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California water dealer builds on the legacy of his father while blazing his own path
“The water business is in my blood,” said Jay Hellenbrand, president of Advanced Water Solutions of Ventura, Calif., about his passion for the water industry. And indeed it is.
The son of Jim Hellenbrand, founder of Hellenbrand Water in Waunakee, Wis., Jay learned the ins and outs of the industry at an early age. “[My father] taught me how to build and service the equipment and how to run a business,” he said. Both of Hellenbrand’s parents taught him the value of employees and customers. “The golden rule I learned from my parents is to take great care of your customers and employees, and they will take golden care of you,” he said.
A Long(er) Road
With water running passionately through his veins, Hellenbrand finished high school ready to make his mark on the water industry. There was only one thing standing in his way: “I really wanted to start my own water treatment business, but was encouraged to go to college,” he said. The decision to attend college was a move that he believes was good for his career.
After graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, Hellenbrand leapt headfirst into the water industry, landing a job at PJD Intl., a water distribution company in Santa Barbara, Calif., while also simultaneously operating his own residential sales and service business.
Within a few years, Hellenbrand quit his day job to take his business, Advanced Water Solutions, to the next level. In 1999, the company bought another small water business in Santa Ynez and incorporated it into the company. Two years later, in 2001, Advanced Water Solutions moved to Ventura to expand in that area.
Today, the company services Ventura and Santa Barbara counties from its Ventura location. With eight employees, the company’s business comes primarily from the residential market segment (65%), with some commercial business (35%). It provides whole-house filtration for chlorine, chloramine, herbicides, pesticides and organics removal; water softeners for hardness; and reverse osmosis (RO) and electrodeionization systems for drinking water. In addition, Hellenbrand said that the company is the “expert for water treatment solutions for specialty coffee shops.”
Softener Bans & Drought
Since opening Advanced Water Solutions, Hellenbrand has faced many challenges — some past and others present. The economic downturn, which affected water dealers across the country, was fairly mild for Hellenbrand and his company. “During the last few years of the economy struggling, we have continued to grow each year,” he said. Hellenbrand credits this primarily to his decision to avoid the new housing market. While many dealers who were in the new housing market were not able to bounce back from the market’s collapse, Hellenbrand never got heavily involved. “I never found that market to be profitable,” he said. “It was very cut-throat and insurance was expensive, so I just stayed away from it.”
Although the company was able to thrive during the economic downturn, there are two current challenges that have been more difficult to withstand: the drought, which has had a huge impact on the western region of the U.S., and softener bans throughout the state of California. Although the water industry has not worked out permanent solutions to either of these issues, Hellenbrand and Advanced Water Solutions are doing what they can to mitigate the effects.
“It is the worst drought that I have seen in the 19 years that I have been in California,” Hellenbrand said. “We are constantly striving to minimize the amount of water use from our systems.”
As for the softener bans, Hellenbrand has not seen much success with the equipment that is available; however, he continues to look for new products.
“People are trying to get away from using salt. That’s a big hot button for customers, if you can provide them with something that works,” he said. “It’s been challenging. Most of these products don’t do anything, [but] we are constantly testing new technologies [because] we can’t do any business removing hardness in those areas with the bans.” Although commercial RO systems are an alternative, Hellenbrand said that they use a lot of water, and, given the state of the drought, are not always a smart solution.
According to Hellenbrand, the entire industry will have to work together to better address both of these challenges in the future.
“We must, as an industry, make huge strides in developing new and better technologies or systems that not only meet the needs of the consumers, but are also mindful of the amount of water, salt or energy each product requires,” he said. “We must ultimately conserve water and find ways to reduce the amount of water wasted to operate various products and/or find ways to collect and reuse this wasted water. [We must] find cost-effective ways to collect the brine and separate the salt from the water so the backwash water from softeners can be used for irrigation, toilet flushing or other places in the house.”
Taking an Active Stand
These are issues that Hellenbrand does not just talk about; he also takes an active role in making sure that necessary changes in the water industry take place. As a member of the Water Quality Assn. and Pacific Water Quality Assn. (PWQA), as well as a board member of PQWA, Hellenbrand has gone to the association’s Legislative Days in Sacramento. PQWA’s visits to the state capitol over the past two years have directly resulted in getting the state of California to adopt third-party product certification for products in the state.
“We believe in association membership and certification,” he said. “It gives us credibility and it’s a place where you can learn from other members — it’s a great resource.”
Lessons of His Youth
Throughout all of the challenges and growth that Hellenbrand and Advanced Water Solutions have experienced over the past few years, he has still maintained the lessons of his youth. When asked about the uniqueness of Advanced Water Solutions, he replied, “I am proud to say our customer service is a unique part of our business.” He continued, “We value each and every customer and prospect. Customer service starts from the moment the phone is answered with a friendly, knowledgeable person. It continues with our staff getting to know our customers, treating them like one of the Advanced Water Solutions family and taking care of their service needs quickly.”
This is a trait that Hellenbrand encourages all dealers to exhibit. “Take care of your prospects, customers and staff, and they will take care of you,” he said. “My dad always said that, and I watched him build a successful business. Now, I just follow the guidance he provided, and things seem to move along in the right direction.”