Top Dealers: Top of the Class

WQP recognizes the 2015 Dealers of the Month

The water treatment industry is an exciting—but challenging—place to be right now. Between ever-changing regulations, environmental challenges and developing technologies, it can be hard to keep up, but water treatment dealers must do just that—in addition to running their businesses and providing top-notch customer service.

WQP recognizes the hard work that goes into running a water treatment dealership through its Dealer of the Month program. In each regular issue of WQP, a successful dealer is profiled in a feature article.

In the following pages, you will be able to read about each of the 10 dealers featured in WQP in 2015. All of these dealers are in the running for the WQP 2015 Dealer of the Year award, the winner of which will be selected by WQP readers this spring. Keep an eye on your email inboxes for the award selection survey after the New Year. The winner of the 2015 Dealer of the Year award will be featured in the June 2016 issue of WQP.

We are already looking for Dealers of the Month to feature in 2016, so if you know a dealer who deserves recognition, nominate him or her via WQP’s online nomination form at www.wqpmag.com/dealer-month-nomination-form. The form is available 24/7/365, and self-nominations are accepted.

Fred & Paul Hurlbut
Professional Water Systems Inc., Ridgefield, Conn.

Since its first location opened nearly 35 years ago, Professional Water Systems Inc. has succeeded through a combination of family values and customer service integrity. Founded in 1980 by owner and president Fred Hurlbut, the dealership services the areas surrounding its original Ridgefield, Conn., location, and its newer West Palm Beach, Fla., location.

The business has been a family affair from the start—when Fred first opened the dealership, he received guidance from his father-in-law Bruce Wragg, a well driller. In 1983, Fred invited his brother Paul Hurlbut to join the company. 

“We’re strong believers in family ties to the business, good or bad, and we all work for the common goal of solving our customers’ problems,” Paul said. 

The dealership currently has a staff of 14, including two of Fred’s sons. Many staff members have been with the company for 10 years or more. According to Paul, the company follows the “Golden Rule” when it comes to employees. “We think treating the employees as more of a family member than just an employee helps, and buying them a beer after a hard work week seems to break any tensions,” he said.

Professional Water Systems’ business is about 80% residential and 20% commercial. The company offers a variety of water treatment systems, with some of the most difficult water quality challenges coming from well water customers—the bulk of Professional Water Systems’ business. 

The company’s focus on customer service starts with its employees. “Integrity is the first and most important thing we offer customers,” Paul said. “The quality of our product line and the knowledgeable technicians [are] unmatched.”

A second key factor in customer service is the company website, which focuses more on education than sales. “This gives the customer a better feeling that we aren’t just trying to sell them something, but [that] we want to help solve their problems,” Paul said. 

Paul has one main piece of advice to offer other dealers: “Don’t be the cheapest.” For him, this includes not just factoring all aspects of a sale into the price—including follow-up visits to adjust equipment or answer customer questions—but also avoiding making the quick sale or selling systems for the lowest price. “I’m happy to tell people they don’t need to buy anything, rather than just [making] a quick buck selling them something,” he said. “This goes a long way and has helped us maintain a great reputation in the industry.”

Jerome Papaya
Puribec Inc., Rimouski, Quebec, Canada

The company for which former Parisian Jerome Papaya works, Puribec Inc., started as a Kinetico dealership primarily serving residential customers. Today, it is the province of Quebec’s official provider of Kinetico products, and has expanded its business to serve commercial, municipal and industrial businesses, with 20 dealers in Quebec and some operations in West Africa. 

Papaya discovered his interest in water while studying for a microbiology degree in Paris. Once he received his bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in a two-year French higher education diploma program to attain a B.T.S. Métiers de l’eau, the country’s highest education attainable to be a water technician. 

Papaya joined Puribec in 1998, and shortly thereafter, CEO Stephane Giasson asked Papaya to work with him on commercial projects. “I had no experience as a sales rep,” Papaya said. “I learned it all from Stephane.”

As is the case with many small companies, Papaya began to multitask across fields. As the company grew, new departments were established, and Papaya started to spread himself thin. In 2008, he was nominated by his colleagues to manage the company’s commercial division, allowing him to focus more on sales.

