Aquatrols CEO talks with Pat Jones about working through the challenges of today and investing in some interesting things for tomorrow.
What struck me most about my second time around interviewing Matt Foster was that he didn’t want to discuss business growth or new products or sales achievements. What the CEO of Aquatrols really wanted to talk about were the PERC rates of the different trial greens he’d been building at the company’s new Aura Research Farm.
Matt Foster: “We want to try to find out what the difference is between the nominal PERC rate and what’s actually coming through, for example, a Trinity zoysiagrass green built on a USGA green spec. I want to be able to tell people that on a green that’s PERC’ing 52” per hour, guess what? You’re still not losing much nitrogen so the program you’re on is just fine.”
This is what happens when you let a turfhead run a corporate company.
Foster has never been a typical suit. When I first interviewed him for a column in GCI four years ago, he had just taken the helm of the company we have known and loved forever and was trying to get his arms around the opportunity. Since then, the superintendent-turned-executive has helped Aquatrols bring its considerable agronomic resources to turf nutrition (via an exclusive distribution agreement) and plant health products with the introduction of PoaConstrictor and Dovetail.
So when I called him to catch up as part of a new project I’m doing with the company, we did talk some business – including how his years as a superintendent helped prepare him for the leadership role of a lifetime – but what really jazzed him up was building a living laboratory called The Aura Research Farm to prove products and concepts in the real world. “You have to be able to tell customers ‘I’ve seen it work.’”
What’s the most important thing you want people to know about Aquatrols today?
Matt Foster: “That all of our efforts – everything we do and say – should convey a genuine commitment to our customer. Sometimes I hear that and it sounds so cliché but I am still so passionate about what a superintendent does every day. It almost feels like we’re fighting for them. That’s not meant to be self-righteous…we feel like they’ve earned that level of support and trust. We want to offer the solutions they’ve earned and deserve to have.”
What part of your philosophy stems most from your years as a super?
Matt Foster: “I like the notion of empowering superintendents to trust themselves. I bristle at the idea of somebody else who isn’t your boss telling you what to do. Most turf pros are more than competent enough to make their own decisions.
Take pulling cores as an example. Lots of people have opinions about it, including golfers, so let’s add science and research the impact of doing it versus not doing it on lots of things. That’s a big reason why we want our own research farm. We need to look at the real-world side of what cultural practices do in combination with other stuff. It probably doesn’t help us sell a lot more Dispatch in the future, but we can offer better alternatives for customers who really understand what they need.
My expectation is that our commitment to research and the customer’s business should be self-evident. I really don’t care where you’re sitting. If you’re at home, at our facility or visiting our new Farm, the commitment should be self evident.”
Talk about the Farm because that’s an important new thing.
Matt Foster: “I remember within a few months of being here I knew we had to have a research farm. For me it was unacceptable not to have one because we had to be in control of our research and have the flexibility to do it on our timeline. We were frustrated by having to wait – sometimes years – to get into the queue at universities or research cooperators. It goes back to having real-world answers for superintendents.”
What’s that mean to you?
Matt Foster: “As an ex-super I struggle with the idea that a customer should believe what someone tells them if they can’t show them how it works and they’ve never seen it in person.
This stuff really works! How do you know? Look at this paper!
It feels dismissive of their efforts to say stuff like that without really knowing it. I want our people to be able to evangelize for us because they’ve seen what our stuff can do under a variety of conditions. It’s very important to me that I can look someone in the eye and say,
“Dude, I’ve seen it.” “
Give us the basics of the place.
Matt Foster: “It’s literally 10 acres in the middle of a South Jersey cornfield. We have 7 acres committed to turf and 3 for agriculture. There are four fairway-height plots with blue/rye, bermuda, zoysia and bent. We have two pushup bent greens in the middle of the zoysia and bermuda. The whole thing is surrounded by pollinator buffer strips and beyond that the corn does a great job of camouflaging us for much of the growing season.
In a lot of cases the goal will be to push the envelope to reduce water or optimize another input. Something Aquatrols can do that supers typically can’t is long term or large experiments. We try to kill turf so you don’t have to.”
Can “turfies” come visit?
Matt Foster: “Absolutely. We hope to do as many events as possible – virtually and in person – from Memorial Day through Labor Day every year. We can do show and tell but it’s also an amazing opportunity to connect customers directly with our research team and get a whole new level of feedback.”
What have you learned from leading a team through this pandemic?
Matt Foster: “The best thing has been knowing that I get to work with a team that has been handpicked and we have this like-mindedness. I think like-mindedness is an important thing at a time like this. That said, the reality is the spectrum of concern is vast in every organization. From one end of the spectrum to the other people feel very differently about this whole event. So, one thing I learned was to be respectful and allow everyone to feel the way they feel.”
What does your CEO bottom line “spidey sense” tell you about the pandemic’s impact on business?
Matt Foster: “We dodged a bit of a bullet because of the timing. And it’s obviously not over.”
What’s been the most gratifying thing you’ve accomplished thus far?
Matt Foster: “Team assembly. The people that we’ve been able to recruit are helping Aquatrols achieve a renaissance. You can’t do that overnight, but we’ve really come a long way. I’m very excited about what people are going to see from us in the near future.”
You raised some eyebrows by forming a partnership to sell Redox in golf. How’s that going?
Matt Foster: “The response exceeded expectations from a customer standpoint, and we worked through the concerns we had with some of our distributors. If someone is going to have their cheese moved, you expect some pushbacks. But it’s given us a chance to talk with people who weren’t previously Aquatrols customers as well as those who weren’t yet using the nutrition line.
At the end of the day the superintendent wants to buy the way they buy, but water management and nutrition go hand in glove. We’re already finding more interesting ways Redox works with our water management line. It’s a great fit agronomically.”
What’s your advice for an ambitious young person considering a career in turf?
Matt Foster: “The beauty of the turf industry is that at the end of the day we are a subset of agriculture, and if you have business aspirations – don’t undersell the turf industry. It can connect you with bigger things than you might recognize. The opportunity is way bigger than just growing grass. Both turf and ag offer huge global opportunities. But there’s also the intangible part of the turf business I love too.
There a few things in life that never get old for people. I never get tired of watching ducks fly. And I never get tired of watching sunsets on a golf course. If you feel that passion around turf, you’ll have an awesome career.”
Final thoughts…what silver linings do you see for all of us coming through the current craziness?
Matt Foster: “Personally, I’ve been incredibly productive – probably the most productive I’ve ever been. And the commute has been awesome. I’ve still gone into the office but traffic on the New Jersey turnpike is at an all time low, which is nice. But seriously, I’m optimistic because of human beings. I don’t care what country you live in.
As horrendous as this all is, I know I have friends in communities across the globe who wake up every day and try to have a good life. Bad stuff happens, yet we prevail.”
To learn more about Aquatrols or their team check out some of their other blog posts here. You can also subscribe to their email publication, Beyond the Drop, here which features superintendent highlights, Q&A’s, industry articles, and more.