Pete Schneider has been around water for most of his life, as a second-generation water professional. “My father had been in the business since 1960. In 1974 he opened Butler Soft Water in Butler, Wis., and I worked for him part time when I was a teenager.”
After working in the grocery business from age 16 to 24, Schneider decided to return to water. “My dad gave me two weeks' training. Since 1984 I have been in the business full time.”
In 2001, Schneider started his own business, which later merged with a Rayne dealership in the Phoenix area. In September 2009, however, Schneider made a bold move and launched Soft Water Plus Inc. in Phoeniz, Ariz.
Soft Water Plus is staffed by Schneider; his wife Eva Marie, who handles all the scheduling, phone calls, billing and appointments; and their son Joe, who is also attending college part time. Schneider predicts the company will hire a technician in the next year, as well as add a truck. A small business is fine right now, Schneider said. “I like it like this-better rapport with customers and more quality control.”
Starting a Business…Now?
Starting a new business in this shaky economy may seem risky. But Schneider was intentional in every aspect of building the new business, and took steps to ensure that he would land on solid ground.
“People said, 'You're crazy, Pete.' But I said that if we can survive this one, we can make it in the future,” Schneider recounted. “I had to get the word out that we were up and running. The first month was tough. Our advertising budget was twice what I wanted it to be, but we had to get the word out. You have to push forward instead of pull back; there are still people looking, so you have to make sure they know you're there.”
Schneider joined a 10-year-old business referral group with about 30 varying businesses involved, as well as a local chamber of commerce. The key to these groups is being involved, he said. “You can't just become a member, go once, and expect it to do anything for you. Getting to know people have having associations with other business owners-it's another way to extend your advertising, and you meet some great people. We bring it to our customers' attention that we're part of these organizations.”
Water Quality Assn. involvement and taking advantage of continuing education opportunities have also helped the business get off to a strong start.
“We go to as many seminars on service as we can,” Schneider said. “A well-versed technician is much more valuable both to the customer and to the business. The more knowledge you have, the more suited you are to serve the customer's needs and generate additional revenue for the company.”
Asking for referrals has also served the company well. “If you a great job, your customer base has just become your sales force,” Schneider said, adding that about 30% of their service calls and sales come from referrals.
Average parameters of the scale-forming water in the Phoenix area include approximately 15 to 25 grains of hardness, a pH of 8, and a chlorine residual of .25 to 2.0 parts per million (ppm) and a TDS ranging from approximately 500 to 800 ppm, according to Schneider. Most people in the area filter their water or drink bottled water, so Soft Water Plus offers reverse osmosis (RO) systems.
In the past, the outlaying areas of Phoenix were mined heavily, and arsenic is also common. Schneider's business offers both whole-house and point-of-use arsenic reduction solutions through a partnership with AdEdge Technologies.
Soft Water Plus is licensed for both residential and commercial treatment, but focuses mainly on residential customers.
“At the moment, we are a small business and can serve our residential customers more effectively,' Schneider said. “We have always enjoyed homeowners. We have done work for three generations in one family-a grandfather, father and son. That kind of thing does happen if you take good care of your customers.”
That advertising budget that was initially higher than Schneider had hoped to see has turned out to be worth the cost.
“We've pushed into a lot of different areas,” Schneider said. “We have phone book ads and do a lot of different marketing. But for what we put into it, we are getting the most out of our Internet marketing. We get tremendous leads from that, which turn into good, strong customers.”
Soft Water Plus also offers a free water treatment inspection to potential customers and new homeowners. They will come to the house with a checklist of 10 to 12 items, from checking the softener to checking the water heater and water pressure. Once customers see the thoroughness of their inspections and RO filter changes, they often lead to follow-up business, Schneider said.
“We also have two trucks that are very well marked, with clear phone numbers,” Schneider said. “About three weeks ago, I was driving in north Scottsdale. A woman following my truck had seen that we offer free estimates and called our office. Last week, we ended up installing that unit.”
With a motto of “In the end, do the right thing,” Soft Water Plus is on track to developing a loyal and growing customer base.
photo caption: (L to R) Eva-Marie and Pete Schneider, their son Joe and Joe’s girlfriend Erin