Last year, Papaya’s responsibilities increased, and he became head of the networks and technology development division. This growth required the company to create a new spinoff, Puribec Technologies, which has worked on installations for an IBM laboratory in Quebec, the McGill University Health Centre in Montreal, and mining projects in northern Canada, Senegal and Burkina Faso.

Initially, Papaya’s French water technician certification did not translate well into the North American water quality industry, so he took the steps to become certified by the Water Quality Assn. (WQA), eventually attaining the level of CWS-VI.

Earning the CWS-VI certification led to Papaya’s participation in a study commissioned by Quebec’s ministries of health and the environment, which wanted to understand the current landscape of residential water treatment in the province. They found that there were many self-proclaimed “specialists” selling the wrong products to customers, causing the industry to lose credibility. “So [the ministries] asked us to build a French version of the WQA CWS certification, with more emphasis on Quebec regulations, disinfection and microbiology,” Papaya said.

What Papaya likes best about the industry, and what makes him optimistic about its future, is giving back. He has participated in elementary school awareness programs for nonprofit organizations One Drop and Water For People. 

John Keener
Toledo Water Conditioning Inc., Toledo, Ohio

Leonard Keener started Toledo Water Conditioning Inc. with the goal of running a company of his own that provided customers with products that were truly beneficial.

Today, his son, John Keener, runs the business. Since he entered the industry as a second-generation water treatment dealer, he says he has faced several challenges, from environmental issues to the rise of the Internet. 

“A genuine problem we’ve seen in the [past] 10 years is the proliferation of new water treatment equipment being sold over the Internet,” Keener said. He has seen people who purchased poorly designed and improperly assembled equipment online, leading him to implement a company policy not to attempt to repair or service units purchased on the Web. He explained that because it can be difficult to correctly repair equipment that has internal contamination, incorrect seals or improper control assemblies, he does not want to take further advantage of a consumer who already may have experienced abuse at the hands of Internet dealers.

When it comes to environmental dangers, Keener has experienced his fair share, especially last year, when the Toledo water crisis struck on Aug. 2, 2014, and the city’s water was considered “unfit to use” due to contamination by microcystin, a toxin released by cyanobacteria growing in Lake Erie, Toledo’s water source.

As a result, the dealership was flooded with customers in search of bottled water and requests for water treatment services. Keener and his team appeared on television and radio news stations, discussing reverse osmosis (RO), filtration and bottled water.

“In addition to selling bottled water, we have filters, RO and a purified water filling station in our office,” Keener said. “During this time of crisis, we rationed how much any one customer could receive to a maximum of 4 gal per person.”

Toledo Water Conditioning gave away thousands of gallons of purified water and was able to help the community, as well as create goodwill and recognition for the business. 

Keener has high hopes for the future of dealers in the water industry. He credited WQA’s certification with helping people understand that they are working with professional experts they can trust with their family’s drinking and household water. 

“I still believe that professional expertise and business ethics can drive the success of a water treatment business,” he said.

Tony Mast
Mast Family Culligan, Fort Myers, Fla.

Mast Family Culligan originated in 1975, when Dale Mast purchased the Fort Myers, Fla., franchise. Tony Mast, Dale’s son and vice president of the company, started working in the family business, “from the time I was old enough to get in the way,” Mast said. The company now has three locations across southwest Florida. 

Mast Family Culligan is a member of WQA and the International Bottled Water Assn., as well as the Florida Water Quality Assn. and the Southeastern Bottled Water Assn. Mast believes association membership is important to helping the company stay on top of water quality issues. “I think it’s beneficial to have [associations] looking out for us, on the legislative side especially,” he said. 

Making sure customers are satisfied is key for Mast and his employees. “If you try hard to make the customers happy, they’re going to stick with you and they’re going to tell their friends about it,” he said. “We all know keeping a customer is a lot cheaper and easier than finding a new one.”

