Family Ties, New Direction
Son of Wisconsin manufacturer makes a name for himself as a dealer
As a manufacturer of water treatment equipment, Hellenbrand is no small name, but one Hellenbrand has made his own name in the dealership side of the industry. KH Water Specialists in Mukwonago, Wis., is owned by Kevin Hellenbrand, the son of Jim and Florence, who founded Hellenbrand Water Conditioners in 1967.
“I got started because my father started Hellenbrand Water, so I grew up along with my brothers,” he said. “We all rode along and got to help out here and there, so it’s basically what I’ve done all my life.”
Hellenbrand’s brothers bought the family business from their dad in the mid-1990s, but he decided to go his own direction. KH Water Specialists opened its doors in 1992.
“It’s a big family, and I think I always kind of wanted to do my own thing,” Hellenbrand said. “I figured if I didn’t do it soon, you get too old and you never do it.”
He said he always knew he wanted to stay in the water industry. KH Water Specialists is an authorized Hellenbrand dealer, services southeastern Wisconsin and northeastern Illinois and employs four full-time service technician installers.
Hellenbrand said he decided to take a unique approach to his business by deciding not to hire commission salesmen.
“I have a wholesale business and then I have a retail business, which [does] retail and rentals, both residential and commercial,” he said.
His service technicians make the sales, but also work closely with plumbers.
“My margins are obviously much less with wholesaling, but I’ve had guys buying from me for 20 years,” Hellenbrand said. “I kind of like that little niche we have.”
KH Water Specialists receives many of its jobs from plumbers’ referrals. Hellenbrand said it is natural for him to work with plumbers, because that is what he saw his dad doing for years growing up.
Approximately 25% to 30% of KH Water Specialists’ business comes from wholesale, while the rest is retail and commercial, according to Hellenbrand.
Emphasis on Service
Hellenbrand said that business has stayed pretty steady even with the economic downturn due to his team’s strong emphasis on service. KH Water Specialists sets up maintenance schedules with customers for filter changes and preventive service every two to six months after installation.
“We’ve always done a lot of service work, and that and rentals have really held us through the slower times,” Hellenbrand said.
This emphasis on service also keeps them competitive against the cheaper prices big box stores can offer, according to Hellenbrand.
“If someone is just looking to buy a product, we’re not really [his or her] company,” he said. “When we sell stuff, we’re selling our business and what we can do for them after the sale.”
Service has remained constant for more than 20 years, but KH Water Specialists has had to adapt to changing technology.
“When I first started, it was all Yellow Pages, because everybody looked at Yellow Pages when they moved to an area,” Hellenbrand said. “Virtually no one uses Yellow Pages anymore.”
Hellenbrand had the company website completely redesigned approximately two years ago and has found this to be quite advantageous.
“We get a fair amount of leads off our website, and even if we don’t get [a lead], people still go to your website to check you out after you’ve talked,” he said.
Hellenbrand also has found that the Internet is changing the way his service technicians communicate with customers.
While his technicians used to set everything up through phone calls, they now all have smart phones and oftentimes e-mail and text to set up appointments.
Relating to Your Employees
Until 2000, KH Water Specialists was a one-man operation, which Hellenbrand said has helped him relate to his technicians.
“I know what it’s like to be in the field,” he said. “I don’t try to overbook my guys because I don’t want them rushing from job to job.”
Hellenbrand said he knows about family businesses from growing up, and he tries to treat everyone at KH Water Specialists like they are his family.
Along with treating his employees well, Hellenbrand sees the importance of educating his employees.
He is a Water Quality Assn. (WQA) Certified Water Specialist, and he has used WQA materials for his employees.
“It’s hard for me to teach [technicians] all the 'whys' of water, like the chemistry, and WQA has good educational materials to help your employees along for training,” Hellenbrand said. “You can give the customers the validation of what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.”
Conservation in the Future
Hellenbrand said that moving forward, his company is still going to focus primarily on service, even as customers' priorities evolve.
“I think water conservation is going to be a bigger part of the business — more efficient water treatment, whether it’s water softeners or equipment that doesn’t use as much water to regenerate,” he said.
Even with the Great Lakes nearby his business and wells that produce a lot of water, Hellenbrand said that he has seen his customers take more of an interest in saving water.
“More people are willing to pitch in and help out a little more,” he said. “That will continue.”