by Katherine Woodford McDilda
Ford and Edison were known for their creative minds and dedication to making things work. Don Olson may not compare himself to such great inventors, but his family and colleagues might, and his lifetime of dedication to the irrigation industry is a testimony of how deep his commitment and enthusiasm is.
Co-founder of Olson Irrigation Systems, headquartered in Santee, California, Don has spent his life not only inventing new irrigation products, but also building the molds necessary to produce them. He studied mechanical engineering at the University of Minnesota and has combined his innate knowledge of "how things work" with his educational background to become a leading innovator in the irrigation industry.
Never without a sketch pad and pencil in hand, Olson has the unique ability to combine relaxation with work. But as with all "geniuses", he doesn't define it as "work." On Sunday afternoons, while the majority of the male population has a remote in hand, watching a sport of some sort on television, Don is right in there with them. But unlike the others who may have beer and pretzels in front of them, he has his sketch pad and is "casually" outlining design modification ideas to take to the office on Monday. There he will be found leaning over the shoulder of his protÈgÈ, Alvin Abanes, as these new concepts are put into CAD format on the computer. Rarely spending time in his office, he can be found either with Alvin deep into the CAD program on the computer, or in the shop working with Andrzej Szmidt. He is a physicist from Poland whose job it is to take Olson's concept, refine it, get the machinery working that is built to make it, and then troubleshoot the final product.
Born a son of Swedish immigrants, Don was raised in Minnesota with his brother, Harry. His parents taught both boys that work never hurt. They are very proud of their sons, who are both engineers, operating their own companies.
In the mid '60s, the DRIP-EZE Company was formed to manufacture Don's earliest irrigation concept, drip irrigation emitters. DRIP-EZE went public as Controlled Water Emission Systems, was later purchased by Reed Irrigation, then sold to Hardie Irrigation, and is now owned by Toro Agricultural Division.
While the company was still a subsidiary of Reed, Olson became president with an assistant named Kathleen Baldwin, whose specialty was in marketing and administration. In 1976, Don and Kathleen left Reed, forming a corporation of their own, Olson Irrigation Systems. Kathy and Don complement each other in their given talents, a formula to success in any partnership. Kathy handles the "business" end of the company, leaving Don free to bring his designs to life.
Over the years, Don's innovation in irrigation technology has brought him a tremendous amount of personal pleasure and self-fulfillment. He holds many patents, several of them among the earliest issued in the U.S. for drip irrigation.
Don seems to be motivated by an innate need to create tools and equipment for the irrigation contractor that will not only make his job easier without compromising quality, but that will actually upgrade quality to the end user. The most important criteria that these innovations must meet are in the area of water conservation, a subject close to his heart.
"The worldwide demand for more efficient water use has opened a fertile field for innovative irrigation concepts," said Olson. Because of its urgent need for water management, in 1986 Olson was contracted by the USSR to set up manufacturing facilities that would specifically manufacture drip irrigation products.
More of a "hands-on" and "person-to-person" man, many of his concepts have been created with the specific needs of a customer in mind. He then is able to gear these ideas towards meeting the needs of the masses.
One of his shining moments came in 1996; he was publicly recognized for his genius by being awarded the "Industry Achievement Award" from the International Irrigation Association. As he accepted this award, he gave credit to Kathleen for being an engineer's 'perfect partner in business'.
"Two engineers should never go into business as partners, they would be falling all over themselves. There has to be one partner who doesn't mind taking care of the office, and at Olson Irrigation that is Kathy."
Don and his wife, Judy, reside in El Cajon, California, where they raised three children, Donita, Greg, and Chuck. A close-knit, loving family, they enjoy spending time with their children and three grandchildren. You can hear the pride in his voice when he speaks of his family.
Standing 6'6" tall, he has often been described as a giant and pioneer in the irrigation industry, a description that he modestly accepts with pride.
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