All in the Family
Southern Michigan water business transitions to its third generation of owners
Tri-County Water in Jackson, Mich., has been the Watts’ family business for almost three generations. According to Daniel Watts, general manager, his grandfather led the way into the water industry and the family has followed suit ever since. “My grandfather got his start delivering exchange tanks out of a milk truck in the ‘50s. He then transitioned to selling automatic water softeners,” Watts said.
In 1966, Watts’ grandfather went into business for himself, starting Tri-County Water, in Jackson, a town 40 miles west of Ann Arbor and 35 miles south of Lansing. Watts’ father took over the business in the early ‘90s, and today, the company, which has 10 employees, is being transitioned to the third generation — accomplishment that employees are proud of. “As far as our company’s structure, we are very similar to most dealerships across the country, [but] we are a third-generation company. Not many companies make it as far as we have,” Watts said. “We are all very proud of that.”
Tri-County Water splits its time evenly between the residential and commercial/industrial sectors, receiving about 50% of its business from each segment. The company addresses high hardness levels, hydrogen sulfide, and high levels of ferric and ferrous iron and arsenic — all water concerns that are common to southern Michigan. The company offers a variety of solutions for residential water treatment, including whole-house systems, softeners, salt-free systems, iron and odor filters, reverse osmosis (RO) systems, and salt and water delivery.
For mechanical contractors and businesses across mid-Michigan, Tri-County Water designs and maintains commercial softeners, RO systems, deionization systems and descaling systems, among other solutions. The company’s clients range from hospitals, hotels, universities, labs and manufacturing facilities to car washes, restaurants and jails. Using computer software, Tri-County Water provides drawings, written specs and projected maintenance costs to help each customer choose the best solution for its specific problems.
Having a family business that has spanned three generations has not come without its challenges, especially as the economy wavered in recent years. “Our local economy was hit hard for the past 10 years or so, but we are definitely seeing a rebound here,” Watts said.
Tri-County Water was able to push through the economic downturn by amping up its commercial/industrial business, and Watts noted that the company has grown steadily every year for the past four years. “We have seen a large increase in the amount of high-purity applications recently,” Watts explained. “We see that the more technical a product or service is, the more profit there is in that area.”
Another challenge that Tri-County Water has dealt with is high competition in the surrounding area. The company faces this challenge by making a name for itself within its ever-growing commercial and industrial business. “Our highest profits occur in the commercial/industrial segment, because it is something many of our competitors don’t have the expertise to compete in,” Watts said.
Keys to Success
One factor that has aided in the company’s success despite difficulties is its ability to retain quality employees, according to Watts. “We treat our employees like family. Being fair, honest and reasonable goes a long way,” he said. “We also help our employees advance in the industry through training and certification.”
This is an area that Watts would like to continue to focus on as the company continues to grow. As members of the Water Quality Assn. (WQA), Watts noted that belonging to an association like WQA plays an important role in supporting the overall industry, but he said that he would like to see more integration of education into the day-to-day work of employees.
“We now require all installations to be photographed, and we use the photos as a training experience. We also have suppliers come in a few times a year to perform service and technical training sessions to keep up on product changes, [but] this is an area we can improve,” Watts said.
The company also invests in technology to help the business move forward, using GPS tracking on service vehicles to help with dispatching, and smartphones to take photos and videos in the field if technicians have any questions.
Tri-County Water also invests in its website — a marketing tool that Watts think is crucial. “Having a website is mandatory for all service companies,” he said. “Most customers will search for a company online to make sure you are legitimate before making the call for service.”
Vision for the Future
In Watts’ predictions for the future of the water industry, Tri-County Water is in a great position. “I feel we are going to deal with [many] more high-purity applications, including the manufacturing, laboratory and medical fields,” an area in which company is already experiencing great success, he said.
As Tri-County Water transitions into its third generation of owners, Watts also has specific personal goals. “My current project is to be more involved with post-sale customer relationships and to do a better job following up with old customers,” he said, adding that the easiest sale is someone you have already done business with. “Word of mouth will always be our best advertising, however. If you go above and beyond for someone, they are likely to tell their friends.”
As he prepares for whatever the future may hold, Watts encourages other dealers to do the same. “Have a vision for your company, make a plan and see it through,” he said. “There are many opportunities for growth out there.”