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  • Writer's pictureTim Parmeter

Pioneering Efficiency, Innovation, and Franchising Success

On a recent episode of the Franchising 101 Podcast, host Tim Parmeter interviewed guest Russ Jundt, founder of Conserva Irrigation. The two discuss the unique opportunities and challenges of the franchise model. 

Conserva Irrigation, a part of the Empower Brands suite of franchises, stands out due to its largely untapped market, effective water management, innovative technology, and recurring revenue opportunities for franchisees. In this interview, Russ shares the company’s journey and how Conserva has shaped a pioneering approach in the irrigation industry.

An Interview With Russ Jundt of Conserva Irrigation

Tim Parmeter: We are excited to introduce one of our franchisor partners today. They are in one of the very few niches in the home service market that is largely untapped. Like most home service brands, it has a low investment, low overhead, and huge potential. This franchise also comes with both recurring revenue and the chance to work on some big projects. It is both B2B and B2C – and then throw in the fact that it is an environmentally conscious franchise and you have a truly one-of-a-kind opportunity. Joining us to share a little bit more about this unique brand is Founder and President Russ Jundt. 

Russ Jundt: I am so excited to be here and to share all about Conserva. Thank you so much for having me.

TP: Conserva’s positioning is so unique. You guys do things differently in a market that you can dominate, so I have a bunch of questions about Conserva. But ultimately, franchising is about people, and I always love hearing stories about how everyone got into franchising. Can you tell us more about your story? 

RJ: Behind every company, there is a story – and we have quite the story here at Conserva Irrigation. Eighteen years ago, I was the first franchise owner of Mosquito Squad with my business partner Tom in Minneapolis. Brand-new company, brand-new category. Tom and I were in the underground utility construction business, and we were doing what I like to call “big toys, big boys” kind of stuff. We had dabbled in irrigation and had some smaller equipment, some smaller crews, and some folks who wanted to get into that. 

We dabbled in it for four, five, six years… and we saw the value in it, but it seemed kind of wasteful. In Minnesota, we love our water. But there was not a whole lot of thought going into the irrigation business. So as quickly as we were in irrigation, we got out of it and back into the underground utility sector. However, we were looking to diversify at that point and add in some direct-to-consumer (D2C) services. That was when we happened across Mosquito Squad. 

Again, that was eighteen years ago. Today, Scott Zide is our CEO of Empower Brands – but back then, he was the co-founder of Mosquito Squad. The first four years of Mosquito Squad were so great – in fact, I am still a franchise owner today. And after four years, which was my first go with franchising, I thought, “This is fantastic.” As a franchise owner, you are not in business by yourself – certainly for yourself, but not by yourself. There was a whole team helping us. I absolutely loved it. 

So I looked to my business partner Tom, and I said, “We have to go out and buy another franchise.” I wanted to look into irrigation, it seemed like there should be a play there. And of course, we found out there was not any such thing. 

That is where the idea for Conserva initially came into play. I did a ton of research on the irrigation market, and what I found out is that it is an incredibly old and antiquated industry that is lacking in sophistication. But I was enamored with the fact that they were just starting to make some movements toward smart irrigation and being efficient with water. To me, that was music to my ears. 

I became a student of the industry. After about nine months, I went to my very first Irrigation Association national show in Phoenix. I fell in love with it – so I gathered a lot more data and founded the company in December 2010, which was the beginning of our journey. 

From there, I started building the proof of concept in the Minneapolis market, and we opened our first shop in August 2011. In the first 90 days with a single-page, stagnant website and a bunch of yard signs, we got 305 customers. So I knew we were onto something. People wanted the service, they wanted the help – and they wanted green, lush, healthy lawns and landscaping. If they could do it in a way that was efficient, even better. 

We started building out the model, and by December 2016, we had enough proof of concept to open up several pilot locations. We partnered with Empower Brands and franchised it. Not even seven years later, we have 77 awesome locations in 32 states, and we are knocking on the door of $50M of revenue. It has been a blast. 

