Irrigation Leader
Featured,  Interview

CDI’s Growth in the Water Industry

Control Design, Inc., (CDI) is a technology company that manufactures measuring, monitoring, and control equipment to manage natural resources like water, oil, and gas. One of its most important markets is the water and irrigation industry. CDI's custom-built equipment can measure and report critical data and activity in remote and challenging terrain, making it perfect for irrigation and water districts with infrastructure spread out over large mountain and desert regions. In this interview, Jim Conley, CDI’s founder; Rod Stone, its president; and Felix Diaz, a research and development engineer at the company, tell Irrigation Leader about CDI’s services and its exciting prospects for growth. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about your backgrounds and how you came to be in your current positions. 

Jim Conley: I have been involved with radio communications since I was around 20 years old. I studied radio communications at a small college in eastern Kentucky. After that, I worked in radio communications for General Electric and Motorola. I spent about 20 years in data systems, microwave, and general radio-type communications. That’s where I saw the opportunity and developed the idea for this product. 

Rod Stone: The coowner of CDI, along with Jim, is a man named Keith Marshall, who owns several companies on whose boards I serve. Keith and I went to college together, and I have been actively helping him run his companies for the past 4½ years. When Keith and Jim formed a partnership to found CDI, Keith asked me to oversee and run the company. I’m not active in the day-to-day operations of the business, but I oversee its activities and provide support and resources as necessary. 

Felix Diaz: I’m from the East Coast and only moved to New Mexico recently. I have degrees in computer engineering and philosophy. That combination, along with working with medical diagnostics and Fortune 500 companies for a couple of years, showed me that the industry-leading technologies that Fortune 500 companies use are accessible to anybody who is bold enough to go after them. I came to realize that water, one of our oldest industries, needs this technology the most. I started wondering how I could get into this industry and how water could be better managed and organized. It just so happens that I met an individual who decided to bring me all the way to the West to help figure out how to show districts that this technology is attainable. 

A CDI automation control panel used in the motorized lift gate for flood control at the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Irrigation Leader: How does CDI fit in, and what is the niche that your company was founded to fill? 

Jim Conley: When I worked in the radio communications industry, Motorola saw the need for a more-reliable, longer-range radio communication system that would allow people to transmit data over long distances at a reasonable cost and would operate reliably for years without fail. I helped develop a product to meet that need. I was working in the oil and gas area of western Texas and southeastern New Mexico at the time, so for the first couple of years, I sold this product to the oil and gas sector. It allowed users to collect data at ranges of 50–100 air miles so that they could monitor their tanks in remote areas and prevent them from overflowing. 

Gradually, I worked my way over to areas of central and western New Mexico where there were irrigation systems. Irrigators there needed to communicate with gates and measurement sites that were 60–100 air miles from their main offices. My product allowed them to monitor water and control gates from afar, improving the management of their water resources and making better use of the limited amounts of available water. It has enabled them to manage their water more efficiently so that everybody gets a share instead of having to fight over it. That’s where I have put my focus for the last 20 years. 

Irrigation Leader: Was there anything else about the company’s history that you wanted to elaborate on? 

Jim Conley: Over the more than 20 years during which I marketed this product in the water, oil, and gas sectors, I had been looking for a good partner who could contribute the resources needed to expand the market for the product. Water is a pretty difficult industry to understand, and there’s not a lot of automation in it. 

At one point, while I was working in Arizona, I happened to stop at the RV dealer in Tucson to repair my motorhome. As luck would have it, Keith Marshall was also in the repair bay, and we were stuck at the repair shop for the next 3 or 4 days, waiting to get our RVs repaired. We started talking to each other, found that we had quite a few things in common, and struck up a friendship. Keith discovered more about my business and the fact that I was a one-man operation. I discovered that he was an entrepreneur. He started talking to me about how to grow my business and offered to help me find an investor. A few months later, he decided that he himself would like to be the investor. He had done more research into the potential of my product and recognized that it had better capabilities than anything else on the market. In October 2019, we signed an agreement, and Keith came on board as an investor to help grow this business. For the last year, we’ve been getting it on the fast track. 

Irrigation Leader: How many employees does the company have, and where around the country is it active? 

Jim Conley: I operated as a one-man business for more than 20 years. Since October 2019, when Keith and I signed our agreement, we’ve taken on six new employees and are working to expand the business into the water and irrigation market through advertising. 

Rod Stone: We’re active in the western states. We work closely with the Bureau of Reclamation and water districts west of the 100th parallel. 

Irrigation Leader: Please tell us about CDI’s main product and service offerings today. 

Felix Diaz: Today, we have transitioned to being a full-service provider. Not only do we allow our customers to monitor their resources, we also give them all the solutions they need to control and manage those resources the way they know the best. We have a solution for any industrial automation need a customer may have. We often joke that if it runs on electricity, odds are we can get you working with it. We give customers the hardware they need to interface with their equipment and the software they need to control all that equipment remotely. 

Rod Stone: There are a number of other manufacturers in this space, and our equipment is capable of interfacing with any technology that’s out there. Our customers don’t have to replace everything to use our equipment; we can interface with whatever they currently have. 

