The Golden Rule
Mark and Terri Kinder, owners of Affordable Water in Jacksonville, Fla., run their business according to a simple rule: “Treat your customers the way that you would want to be treated,” Terri said.
How It All Began
Mark and Terri founded the company in 1989 after moving back to their native Florida. Prior to that, Mark had been working to advance his career in the water treatment industry in locations nationwide. “He started at the bottom,” Terri said of her husband. “They saw his management abilities and his potential, so they sent him to California to manage a store for Dave Nancarrow Sr.,” who started Raytech Water Group, Terri said. Mark managed a store in Ventura, Calif., and then in Santa Barbara, Calif., and was later moved to corporate headquarters in Milwaukee.
His job with corporate focused on national expansion, “so he knew how to start a company from the ground up,” Terri explained. But as their son got older, Mark and Terri decided that they wanted to return to their Florida roots and use Mark’s expertise to start their own water treatment company.
When the two first returned to Jacksonville in 1988, Mark worked as a sales manager for local Kinetico dealer Century Water. A little more than a year later, their dreams of starting their own business started to take shape.
Since its conception, Affordable Water has become more than just another Jacksonville water treatment company. It has integrated itself into the local community through customer interaction, involvement and support. “We do a lot of local giving, just to show our heart for the community. We really love where we live, so we give back in other ways, even if it’s just giving to the football players or ballet dancers or people that approach us,” Terri said. “We try to give … just to show our community that we’re here for the long haul.”
Terri said that she and Mark have been able to get to know those in the community at their storefront, where they sell salt and other water treatment products. “It’s just nice to stay in touch with our customers,” she said. “We have customers that have been coming to our salt sale, and we’ve watched their families grow.” She recalls one particular customer that has had three or four children during the time that he has been coming to the Kinders’ salt sales. “People enjoy coming and actually talking and meeting the owners and employers. We have people that ask for the same employee over and over.”
The Golden Rule
Terri attributes the long line of repeat customers to the company’s emphasis on customer treatment. “We just treat people like we want to be treated. And we have price sheets. We don’t try to come at people with a surprise, like some companies, and try to sell them in one night,” she said. Affordable Water’s quotes are good for 90 days. “We’re not high pressure at all. We give people prices, and then we leave them alone to think about it.”
According to Terri, when you treat customers well, the rest just seems to fall into place. “When you’ve been in the business for as long as we have and you take good care of people, then the business comes to you, which is a blessing.”
Terri and Mark have seen plenty of new products enter the market since the company started 23 years ago, but Terri said they have pretty much stuck with the tried and true mechanical units. Affordable Water is a bit old-fashioned, she said, but it works for them. According to Terri, they have not gone to any of the new products because they have not found them to work properly. “The reason we’ve stuck with a lot of the same products is because they last so long,” she said. As for the best test of all, “Our customers are happy, and we get a lot of referrals.”
Terri added that their success is partly due to the fact that they are willing to work on systems that are not their own. While it is not always easy dealing with the sometimes-unfamiliar systems, she believes it keeps customers happy and has helped set Affordable Water apart from the competition.
The Kinders’ involvement in associations also has proven important for the business, and they believe in staying active and involved in relevant local and national organizations. “I think when people see that you invest time and money back into industry associations, that you are really vested in what you do for the longer term,” Terri said. “And it does give you credibility.”
They have been a part of several related associations for years, including the national Water Quality Assn., the Florida Water Quality Assn. (Mark served on its board for two years) and other relevant local organizations. “We’re members of the Northeast Florida Builder’s Assn. because we know that they are a big part of our business,” Terri said. She added that many such organizations will not do business with you unless you are a paying member of their organization.
Right now the Kinders are focusing on trying to build their rental accounts to add to their sources of recurring income, including their salt route and filter changes. “All of that recurring income has really shown to be important,” Terri said, especially given the current economic climate. They are also utilizing their salt route to deliver products to customers, such as chemical-free soap and resin cleaners. Terri said that has been a customer favorite.
Besides thinking of ways to add additional revenue streams to the mix, Terri said she is working hard to keep up with the Web competition and use social media to promote the business. “That’s really been a challenge, but that’s how people find you nowadays. It’s not the yellow pages anymore,” she said. “We actually have a contest going on right now—for anyone that ‘likes’ us on Facebook, they can win a one-year soap pack.”
The Kinders also are looking into using iPads in place of books for presentations. “Also, we’re working on a video for YouTube. That’s kind of fun too, and I think that also shows the personal side of our business,” Terri said.
As with most successful small businesses, Affordable Water’s team of employees is key to keeping the business running smoothly. “We’ve been very fortunate to have a lot of them for over 13 and 15 years, so that really gives you kind of a family feeling,” Terri said. With deserving job titles, good pay plus overtime, full health benefits and little perks like weekly employee breakfasts, it is no wonder that some have stuck around for so long.