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While attending high school and college, he took a part-time job as a sales clerk at a garden center. The garden center also had a landscape company. When the landscape company would get busy, they would send Dobson out with the crew.
Although still in college, he was working almost full time at the garden center. Dobson liked the landscape business, and gave much thought as to whether he still wanted to be a math teacher. As he says, “There’s something about getting that dirt under your fingernails!” Dobson had known the owner of the garden center ever since he was a kid. He confided in him, and told him of his interest in the business. He also told him of his idea to start a maintenance division to go with the landscape division. He knew then and there that the landscape business would be his career of choice. The owner was quite interested and responded with, “If you want to start a division, why not start an irrigation division?” Shortly thereafter, a landscape job came in that also required irrigation. The landscape architect, who worked in-house, said to Dobson, “You’re good at math; here’s the landscape plan. Design the irrigation system, and by the way, we need the drawings by 3 p.m.” Dobson explains, “I opened a few books and began to read them. I then put some dots on a sheet of paper, and in six hours of self-taught knowledge, the plans were drawn.”
They ended up getting the job and installed the whole system. Dobson remembers getting the biggest kick when they turned it on and it actually worked! In November, 1967, Dobson made a decision. He was going to leave school halfway through his junior year and, with the owner of the garden center, start Middletown Sprinkler Company.
It was also the height of the Vietnam War, and it wasn’t long before the Selective Service decided that Dobson should spend a few years in the Army. In his first six months of service, he was stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey—not too far from his home—so he continued to do a few irrigation projects. He was then sent to Vietnam in 1969, where he did a tour of duty, and was discharged in May, 1970.
Back home again in New Jersey, many of the irrigation systems Middletown Sprinkler was installing were for commercial projects and the high-end residential market. Irrigation hadn’t really caught on in the medium-income residential market. “I was the salesperson; then, I was the foreman for the crew. I did it all,” said Dobson. “Whatever money we made, we put back into the company—buying equipment and trucks.”
In 1978, Dobson and his partner sat down to review the business. It was growing and throwing off a little profit, but that little extra profit also put his partner into the next higher tax bracket. So, it was decided that Dobson would buy out his partner; they remain good friends.
Planned residential communities were springing up all over New Jersey at the time, and Dobson developed very strong relationships with some of the largest builders in the state. One of them was one of the largest builders in the country, and Middletown Sprinkler Company was doing almost all of their irrigation work in the Northeast.
Sometime in the early ‘80s, one of Dobson’s distributors had a nine-hole golf course project. They had a contractor in mind to install the irrigation system, but questioned his ability. They asked Dobson if he would take a look at it. Even though they knew he had never installed an irrigation system on a golf course, they knew his company was well equipped and staffed. He got the job.
The golf construction market was growing, and Dobson’s company began getting more golf installations.
Residential communities were the largest part of the company’s revenue, but as that market was starting to back off, the golf segment was growing. Today, golf comprises 75 percent of his business and residential/commercial the other 25 percent.
“We’re still very active in the residential/commercial market,” he adds.
In the mid-70s, Dobson took a class that was offered by the Irrigation Association (IA). He liked what he saw and soon joined the association. The IA was unveiling their certification program and Dobson wanted to become certified. He sat for several exams and became a certified designer in commercial, residential, and golf systems.
Over the years, his involvement in the IA has included service on the Planning Council, History Committee, Certification Board, and the IA Ambassador Program. Dobson understands the importance of having a trade association, especially in recent years with increasing government regulation.
Dobson is a past president of the Irrigation Association of New Jersey, and the New Jersey Turfgrass Association. He is also a past chairman of the Irrigation Association’s Certification Board of Governors. He has served on the IA’s Board of Directors and Executive Committee for the past seven years.
This past November, Dobson assumed the presidency of the Irrigation Association. One of the goals he would like to accomplish is to strengthen the Association’s relationship with other green industry organizations and to work jointly toward common goals.
He would also like to get the message across about how important certification is—and wants to emphasize how much more creditable you are with those certifications alongside your name. He is walking proof.
Dobson’s son, Rob, worked for the company during his high school and college years. When he graduated from James Madison University, he spoke with his dad and said, “Before I go out on job interviews, I’ve always thought about what it would be like to work in the company on a full-time basis.” That was ten years ago and Rob is now vice president of Middletown Sprinkler. Bob Dobson is passing the baton to the next generation.
“I’d like to think my wife Judy and I did a decent job raising our children and building the business,” said Dobson. His wife Judy has been the office manager of Middletown Sprinkler for the past 32 years. “Now, I’d like to give back to the industry that has been so good to us: the irrigation industry. I hope to do this through my teaching at Rutgers University (he is an adjunct professor) and through my volunteer efforts with the IA.”