This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue as "No Mountain Too High"
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After vacationing in Colorado three times, Tom Kinnane and Michelle Rucks knew they wanted to leave the East Coast and move to the mountainous region. By combining Rucks’ extensive business background with Kinnane’s more than 10 years of experience in the water treatment industry, the pair opened Rocky Mountain Water Conditioning in Longmont, Colo., in January 2017.
“We vacationed in Colorado several times and we really wanted to live out here,” Rucks said. “So this was an opportunity to be in a business that we really enjoyed and saw a lot of value to and live in a great place that that we love to be.”
Rucks is the the owner and CEO of Rocky Mountain Water Conditioning. The business’ website highlights the fact that it is “a woman-owned small business,” a point that several customers have commented on, Rucks said. Prior to the move west, Rucks had launched a successful gardening business and Kinnane had worked for a Hague Quality Water Intl. dealer in Maryland.
“I’ve been in business for dozens of years, so between the two of us—Tom the master water man and myself for the business end of it—we thought we would start our own company so we could provide the very best water to Colorado,” Rucks said.
For the duo, opening a business together was the ideal way to leverage each other’s strengths in the right location. However, starting a business has had its challenges, including navigating the regulatory landscape and establishing a customer base.
Building a Business
When Rucks and Kinnane launched Rocky Mountain Water Conditioning, their plates were full with tackling details such as regulatory issues, insurance and taxes in a new location, while also working to make a name for themselves in their service area.
“When you first start, you almost have to do way more jobs than you’re capable of to get yourself to the point where you can afford to add some staff,” Kinnane said.
Through a combination of quality service and rigorous marketing, the pair are approaching the point where they are looking to expand their staff. A large portion of the company’s marketing involves finding unique ways to get their name out in the community, including petitioning local businesses to allow them to set up a booth and sign in front of their establishments and talking with passerbys about their water quality.
“Even if you don’t set an appointment or get a lead, it’s important for people to see us and see the name of the company,” Kinnane said. “They might not need something today, but they might need something in six months and see us at another venue or another farmers market and that’s when they come up and decide to talk to us and take advantage of our services.”
Rucks and Kinnane travel to fairs and farmers markets across the region to meet potential customers and answer resident questions about water problems. Their service area stretches from northern Colorado down to an hour south of Denver, Kinnane said.
“Our marketing strategy boils down to trying to be everywhere at once,” Kinnane said. “As we’ve been here longer and learned more about water quality in different areas, we’ve also learned to try to focus on the areas where the greatest challenges are and the greatest need.”
Beyond face-to-face events, the business has a website that includes several videos featuring Kinnane discussing different water quality problems and applications. They also utilize flyers, canvassing and online marketing. However, events where they can communicate in person with potential customers has proved most lucrative in generating new leads thus far.
“In the end though, the venues where we have the most face-to-face time, not just necessarily speak on the phone with the prospect, tend to be more successful,” Rucks said.
With such a large service area comes a diverse array of water problems. Water quality conditions can dramatically change in just a few miles, Kinnane said, and on any given day he can run into a variety of problems. Some parts of the dealership’s service area have radioactive contaminants—such as radium, uranium and radon—in the water, while other areas have sodium, depending on the water source. Despite the diverse array of contaminants, Rucks has found customers to be proactive about taking care of their water.
“When we’re at shows or farmers markets, I’m really astounded—being new to the water industry—at how much some people really do know about their water and are interested in fixing it,” Rucks said.
Kinnane agreed that customers are better educated about water quality issues and proactively seeking solutions, compared to when he first entered the industry.
“The internet makes it so easy to research water issues and solutions to water problems that, while I enjoy educating customers as part of completing a sale, I often find that they have a lot of questions that have arisen from their own research,” Kinnane said.
As customers increasingly turn to the internet for solutions, experienced water specialists working to educate customers on proper solutions are all the more important. As Rocky Mountain Water Conditioning seeks to expand, future employees will be required to become certified through the Water Quality Assn. (WQA). For Kinnane, being a member of WQA plays a significant role in continuing education and his role as a professional in the industry.
“Being part of WQA just kind of represents that you’re a professional in the water quality business,” Kinnane said. “It also forms a significant resource for education and training. Without WQA, I wouldn’t have learned as much as I have about water quality and solutions for water quality issues.”
Onward & Upward
The business largely caters to residential water treatment at the moment, but it does serve some commercial properties and is looking to expand its commercial footprint. While residential is the backbone of the business, Kinnane said, the business is interested in bringing its filtration services to commercial properties that could benefit from higher-quality water, such as restaurants, breweries and coffee shops.
“Regardless of how good your product is now, if you improve the water that you’re using to cook with or make beer with or whatever it might be, I can’t imagine you’re not creating a better product,” Kinnane said.
In the residential sector, there was one customer interaction that Kinnane especially was proud of. A customer approached the business concerned about a wide spectrum of heavy metals because her daughter had a physical disability that prevented her from excreting metals. The large array of metals the customer needed removed from her water called for a customized filtration system.
“I put my research hat on and was able to come up with a combination of resins in just a single piece of equipment that would address the concerns that the mother had,” Kinnane said. “She agreed that this was the proper solution, we implemented it, and about six months later she actually provided a test that showed that the metal levels in her daughter’s blood had gone back to what had been a three-year low.”
To create the filtration system, Kinnane combined several different resins and filtration media to address the spectrum of metals. The customer has had the system for approximately one year with positive results. Because of the diverse array of water quality issues Rocky Mountain Water Conditioning faces, the business works to find customizable solutions while maintaining quality customer service.
“At the end of the day, we want to have the right solutions, we want to treat our customers right,” Kinnane said. “Being a small company enables us to make sure we have complete control of all those kinds of variables.”
Although there are challenges to being a small water treatment dealership, Rucks and Kinnane are optimistic about the future of the business. As more contaminants are identified, polluted water sources increase and new challenges arise, the need for the water treatment industry will continue, Kinnane said. With water utilities facing limited budgets, the responsibility of maintaining water quality increasingly may fall on the consumer.
“I think the in-home water quality business has a pretty bright future because people are going to have to take on more responsibility towards improving water quality in the future rather than relying on others to do that for them,” Kinnane said. “People can do on their own what’s not really achievable on a large scale, so that makes the future of our business look pretty bright.”