Crafting a Legacy

February 22, 2011

A Proud History

Some dealers join the water industry because it is what their father did, what his father did, and so on. It is certainly inspiring to hear of a dealer continuing a family legacy, but it is even more inspiring to see a dealer beginning a legacy by making a name for himself in the industry and crafting a business that can be passed on to his descendants.

Lt. Col. Ron Edwards

This is the case in the story of Ron Edwards, a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Colonel and now the CEO of Hague Quality Water of Maryland Inc. where he, two sons (one the new president since 2010), a daughter and grandson contribute to the 26-member Hague team.

The business, incorporated in 1994, has locations in Annapolis and Ocean City, Md. Their service area covers Maryland, Washington D.C., northern Virginia and lower Delaware. Regional water concerns in the area include heavy iron, arsenic, radium, cadmium, very low pH, lead, chromium-VI and nitrates, he said.

Lt. Col. Edwards’ interest in environmental issues was piqued while his sister-in-law, Anne McGill Gorsuch Burford, served as Administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). His wife Mary, a retired engineer and advisor to the company, is the first female petroleum engineer to graduate from the Colorado School of Mines, and is Anne’s older sister. After retiring from the Air Force and spending another five years in the civilian side of the defense and intelligence community, the water industry provided him with an opportunity to combine his interests in environmental products and starting a family business.

The main change Lt. Col. Edwards has seen in his 19 years in the business is that the population is now much more aware of the need for improvements in water quality and the advances in the technology to solve water problems.

The major challenge faced by Hague Quality Water of Maryland, and most other small businesses, is cash flow. “Cash flow is the blood of the business body. In 19 years we have been profitable in all but one, but on a month-to-month basis, the dragon is always cash flow,” he said. “This is particularly true for a company that holds no operating debt and self-finances 50% of its leases.” The next challenge is recruiting and training talented B-to-B salespeople who are willing to work, he added.

Not surprisingly, the economy has also presented some challenges. “The last few years have been lean, but we have stayed strong by diversifying products and adding to a robust B-to-B rental/lease program and contacting customers for recurring service.” Residential water treatment sales account for approximately 30% of revenue, while commercial bottle-less cooler leases and residential rentals bring in 40% and service accounts for the remaining 30%. Service is the most profitable segment, according to Lt. Col. Edwards.

Wide Recognition

The business has no shortage of unique recognitions and awards. Most notably, they are a Service-Disabled Veteran-Owned Business, which is certified by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Small Business Administration (USSBA). It was the 2010 Maryland BBB small business recipient of the Torch Award for ethical business; the Annapolis USSBA/SCORE 2009 Business of the Year; the 2002 Business Leader for Hiring the Handicapped; the Water Technology 2004 Dealer of the Year; and is only one of five dealers to have received the Hague Golden Circle award for excellence in customer service for 17 consecutive years. In addition, the EPA recognizes the business as a Green Power Partner. Lt. Col. Edwards is particularly proud of having more than 30% of U.S. Congressmen and Senators as customers.

Striving for Success: Now and in the Future

Two unique practices have led to profitability for the business. “We hire leaders. We have two very competent sales and service VPs who manage their segments professionally and profitably,” Lt. Col. Edwards said. “We have also been innovative in using wireless technology in the field, which has improved our total operation.”

Lt. Col. Edwards feels that good people are the key to a good business. Employees at Hague Quality Water of Maryland Inc. enjoy a benefit package that includes life insurance, paid time off, matching retirement plan and a shared 50/50 split for a full family health package as well as an education allowance. “We respect each member of the team and expect them to contribute their share in the success of the company,” Edwards said. “This is not just a job, it is a career for water professionals.”

Active membership in industry associations and groups is a priority for the business. They are active members of the Eastern Water Quality Assn., Eastern Shore Chamber of Commerce, WQA (he is a 2011 nominee for the Board), and participant in the County Business Development Council, Better Business Bureau and USSBA/SCORE program. He is also WQA CWS-I and Maryland Dept. of the Environment certified.

Through weekly sales training, bi-weekly service training and monthly safety training, education is integrated in the day-to-day flow of business. “One meeting per month is a combined sales and service training where we liberally use WQA training materials as well as the manufacturer’s training programs and try to pull the team together,” Lt. Col. Edwards said. This is combined with a comprehensive employee manual so that every member of the team knows the benefits and the rules. The manual was a feature in the Annapolis Capital’s business section in September 2009 (WQA offers a draft for members to build their own manuals).

Innovative and streamlined technologies have proved essential to productivity. “All scheduling for sales and service is computerized,” Lt. Col. Edwards said. “Our field service teams are paperless through the use of laptop computers on each truck, which directly interface with the CFO’s QuickBooks financial program to eliminate two layers of paperwork between service and finance. Since all service is cash on delivery, financials are transparent.” The sales team can remotely access the database, GPS and computer route mapping and scheduling to optimize the service team.

Advice for Growth

Lt. Col. Edwards advises dealers to “Plan, plan, and plan--then measure the results and adjust the plan. Don’t be afraid to diversify,” he said, “but don’t go too far afield. Stay in complementary arenas--mix oranges with tangerines, not apples. An example might be adding a booster pump to a water treatment sale or a whole-house air UV with an RO sale.”

Pointing to predictions by the WQA and other industry analysts of projected overall growth, he expects 2011 to be a moderately good year for the water treatment business.

As the team moves forward in 2011, Lt. Col. Edwards says they have focused on 2011 as a “Phoenix” year for the company. “As we dig out of the ashes of one of this country’s worst recessions, we have decided to also start anew,” he said. “As part of last year’s plan and continuing into the 2011 business plan, a goal is to get more visible. Our first step was to purchase a more professional, high-profile building on a very busy highway-we will add super LED signage.” The property is located on US-50 at the choke point to the Bay Bridge, which is said to carry approximately 90,000 commuters per day.

“We are re-uniforming our service team to be more professional and up to date, we are focusing on a broader business base by adding new products and services and we are encouraging our service department to rent units to replace antiquated equipment,” he added. “Our goal is a 35% increase in revenues.”

“This is the year we really come out of the business doldrums and we will have a much more aware buying public who is going to be looking for value and quality,” Lt. Col. Edwards concluded. “We must adapt!”

Rebecca Wilhelm is managing editor of Water Quality Products. Wilhelm can be reached at bwilhelm@sgcmail.com or at 847.391.1007.

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