The Platinum Care program is one way Mast Family Culligan retains loyal customers. For an annual fee, residential customers who purchase the package on top of a drinking water or whole-house treatment system are covered for a year of service calls, parts and labor. Service technicians visit the customers every other month to check the equipment, test the water and make any necessary repairs or salt or chemical refills, all of which are covered under the program.

For Mast, the future of the water industry holds more questions than answers. The success of his company’s bottled water business, for example, is difficult to predict based on current market trends. He also sees uncertainty in the future of sales models in the industry. Mast Family Culligan employs a traditional sales model, with representatives traveling to customers’ homes, but the popularity of online shopping is cause for concern. So far, however, Mast has found that most customers still are willing to welcome representatives into their homes.

The future of Mast Family Culligan is a bit clearer, with the company’s recent entry into the industrial market. “We’re really trying to focus and grow that segment of the business, because we really haven’t been in that marketplace,” Mast said. “We’re hoping to really get into the heavy commercial and industrial business more than we ever have.”

Peter Davis & Steve Silagy
Aqualogic, Gypsum, Colo.

For Steve Silagy, owner and service manager of AquaLogic in Gypsum, Colo., living in the Rocky Mountains not only offers majestic views and access to ski slopes—it also has water quality benefits. “We are pretty lucky in the fact that we are literally at the top of the food chain here—we really live at the top of the water source,” he said. 

Silagy was not always interested in the water quality industry—he worked in the bicycle industry for 15 years before deciding it was time for a career change, he said, because he was “getting tired of not making much money at it.”

The owner of a local water treatment franchise gave him a chance, and within six months he was doing service on his own. Within a year he was doing most of the dealership’s installations and service. 

Silagy decided to strike out on his own about five years later, launching AquaLogic in January 2006 with business partner Peter Davis.

Located in a tourist community, AquaLogic serves a customer base that is mostly residential. The service area covers Summit, Eagle, Garfield, Pitkin and Mesa counties in western Colorado.

The dealership currently has three employees, but Silagy said he is looking to a find a “helper,” noting that the questions of when and how to hire someone are currently his biggest challenges. “There are so many new pieces to tackle when hiring employees, not to mention the liability risks involved,” he said. 

AquaLogic is an independent dealership, a characteristic that Silagy believes gives the company an edge, because “we can pick from many different lines of equipment to serve the customer best.” Although the company offers a variety of treatment technologies, competition from big-box stores and cheap Internet prices has become increasingly challenging. Silagy credits living in a tourist community with helping offset the difficulties. “These people want the best and are willing to pay for it,” he said.

Silagy has found membership in WQA to be beneficial—he said that earning his certifications “has helped me deal with water situations” and that, in general, he has learned more about water treatment through the association. Davis also is certified, as a CWS. 

As for the future of the water quality industry, Silagy sees nothing but positivity: “People always need water, and having high-quality working water along with high-quality drinking water will always be in style.” 

George Clemens & Rusty Ritter
Rabb Water Systems, Warsaw, Ind.

Founded in 1951 by Jim and Martha Rabb, Rabb Water Systems has become a fixture in north-central Indiana. Headquartered in Warsaw, Ind., the company’s six locations cover 27 counties.

The Rabb family sold the business to Don and George Clemens in 1988. George was the Rabbs’ son-in-law, so the dealership remains family owned. Rusty Ritter, George’s son-in-law and the dealership’s general manager, worked at Rabb Water part time as a teenager, and returned in 2004 to take a management position. 

The company’s large service area creates a diverse customer base, especially from an economic standpoint. During the recession of 2008, two counties within Rabb Water’s service area were some of the hardest hit in the nation.

“Since then, we’ve had to focus a little more on listening and understanding what the consumer wants, and dictating less,” Ritter said. 

Rabb Water has approximately 50 employees, many of whom hold WQA certifications. 

“We really believe in the WQA certifications as a way to separate ourselves from the competition, so we encourage certification levels within our employee group,” Ritter said. “We like to think that we are the water treatment professionals of our area.”

Ritter works to promote personal growth and build a culture of trust and respect among his employees. The team maintains a positive attitude by focusing on encouragement rather than punishment, and highlighting successes, not mistakes. According to Ritter, transparency about both the industry and the business, effective communication and a caring attitude are key to building trust with his staff. 

