Many businesses could do, and have done, worse than Rainbow Lawns Irrigation Systems

“I suppose we run 12 service trucks and various other trucks,” said owner Thomas Marcum. “We've got over 20 trucks now. We went from two people, to running anywhere from 15-18 people now.”

For Marcum, it's all thanks to careful planning and positive business relationships. Marcum and his wife Heather not only have business degrees, but for nine years he learned the ropes from his brother-in-law Larry Oaks, who started the business in 1994 and sold it to Marcum in 2005. Marcum worked under Oaks from 1996 until he graduated and bought it.

“Larry asked me to work for him,” Marcum said. “I said yes. It was really just a job at that point, but I really enjoyed it and stuck with it. He was really a great employer to work for.”

At one point he wasn't sure about buying the company, but it has since worked out.

“I did have the offer and I was still mulling it over because it was a big decision for me,” Marcum said. “It just seemed to make sense. It all fell into place. I learned the irrigation side from Larry and I learned the business side from the school so I had all the resources I needed to move forward with the business. I was definitely nervous for it. It did work out. There was a lot of stress and a lot of learning at first, but we got it done and it's been a success.”

Having a firm grasp on finances and scheduling has helped a great deal. Marcum says he has been careful to never overextend himself financially. In the beginning he took out a loan of $50,000 to buy the business, but now he operates debt free and grows only at a responsible rate and only as finances allow.

“We've grown as we could afford it,” Marcum said. “We've run the business out of our home. The shop we have is 1,500 square feet, It's bathroom, office and shop. It's very small. We've built shelves everywhere. The house is over top of it. We live upstairs and run off of 5 acres. It's very tight with all those trucks.”

In addition to growing the company's fleet of vehicles and equipment, Marcum has finally gotten to the point that the business can expand property-wise. Soon he and his family are moving to a new 50 acre piece of land with separate office and home. He is still keeping his finances under careful control. The new facilities will be modest.

“We want to be able to pay our bills on time to our suppliers, service our customers well and pay our employees on time and all that,” Marcum said. “That's very important to us. That's one thing that separates us from a lot of business owners.”

Seaver Schmidt of Rainbow Lawn Systems digs a hole.
Seaver Schmidt of Rainbow Lawn Systems digs a hole.

In addition to keeping spending in control, Marcum is careful to plan ahead according to the seasons. Ordering inventory strategically and maintaining vehicles during down time means not only cost savings, but better service to customers in the long run.

“Heather and I, my wife and two other people spend time over the winter servicing trucks, getting our inventory set up,” Marcum said. “If we do buy all of our inventory in the spring we get better pricing on it and we've got it on the shelf if we need something. It's better than, if when we are so busy we don't want to be doing inventory activities.”

They've got a lot of customers. They are based out of Pequot Lakes, but they serve Walker, Laporte, Park Rapids, Staples, Motley, Longville, Bay Lake, Crosby and during slow times they have even gone to the Twin Cities and the border of North Dakota and Montana. In addition to approximately 80 new irrigation installations every year, they perform services for about 1,200 customers with peak seasons in the spring when they service systems after the thaw and again in the fall to winterize systems. Among their big local customers have been Pine River-Backus School District and Pequot Lakes School District.

There are slower times during the summer and even some serious down time in the winter, but those times actually make Marcum enjoy the business more, rather than less.

“I enjoy the work,” Marcum said. “It's very fast paced. I enjoy the seasonality of it. We have our peak demands and we have our slower demands. We ramp back up in the fall and have peak demand again. There's a conclusion in the season so we get time to, right now we get time to spend a lot more time with the kids and doing church ministry things we enjoy doing that we don't get a chance to in the summer when we're busy.”

Jim Marcum installs fittings on an irrigation line with Rainbow Lawn Systems.
Jim Marcum installs fittings on an irrigation line with Rainbow Lawn Systems.

Business relationships are also a big part of success.

“The success of our company is a result of long lasting business relationships,” Marcum said. “My wife Heather started as an Irrigation technician 14 years ago and now she and her sister Jenny manage all business operations from our home office. My brother Jim has been with us for 14 years. Reid with the The Woods Landscaping, and Matt and Jeff Balmer with Lands End Development and many other customers have been loyal and dedicated to us for over 14 years. Warren at First Supply in Brainerd has been faithfully supplying our materials for 14 years. These solid relationships with coworkers, customers, and suppliers is what has kept me going all these years.”

Among other strategies to keeping healthy business relationships, Marcum is careful to not step on anyone's toes. In the end, this has resulted in his business picking up many more subcontracting jobs.

“What we do is we try to specialize in irrigation as much as possible,” Marcum said. “A lot of landscapers and excavators, builders subcontract us. We don't want to do anything that would compete with them so we stick very closely with irrigation. It's worked out well for us. We are able to specialize and do what we do well. The cycle times on an irrigation system are short, so the guys working with us get to be experts at it pretty quickly. That's what we're doing every day. We're able to operate pretty efficiently.”

Owner Thomas Marcum of Rainbow Lawn Irrigation helps Ryan Muise trench in a water line.

Marcum has developed favorite jobs over the years. He certainly prefers new installation jobs where the landscaping is in progress and the yard is wide open, giving lots of space to his crew and their equipment. That's true locally, or even if they go well out of town.

“One of my favorite projects was when we were able to travel to North Dakota and go out there to a wide open site with a big area we were covering,” Marcum said. “We were able to get our equipment in everywhere and service it well. That was probably my favorite. I'd love to go back out there but we don't get the opportunity very often.”

For Your Info

  • Business: Rainbow Lawns Irrigation Systems

  • City: Pequot Lakes.

  • Employees: 15-18.

Did you know? In addition to about 80 new irrigation installations every year, the company provides services for about 1,200 customers with peak seasons in the spring when they service systems after the thaw and again in the fall to winterize systems.