U.S. Open Champ Jerry Pate brings his “A” game to the turf business. By Carol Brzozowski

Jerome “Jerry” Pate’s victory in the U.S. Amateur in 1974 and his low-amateur finish at the 1975 U.S. Open signaled that he was ready to play golf with the Tour’s big boys. And soon enough he did. In his rookie season as a pro in 1976, he won the U.S. Open and the Canadian Open, earning him Rookie of the Year and Co-Player of the Year honors. From then until 1982, he notched six more PGA Tour victories as well as several other titles around the world.

Not bad for a young man just a few years off the Crimson Tide golf team at the University of Alabama.

When, after winning the 1982 Players Championship, he jumped into a pond at the 18th hole at the 1982 TPC Sawgrass Players Course (taking former PGA Commissioner Deane Berman and course architect Pete Dye with him), it must have seemed there were few limits to what he could accomplish on the Tour.

But, it wasn’t to be. Nagging shoulder injuries all but finished his professional career before his 30th birthday.

His golf career essentially over, Pate went on to work in television sports broadcasting, and then went into building golf courses and starting other business endeavors. Like his stellar (but all too short) professional golf career, Pate soon enough found the winning touch, including the founding and building of a successful turf equipment distributorship. Jerry Pate Turf & Irrigation, based in Pensacola, Florida, now serves the U.S. Southeast with locations in Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis, too.

The Toro Company recently honored Jerry Pate Turf & Irrigation with its top honor, The Distributor of Excellence Award. It also earned its fifth consecutive Best in Division Award for the Residential Landscape Contractors Division, a record no other company has achieved in Toro’s 100-year history.

Jerry Pate Turf & Irrigation is a wholesale distributorship for Toro, Echo, Shindaiwa, Bear Cat, Club Car, Irritrol, Subaru Industrial Power Products, Foley United, Flowtronex, Tru-Turf, Rain Bird, Otterbine, Standard Golf, Par Aide and other equipment and irrigation components.

The company’s customers include irrigation contractors, turf equipment dealers, golf courses, sports facilities, schools and universities and government agencies.

It also offers consulting and design for new irrigation and landscape design projects, along with continuing education for turf maintenance professionals, golf course superintendents and dealers.

Winning approach

Pate brings to the table an intimate understanding of the relationship between irrigation and turf: he spent many years as a professional golfer. His official entry into the game was in 1974 with Florida Amateur Golf. Pate would go on to win many tournaments: between 1976 and 1982, he won eight times on the PGA Tour and in 1982 he won the PLAYERS Championship.

Pate was injured at age 28. His golf career essentially over, he went on to work in television sports broadcasting, then into building golf courses and starting other business endeavors.

Today, Pate designs golf courses, sells golf carts, sells used turf maintenance and golf equipment and operates a farm that offers hybrid Bermuda grasses and planting services. The latter business has given him hands-on knowledge of agronomic applications and issues.

Pate’s understanding of irrigation has been augmented by previous experiences in Florida water management positions, owning and operating a golf and country club, and owning a wastewater treatment facility, where he garnered experience in water management, treatment and dispersal. He presently sits on the Governing Board of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

He’s also a member of the Green Section of the United States Golf Association, the Alabama Turfgrass Association, the Florida Turfgrass Association and the governing board of the Northwest Florida Water Management District.

Quality service

Pate considers high-quality service one of the most important responsibilities of a distributor. Pate Turf & Irrigation aims to deal with client problems in a timely fashion while resolving customers needs.

“We’ve got to be able to back up what we sell and getting it to the customer in a timely fashion,” he says. “The customer has to order a part and make sure we ship it. We ship parts not just for irrigation, but it could be parts for lawn mowers. If we ship a part to a customer, it has to be there the next day and it has to be the correct part.”

Pate prides his business on having more than a 99 percent accuracy rate on parts shipping. He attributes that to a computerized system that tracks and manages parts in the warehouse.

Parts also are obtained through walk-in business and also are delivered upon request.

“That’s how you build a relationship, people being able to count on us,” says Pate. “We under-promise and over-deliver.”

Part of getting good service from a distributor encompasses how far that distributor is willing to go to provide that service. Pate, for example, employs mobile service technicians to go out to customers to service their machines.

Pate also believes customer care entails meeting customers expectations. “If a customer calls in and needs something and he’s going to buy it, we proceed to help back him up and service him while he’s waiting to get his machine fixed,” notes Pate.

Putting an emphasis on process is another business value Pate embraces. That includes attention to computerized logistics and inventory. “We logistically manage irrigation equipment and service techs throughout seven states,” says Pate. “We’ve been able to increase our productivity of our own service platform by investing.”

The company has increased its market share after other distributors have gone out of business, Pate says.

“We don’t do it because we’re doing it by price, we’re doing it by customer service and value-added because the Toro Company is not going to cheapen their product just to make a sale. They want to service the customer with the finest machines they can possibly sell.”

