A Name Game

June 15, 2011

A few weeks ago, Bob Coakley went on a local sales call in Harrisonburg, Va. A customer scheduled a home service consultation with his company—Water Works Water Treatment Inc.—so Coakley brought along his top-selling equipment.

“Our big thing now is total home water protection,” Coakley said. “When we come out to your home, we talk to you about how water affects you in all areas of the house.”

He parked the company vehicle in the customer’s driveway, walked up to the front door and knocked.

“A lady opens it and her six-year-old daughter is standing behind her,” he said, stifling a laugh. “And then the little girl started singing our jingle, ‘Tap Into Better Water’—I think the mother thought I’d give her a discount or something.”

Coakley is used to being recognized in public. Bank parking lots, grocery stores and convention centers—people in the community know about Water Works. But it’s not just the company’s water treatment services that have people talking.

“We’ve grown our business through the media,” he said, adding that advertising campaigns have been a major boon for business. “Radio, TV, newspapers—any way I can put our name out there, I will.”

Coakley has spent 13 years propagating his company through the media and cultivating a reliable customer base in return.

“A lot of other dealers are scheduling tons of appointments, but only a few sell anything,” he said. “About 80% of the people who talk to us, buy from us.”

A self-professed follower of Roy H. Williams, who wrote The Wizard of Ads: Turning Words Into Magic and Dreamers Into Millionaires, Coakley said it’s the media that has kept the company afloat during tough times.

“You never stop advertising,” he said. “Even in a weak economy, if you stop putting your name out there, people will forget about you.”

His resolve seems to have paid off. For the last five years, Water Works has been a top-20 dealer for Kinetico. And although sales were down in 2010, Coakley predicts business to surpass goals this year.

“I’ve been doing this for more than 30 years and have been through some hiccups, but I never stopped advertising,” he said.

Getting Started

More than 30 years ago, Coakley began his career in the water treatment industry. He was hired by a local treatment company—Water Associates—in 1979 to sell Kinetico’s new non-electric softener.

“I sold pool and spa equipment mostly,” he said. “But we also sold basic water treatment services.”

The company eventually changed ownership, and after almost 29 years in the industry, Coakley decided to strike out on his own.

In March 1998, Coakley and three business partners—Barry Long, Mark Keuls and Scotty Carr—founded Water Works in Harrisonburg. Coakley was named president and he appointed Long, Keuls and Carr to vice president, secretary and treasurer, respectively.

“For two years, we all wore a lot of caps,” he said. “I kept the showroom open, did the bookkeeping manually—we didn’t have a computer—and we all went on sales calls.”

It was a slow climb—limited resources and store repairs made the going tough—but Coakley, who was in his early 50s at the time, never rested on his laurels.

“Our business plan was just to do the same thing we’d been doing—we’re going to sell equipment and pay the bills,” Coakley, now 62, said. “And things just started growing.”

Moving Forward

Today, service areas comprise about 75% residential and 25% commercial/industrial. Storefronts are located in Harrisonburg and Fishersville, Va., and have fully operational kitchens that encourage customers to visit.

“I’ve knocked on peoples’ doors and done bottle drops before,” Coakley said. “The storefronts help bring people to us.”

Earlier increases in business also meant he could hire more employees to help with day-to-day services, and soon the team had grown to 11.

“We are like a little family,” he said. “A really close-knit group.”

Since then, Coakley has trimmed the ranks to nine employees, but he sees growth in the future.

“Water’s not going anywhere,” he said. “Membrane technologies are improving and becoming more efficient, opening new ways for treatment.”

Burgeoning service areas, such as rainwater and reclaiming, have also caught Coakley’s eye, and he plans to hire another associate soon to expand the business.

“You have to learn to diversify in areas to be successful,” Coakley said. “So we are looking at other options down the road.”

However the company evolves in the future, one thing is sure to remain a constant.

“I will never stop advertising,” he said. “When people think about water, I want them to think about Water Works.”

Leslie Streicher is associate editor for Water Quality Products. Streicher can be reached at lstreicher@sgcmail.com or 847.954.7922.

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