Turfhead at the top

Columns - Parting Shots

July 6, 2017

I met Mr. Bob Moore not long after my start in this wacky business 30 years ago. He was a jovial, white-haired fellow who would talk your ears off about the science of water management. If prodded, he would confirm he’d pioneered the invention of a product we all know and love today: the turf wetting agent.

Mr. Moore was the founder of Aquatrols and the father of the concept that surfactants and other technologies could promote better distribution of water to grow turfgrass. He was also quite literally the father of the next generation of Aquatrols leadership including Tracy Moore Jarman, Andy Moore and Demie Moore. The family became a fixture in our industry, growing their company, supporting the profession and continuing to innovate with products like Dispatch and Revolution.

As a privately held company, the Moore family appointed a half-dozen outsiders to ensure they had a variety of insights and ideas to guide the company, and they offered me a seat. I served for six years in the mid-2000s and it was awesome. In exchange for perspectives I provided about the golf business, I got to see a family-run company from the inside-out as they dealt with business changes, brought new products to market and coped with Mr. Moore’s retirement and later passing.

Like many family businesses, Aquatrols grappled with the future. Should they keep the business small and focused on golf, make a big expansion into agriculture, acquire other companies or try to find the right buyer who would continue the company’s name and legacy? Those discussions went on during my time on their board. With no “next generation” of the Moore family ready to take on the leadership, something had to give.

There’d been lots of interest and offers to buy the company, but it took a group led by industry legend Roger Underwood to put the right offer together. He had recently sold his company, Becker-Underwood, to BASF and was looking to invest in strong, tech-driven green industry companies. And, he had a turfhead in mind to run the business.

That turfhead is Matthew Foster, a Midwesterner who planned to be a commercial pilot but got sidetracked into the golf biz by a friend who was in the Mississippi State program when Jeff Kranz and Mike Goatley were there in the ’90s. After graduation, he was superintendent at Timberton GC in Hattiesburg and worked multiple grow-ins back when we were building courses like crazy. Despite the success, he still had the urge to do even more: “I’ve always been the type to have an eye on my career path,” Foster told me. “I wanted to build and manage something in the business and I genuinely felt like I could make a difference by being a great supplier.”

So, Foster became a field rep for the old ProSource organization in 2001 and earned an MBA from Tulane. After solidifying his career in sales, he moved to FMC in 2009 where he got experience on the ag side. He was appointed FMC’s Global Director for Plant Health working with biopesticides, seed treatments and micronutrients. When the call from a headhunter looking to find new leadership for Aquatrols in late 2015, he wasn’t looking … but he was intrigued. He soon realized this was a chance to take a very cool company to new places … and return to his turf roots.

He spent a year-and-a-half in a transitional role as COO learning the ropes. Now, as CEO, he has a remarkable opportunity to build on the Moore family legacy and grow Aquatrols to new places. How?

“Near term, we’ve got to get closer to the customer – and that includes both our channel partners and supers,” he says. “We’re expanding our sales force and hope to have 15 reps eventually. We’re going to grow by offering a higher level of service.

“We’re also going to tighten up our portfolio and launch new brands. Yes, people see Aquatrols and all they see is golf. Golf will always be our flagship business, but it’s only about half of what we do. We also plan to continue to grow in soil media, sports turf and the specialty ag side.”

Right off the bat that means building up the company’s actual manufacturing capabilities and continuing to leverage Aquatrols’ research capabilities to include the broader topic of soil/water interactions: “We want to grow an organization that is seen as the green industry’s leader in soil solutions. To call us a water management company doesn’t do it justice.”

And what does he think about getting back to his roots? “The thing about the golf business is you come for a job but you stay for the people. I’m thrilled to be back among friends.”

Pat Jones is editorial director and publisher of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at pjones@gie.net or 216-393-0253.