Mar 01, 2018

Challenge & Change in Watertown

From part-time business to industrial enterprise through generational growth

Schaefer's soft water in Watertown Wis.

It seems almost fated that Bob Schaefer would find himself starting a water business in a place with so apt a name as Watertown. Whether this was a stroke of destiny or an act of practicality, he set in motion a way of life that would come to be tethered to his family and his name for generations. Schaefer’s Soft Water had its modest beginnings in 1956 in Watertown, Wis., a small Midwest town in the truest sense of the idea, nestled between the larger metropolises of Madison and Milwaukee. The venture began as a part-time effort on Bob’s part, spending a few years of toil to properly establish the business. He was able to throw himself into the work full time soon thereafter.

From this foundation, the business has persevered more than 60 years and through three generations. As is to be expected, passing time was accompanied by change and growth for both the business and the family.

A Family Affair

A pattern emerges when examining the history of Schaefer’s Soft Water. From the first generation onward, the family has been immersed in its operation early.

“Everybody pretty much since the age of 12 was up here doing stuff on the weekends or after school with the business,” said Eric Schaefer, current co-owner of Schaefer’s Soft Water. “Start them off young and teach them right.”

It is this sense of familial inevitability that has characterized the succession of the business thus far. However, this passing of the torch has not been without a necessary dose of doubt and serendipity.

The operation may not have made it beyond the first generation were it not for Dave Schaefer, the owner and operator for the second generation. Dave was Bob Schaefer’s son and one of seven siblings, but he initially was the only child of the lot to move into full-time work for the business.

Dave began installing exchange tanks while also dabbling in tank regeneration when he was 12 years old. As soon as he graduated high school, he dove headfirst into the business in a full-time capacity, declaring himself heir apparent while his siblings chose other pursuits.

With Dave as the logical successor, the process of taking over the business was done gradually and in close collaboration with his father. He took on more responsibility with each subsequent decade until buying the business from his father in 2006, but with one important caveat.

“Bob started to phase himself out either late 1980s or early 1990s, and my dad started to take over the business more and more, but Bob still owned the business,” Eric said. “Then, about 2006, my dad wanted to buy the business from my grandpa. He was getting up there in age. He was in his 70s. My grandpa, because my dad had so many brothers and sisters, said, ‘Pick one sibling as a business partner,’ and he picked my uncle, Jerry. So, Jerry came up here in about 2005 or 2006 and they bought the business out.”

This working partnership was much shorter lived, as Dave died in 2012 after losing a battle with cancer. Eric was heavily involved with the company immediately upon finishing high school, just as his father had been, so he became the next likely rung on the generational ladder, reaching an agreement with his uncle Jerry to buy half the operation and run it as partners, an arrangement that exists to this day.

Current co-owners of Schaefer's Soft Water, Jerry Schaefer (left) and Eric Schaefer (right) pose near the business van.

Business & Family Growth

Schaefer’s Soft Water has seen fruitful alterations to both the business and the people behind the scenes who make it possible.

For a business to be successful and grow, it must weather inevitable industrial changes, technological advancements and a shifting culture, among other things. The Schaefer family has been able to do this through adaptability and ambition.

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the business almost exclusively offered portable exchange tanks and portable exchange filtration tanks. Then came automatic softeners, which were popular until the 1980s. The 1990s brought about iron curtains, and so on and so forth. The company rolled with these changes, all while maintaining a consistent sense of scale, mainly servicing residences, aside from the occasional small commercial gig. But Eric wanted a challenge.

“There were a couple cheese factory jobs that I wanted to go after, and dad told me to stay away from the big stuff. Stick to what we’re doing. And I told him, ‘Nope. I got this, actually,’” Eric said. “And we actually sat down and looked at it together and he looked at me and said, ‘I don’t know where the heck you came up with this crap, but I think you got it figured out.’ Like I said, I was always up for the challenge.”

Now, the business services cheese factories, meatpacking plants, ice companies and local soda companies, among other industrial efforts. The original facility measured no more than 900 sq ft, but after four additions, that figure is now nearer to 7,000 sq ft. All the more surprising amidst such significant growth is the constancy and size of the team executing this operation, with only seven employees carrying out all responsibilities. This attribute is heavily valued, forming an extended family of sorts working in such an intimate capacity.

“We are all basically family,” Eric said. “One person gets sick, we all get sick. You only got to touch one thing in the shop and everybody’s going to get a cold after.”

When prompted about the value in such an arrangement, Eric is quick to point something out.

“The hardest part is dealing with family once in a while, but the best part, at the end of the day, is that it’s family, and you can always hash everything out, he said.”

Left: Bob Schaefer, founder and original owner of Schaefer's Soft Water. Bottom: Dave Schaefer, posing near a service truck.

Moving Forward

Despite spanning three generations, whether or not Schaefer’s Soft Water will remain family-owned moving forward is something of a question mark. Eric has no children of his own, while other children in the family are too young to predict whether they will join the business. The prospects are there, however, and so too is hope that the tradition will continue.

Jerry’s son Dylan is following the paths once traveled by Dave and Eric. Working for the business at a young age, Dylan is being put to work delivering salt to customers on top of other miscellaneous tasks. But, according to Eric, the true heir may come from his brother not involved with the business.

“My brother has one boy and he is pureblood Schaefer. He looks like us. He acts like us,” Eric said. “He’s only 5, so it’s hard to tell. … I’ve told my brother already, with the look on that kid’s face, he is going to have to probably take this place over, so hopefully we can get to that generation four.”

Whether or not Eric’s hopes for the future pan out remains to be seen, but failure to extend the generational reign would not diminish the achievement of what has been built. Schaefer’s Soft Water will continue to provide for its customer base the same as it always has, doling out water services in Watertown and beyond. When questioned about his town’s name, Eric gives in to the coincidence.

“Yeah, go figure, right?” 

About the author

Brett Quillen is associate editor for WQP. Quillen can be reached at [email protected].

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