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What's the secret to success as a water dealer? If you ask Pete Van Cleave, founder, owner and CEO of Water for Life in Atlanta, it's good old-fashioned hard work.
Water for Life has been one of the leading water dealers in Atlanta since it opened for business in 1991. The region presents its own unique challenges. Granite is prevalent in the soil, resulting in water with a low pH and high iron content. In 2010, an Environmental Working Group study placed Atlanta among the top 25 U.S. cities with high concentrations of chromium-6, a possible carcinogen, in the water supply.
Van Cleave was not always in the water business. He started out in the consumer products division of Lever Brothers Co., a Unilever subsidiary. Spending lots of time in grocery stores, he saw the water section grow "from about 4 ln ft to 40-ft sections," he said.
Van Cleave finally dove into the water business in 1989, opening Van Cleave Sales Associates. "I was offered a water filter company for purchase," he said, "but decided to start from scratch as an independent dealer/distributor."
He quickly found out that building from the ground up is no easy feat. "We started out in the bonus room over our garage with a couple of desks and our prized possession, a Macintosh SE computer," he said.
Early on he sold various product lines to the food service industry. Business really took off after he opened Georgia's first self-service water store, which was quickly followed by two more. Shortly thereafter, Water for Life started doing bottled water delivery. At its peak, the company served roughly 400 delivery customers and 4,000 self-service customers. Van Cleave currently has five employees.
Like many companies, Water for Life's business ebbs and flows with the economy. In particular, the residential side has had its ups and downs the last several years. "It's a major purchase in the case of equipment and it's still perceived as a luxury purchase when you're talking about bottled water," he said. "So bottled water has really dropped off and equipment has taken over."
One consequence of being in business for so long is watching an industry change right before your eyes. With the onset of e-commerce, Van Cleave ultimately decided the stores were no longer a good investment and closed them in 2006. Today, the vast majority of Water for Life's operations happen online. "The imports and the Internet discounters have wooed a lot of customers, but we've been able to distinguish ourselves with service," he said.
Any good business that endures for years learns to adapt to its environment. Water for Life is no different, and Van Cleave has embraced technological advance wholeheartedly. The company makes extensive use of its website and social media channels to reach out to its customer base.
"Leads, leads, leads," he said when asked about the importance of these endeavors. "We are really working on social media right now, trying to speed up the word-of-mouth advertising process using the Internet." Beyond Twitter and Facebook, the company also makes use of sites such as Merchant Circle and Service Magic, social networks targeted at businesses. Van Cleave hopes to start advertising on Angie's List next year as well.
Word of mouth is Water for Life's primary source of business. "I think our best asset is our experience," Van Cleave said. "You know if you keep practicing one thing long enough, you eventually get to be a master craftsman at it ... and people find you by your reputation."
He also said that staying an independent dealer has worked best for him, his employees and his customers. Since Water for Life is not tied to one brand, he can give consumers options and find the best fit for each. "My customers like that approach," he said. "They like getting more value, they like dealing with me. Since I'm the guy that they deal with, then the Water for Life brand is at least as meaningful to them in this industry as any other manufacturer's brand out there."
The way Van Cleave sees it, Water for Life will continue to be a no-lose proposition. "Water is an everyday, everyone, everywhere industry," he said. "There is so much opportunity everywhere you look."