All in the Family

August 18, 2011

A weathered van, a cardboard box full of parts, a dozen customers: These are the tokens of Clements Water Refining Service’s humble beginnings. Founded in 1972 by Roger and Joan Clements, the business originally operated out of the family home in Alpena, Mich. Roger had previously worked in the local oil industry, but after a poor economic showing, he decided to pursue water treatment.

“[My father took note of] a mostly ignored water softening division and saw it as an opportunity [to start a family business],” said John Clements, Roger’s and Joan’s son.

For 20 years, the Clements ran the business out of their home. John grew up in the dealer culture, learning the trade and developing a keen sense of customer needs. After he returned home from college and a brief tour a duty during Desert Storm, John was approached about taking over the family business.

“It was 1995, and my wife, Lori, and I purchased the business, moving to our current [storefront in Alpena],” said John, who now serves as the company’s president.

Roger and Joan have since retired, leaving John and Lori to manage the business and carry on the family’s legacy in the water treatment industry.

“My parents chose the company’s name with several factors in mind,” John said, adding that using their surname lets customers know they are dealing with a family business. “My name is on those trucks, so I try to make sure my customers are taken care of as well as possible. Anyone can sell a softener. We provide a service.”

A New Generation

It has been 16 years since John’s parents passed him the torch. A rapidly changing technology and economic climate has characterized much of John’s tenure, calling for innovative customer service strategies to keep the business afloat.

“I remember when the business started there was more personal interaction between the manufactures, suppliers and dealers,” he said. “Now everyone seems too busy.”

John witnessed his parents going to local fairs and home shows to meet future customers, but with the dotcom bubble and recent economic downturn, interactions with customers have become more distant.

“We strive for success through customer service,” John said, noting that even though the Internet and tighter household budgets have altered customer service, Clements Water has evolved to meet new customer needs.

“We have a drive up window so our customers don’t have to wake sleeping babies or slip on the ice in the winter,” he said. “And we have a filter cozy, which is a patent pending insulating jacket to keep filter housings from sweating.”

The goal of Clements Water is to make water treatment convenient and attainable for busy customers. About 80% of the business is focused on the residential market, while the rest comprises commercial and industrial.

“Our bread and butter is our residential market since much of the industry has shut down or moved away,” he said.

Moving the business out of the family home has also helped bolster the company’s presence in the community. Today, the company has three full-time employees. Relying mostly on word-of-mouth marketing, John said his goal is promote the company as the premier water treatment service in the community.

“We want people to mention us when discussing the best place to get water treatment equipment,” he said.

Moving Forward

Quickly and efficiently integrating technological innovations has helped Clements Water stay afloat for almost 40 years.

While standard iron and hardness problems remain the norm for most treatment operations, John said recent years have seen more tannin, hydrogen sulfide, iron and slime bacteria in the water. Constantly upgrading technology to deal with these treatment needs is essential to providing customers with effective clean water solutions.

“We are constantly evaluating new equipment to see if we can use it to help our customers and lessen the environmental impact,” John said.

Employee education is also integral to providing a reliable service. John requires all of his employees to receive Water Quality Assn. (WQA) certification and provides ongoing education opportunities to integrate new technology.

“The WQA is a very important information locator,” said John, who is a Certified Water Specialist VI. “It is a starting place for new employees to understand the business and meet other dealers.”

And while John said the water industry is never predictable, he is confident the future is bright.

“Everyone needs good water,” he said. “There always seems to be a new problem showing up.”

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