Pate likes to provide value-added services, such as helping clients leverage their equipment’s capabilities. He says some of his high-end customers use Toro’s myTurf fleet management software to do so.

“It analyzes everything they do with that machine,” he says. “It gives them a comparison at the end of the year exactly what their cost is into that machine.”

How a distributor handles problems also is key.

“That’s what our customer satisfaction is about,” Pate says. “Will the machine do the job and will they get what they pay for? Do they have a brand new machine and after they run the machine for six months, it starts having problems and they can’t get the cut right or it’s leaking oil or hydraulic hoses are blowing out?”

Passing along knowledge

Education is another element of a good relationship between a distributor and contractor, Pate says.

His company offers continuing education programs to customers with service and irrigation “schools” for mechanics and other interested parties. Each of Pate’s facilities offers the programs.

“Their mechanics get updated so they don’t have to pick up the phone and ask us to pick up a broken machine,” Pate says. “They understand how to diagnose and troubleshoot their machines through our education programs. We educate their mechanics and in turn, they can order a part online and fix it themselves instead of us charging them a fee for servicing their equipment.”

Jerry Pate Turf & Irrigation also conducts a number of customer relation outings, including a Jerry Pate Expo golf day a few times a year in different parts of the company’s territory.

The company brings equipment for display and provides educational material, and often includes a breakfast and a speaker who addresses issues such as turf, pests and related topics.

In the afternoon, attendees play golf and Pate will play a hole with each team.

“Education is a strong part of our company and we have fun with our customers as well,” says Pate.

Paying the bills

In turn, the primary factor that distributors consider in working with contractors is their credit worthiness.

“There are a lot of landscape contractors who are small entrepreneurs and in today’s climate, the hardest thing they have to face is getting credit to go into business. A lot of them operate through credit cards month to month,” he says. “A small contractor might have one or two trucks and he wants to go out and mow lawns or install irrigation. Basically, his assets are on his truck.

“Landscape contractors and irrigation installers and contractors are great job creators, but it’s such a slim margin business for everybody in the industry. There’s some agronomic experience that you have to know to keep high-quality turf and the spray companies have certified sprayers and technicians, but the reality of it is a guy installing an irrigation system is basically selling a commodity and a commodities are very slim in margins.”

The contractor who can do irrigation jobs for large commercial clients or several houses in a residential area are likely to have more cash flow, more available credit and endear themselves to distributors because they will pay their bills, Pate points out.

“I don’t want to sound like I’m some greedy guy with a cigar and a Monopoly board saying ‘Pay me the money’. The bottom line is small businesses need help in becoming credit-worthy,” says Pate. “We give credit to people on open lines of accounts, but we’re not in a position like a bank where we can lend money to people. That’s the number one issue in building a relationship starting out.”

Financial strength for a distributor is important as well. Pate has seen several distributors go out of business. He says he intends to be the best in the business.

“We have high-quality products and great service,” he says. “We try to satisfy our customers. We’re strong financially, we’re not scratching from month to month on how we are going to pay our own people. We can reinvest in our company, in tools, in education.”

Used versus new

In some cases, a contractor chooses to go with used parts in contrast to new. Pate sells pre-owned equipment.

“It would be based on their financial objectives,” Pate says of the choice. “It’s an option contractors choose if a person is limited in their capital and can’t afford to buy new or they don’t have enough money to be credit-worthy to lease equipment.”

The downside of this option is getting replacement parts, Pate says.

“You can buy used parts to run the wheels or to run some blades, but when you start tampering with the engines of the drivetrains on the machines, then you’re at risk that you’re going to lose your warranties,” says Pate. “It could be a three-year-old machine and still have some warranty to it. The person who has capital and wants to make sure they have machines that run all of the time is better off to buy a new machine and rely on the distributor who can service that customer.”

Less is more

Pate says he’s had a “significant calling” to the work of water usage in Florida.

“Water management is not only involved in the conservation of water, but the permitting of water, consumptive use, and storm water permitting when you develop a building or a shopping center,” he points out.

Pate is always working to ensure his irrigation practices are successful. Recently, he was at a country club looking to see what types of cultural practices he could employ to derive success with the turf.

“I like to compete, so when I got in the lawn mowing business, I wanted to be the best,” he says. “We don’t know if we’re the best, but we do know we’ve improved greatly. We want to continue to be better every day.”

His business has grown from 30 to 140 employees.

“When you’re golf pro, you put yourself first,” he says. “You want to be the best and it’s all about you. In business, it’s all about the customer and all about your employees.”

The lawn maintenance industry is a growing industry that creates jobs, Pate says. “People and businesses want their lawns to look better. We have to do it with sensible environmental management. Water conservation is paramount. The quality of the products today helps you do that,” he says.

Drip irrigation has become a more efficient method of water delivery, he points out. Controllers help measure water better, he adds.

Water conservation will become a bigger issue in the next 20 years, Pate says. But it doesn’t have to be a significant problem “with great stewardship of the land, good tools, good products and educated people on how to use water,” says Pate. “That’s part of our jobs as distributors.”