This article originally appeared in the April 2019 issue as "Cutting Edge"
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Mike Lowrie founded Shiloh Water Systems, located in Mount Angel, Ore., in 1999, after more than 20 years in the water treatment industry. However, Mike originally had moved his family to western Oregon to work in the water filtration department of a different residential and commercial well system and water filtration provider. After only a short time with that dealership, the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) closed the business, to Mike’s surprise. Left without a job, Mike considered opening his own dealership for the first time.
“The people in the industry encouraged him to go out on his own and he was able to secure some capital to start Shiloh Water Systems, so he started out with an old truck and some credit lines at local wholesalers and that is how things got started,” said Nathan Lowrie, Mike’s son and director of sales and marketing for the business. “My mom was helping out with the books and he was out setting pumps and installing filters and troubleshooting water systems.”
Mike did not have any prior experience operating a business. Ironically, he bought an old service van and some tools from the IRS auction of his former employer. Equipped with those tools and Old Betsy, a used hoist truck, Mike leveraged relationships he already had established in the area. A local wholesaling distribution company gave him a line of credit based on a preexisting relationship and he was able to build on his prior customer base. Now, the company has 16 employees and continues to grow.
“He did not have a lot of choices,” Nathan said. “There were not a lot of options at that time in the area so it was kind of the perfect storm to push him into taking that leap.”
Time to Grow
Built on the foundation of Mike’s decades of experience and knack for quality customer service, the business grew over the past 20 years. In 2011, when the small business partnered with a large water treatment provider and gained numerous commercial accounts—including 18 Home Depot stores—Mike’s son Nathan joined the team. Nathan previously had never considered joining the family business after choosing a career path in communications for the film and then commercial aviation industry, but the opportunity to create his own path in the water treatment industry appealed to him.
“My dad was describing this scenario of what he needed to hire someone to do a specific role. I just found it quite fascinating he was actually describing what I do for a living,” Nathan said of a phone call with his father during the beginning of the partnership. “Then he joked around and said something like, ‘Why don’t you come work with me?’ and I laughed. I told my wife and she laughed, and here we are.”
With Mike’s extensive knowledge and experience working in the water treatment industry coupled with Nathan’s expertise in marketing and technology, the pair has expanded the business, which now provides pumps and filtration systems to both commercial and residential properties throughout western Oregon. The business has witnessed significant change both internally and within the industry since its inception.
“Technology has changed, so the products that we use today compared to even when I started in the business eight years ago are different,” Nathan said. “On the business side and marketing side, there is just a lot more complexity to doing business these days.”
To adapt to change in the industry, the business works with a search engine optimization company to increase its online presence. As much as 70% of its inbound leads are generated digitally through the business’ website or listings online, Nathan said. Additionally, the business has implemented cloud technology in its sales and marketing departments to streamline its work flow.
“That is one of the big things that differentiates us from a lot of other businesses is that we are on the cutting edge of using technology to leverage our business,” Nathan said. “At the end of the day, the whole point of it all is to better serve our customers. That is one of our primary focuses in utilizing technology to help us be better at what we do.”
While leveraging technology has enabled the company to grow, finding and retaining quality employees remains an obstacle. In Oregon, there is an abundance of trade positions, but a limited number of candidates to fill those roles, Nathan said. One tactic the business utilizes to find potential employees is to target employees of other trades and offer benefits.
“If there is no one out there that will apply for the job, then you have got to go find someone that maybe is not happy with their job and recruit them and that is what we do,” Nathan said. “It is dog-eat-dog for getting employees right now. We had a six-year veteran—very talented water filtration expert—that was pirated by the electrical union. So it goes both ways.”
To maintain quality employees, Shiloh Water Systems prioritizes employee engagement through training and consistent reviews. The business aims to provide a career path and create a positive work culture. Additionally, they offer competitive benefits, including health insurance.
The business remains active in several trade organizations, including the Water Quality Assn., the Oregon Groundwater Assn. and the National Groundwater Assn. All employees go to major trade conferences for education and to support trade organizations.
“As much involvement as we can in our trade organizations is the only way we can keep them relevant and successful,” Nathan said. “It is our participation that makes them who they are. We are stepping it up and being more involved.”
Another challenge the business faces is a diverse variety of water contaminants. Arsenic is one of the most prevalent water quality concerns, along with nitrates from agricultural runoff. The area’s water also is prone to iron, sulfur and manganese. Notably, Shiloh Water Systems is located approximately 10 miles from Salem, Ore., which made headlines in the summer of 2018 for cyanotoxin contamination. At the time, the dealership contacted dealers from Toledo, Ohio, which previously had struggled with the contaminant in the summer of 2014, and worked quickly to help provide residents with quality water.
Nathan’s advice to other water treatment dealers revolves around two points: people and process.
“Say you are super savvy and you have the best cloud data system for your business, but if you do not have the people to back it up. Then you are worthless,” Nathan said. “Same with the people. You can have the best team in the world, but if you do not have good processes you are not going to survive.”
Leveraging technology to make the business more efficient while building strong teams has enabled the company to continue to be competitive. Shiloh Water Systems’ willingness to embrace new technologies has been integral, Nathan stressed.
“All these things, you have to embrace it and bite the bullet and be on the cutting edge or you cannot be competitive,” he said.