“It’s the people in your organization that dictate your success,” Ritter said. 

Ritter points to big-box stores as his biggest threat. To cope with the competition, Rabb Water offers low-priced solutions to help its salespeople get their feet in the door to educate customers on water treatment equipment. 

Ritter sees more efficient technology in the future of the water industry, as well as changing regulations regarding sustainability, with an emphasis on water reclamation. He encourages other dealers to keep up with these changes, as well as those happening among consumers.

“We’re all in the same boat in that if we’re not adapting to technology, to consumerism, to the changes of life, then we’re going to be left behind,” Ritter said. “If we’re not looking forward and adapting, we’re going to be left behind.”

Josh Christensen & Daniel Scott
Friendly Plumber, Sandy, Utah

When Daniel Scott got his start in the water industry a decade ago, a job with a plumbing company was simply that—a job. “To be completely honest, I needed a job at the time and I found a plumber who was hiring,” he said. “I found out that I loved it and was super good at it.” That job turned into a career, and Scott gained experience with residential and commercial plumbing and water treatment applications.

Last year, Scott joined business partner Josh Christensen to start their own company, Friendly Plumber, in Sandy, Utah. The full-service plumbing company serves the Salt Lake City area, focusing primarily on the residential sector. Water treatment makes up 25% to 30% of the business, with general plumbing accounting for the remainder.

According to Scott, the economy is booming in the Salt Lake City area, which is both good and bad news for Friendly Plumber. “We have so much work that we can’t support it all,” he said. The company is looking to hire more employees, but Scott noted that staffing has been its “biggest stumbling block” so far.

Scott’s philosophy is that happy employees lead to happy customers. To keep employees happy, he ensures that they are making a living through good pay. He also ensures that any tools they may need are available to them, and that all needs, from company vehicles to product literature to uniforms, are taken care of—allowing the employees to focus on taking care of customers.

To stay on the forefront of customers’ minds, Friendly Plumber relies heavily on the Web. In addition to maintaining its own website, the company has pioneered a presence on a variety of social media outlets, especially Facebook.

Although social media outlets do not provide direct leads, Scott has found them valuable for creating brand awareness and name recognition. His primary goal when it comes to social media, he said, is to earn reviews.  

Scott sees big things in Friendly Plumber’s future—in fact, in the next five years, he hopes that it will be a major contender in the Salt Lake City area in both the water treatment and plumbing sectors.

He advises any plumbing company to get involved in water treatment. “I think water filtration is just going to grow and get bigger,” he said, explaining that increased public awareness will fuel the industry. “I truly feel that all water is not created equal.”

Barbara Manfrediz
Water Ways Baja, Baja California Sur, Mexico

As an American female owner of a water treatment equipment dealership in Baja California Sur, Mexico, Barbara Manfrediz considers herself “a bit of a novelty.” 

Manfrediz moved to Mexico from Arizona in 2010 with no experience in the water industry. After purchasing a water treatment system for her home, she was hired as a representative for the company that sold her the system. In March 2014, she opened her own business: Water Ways Baja. The dealership serves homes and businesses in the southern portion of the Baja California Peninsula.

Water Ways Baja has one employee: Manfrediz. She acts as the company’s sole sales representative and performs all of the service herself. However, she is interested in expanding her staff to continue to grow the business. 

The dealership’s business is mostly residential. Because of Baja Sur’s location, Manfrediz calls the water quality situation a “wild frontier.” In an area without governmental regulations or water treatment standards in place, it is important to monitor water quality to protect the health of residents. 

Another common issue Manfrediz faces is when customers purchase U.S.-made treatment systems online and install them themselves. In her experience, these systems often stop functioning after a few months, so she has learned techniques to make them successfully operate outside the U.S.

With an eye toward the future, Manfrediz continues to expand her knowledge and serve her customers. She also is focused on diversifying her product line to give her customers a broader range of options to meet cultural and economic needs. 

