For over two decades, when Kenney Machinery’s golf course customers saw Tom Bolton it meant only one thing—whatever problem they were having with their irrigation system was about to be fixed. After October of this year, if they see Tom it will mean that he’s enjoying a round of golf on their course, because he is getting ready to enjoy a well-earned retirement.
Tom first started working for Kenney Machinery in the late 1970s in the role of irrigation salesman and service technician. After a two-year stint in that position, he left the company for a time and worked as an irrigation consultant for various companies. He eventually found his way back to Kenney Machinery in the early 90s, first as a part-time independent contractor and eventually as a full-time irrigation technician.
As Tom prepares to retire, he sat down with the Kenney Machinery blogging staff to discuss his career, the changes he’s witnessed in the industry, and his advice for the next generation of irrigation professionals.
Here’s what he had to say in response to our questions.
What are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in the turf irrigation industry over the past 40 years?
The biggest change that I have seen has been the computerization of irrigation systems. We went from electromechanical systems, which had little timers and electric motors on them and pieces that moved back and forth, to everything being solid state and run by computers. That’s been a massive change from in the past, and it allows for much more precise watering.
We can now get the timing of a sprinkler running down to within seconds, versus before where you were hoping that you were within two minutes with the old timed electrical mechanical box. We’re able to really control the amount of water that we put down, and actually reduce the amount of time it takes to water the golf courses.
Other than computerization, how has the equipment you’ve worked with changed during your career?
What has made a big difference is the vast improvement in the efficiency of the sprinklers themselves. There’s a term we use–coefficient of distribution—which refers to the amount of water that is put down from the sprinkler head to the furthest reach of the sprinkler. That used to vary greatly, but nowadays it is almost the same amount of water being put evenly across the golf course.
It’s much more precise, whereas before you’d have one area getting flooded while a spot next to it didn’t get enough water.
Looking back on your career, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
I don’t have any one specific accomplishment I can point to as one that stands out to me more than others. Rather I would say that my biggest accomplishment is knowing that my customers knew that when I showed up, any problems with their irrigation system would be fixed if they could be fixed. They would joke around with me and say things like, “How long are you going to be here this time, five minutes?” I just had a knack for finding the problem quickly and solving the issue, and to me, that is the highlight of my career.
Have you had the opportunity to work at any famous golf courses over the years?
I’ve done work at so many courses it’s hard to keep track—just about every golf course in Indiana and Kentucky that has an irrigation system, I’ve probably been there at least once. All told I’ve probably worked at somewhere in the range of 500 courses, some of them well-known and some of them just your standard local public course.
As far as the actual work you did, what parts of the job did you enjoy most?
I think the thing that I enjoyed the most was actually the troubleshooting. If a customer had an issue, I loved finding out what the problem was and assessing what I could do to fix it.
A lot of times you had to be a MacGyver. There was no easy way of fixing it unless you thought about the job and how to get around a problem that you were encountering out in the field, because you may not have the parts to be able to fix it right then. I always had the attitude of “where there’s a will there’s a way”. We were pretty successful with that mentality.
What advice would you give to people starting their careers in the turf irrigation industry?
First of all, be prepared for some long hours. There are definitely some very long days in this job because of how far you have to travel to get places.
Second, specifically for the irrigation side of things, I would advise people to take an electrical class. Unfortunately, I don’t think collegiate turf programs give people enough training on how to use volt meters, or how to understand AC vs DC voltage, and things like that. People coming out of those programs are scared of electricity when they get on the golf course, but with a little training they wouldn’t be.
Lastly, you better like being outdoors in the heat in this business. If you don’t like being in the heat then don’t get into this business for sure. The only nice thing about being a service technician is that you’ll work a lot less weekends than people on the management side like golf course superintendents. But that being said, there’s been many weekends that I’ve gone out and helped guys to keep them up and running.
What was Kenney Machinery like as a company to work for?
Kenney Machinery has been a very good company to work for. They’re family first. If you have something that’s family-oriented and you need to get to, I was told by Mr. Kenney when I was first hired way back when, “Family comes first.” If you need to take off an hour early, or you need to do this, or make arrangements, do what you need to do for your family first—that’s the culture of the company.
What are your plans for retirement?
Well, I would like to play some golf finally. When people hear what I do for a living, they always say “Boy, you must get to play a lot of golf.” Well, not really–by the time that you work all day and then you get a chance to play, you’re too tired so you don’t feel like doing that.
I’ll do a lot more floating on my pontoon and camping down at Lake Cumberland, which I enjoy immensely. My wife wants to travel a little bit, so we’ll probably pull the fifth wheel around a little bit more. There’s always projects at home, and I’m sure I’m still going to get some phone calls from Kenney Machinery to help some guys out from time to time.
The staff of Kenney Machinery wishes Tom the very best for his retirement. He will certainly be missed by both his coworkers and his customers whenever a vexing problem with an irrigation system presents itself, and we hope he continues to share his wisdom and experience with the next generation of turf professionals after he retires.