After nearly 47 years in business, Dick and Donna Ford of Williams Lake have sold Highlands Irrigation Ltd. to Southern Irrigation of Chilliwack.
“It’s been a big experience and our lifestyle for all that time,” said Dick, who founded the company with Donna in 1974. “Donna’s been kind of the backbone of the company and I’ve been out visiting ranches having fun.”
The sale is very good news, Donna added.
“We have known the company for a long time,” she said. “They are a family company and we really like the way they do business. We are really proud to pass it on to someone we feel good about.”
Dick noted the two companies often met at trade shows and last summer Southern Irrigation approached the Fords asking if they would like to sell.
“They are going to make some changes and expand the scope of the business with some other products, all to do with irrigation and municipal or industrial water activities,” he added.
Highlands’ Williams Lake and Kamloops offices will stay open, keeping the existing staff and their son Chris Ford will continue to manage the Kamloops office.
The Fords moved to Williams Lake in 1969 was Dick was working for an irrigation business that expanded into the Cariboo.
The couple planned to stay a year, but by 1974 they were enjoying Williams Lake as a good place to raise a family and decided to start their own business.
“Williams Lake was a welcoming place and small businesses got a lot of support,” Dick recalled. “At the same time technology was changing. We were at the right place at the right time.”
When ranchers in the Chilcotin region initiated getting three-phase power, that gave the ranchers and Highlands a big boost, he noted, adding the ranching community was always supportive.
“I think we only wrote off two bad debts with ranchers in 47 years. In the north and here, ranchers plan well ahead and appreciate the design work we do for them. It’s been a great experience.”
Donna said over the years they also had businesses in Kelowna, Cloverdale and Cache Creek.
Having clients as far north as the Yukon, east to the Alberta border, west to Vancouver Island and up through the Interior and the Northwest, gave them an awareness of the province and the requirements for irrigation, she added.
“Without our staff we could have never succeeded as we have. I tell Dick his staff has altered the landscape of B.C. You see it when you drive through those regions.”
Dick and Donna will be supporting the new owners during the transfer of ownership and winding their own company down before they fully retire in Williams Lake.
They hope to spend more time with their four children Julie, Mike, Chris and Jen, and seven grandchildren.
“Our grandkids keep us busy and we really enjoy our family,” Donna said.
Dick said he will have to find some new hobbies and go golfing more with Donna.
One of their daughters described their family life growing up and said breakfast conversations usually had something to do with the business.
“We have all had involvement with the business — some more than others,” Donna added. “Our daughter Jen is an enormous support in marketing. They have all been extremely supportive forever.”
While the pandemic impacted Highlands Irrigation’s total volume in 2020, smaller projects kept them busy and they managed to keep everyone employed through the whole period.
Because of this year’s flooding, it was a record year for selling culvert and pumps, Dick said.
Another challenge for the company was the 2017 wildfires, which deeply impacted their customers whom they have grown so close to over the decades.
With the help of staff, Dick said the business remained open to deliver fire suppression equipment.
“We actually got a permit or run a truck up from Kamloops with supplies.”
The Fords admired the rural community who stayed behind and worked to protect their ranches.
“As shocked as we were, we developed a great admiration for them.”
Grateful to all the people who worked for them over the years, Donna said there are dozens and dozens of past employees because they hired so many students in the summer time.
Originally from New Zealand, Dick still owns a ranch there that he leases out.
Once COVID-19 eases, the Fords hope to travel there.