This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue as "Scout's Honor"
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After a 21-year career in the Navy, Ronald Gagnon was looking for a new path. When his brother-in-law, a well contractor in northern Illinois at the time, approached him about launching a water conditioning business together, Gagnon dived into the industry. With no prior experience when Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning opened its doors in 1996, Gagnon likes to tell people he “went from floating on water to fixing water.”
Learning to Swim
In the beginning, his brother-in-law fronted all the startup costs and acted as a silent partner while Gagnon ran the business. Eventually, Gagnon bought his brother-in-law’s shares and became the sole owner, but it was not always an easy road to becoming a staple in the Antioch, Ill., community where Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning is based.
“I was kind of hesitant a little bit because I didn’t know anything about water conditioning whatsoever,” Gagnon said. “What I did was attend lots of seminars and schools that different manufacturers would put on. I also sought out the assistance of the Water Quality Assn. (WQA) and found them to a be a wealth of information and resources.”
By continuously seeking out educational opportunities and treating his customers with respect, Gagnon and his business began to build a reputation for quality service in the community. Gagnon sees the WQA as an asset to his business and at a minimum requires all of his employees to become certified installers.
“The continuing education that you have to take in order to maintain your certifications—that keeps me searching out the educational opportunities that I need to continue to be the best professional I can be,” Gagnon said.
When Gagnon entered the industry, he became a certified water specialist and has continued his education to become a certified installer and master water specialist. While the education offered through WQA has been an asset, networking from the WQA Convention & Exhibition also has helped the business grow.
“We may be competitors, but even the guy next door—the guy who has a business a few towns away—he’s going to be friendly but competing,” Gagnon said. “Still, when we get together and we talk water, it’s kind of like a brotherhood.”
While Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning started small, the business now offers complete water treatment services, including water softeners, iron filters, sulphur treatment systems, ultraviolet purification systems and reverse osmosis (RO) drinking water systems. Gagnon and his staff of three employees treat residential and—occasionally—commercial water systems.
Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning provides water softeners, filters, and treatment and purification systems to northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.
From the Ground Up
Beyond the challenge of learning a new industry, Gagnon faced the obstacle of building a business from scratch. When the business first began, he leaned on his brother-in-law’s customer base from a well drilling business that had been operating since the 1940s. After Gagnon treated the water of those first initial customers, the business began to take off.
“Being successful with them just really helped increase my business real fast because word-of-mouth advertising got around,” Gagnon said. “My name got around and people were saying, ‘This guy is successful with treating these problem waters.’”
To this day, word-of-mouth still is Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning’s most successful marketing technique. While the company advertises in the local church bulletins and newspapers, its customers frequently are referred by others.
Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning’s territory extends from northern Illinois into southern Wisconsin and often involves treating well water, although parts of its territory recently have switched to Lake Michigan drinking water. Some of the biggest problems in the area are high iron and hydrogen sulfide levels, as well as hard water. Gagnon’s approach to treating problem water is much like a doctor diagnosing an illness. When customers ask him for a price up front, Gagnon says that he needs to become familiar with the water before he can find the right solution.
“I tell them that nothing is cookie cutter in this business,” Gagnon said. “If you get into the mindset that it’s cookie cutter and there’s one system that will fix everything, then you’re wrong.”
Treating each system depends on what level the contaminants are found at, he said. For example, with higher levels of iron he would recommend oxidation or filtration systems, but with lower levels he would use ion exchange. For low to moderate levels of hydrogen sulfide, he would try to use a chemical-free oxidation system, but with higher levels he would recommend chemical oxidation with filtration or hydrogen peroxide paired with catalytic carbon filtration.
Gagnon considers good character to be a fundamental part of his business and a valuable best practice in maintaining customer relationships.
“I’m a Boy Scout leader and I think of the value of the Boy Scouts and the integrity and things of good character,” Gagnon said. “I want to keep that in mind and try to treat my customers in a manner that’s consistent with keeping those values.”
This approach sets Gagnon apart, as he does not push a sale. Instead, he makes the first contact with a customer, tests their water and makes recommendations. He gives the customer time to consider their options.
“I treat everybody like I like to be treated,” Gagnon said. “I don’t try to go in there and flim-flam somebody or try to give them a line just to get a sale.”
Just as Aqua-Pure Water Conditioning is ever-evolving, so too is the water treatment industry. Since the business’ launch in May 1996, Gagnon has seen an evolution in water treatment methods—from RO systems to resin beds—and anticipates the field will continue to develop.
“Control valves on filters and softeners have changed a lot—from the units of days of old, to metering devices now that make softeners have extremely high salt efficiency rates,” he said. “It’s an ever-developing field, really.”
Despite the challenges of staying current with the industry, Gagnon and his business are trusted resources in the community. Gagnon hopes to retire in 10 years and pass the business along.
Gagnon advises other dealers to to be professional and respectful to customers. His business philosophy is that if you treat people well, they will respond and you will be more likely to gain business in the future.
“They say in real estate ‘location, location, location,” he said. “I think for our industry that’s ‘be professional, be professional, be professional.’”