Washington state father-son business embraces technology in the water treatment industry
Glenn Karn opened the doors of NorthWest Water Treatment in Kent, Wash., 17 years ago, but the idea was many years in the making. Karn began working in the water treatment industry in 1973, right out of high school. A Culligan dealership in Seattle needed someone to throw a bunch of garbage into a dumpster and Karn said he did it so fast that they decided to hire him.
Fast forward to 1996, when Karn decided to take his experiences and go out on his own. NorthWest Water Treatment is a family business, with just Karn and his son as employees, plus his daughter, who helps out with the books.
NorthWest Water Treatment started out removing iron from wells, but expanded to community, commercial and aquaculture jobs. Today, it does approximately 70% residential, 10% communities and 20% commercial/industrial, with occasional aquaculture.
Karn has seen the economy take a toll on his business. “In 2007, we did $400,000 worth [of business], and that was just me doing it,” he said. “I was busy — almost too busy.”
After the economy crashed, Karn said his business dropped to about half of the 2007 level, and it is only now starting to get better.
He has seen aquaculture really dry up with the economy. Karn had done aquaculture jobs in Hawaii, Virginia and Alaska, but recently new business has been closer to home.
For residential jobs, NorthWest Water Treatment sticks to within a 100-mile radius of Kent, but for industrial jobs Karn will travel a bit farther.
Arsenic Brings Opportunities
On Jan. 14, 2004, the state of Washington adopted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) tightened arsenic standard, which lowered the limit from 50 ppb to 10 ppb.
Although Karn said he really does not care for regulations, new arsenic standards have brought in new business.
“We’re finding arsenic levels that aren’t that high, but they are now over the limit, so dealing with them is a big thing in the region,” Karn said.
Iron, manganese and hydrogen sulfide in well water are also prominent problems in the Pacific Northwest, according to Karn.
As the industry changes, Karn has found the Internet both his greatest challenge and best strategy.
A year ago, Karn traded in the NorthWest Water Treatment website his son had built for a more professional site he outsourced.
“The biggest thing for dealers nowadays is having a really good Web presence,” Karn said. “We basically gave up on phone ads because people don’t go to the Yellow Pages or even YellowPages.com; they just Google stuff.”
He believes online advertising is now his best marketing tool and says the only thing better is word of mouth, which he has relied on in the past.
Karn approaches the website as a place to offer as much information as possible that really shows the expertise he and his son have. It includes references, images of the systems they offer, an online store and a sign-up for free water analysis.
“More people will find me and say, ‘Here’s a local that knows what he’s doing and can help me because I’m confused about all this stuff,’” Karn said.
Karn also sees association membership as a strong way to build credibility. NorthWest Water Treatment is a member of the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) and the Evergreen Rural Water Assn. of Washington.
A member of WQA since 2001, Karn saw the rewards when his son joined the business just a few years ago, and they had him participate in WQA training.
“There’s a whole industry behind this, and you see all these other people getting training and you realize the importance of it,” Karn said. “It gives credibility and the training is good.”
As NorthWest Water Treatment moves forward, Karn expects more regulations.
“The funny thing about the Northwest is that water treatment hasn’t been that big up here because the water is so soft in the cities, so we don’t have as many regulations about it,” he said.
Karn has a contractor’s license, but is not required to have plumbing permits — something he thinks is going to change.
He also noted the restrictions and bans on water softeners in some areas of California, and he believes this is going to be something Washington will have to deal with in years to come.
“I like it without restrictions myself,” Karn said. “But I suppose it would weed out the bad installers and things will stay the same.”
The things Karn is talking about are the basics that will never change.
“The same old corny things our parents told us are the most important,” Karn said. “You have to show up when you say you are and take care of the problems you say you’re going to.”