2022 LM150: Conserva Irrigation shows how modern problems require modern solutions

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The search for a better way to train irrigation technicians prompted Conserva to create its LMS training program. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

For Conservation Irrigation in Glen Allen, Virginia, the past few years have brought increased levels of growth. The company added 25 to 30 franchisees a year and increased revenue, following what founder and owner Russ Jundt calls a “hockey stick” model.

The growth comes at a time when the United States faces a freezing labor market that has forced Jundt to get creative with its hiring and training practices.

Jundt says he’s heard the excuses and reasons for the labor shortage, and while he acknowledges they’re legitimate, he’s not willing to let it stop his company’s upward trajectory. .

“I refuse to accept anecdotal responses like, ‘Oh, it’s COVID-19’ or ‘People are on their couches.’ These may be good reasons or excuses, but the reality is that none of them help us move forward, says Jundt.

Conserva, doing his ML150 debuting at No. 119 on the 2022 list with an income of $21,579,227, was looking to tackle the labor issue head-on.

Armed with a new approach to hiring technicians and an online learning management system (LMS) training program, the company is moving forward with a bold strategy: getting new hires ready in the field, in their own trucks, within 60 days.

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Conserva trainees will continue to gain hands-on experience using the company's online training.  (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

Conserva trainees will continue to gain hands-on experience using the company’s online training. (Photo: Conserva Irrigation)

The first step in Conserva’s new approach to hiring and training technicians is to expand its pool of potential hires.

“If there’s a massive shortage or a limited pool that we’re tapping into, we thought we had to extend that net,” he says. “In doing so, we looked outside the industry to find people who culturally fit what we were looking for. They have a (strong) work ethic, an ability and a desire to work outdoors; (they) want to do something special and bigger than themselves.

Expanding its network is not new to Conserva; the company has already done this with franchisees.
Conserva, which currently has 70 branches in 30 states, has been successful in seeking franchise owners outside of the industry. Jundt therefore thought that it would not be different at the level of the technicians.

“We attract talent and people with different backgrounds, experiences and corporate cultures,” says Jundt. “We welcome them and provide them with a system that they can connect to and change their careers and their lives.”

Russ Jundt

Russ Jundt

Conserva began its search for technicians by looking inside. The company took note of the main traits and characteristics of its best technicians and used them to target its search for recruitment.

“We found that one of the biggest underlying factors in the success of franchisees and technicians was an overwhelming passion for what they do,” says Jundt. “In other words, liking what, how and why they do it.”

Jundt says coaching ability, willingness to learn and a desire to be a leader were other attributes the company found to make a successful technician.

“We’re starting to attract bartenders, people who work at Home Depot, and fast-food workers,” says Jake Mathre, director of franchise operations at Conserva. “I tell them there is another opportunity here. We will train you. We want you to get into your own vehicle within a few months.

From the ground

Jake Mathre

Jake Mathre

However, this plan is not limited to identifying the right intangible assets. Once Conserva has these leads internally, the team needs to nurture them.

Enter Conserva’s online LMS training program. The online program consists of 22 modules and aims to have new employees ready within 45-60 days.

The program guides new hires through the fundamentals of irrigation, like the basics of digging a hole and the anatomy of an irrigation system, to more advanced ideas like fluid dynamics.

“Then we start accelerating it by understanding flow, pressure, velocity and how these interact with each other,” says Mathre. “Basically, it’s about breaking it down into the most basic components. How it works? How does he fail? How do you fix it? »

The opening module of the program introduces Conserva, its ideals and its mission statement. Three modules focus exclusively on sales and customer interactions; others include leadership training and communication.

Employees who participate in the program also work with a team as they would in a traditional training program. But with the additional online training, the process that prepares them to work on their own accelerates.

“I think (the idea behind the program) was twofold of needing it and then wanting to bring new blood into the industry,” says Mathre. “There’s nothing there that makes it easy to add new people. It was always, well, you’re just going to have them ride with us, and they’re going to be picking up stuff over the course of the year, and maybe they’ll be in their own vehicle next year.

Collaborate and listen

The creation of the LMS was a collaborative process between Jundt; Mathre; Conserva’s top franchisee; Toro Regional Sales Manager Chris Keating, CID; and a third party company, Boxless training and technology.

Unboxed — based in Richmond, Va., 20 minutes south of Conserva’s headquarters — works alongside companies to develop online training programs.

“They are education experts; they know how people learn,” says Mathre.

Tasked with condensing decades of irrigation knowledge into an easy-to-understand training program, Unboxed asked for everything Conserva had available on the subject.

“We kind of hesitated. We said, “Well, we have an operations manual and technician training manuals. I mean, the real rugged stuff, you know, I don’t think you’ll find much value in it,” Jundt says. “But they said, ‘No, no, go ahead. “”

Conserva obliged, sending their own user manuals in addition to Environmental Protection Agency and Irrigation Association manuals on best practices, design and fluid dynamics and YouTube videos on irrigation.

“They jumped on it, digested it and broke it down into bite-sized pieces and strategized how they could get there,” says Jundt.

A five month process followed where Unboxed worked closely with Mathre to ensure the material was on point.

Conserva officially launched the LMS in mid-April this year, opening it up to franchisees and existing employees. Mathre says early feedback is promising and Conserva is still getting feedback and plans to refine some information.

“So far what we’re seeing is that it’s building trust,” he says. “That’s the most important thing; confidence in the skills and knowledge of the industry. It’s empowering people.

As the program evolves, Mathre says the next step — in addition to translating the entire program into Spanish — is for franchisees to leverage it in the recruiting process, hiring for the ethics of work and character, with the certainty that the program will transform new recruits into successful technicians.

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