By Pat Jones | Five years ago Oregonian Jeff Stephenson took his agronomic knowledge – and love of golf – to Palm Springs. How did he make a speedy transition into a new role in a new place?
Jeff Stephenson was the quintessential golf nerd. The Oregon native grew up caddying, played for his high school team, and worked at a club “basically for free golf.” Yet it wasn’t until he went to Oregon State University and got a student job on the college course that turf became a thing. He adored it and quickly switched majors.
He was lucky – he was among the last students taught by legendary OSU turf doc Tom Cook. “I hear his voice in my head all the time,” Stephenson says. Graduating in 2009, he headed east to Connecticut and New Jersey as an AIT for Pete Rappoccio at Silver Spring CC and then as an assistant to Greg Vadala at Montclair GC. “It was amazing and, looking back it’s kind of a blur because we just worked nonstop,” he recalls. “I went about three years with no time off but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
He moved back to Oregon to be assistant superintendent at Tokatee GC but a year or so later got a call from a buddy that changed his direction: would he be interested in a turf sales position with Nutrien in Palm Desert, California?
“I decided right then that
I’d plowed enough snow for one lifetime and said heck yes,” he laughs. “But
seriously I felt like it was a great fit for me. I love the agronomy side and I
love golf too so much I just had to stay around it. This was an ideal way to do
all of that.”
He packed up a U-Haul and headed south. Five years later and newly married, he has established himself in the area and has been successful in helping Nutrien grow their business with desert superintendents. Aquatrols and Redox have been a part of that story too: “They are such important tools for healthy turf and a lot of my customers rely on them,” says Stephenson. We caught up with him to learn about making the transition from turf to sales and what’s working agronomically in one of America’s golf meccas.
How did you go about establishing yourself in a new job and a new place?
I went to my bread and butter. I reached out and networked and started with my first love – playing golf. I got to know a lot of guys on the course but I also jumped into the Hi-Lo Desert GCSA as an affiliate member with both feet. He’s now the affiliate rep on the chapter’s board.
My go-to getting to know people was not agronomy. It’s my passion for golf, sports, and fun of all kinds. I try to relate to them on a personal level. I try to find common ground.
So, I got my feet underneath me by fast-forwarding the relationship-building process. I got involved in the chapter immediately and really made a point to meet everyone in person within my first few months. I was also lucky that I had a fellow OSU grad who helped me out and welcomed me. Also, I was single and had time to do all this stuff. Sometimes availability is your best ability.
What’s your advice to other young turfheads who move into sales?
You have to start fresh. You have to let go of your preconceptions and, most importantly, check your ego at the door. My job is to listen and analyze and put myself in their shoes and make honest recommendations. But you also have to step back a little because – at the end of the day – you aren’t in their shoes. The bottom line is to be authentic about your advice. I still recommend products we don’t sell (laughs) but don’t tell my boss that! It’s not about selling everything, it’s about selling yourself as a trusted advisor and, hopefully, friend. I think when you do that the business will come.
What else has helped you succeed in building your knowledge of turf management in this very different climate?
Honestly, Aquatrols has been a huge help. Those portfolios – both Aquatrols and Redox – have been the building blocks of so many successful programs for me. And they have science to back up what they say and give me great support. Ken Mauser (Western Territory Manager) and I ham-and-egg it really well. I try to keep my recommendations simple and those programs make that easier. Also, I’m blessed in a weird way. Working for Nutrien, we have the buying power of one of the world’s largest ag companies, which helps a lot with our pricing.
Which products have the most appeal to your customers?
Zipline is becoming a staple here. The number of customers on a monthly Zipline program is growing because it’s very reliable and lasts so long. I have other supers who use it for specific issues and that also gives them access to a premium product they otherwise couldn’t afford. A lot of supers here use it as part of a monthly maintenance program. It dramatically reduces hand-watering and provides better consistency.
Why do they like Zipline so much?
It’s the versatility of it. I know you hear this a lot but it really does combine the best of both worlds. So many products are positioned for one specific need or another. This combines that with a formulation that works. It’s like throwing the kitchen sink at ‘em. Aquatrols had already built the best wetting agent ever – Revolution – and to have another product come that meets that high standard but offers flexibility is a winner here in the desert.
What’s your other must-have recommendation?
Aqueduct Flex! The smartest thing you can do is have a bag of Flex in the Cushman and you can spot treat on the fly as you see problem areas arise.
How do you put a recommendation in front of a customer?
I like to lay out all the options for them and break out the cost per acre, which is an important factor for many. That is particularly important with a product like Zipline so they understand where it fits in their budget, and a lot of them find a way to make it fit.
How was the first full season in pandemic southern California?
Crazy like everyplace else. Clubs sold memberships like hotcakes and courses were packed from sun-up to sun-down. Supers got some well-deserved recognition too. It was awesome to see people appreciate what our guys do.
We’re already seeing more investment in courses this year. Between new memberships and general economic growth in the desert, there’s a lot of construction going on. Golf is jumping here so clubs are reinvesting.
Did courses have traffic issues in your area?
That was one of the few downsides. The biggest issue this winter was people trying to keep up with wear and tear from traffic. We found ways Redox could help, particularly around greens where you need quality products. It’s fun learning more about those products all the time.
One program I recommended a lot this winter was OxyCal at 3 lbs/acre per month to help photosynthetic efficiency, Loveland’s Ironman 12-0-0 at 1-2 gallons/acre per month for color, and good old Zipline per month for water management. That’s a great combination.
What’s your message to customers reading this?
My message to customers is I appreciate them more than they’ll ever know. I was given a gift with this job. I feel very fortunate. I get to blend all my passions into one. I truly like helping people and I hate saying no when someone asks me for something! It’s in my DNA to want to help. And I love playing golf, so that’s a plus.
And what’s your take on how Aquatrols has been part of your success story?
I marvel at their history but I’m also so impressed with the technologies they have today. They’ve strengthened their approach over the past few years. Their reps are great. Ken Mauser is an endless source of scientific knowledge about the products and about soils. It’s been a tremendous experience working with him.
Maybe it’s all the sunshine and vitamin D and an occasional In-N-Out burger but I hope I never have to update my resume again. I’m really blessed. I’m able to do what I love and enjoy my life here in the desert. And I just married my best friend. It’s all good!