrigation equipment manufacturers in California. Buckner Sprinkler Co. in Fresno responded with a job offer.
“So 50 years ago, after watching Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon on a television in a 200-year-old inn in Vermont, I set out to begin my career in the irrigation business,” he says.
As a technical service representative with Buckner, he learned from regional sales managers, irrigation system design staff, product development and production personnel. He became the expert from the factory helping roll out new products.
Bartlett trained sales reps, service techs, superintendents and facility managers on how to use the controllers and would sometimes help with installations or repairs.
Bartlett recalls one incident where the national sales manager, Fred Smiley, called him into his office and told him he “had to get to Tucson that afternoon to fix a prototype controller that was installed.”
He had never heard of the device. “But Fred, what if I can’t fix it?” He looked Bartlett in the eye and said, “Then don’t come back.” Needless to say, he got it fixed.
It wasn’t long after that Bartlett returned to the East to go to work for a distributor named Dick Smith. He became a good friend and mentor to Bartlett.
He worked a few years with Smith as a contractor until Smith started winding the business down to focus on distribution. Smith would later become one of the earliest East Coast irrigation consultants, notes Bartlett.
Bartlett then went to work for Ken White, who would go on to become an Irrigation Association president, before starting his own irrigation construction company. By 1985, Bartlett was ready for a career change so he could be home more.
He thought he was getting out of the irrigation business entirely when he applied to Datamarine, a company that made marine navigation instruments. But he couldn’t escape his irrigation background.
“So I applied for the job there and got a call from the president. He said, ‘How would you like to come down and talk? We have a division that is in the industrial flow meter business we’re trying to start up.’”
As soon as he looked at the equipment, Bartlett said to himself, “Boy, this is just what the irrigation business needs.”
He started talking about the flow meter to his connections in the irrigation industry. John Ducksbury, then president and founder of RainMaster Irrigation, was one of the first people he talked to who thought it made a lot of sense to incorporate flow measurement into irrigation control.
The division grew, and in 1992, Bartlett and two other employees decided to purchase the division from the parent company. Bartlett was a partner and vice president of sales and marketing. The company was selling flow meters to big major pump station and irrigation controls companies.
Bartlett’s partners later decided to sell the company to Badger Meters Co.Bartlett was going to stay on and manage the division, but the company decided to combine it with another division based in Oklahoma and moved the employees there.
This is one of those cases where Bartlett decided not to go with the flow. Instead, he left the company in 2004. He had a noncompete agreement and wasn’t sure what to do next. Several people at the California Landscape Contractors Association conference he decided to attend advised him to become a manufacturer’s rep for various lines of irrigation equipment, and he did.
He planned to start another company once his noncompete expired, but then a different kind of opportunity in irrigation opened up. This time it was with the American Society of Irrigation Consultants.
He had been involved with ASIC over the years. “They approached my wife and I at the national conference in Newport Beach, California, and they said, ‘Would you consider taking on the management of ASIC?’”
They said yes.
“Kathleen and I became the management team and basically operated the office of ASIC. So we got into conference planning and the trade show business.”While they were running the home office for the association, Bartlett was able to start another flow sensor company. Creative Sensor Technology was incorporated in 2007 knowing it was going to take a couple of years in product development before there would be a product to sell. He also tapped former Datamarine talent that didn’t relocate to Oklahoma.
“I put together a team. The three engineers and I at that point collectively had over 100 years of experience in flow sensors.”
Just as it looked as though CST was ready to take off, the year 2008 came along. “The whole market collapsed in the fall and the first sensors we made in 2009 I think we gave away more than we sold,” he recalls. The company continued to spread the word about its products and Bartlett and his wife continued along with ASIC until it looked as though they didn’t have time to devote to it anymore.
They worked with the board of directors to find a replacement, and Carol Colein was appointed to the position in 2012.
Sink or swim
The same year, Bartlett says, it was “sink or swim time” with CST. “I think we actually tried to take some salary out of it.”
Since then, the company has been developing products and growing steadily. The company developed flow sensors and interface products like transmitters and other devices that make it easier to use the sensors. CST also tries to react to what customers are asking for, according to Bartlett.
“We continue and we are at the point now of introducing a new low-flow sensor.” He says CST is never going to grow to the size of a Rain Bird or Toro, but that the company fills a specialty niche in the market.
Bartlett calls himself the “guy that comes up with the ideas,” and then he takes them to the engineers who “are the brains of the outfit.”
Young at heart
Bartlett still has as much fun “playing” with irrigation as he did when he was a kid. He’s always been one to want to take things apart to see how they work.
“It’s always a fascination with seeing everything come together that we put in the ground and have all the pieces work.”
He said when the time comes he’ll look at letting the next generation take over the business or entertain an offer to sell, but for right now, he’s perfectly content where he is. “I am not ready to cross either one of those bridges right now,” he says. And neither are we.
The author is editor-in-chief of Irrigation & Green Industry magazine and can be reached at
Words from the wise
Norm Bartlett, founder and president of Creative Sensor Technology, Rochester, Massachusetts, has learned many lessons throughout his 50-year career in the irrigation business. He’s been everything from a contractor to a technical service rep, a manufacturers rep, association executive director and manufacturing business owner. But no matter what position you may hold, his advice is universal.
First, be ready to pay your dues. “It takes a lot of hard work,” he says. “This is not a get rich quick kind of a business. It usually takes a lot of work and a lot of time.”
He also says that those who are successful in the business are the ones who are honest, fair, trustworthy and have integrity. “You have to be straight with people. You have to be honest with your business dealings. We try to treat everybody the same. You never know when someone who’s your competition may come to work for you or when your best customers go to work for the competition.”
One of the hardest things he says to learn in business is how to say no. “If someone says ‘I’ll give you this order if you can deliver it by next Tuesday,’ and you say, ‘Yes of course we can.’” Then you go look in your warehouse and you don’t have anything to deliver them, you’ll hurt your reputation. “They’ll trust you more or they’ll think more of you if you are honest about it.”