Irrigation Leader: Are control panels your major product offering? 

Rod Stone: It’s really only one of our product lines. We have solutions for monitoring and measuring water, oil, gas, or any other resource. We can monitor and assess limits, set alerts, and things of that nature. We collect that information and transmit it to central locations. 

Irrigation Leader: Who are your customers? 

Jim Conley: About 99 percent of our customers are from the water sector. One of our top clients has been Reclamation. It is tasked with managing most of the water resources in the West, and it has found our products to be reliable and easy to work with. Our other clients include quite a few water, irrigation, and conservation districts, such as the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District in Albuquerque, which has used our product for 20 years. That district has published documents about how our product helps it monitor an endangered bird species and save its environment. Using our equipment, the district has reduced the amount of water it takes out of the Rio Grande by over 50 percent and has reduced the amount of wastewater it sends back to the Rio Grande by over 80 percent. It has over 200 automated monitoring sites and gates.

The Elephant Butte Irrigation District in Las Cruces, New Mexico, has more than 400 sites where it uses our equipment to monitor its water resources for deliveries. It uses our equipment to monitor all the water resources throughout its canal systems and its deliveries in New Mexico, Texas, and Mexico. 

The Farwell Irrigation District in Farwell, Nebraska, uses our equipment to run gates and monitor water resources throughout its canal system, which is about 50 miles long. Its staff uses a product we offer called the CDMTU, or mobile truck unit, which is a handheld remote terminal transmitting unit. Using that device, the district’s ditch riders can check on water resources throughout their system and manage the gate settings from their pickup trucks. 

The only irrigation district in Yuma, Arizona, uses our equipment to monitor the water in its canal system, triggering alarms if the water levels get too high or too low. Because the district has to deliver so much water, it tends to run its canals a little too full at times. If the canals run over, it costs tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to repair. 

We’ve also been working recently with the Upper Arkansas Water Conservancy District in Colorado, using our equipment to send radio signals into remote mountain canyons where nothing else will work except satellites—and even satellites don’t work that well. We’ve recently installed equipment to allow the district to control its gates in real time at the remote mountain lakes where it gets its water. That allows it to manage its gates to more than a hundredth of a foot of accuracy, allowing it to get exact water flows from the lakes to deliver to its towns. 

Felix Diaz: Our equipment can be used to monitor and control water, oil, gas, and many other resources. One of our four major focuses is natural resources. Water, for instance, is foundational to almost every industry. We want to make sure that we’re putting our equipment into the hands of individuals who know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to managing water. 

Irrigation Leader: What are the company’s top issues, and what new technologies are you working on now? 

Rod Stone: As Felix said, water is not a renewable resource. The western United States is running out of water. We need to supply water more efficiently to grow the crops that feed our population. One issue is education. Many farmers and irrigation districts have been in operation for 100 years or more, and their canal systems are aging. Educating people about what our technology is capable of has been a challenge. It’s gotten a lot more attention from the people in government who hold the purse strings and can provide the necessary funding to automate and manage these resources better. 

As far as internal issues, Jim ran this business as a one-man operation for 25 years and was only able to take on as much business as he could handle personally. Because of that, CDI’s growth was stagnant. Branding and increasing name recognition have been challenges for us. We’ve spent the last 11 months building the infrastructure that is necessary for that task, updating our website, providing marketing material, and joining the United States Committee on Irrigation and Drainage to expand our clientele. 

As we’ve built our team, we’ve been getting more business. It is always a challenge to efficiently manage growth. The keystones of the company that Jim has built have always been reliability, data accuracy, asset cost competitiveness, and the ability to transmit data over long distances. We want to manage our growth properly so that we don’t lose any of that. Those are the challenges that we’ve been trying to deal with over the last 11 months. 

Irrigation Leader: What is your vision for the future? 

Rod Stone: First, we want to become the leaders in water management and irrigation. Over the long term, we want to expand into other markets or other resources, including renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power. 

Felix Diaz: Our vision for the future is to take water and get it out of the endangered resource category. We want to give people the tools that will allow them to manage water the way they know best. Once we do that, the rest of society can rest easy, knowing that water, the foundation of every single thing we do, is on the road to being safe. 

I also want to get beyond the stage in which people fall out of their chairs when we show them what our equipment can do. I want to show people that they can be comfortable with automation and that the equipment and technology that seemed to be reserved for Fortune 500 companies really isn’t. I want normal people to get the features and abilities this technology has to offer and to recognize that they can get tremendous value from this investment in ways they previously thought were impossible. 

Jim Conley: We want our customers to understand that they don’t have to spend a fortune to get the quality tools they need to manage their resources. Our technologies make it affordable and feasible to get out there and take care of these resources. We want to continue to expand on that. Our customers are our first priority. We are ready and organized to get out there and do the job right the first time so that they get what they need to manage their water. That’s what we’re all about. 

Jim Conley is the founder of Control Design, Inc. Felix Diaz is a research and development engineer at Control Design, Inc. Rod Stone is the president of Control Design, Inc. For more on CDI, contact Matt Jaramillo of the sales and technical team at (833) 9327323 or mjaramillo@cdione.com.