Walz started the company twenty years ago. She wasn’t born into the field, nor did she marry into it; it was just sort of her destiny. She grew up playing in the mud, and making mud pies. Then one day, joking with her sister Jennifer, she said, “One day, I want to do this for a living.” The irrigation industry has made it possible for her to never stop playing in the mud.
The path wasn’t so clearly laid out for Sipe. She began her professional career in international telecommunications. Then ten years ago, her friend, Caryn, asked for her help in running the ‘business side of her business.’ Patty Sipe was ready. She’d had enough of the corporate world. She wanted to help build a business that was personal and meaningful to her. After joining the business, it wasn’t long before Walz told her, “Hey, you should get your irrigator’s license.” After that, Sipe said she never looked back. She loves the irrigation industry because it puts her directly in touch with a limited and precious resource.
Today, they both still maintain separate spheres, but it’s not the absolute distinction it began as. “Oh yes, we both get out there. We’re both digging ditches, finding broken pipes, replacing valves, but Walz absolutely loves that part more than I do,” says Sipe.
When Walz started the company, she did landscaping as well. Now, working entirely with irrigation, her background in landscaping provides a wealth of information for their clients, whether it’s identifying an insect, parasite, or a fungus.
The business now runs like a tight ship. Heads Up Sprinkler Company focuses exclusively on irrigation system repair and long-term care services. “We have about 3,500 customers, and about 65 percent are customers for life, because we only do repairs.”
“We have intentionally kept it small, with a total of six employees, including ourselves. This has been by design,” said Sipe. “If we get big, we lose control of the customer experience.”
Such a targeted business model allows them to stay heavily involved with public conservation efforts, but it also makes real economic sense. “Quite frankly, the irrigation industry is cutthroat on install jobs, and then there is only a 0 to 15 percent available profit margin. But on the repair side, you’re looking at 15 to 35 percent profit margins,” Sipe explained.
Sipe told us that before getting into irrigation, she was getting fed-up with unbalanced expectations placed upon her in the corporate world, and the limiting ‘glass ceiling’ that women experience there. In contrast, she has found that the irrigation industry doesn’t impose the same type of barriers on women. “It’s been great. It’s been very rewarding.” Sipe describes the strong relationships they hold nationally with their manufacturer representatives, and their suppliers.
Locally, among their fellow irrigation professionals, they have also found mutual respect. “We don’t view them as competitors, but only as other irrigators.” Sipe explained that they only book about 38 percent of their calls, and they refer about 10 percent out. “We don’t take a lot of jobs, and when people want specific referrals, we are happy to recommend other professionals with whom we have a relationship.”
Both women are also certified landscape irrigation auditors (CLIA). This kind of work accounts for about 10 percent of their business; however, Sipe appreciates the professional distinction this license represents and the important role it enables them to fill, in terms of resource conservation.
Both Sipe and Walz educate their customers on more than water conservation. Sipe explains, “We take the time to teach them about their system, so they can care for it themselves. This way, they only call us in when it’s outside their scope of repair.” She believes that this attitude and approach has helped them build a large base of lifetime clients. “We’re not salespeople.”
“The truth is that this business is really only half of what we do. We are passionate about water conservation; our goal is to save as much water as possible while educating clients about why it’s so critical.” Toward this end, both women regularly participate in large educational events and expositions, and frequently teach classes attended by homeowners all over the Dallas/Fort Worth area.
“The future of Heads Up Sprinkler is going to include giving a lot more of our time back to the community, teaching more classes and helping the water users of the world use less,” Sipe says. “But the focus of what we do has never changed. We work with the homeowners, we fix what’s broken and we educate.”