From Dire Straits to the Straight-and-Narrow

When Carl Brenner, general manager of Quality Water Systems—an 80-person residential water treatment company serving five counties in Houston, Texas—entered the water treatment business in 1986, it was for less-than-romantic reasons. The economic landscape of the city was in a downturn, with Houston at the epicenter of the oil bust. In those days, the city had an unemployment rate of approximately 12%, and previously solid businesses were falling apart. Of the oil industry, Brenner said that he and the company's owner, Bill McGraw, "had done business with people that had owned companies through several generations, and their businesses just basically evaporated."

In light of all these problems, Brenner decided to begin a new and more reliable career. He and McGraw entered the industry around the same time, with McGraw leaving a real estate career and Brenner's experience resting in the restaurant industry.

It was by chance that Brenner started in the water treatment industry, as it happened to be the first position he interviewed for after deciding to begin a new career. He said that the industry "has really changed my life and my family's life… When I made my career change, I had six children, a wife and a big mortgage. It was really a scary time to be going on a job that, when we first started, was commission only."

William McGraw and his family.

Quality Employees Make for a Quality Company

Although commission may still be a big component for the sales team, personnel nowadays enjoy a much stronger sense of job security. In an industry where quality employees are everything, Brenner places personnel as one of the company's greatest assets.

"The motivation and the dedication of our personnel puts us a head and shoulders above everybody else," he said. "We have very low turnover, our people are well trained and we're very oriented toward customer service. Everybody is driven toward that one goal—to satisfy the customers and to create more business. I think that all of those things in concert have made our retention what it has been."

General Manager Carl Brenner (fourth from left) oversees sales and customer service.

It probably also helps that the company offers many of the same employee benefits that would typically be offered by a larger company, such as a 401k, insurance, health insurance, life insurance, a flex-spending plan and short- and long-term disability programs.

A Reputation that "Holds Water"

Brenner recognizes the company's present solidarity as something that will continue into the future. He understands that "Once you have momentum going and you have people well trained, then people gravitate toward you. We have people from other water treatment companies that come to us simply because of what they have heard about our reputation and the opportunity that we have for them."

Where Everybody Knows Your Name

Despite Quality Water Systems' recognition that their reputation "holds water" in the industry, effective marketing still remains one of the company's biggest challenges. The industry is one where finding customers is always a proactive process, and the government's Do Not Call Registry has made the process that much more challenging. In order to combat these challenges, the company has in place variety of marketing methods. As with most residential water treatment companies, telemarketing, referrals and word-of-mouth make up the bulk of the company's business leads.

Additionally, the company's website has played a role in the process in recent years. The site offers consumers the opportunity to interact with Quality Water Systems in their own homes. It offers users owner's manuals, a customer reaction page, a list of services the company offers and the opportunity to sign up for a free water analysis. Overall, while the site offers users the opportunity to learn about the company, it also functions as a low-cost marketing tool.

Get Certified

Brenner sees certification as another source of marketing. While it is often a challenge to stay on top of the constantly shifting government regulations, plumbing codes and other similar certifications, doing so provides customers with a peace of mind that cannot be obtained any other way.

Quality Water Systems, which does work in five different counties, must constantly stay abreast of shifting governmental rules, including two levels of certification—one from the Water Quality Association (WQA) and one from the state of Texas. Key players in the organization—including Brenner, McGraw and a sales manager—maintain the WQA certification, with McGraw also once acting on the WQA board of directors.

"A lot of customers don't understand or realize what the WQA is, but it makes us feel more confident," Brenner said. "It gives us more of a background to feel more confident to go into a home and show people who we are and what we do. I think it does [make a difference in business] for people who understand what that is and what it means." What it means for the company is an improved sales force, confident customers and a solid business base.

Brenner may have "gotten into the industry by necessity," but he has found that "it has really turned out to be a fascinating trip." Perhaps his journey has not been romantic, but at the very least, it has been reliable and profitable—and isn't that really what every business hopes to gain?

Heather McCoy is assistant editor for Water Quality Products. McCoy can be reached at 847-954-7958, or by e-mail at hmccoy@sgcmail.com.

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