TP: I was just about to say that it has not been that long since 2016, it was a quick road to success for Conserva. Now, you mentioned something interesting about your journey as a franchise owner. As you know, you run into people who want to be franchise owners, and you show them some franchises that have been around for a long time and some that have been around for a much shorter time. Sometimes people are scared to be first, to be an early adopter of something new. You were an early adopter of Mosquito Squad – literally the first owner. Can you talk about some of the things that led you to have that confidence, to believe in it, and to be number one? What was that like? 

RJ: It all comes back to culture. The culture here at Empower is one in which we foster creativity. We foster people and the power that people can have when they get together – and we value that. We champion the success of all of the people here. The reality is that at the end of the day, we learned an important lesson back then. 

My confidence in Empower is related to my story with Conserva. Every year as we were looking for proof of concept, I would say, “I think we have enough data, let’s franchise.” Chris Grandpre, former Empower CEO (and now chair of the board), kept pushing back. He would say, “Not everyone is Russ, can other people do this, too? Let’s do it in other markets. We want to see profitability increase, we need more.” 

So we kept going across the nation, finally reaching into Florida, and had nine locations. Everyone else was doing even better than the pilot location. That is when the green light was given. 

At Empower, the idea was always that we would vet the Conserva concept with our funds first, making sure the economics are really solid and beneficial to the franchise owner. And from there, we are going to build a great validation story with multiple locations. And that is really how we started out. 

We did not invent the category of irrigation, but we were the first to market. First to market is a powerful play. You compete against those who have commoditized the experience, but the market is very fragmented. 

TP: Let’s talk a little more about Convserva Irrigation. I am going to guess the business has something to do with irrigation. From a consumer perspective, talk a little bit about what Conserva is doing and your key differentiators. 

RJ: In short, it is landscape irrigation. We do homes, HOAs, residential, and commercial irrigation. We do sprinkler systems. 

And it is worth saying… Nobody in their right mind goes into irrigation on purpose. Unless they have a head injury. Nobody sees irrigation and says, “Yeah, that’s got my name written all over it.” 

Now, that was before there was a business model here. Really, we are a marketing company that happens to be in the irrigation space. It is all about efficient irrigation – how do we deliver water effectively and efficiently so that consumers can have what they desire: green, lush lawns and healthy landscapes?

And from that, we built it out. We have upgrades, standardized maintenance packages, installation, and seasonal packages for recurring revenue. Our owners are not unemployed when it comes to wintertime

Everything around the residential side of what we do is driven by our marquee product, which is really a service – it is all driven by a free inspection that gives customers an SES, or System Efficiency Score. 

What it does is justify the experience to the consumer through our homogenous approach. It justifies that they have made the right decision, quantifies how many problems they have, and then monetizes it for them. It says, “Here is what we need to do today, and here is what we are going to do over time for even more efficiency.” That is what we do for the residential side, and for the commercial side, we do something similar: a CSA, or Commercial Site Sssessment. 

We have built a proprietary algorithm. Pick the commercial property, the HOA, or the small bank on the corner – we know exactly how much water they use, and the algorithm can also show how much water they should be applying to that property during any given year. From there, we can find out why they are not meeting that and what we need to fix – as well as the timeline for ROI, or return on investment. 

Is the average irrigation company having that kind of sophisticated chat with customers? The answer is no – and that is where Conserva stands out. 

Now we are just getting into another form of water management, an underserved category that I call “Adaptive Drainage.” What is it? We are taking water from downspouts and moving it away from basements, crawlspaces, slabs, etc. Instead of ruining mulch, plants, and other landscapes near the house, we are moving it away from the house. It works out perfectly because our folks are already there with boots on the ground. 

TP: I love all of that. From there, two things pop into my head. I want to hear about the owner and the things they are doing. But to your point, in franchising in general, kids are not sitting there and going “Mommy, Daddy, when I grow up, I want to own an irrigation franchise.” Nobody says that. All too often, people end up owning franchises that they never would have imagined or maybe did not even know existed. 

