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Close-Up Profile: Brian, Jane & Justin Smith

DENNE GOLDSTEIN | Close-Up Profiles

It's all about family. To most of us, it has always been about family. Many of us were fortunate to be born into families that gave us unconditional love, which we later passed along to our own families. Brian Smith was one of those lucky guys. Born into a blue-collar family, his father worked as a mechanic on a road crew, building roads in South Africa, so the family moved quite often.

Periodically, his grandparents would take him to their home for short periods of time. Smith was looking for some pocket money and his grandparents had a thriving ‘cottage industry’ baking pastries. So at the very tender age of eight, he would Left to right: Justin, Brian and Jane Smith help them bake extras to sell around the neighborhood.

Around age 12 or13, Smith began making wooden skateboards. It was a new sport in South Africa, and he sold boards to his friends. That, he says, was his first introduction to entrepreneurial thinking.

Since his parents couldn’t afford to send him to a private university, they worked his education around government programs. Once he completed his studies in the mid- ’70s, he did his mandated military service. By the time he left the military as a junior officer, he was still in his twenties.

While in school, Smith had met a girl in class who, years later, would become his wife. He saw her in the bank, where she worked for his mother. They started dating.

With his education and military service behind him, Smith went to work doing seismic research for the mining industry. His girlfriend became his fiancée, and at the age of 25, he married Jane.

Feeling the entrepreneurial calling, they started a mobile disco business in South Africa. During this time, they were doing a lot of traveling. With their son about to be born, they decided that parenting was the priority. So in 1984, they sold the mobile DJ business, bought a house and settled down.

Smith would enter the irrigation industry by accident. That house he bought? Well, Smith decided to have an irrigation system installed. However, when he saw the breakdown price of the materials, he realized that the costliest item was the controller. He told the dealer that he would buy all the irrigation parts from him, but not the controller.

Smith set about building a controller and in his early 30s, he officially entered the irrigation business. He improved on his original controller and developed a central satellite controller for golf courses. Local dealers began to sell his system, not only because it was a good central satellite controller, but because it was made and serviced locally—equally as important. If something went wrong, Smith was there to repair it. His company grew like a weed.

“He came over and asked if I was interested in working with Hardie and possibly selling my business,” Smith continued. “We discussed the potential market and, just like that, we committed our family to a future in the U.S.A.” A short time later, in June 1995, at the age of 35, Smith was on a plane headed for Southern California, with just $100 in his pocket.

A major incentive for Smith to sell the company and move to the U.S. was that his son, Justin, could get the education that he himself was unable to receive. Smith could not believe his luck or that the deal was real, so at first, he came by himself. Once the deal was signed and closed, the family followed.

While Smith was working at Hardie, it was sold to The Toro Company. He stayed on for a while. “Then in 1998, I was offered a position at Thompson Manufacturing. At the time, they were being acquired themselves and needed help,” said Smith.

A few years later, the new owner asked Smith what he thought of the company; he told him he loved the business. The chairman of the board responded, “Find me a buyer or better still, buy it yourself.”

“I didn’t have the money,” Smith said, but the chairman said he would work it out. “So we ended up buying Thompson Manufacturing, which at the time was known as Union Tools Irrigation, and then formed Signature Control Systems, Inc.” Smith later acquired Bear Irrigation.

Signature now was able to produce a complete line of golf irrigation heads, valves and a central controller which, under an agreement with John Deere, would be marketed under the John Deere brand. Unfortunately, the timing couldn’t have been worse. The housing bubble burst and the economy went into a tailspin. Selling irrigation systems to golf courses, when no new golf courses were being built, was a tough spot to be in.

Smith realized that he needed to diversify and expand the company into the commercial/residential business segment; they had to get a toehold in this space. They developed new products for this market and in 2008, he had the opportunity to purchase Nelson Turf. This helped round out a complete res/com product line.

Signature Controls has always concentrated on electronics. Here was the perfect opportunity to focus on the use of intelligent electronics in the commercial and residential markets. “As a small company, we didn’t have the resources—both human and financial—to support all irrigation markets, so we slipped off the radar in the industry,” said Smith. “We believe that we are the industry’s best kept secret, but we’re hard at work to let the genie out of the bottle.”

And it’s still all about family. “We are a family business,” Smith remarked. Jane heads up the finance department; son Justin, now 29, graduated from the University of LaVerne, and is one of the regional sales managers.

“Our legal counsel all through my business career and through the sale to Hardie was my late father-in-law. From South Africa, he gave me moral support when I needed it. He was a great mentor and a pretty darn good attorney. But then, I did marry my lawyer’s daughter.”

“We have a bright future ahead of us,” Smith commented. “With smart people on our team, excellent quality products, and a whole and expanding family, how can we not win?”

 
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