Andrew John Wilson's start in the water treatment industry began with a night of reminiscing with a childhood friend. In the 1970s, the friend’s father started Angel Soft Water, and Wilson remembered watching the company prosper, easily selling softeners to homeowners.
Those memories helped Wilson opt for a career change—from "serial entrepreneur" in the pharmaceutical industry to general manager of Angel Soft Water. All was not as he remembered, however.
"I didn't take long to realize the industry was old school," he said. "Old ideas, old products, old relationships and old marketing concepts." Seeing the opportunity to change Angel Soft Water for the better, he purchased it and rechristened it Angel Water Inc.
Today, the Barrington, Ill.-based business boasts 22 employees and sells softeners and filtration and point-of-use (POU) systems to a mix of residential and commercial customers.
Foundation in Education
Wilson characterizes Angel Water by its "willingness to question everything and our ability to find answers." His education-based business philosophy applies not only to himself, but also to employees, customers and other dealers.
"Consumer awareness has improved dramatically. People once ordered equipment because 'we told them they needed it,'" he said. "Today we spend time educating them about what is in their tap water and guiding them through the choices that best suit their needs and budget."
Wilson and his staff work to ensure that customers know about the contaminants in their water and how their equipment treats the water. "We believe that an educated customer is a lifelong customer," he added.
In order to educate customers, staff members first need to educate themselves. Wilson keeps his employees in the know by sharing articles on water quality. He also holds a weekly meeting to ensure that everyone is up to date on local water issues. "We can predict with surprising accuracy the condition of any prospect's water just by our own experience and by mapping the conditions we find around our service area," he said.
Wilson also places high value on Water Quality Assn. (WQA) certification. "WQA membership is not important — it's vital!" he said. "WQA plays a very important role in helping us to live up to our goal of becoming the most highly educated and professional water quality dealer anywhere." Wilson compensates his employees for earning WQA certifications, in addition to rewarding them based on sales performance.
In a final push to spread knowledge, Wilson started Angel Water Group Inc., a company that aims to help other dealers succeed in the industry. It provides dealers a forum to share successes and ideas, and to represent products and services Wilson believes will help dealerships differentiate themselves in the market.
Strategies for Success
Like all businesses, Angel Water has had to find strategies to adapt to changing times. The economy has been a major challenge. "We leave no avenue to create new business unexplored," Wilson said.
One way Angel Water has maintained success is by leveraging technology. Integrated systems manage ordering, scheduling, billing, inventory and job costing, and GPS tracking and routing software helps save time and fuel. Employees also put iPads to use, not only to keep track of schedules and routes, but also as a way to educate customers.
"Advanced data systems keep detailed information at your fingertips [at] a moment's notice for tens of thousands of customers, helping each interaction feel extremely personal to each and every customer," Wilson said.
Another economy-related challenge is finding customers, especially because new construction was once the main driver of the company’s growth. "Today new construction contributes almost nothing to our growth," Wilson said. "This has changed the way we have to prospect for new customers."
As a result, Angel Water changed its advertising strategy. Rather than relying on the Yellow Pages, it now finds more customers through social media, online advertising and referrals.
A final strategy in surviving the economy is differentiation. "Today, the market is flooded with cheap products competing on price and eroding value to consumers and profit for traditional dealers," Wilson said. "We have to differentiate ourselves with quality products and phenomenal professional services." In addition to softeners, Angel Water represents Finecel, a POU ultrafiltration system, Atlantic Filter Co., HomeWaterLabs and BevGuard.
Wilson sees a bright future for the industry. "We are looking forward to the coming renaissance in the water quality services industry," he said. "As independent dealers, we need to band together [and] collaborate about the successful strategies that work, so that we don’t become extinct."
According to Wilson, education will remain the key to this success. He also believes in the importance of spreading the word about contaminants that could affect the water to consumers, especially as new information is discovered about emerging contaminants.
"I believe that point-of-use drinking water systems and whole-house reverse osmosis systems will become as popular as microwaves," he predicted. "It will be our challenge as dealers to properly understand the contaminants that affect our water supply and provide proper guidance as to the certified products that remove them."
Dealer finds success with a basis in education