Many times, people come to us and talk about their experience – I have experience in tech, therefore I need to own a tech franchise. But ultimately, the owner does not necessarily need experience in the industry. Russ, tell us more about how that plays into Conserva. What are you looking for in an owner and what are they doing on a daily basis?

RJ: Conserva looks for owners with transferable skills, owners with a storied past and an eclectic background. Our owners have strong business acumen, comfort with tech, and a love of the outdoors – they may not know irrigation, but they can apply those skills to a business model. We bring in people from outside the industry to freshen it up with a new investment and a new look. We are truly changing the industry.

Now, our owners also need people to work with and for them: technicians. Again, we bring in people from outside the industry. The pool from which we fish is limited – there are folks with some poor habits out there. So we created the first ever LMS system in our industry: Conserva University and CareerTech academy. 

It is a 22-module online training session that can take someone just like you – with limited irrigation experience and a desire to learn, maybe a desire to work autonomously (perhaps in their own van) and work outdoors – and in 30-60 days, we can train them up through the online LMS system and then by ratifying what they learned in the field. In 30-60 days, they can be working in the field and making an income for themselves – and with and for that franchisee. They can handle 80% - 90% of irrigation challenges on their own, the last 10%, of course, they are going to learn on the job. 

So we have been able to take a full fresh perspective on bringing people into irrigation. That is the biggest thing we want to cover with prospective owners: what type of business they want, the size and scale, the bottom line, the impact on their families, and what kind of wealth they are going to grow. 

TP: We talk a lot to our clients about labor: Are you better with highly skilled people or unskilled employees whom you will train? This is kind of a combo. You can bring in someone ready to learn and make them into a skilled technician. It is kind of a new career path. 

The key aspect is that you do not have owners out there who are doing the irrigation – instead, they are working on the business. They are Working with the customers and building referral sources in the community. Conserva owners are working on the business rather than in the business. 

RJ: Absolutely. Our owners will do the LMS, they will earn their stripes, and they will become students of the industry. But then, they will transition over to running the business. It really is modular. They will start with a van or two, maybe one or two technicians, then it grows: four vans, six vans, eight vans, etc. 

It all comes down to the marketing side of it. We call it the “Conserva Wheel.” We get in the door at one point, and then we can sell packages. We call it “Club Conserva.” Our number one call to action is a free inspection, and then we give the customer a report that day that justifies, quantifies, and monetizes the experience. That is what it looks like to add sophistication to a very antiquated space. 

TP: This is irrigation, this is outside, so some people are probably thinking that this could not possibly work in the North. So if owners have questions about the seasonal nature, what do you say to those people? Does business slow down in the winter? How do owners keep making money? 

RJ: We started in the North: The Land of 10,000 Lakes, or Minnesota. And with that, we both summerize and winterize. We have a short season, but it does not matter. In Florida, you might be thinking, “Man, what a great year-round business.” But a little farther north, that call to action is even more pressing. Water freezes, systems crack, and catastrophic outcomes arise without proper servicing. There is even more urgency. 

Are you going to winterize the system yourself? Or are you going to call Conserva? Customers go to Google, they find us, and it is awesome. We even offer a Winterization Assessment Program. It allows us to pre-sell the seasonal package, and continue selling in December and January. You would be amazed at how the revenue continues year-round. 

TP: The other thing that people forget – and I know this because I grew up in the Midwest but have been in the South for a while – is that there is a premium on being outside in the North. When the weather is good and you can get outside, you want it to look nice and you want everything ready to go. There is a shorter window to enjoy it, so you want to make sure that it looks nice. So really, Conserva is not as seasonal as people think in the beginning. 

RJ: That is why Minnesota used to have the greatest number of people per capita who play golf. Now, I moved to Florida four years ago, so I understand. But then you get snowbirds, people who are only going south for a few months, and they want everything to be perfect. So really, throughout the U.S. and Canada, the opportunity for irrigation is endless.