“If I had any advice for other dealers, it would be invest in quality products and let your integrity show. Consumers have many choices, and my experience is consumers make the choice to go with a professional they see as knowledgeable but [who] also operates with integrity,” Manfrediz said. “In the water treatment business, the client’s safety is paramount. I believe water treatment professionals have to hold [themselves] to a high standard of ethics. Consumers recognize, appreciate and buy from businesses they trust.”

James Bennett & Jeff Colasante
Bennett & Cole Water Solutions, New Milford, Conn.

James Bennett and Jeff Colasante met while working for a Culligan dealership in Connecticut, and discovered that they shared a dream of opening their own water treatment business. Dream eventually became reality, and Bennett & Cole Water Solutions opened its doors in New Milford, Conn., in 2011.

The economy was still in bad shape when the business launched, but Bennett and Colasante used the downturn to their advantage. “Service really proved to be a big part of our early success, as customers chose to repair units rather than replace,” Colasante said. Since then, the economy has improved, allowing the dealership to make more sales while maintaining its strong service base.

The company’s customer service strategy is to provide personalized service with an emphasis on education. As part of their consultative approach, Bennett and Colasante strive to not only provide customers with the right water treatment system, but also ensure they know how it works. 

The 24/7 emergency service program is another key part of the dealership’s customer service approach. “If you call us at 11 p.m. on a Sunday, we answer the phone—not an answering service; it’s us,” Colasante said. 

In order to educate customers, employee education must come first, and for Bennett and Colasante, the drive to learn is key. “Nothing is more exciting for our company than when a treatment problem comes up and we need to go back to the books to diagnose and properly design a system that will treat the water,” Colasante said. 

Colasante advises other dealers to keep up with education in order to keep up with customers. “Don’t underestimate your customers. They are very educated and well researched,” he said. 

In Colasante’s view, the future of the industry looks bright. “Technology has given us access to great information and new tools that will allow us to move faster and deal with problems in more creative ways,” he said. “It’s a very exciting time to be in the water business.”

Pat Freeman & Bill Jefferis
Freeman Water Treatment, Jackson, Miss.

Freeman Water Treatment owner Pat Freeman has been immersed in the water treatment industry his entire life, with three generations of his family involved in the business. Freeman purchased his business in 1987, and in 1996, he started Water Fresh, a separate company dealing with residential customers. He sold Water Fresh in 2005, and today Freeman Water Treatment handles only commercial/industrial and medical clients. 

In 2012, Freeman moved to Arkansas to run the Arkansas branch of the dealership, located just outside Little Rock. General manager Bill Jefferis, who has been with the company since 1992, manages the Mississippi location. 

Because water quality in the area is generally good, the dealership has had to expand its service area beyond that of most dealerships. Freeman Water Treatment covers the entire states of Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas, plus half of Tennessee, but the two branches have a total of 11 employees. Because of the small staff and the large service area, Jefferis said it can be difficult to find qualified employees. 

“I have to maintain people that can work this distance with a very small budget, a very small company and a very small workforce,” Jefferis said. He has had the most success finding employees through referrals, especially from existing employees. “The main thing we hire on is integrity and character,” he said.

In addition to serving its regular customers, Freeman Water Treatment is involved with mission work. Freeman has a relationship with the African Bible College and has traveled to Africa to help build water treatment systems. The dealership also has donated money to build wells in India, and in the 1990s built a water treatment skid to provide clean water to victims of a flood in Honduras. 

Jefferis is a WQA-certified professional, and has found that WQA membership has benefited him personally. By taking advantage of educational and networking opportunities, he is able to grow the business and pass his knowledge and resources to his employees. Because Jefferis describes the dealership’s location as “isolated” from the rest of the industry, his involvement in WQA has helped him learn more about the water industry in general.  

For Jefferis, the most important part of his business is customer interaction. He understands that his technicians are representatives of the dealership and strives to help employees understand the importance of customer interaction. 

“We have a good group of guys,” he said. “I’m really proud that most of the customers we contact always have good experiences with our service technicians.”

For more information, contact the WQP staff at [email protected] or 847.391.1007.

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