Mother, Son Keep Irrigation Company Liquid

October 26, 2003

By: Kevin G. DeMarrais, Staff Writer

The business union was one of circumstances.

Joann Menicola was out of work, following treatment for breast cancer that struck her two years earlier, just after she left her job as executive assistant to the president of a large company.

At the same time, her son Anthony was considering an offer to purchase a company he had helped launch several years earlier, and wanted his mother to work for him. "My first reaction was, I really didn't know," Joann Menicola says. "A mother and son working together can be very volatile at times."

But he insisted ("I would have bought the company without her," he says) and so Corner-to-Corner Irrigation was born.

Anthony started working in irrigation and landscaping as a teenager with a summertime job at The Corner Nursery in Lodi, and those same interests guided his college career at Rutgers University. He earned his degree there in 1995 in environmental planning and architectural design, and, in his first post-graduation job, he helped start up an irrigation division at the Lodi nursery.

So it was only natural that when the nursery put its irrigation division up for sale three years ago, Menicola would purchase it. He paid $400,000 and, seeking to retain the nursery customers who would be the heart of his business at the start, incorporated part of the old name into his new company.

The unusual mother-and-son management team split duties.

Joann Menicola, 55, uses her office management skills to run the inside part of the Elmwood Park business, handling customer calls and managing the office, while Anthony, 33, provides 17 years of hands-on experience on oversee the outside work. And how have things worked out?

Anthony is the boss, Joann says with a laugh. "He's the one with the expertise: I run the office."

But it's hard to ignore your mother, even when you own the company, Anthony says. "Sometimes the work and materials duties she feels can clash," he says. "But we're always under a good eye: she is always looking out for me. Basically, she lets me holler and yell, and then she ignores me."

The give-and-take is friendly because the two work as a team, helping business to expand in what has been a decidedly bad time for the irrigation and lawn sprinkler business.

"The first year we opened up, 2000, was a normal year," Joann Menicola says. "The second year we had the drought. The third year, this year, we had all rain."

"The drought was the ahrd one," she says. With restrictions on lawn watering, customers were not calling to put their sprinklers on, a service the company provides in the spring. Even so, the company ended up having "a decent year," as customers began calling once the restrictions were lifted in the summer, she says.

Servicing existing systems is a big part of the business. That includes opening the lines in the spring, repairing broken sprinklers in-season, and blowing out water with a compressor in the fall to prevent pipes from breaking from winter freezing, Anthony Menicola says.

This is the blow-out season, and the season's first frost warnings last weekend directly to a flurry of phone calls from concerned customers, Joann Menicola says.

At the same time that crews are taking care of existing irrigation systems, Corner-to-Corner is installing new ones, a process that usually takes one full day and costs about $2,500, depending on how many zones are included in the system.

Even with the weather-related setbacks the past two years, the company is on track to reach goals, Anthony Menicola says. "What we've had, we've dealt with." The company has beengrowing steadily, starting with about 8-clients in acquired from the Corner nursery to about 1,200 now, pushing annual revenues to about $500,000. They come from throughout the Bergen-Passaic region, including homes with large properties in towns such as Mahwah and Saddle River, to smaller parcels in South Bergen.

"I just finished an irrigation system for someone in Wood-Ridge," Menicola says. "The man told me he had been watering his lawn for 15 years and just didn't have the time anymore."

In five years, his goal is to have 2,000 customers, and to keep the same 7-to-3 ratio between residential and commercial customers he has now. But competition is tough, most of it from small companies similar to his, Anthony said. That means even when there are weather-related slowdowns, he has to be price-sensitive when bidding for work.

"With most estimates, we're usually right in the middle," he says. A challenge as big aas the competition is finding reliable help, Anthony says. "When I was 14 or 15, I looked for this kind of job," he says. "Now, people don't want to get their hands dirty."


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