TP: That is awesome, I love it. Now, I want to go back to Empower Brands for a minute. We had Scott Zide on the podcast a while ago, and it was a great episode. One of our team members was actually at Empower Day recently and she learned more about the culture. She was so impressed with the longevity: people get to Empower Brands and stay there. They do not leave. So that is an amazing testament to the culture. How does being part of Empower Brands help your owners?

RJ: Franchising is a fantastic vehicle, but it is also a scary vehicle. One of the reasons I brought Conserva to Empower is the experience – our owners are investing in an experience. Empower has over 1,400 territories in the U.S. and Canada. At the C-suite level and above, Empower boasts over 250 years of combined experience. We have 650+ franchisees, 11 brands in growth mode right now, and six founders on the leadership team. We have eight brands we have either incubated or are incubating today. We have four former franchise owners who have grown up and become part of the franchisor team. 

The experience alone – that is what you are investing in. It is not necessarily the product; it is the people. We are people first. I have goosebumps right now talking about this. When you come through our doors, you literally hear the words, “Welcome.” 

The first thing you see is our kitchen, because that is where family goes to congregate. You cannot make this up, – the members of the Empower family are people who truly believe. They breathe it, they live it, they want it – it is our everything. I love that about their company. It attracts the best of the best. 

TP: You get shared services. You may go into the market and there is already an Archadeck or an OLP, or this or that. I am just a huge proponent of Empower Brands. There has always been that collaborative, “You are not an owner here or an owner there – you are owners together” message.

It is a truly overwhelming level of support. Erin Zide told me that at Empower, “We are huggers.” That warm, inviting, family atmosphere of this is important. It is one thing to say it, but everyone I have ever shown these brands to has come away impressed with the group. Eighteen years of being in that family, that is a long time. That is no joke. 

One more thing for you, Russ: I am sure there are a lot of things you could say about this, but are there any other items you want to share about Conserva or Empower that we have not touched on today?

RJ: There is an opportunity right now across this next generation coming out that has grown up in the digital age and maybe feels a bit disconnected… At all 11 Empower brands, people want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to be part of something special. 

Recognition is overlooked in most places today. Done thoughtfully and done properly, recognition is everything. People want the opportunity to get across the finish line and do great. Internally, we have magnificent milestones where you can compete against your own numbers. How can you get recognized in your community for being a thought leader and for bringing something to the table? How can you contribute to your organization? How can you contribute to the Earth? 

Impactful at the commercial level, meaningful at the municipal level – that is a game changer. Imagine being able to rest your head on the pillow at night knowing you are creating something sustainable, creating something you can build up and sell or pass along as a legacy and get your family involved. Plus, you are doing what is right by the Earth as well. 

So if there is one last thing I would say, it is this: No matter who you are or where you come from, if you want to check out Conserva Irrigation, spend some time with our team. After that, I guarantee that we are going to become number one. It is not about the irrigation. It is about the marketing, the experience, and the impact. 

Competing against unsophisticated folks, running up the score, and making a generational difference for your family, your wealth, and more – that is the opportunity that Conserva provides. 

TP: Russ, thank you so much for chatting with us. If that does not inspire you to become a franchise owner, I do not know what will. 


Interested in Becoming a Franchise Owner?

Has Conserva Irrigation piqued your interest? Here at FranCoach, we are a national search firm dedicated to working with individuals who are interested in owning a franchise. We have partnered with over 600 of the top franchisors in the country, spanning nearly 70 industries. 

Our goal with clients is to help them find the absolute best franchise for them to own. Our goal with our Franchising 101 podcast series and this series of informational blog posts is to help educate people on all aspects of franchise ownership. 

Reach out to us to learn more about potentially becoming a franchise owner. There’s never any fee for our service, so why not take the first step today toward your better tomorrow?

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