Going the extra mile comes easy for Harlan Eaton, who brought his Iowa hard work ethic and good values to Florida, and established a family business in Jacksonville where serving the irrigation contractor is key.
Harlan Eaton is not a giant of industry and he never really wanted to be. As a young boy growing up in Iowa, he learned good values and a good work ethic. After high school, Eaton made a decision not to go to college. He had other ideas. At the age of 17, following his graduation, he immediately joined the U.S. Navy.
At the time, he thought he would make the Navy his career. But then, he met Pat, the woman he wanted to spend his life with, and they married in 1968. The idea of being a Navy wife and having her husband away at sea for six months or more didn’t much appeal to her. So, after serving for eight years, Eaton left the service in 1969.
He was discharged in Florida, and the couple decided to stay there. They put down roots in Orlando. Without a trade and no skills to speak of, he decided to go back to school and learn about computers. He quickly learned that they—and school—held no interest for him.
He took a job as a serviceman with a Ford dealership. One of his customers was Florida Pump, a distributor for Sta-Rite Industries.
They got to know each other and one day, one of the partners offered him a job selling pumps. “I thought that was pretty neat, except I wasn’t familiar with pumps. I didn’t know what a pump was,” said Eaton.
But he accepted the sales position and learned about pumps. He also learned about pipe, fittings and sprinklers. It was during this time, in the mid and early ’70s that Eaton met Fred Tannler. He was selling pumps for Central Florida Pump, a competing company that was owned by Tannler’s father-inlaw.
“Tannler was thinking about starting his own business, and asked me to come in with him,” said Eaton. “I had the credit, he had the knowledge.” They wanted to open a store that served just the irrigation market. At the time, there weren’t any stores of that type that sold strictly irrigation supplies. “I thought about it for a while and decided that it could work well, so we became partners,” Eaton said. They opened the first Florida Irrigation Supply store in 1974, in Orlando.
Another store or two were opened in the next five years. Amazingly, they started with nothing and built the business up to five or six million dollars annually.
Eaton would be out on the road selling, and he would call Tannler to discuss the business. The subject would repeatedly come up: Eaton telling Tannler that they needed to open a location in Jacksonville. Tannler would tell Eaton that they needed one in Fort Myers first. As in many partnerships, there are differences of opinions, so five years later, Eaton sold his shares to Tannler and left the company.
But Eaton realized that he now had some skills. In addition to being a salesperson, he had also learned how to run a business. So, in 1979, with $10,000 Eaton borrowed from one of his contractors in Orlando, he opened North Florida Irrigation Equipment in Jacksonville. “And that’s history,” said Eaton. He’s been there for 36 years.
“We’ve come a long way since then,” said Eaton. And along the way, he’s learned quite a bit. One thing he realized is that he didn’t want to own a chain of stores. “I made a good living doing what I’m doing in this area. I wanted to serve our contractors by giving them the best service possible. The word ‘service’ is very important to us. Other stores don’t have the people to serve their customers and they don’t carry a big inventory. We carry the inventory and I know what my customers want.”
At the age of 70, Eaton believes it’s time to pass the baton to the next generation. He has two sons: Michael is an electrical engineer and works with the Jacksonville Electric Authority; Matthew graduated from the University of Florida and is a landscape architect.
Matt got into the family business about ten years ago, and is learning what it takes to run a small business in today’s environment. “He likes it and he’s good at it,” said Eaton. “The succession plan is to pass the baton, but I’ll be around to help guide him when he needs it.”
In the meantime, Eaton has learned to take time away from the business—although when he’s home, he goes into the office every day, if only for a few hours. About eight years ago, he purchased a motor home. He and Pat love travelling around the country, and enjoy seeing the different parts of the U.S.
“There’s a whole new world out there,” Eaton quips. And they’re enjoying the fruits of their labor. They’ve taken trips they never dreamed they would take; three month driving trips are not uncommon.
Although not a giant of industry, and a man who considers himself just an ordinary guy, Harlan Eaton is a giant of a man. He’s a solid citizen who has served his country well. He was brought up to be loyal and to stand for what he believes in. He learned that in order to build a strong, healthy business, he needed to serve his customers well and go the extra mile. He has succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Hooray for the small guy!
Celebrating their 46th year of marriage, the Eatons are looking forward to their next trip.
Reprinted with permission from Irrigation & Green Industry magazine.