This article originally appeared in the June 2019 issue as "60 Years Later"
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Approaching its 60th anniversary, Merle’s Water Conditioning has proudly remained a family owned business since its inception in 1959. Merlin ‘Merle’ Regnier was in the commercial laundromat repair business where he found a need to treat water at the source. Starting with little knowledge of the water treatment industry, he launched a business that has come to span three generations.
“He found that he was repairing a lot of these problems with washing machines due to water hardness and water-related issues,” said Justin Regnier, general manager at Merle’s Water Conditioning and Merlin’s grandson. “Rather than trying to repair the softener, he thought he would get ahead of the curve and treat the water instead. That’s really where it all started.”
Based in St. Paul, Minn., Merlin started as a distributor for a water refining company and grew the business by knocking on doors and building a reputation for quality service. In 1996, cancer caused Merlin to retire and pass the business down to two of his sons, Dave and John, who later brought their youngest brother, Joe, on as a partner.
“He told me on a personal level, ‘Whatever you do, don’t ever retire,’” Justin recalled of his grandfather. “I do not think he necessarily meant always work for a company. I think he meant always stay active; always stay engaged in something. That was his work ethic and attitude with the company.”
Justin’s father, Mark, pursued a different career, but Justin found himself drawn to the water industry. As a teenager, Justin helped the family business with delivery routes and warehouse duties during the summers. After spending some time in the U.S. Navy, he started learning water conditioning sales through a different business in Jacksonville, Fla.
“I would call back and talk with my uncles and kind of tell them I’m in the water business now too,” Justin said. “Essentially, I got recruited to come back home to Minnesota where I grew up to come back and work
The business is family-oriented and that plays a part in its customer relationships. Besides the three brothers and Justin, the secretary is one of the owner’s wives, a son of one of the owner’s works in the warehouse, and some of the employees have remained with the business for more than a decade.
The family-oriented environment is shared with customers as well, who employees try to get to know not just as customers, but on a personal level. Because the business prioritizes customer connection, it invests few resources in marketing.
“When we do a good job and we leave the customer smiling and we develop that personal relationship, they share that information with their friends and with their family,” Justin said. “We just have a tremendous amount of referrals and word-of-mouth leads come in continuously.”
For the family owned company, success is measured by more than the growth of the business.
“We measure success in inches of smiles on our customers face,” Justin said. “In this regard, I consider our business the most successful in the industry. Solving problem water is easy for a business celebrating its 60th year. It’s when we have solved it for every family on the block that we know we have done it right.”
The water industry has changed since the business first opened its doors nearly 60 years ago. In the early days, the business primarily treated water hardness and iron, but it now covers specialized treatment and offers consulting services, Justin said. Merle’s Water Conditioning is located just a few miles from 3M’s headquarters and has helped treat water contaminated by per- and polyfluoralkyl substances, or PFAS, runoff.
The Scotchgard manufacturer had disposed of chemical waste at sites around the Twin Cities years ago, Justin said, and now the contamination is starting to show up in the groundwater. Treating emerging contaminants in drinking water has been a rising issue in the business’ service area.
“We base a lot of our design and what we do—we try to mimic the Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Pollution Control agencies methods,” Justin said.
The business primarily treats residential water, but sees opportunity to continue to expand into the commercial sector. When it comes to treating emerging contaminants in residential water, Justin often recommends customers check to see if state or federal funding is available to help treat the water.
Another challenge the business faces is keeping up with new technologies. The business maintains Water Quality Assn. (WQA) membership and utilizes WQA educational opportunities to stay ahead of the curve. Anyone in the water business should be a member of the WQA, Justin said.
“Not just for all of the resources available to them, but more importantly, we do not have much advocacy in our industry fighting for us,” Justin said. “Big plumbing unions or anyone that wants to come down on us easily could. Without them, we might not have as big of a say as we do.”
Merle’s Water Conditioning also is a member of the Minnesota WQA.
On the Horizon
Moving forward, the business aims to keep its employees educated and up-to-date with new technologies. The business continuously is working to run more efficiently and serve its customers better. Merle’s Water Conditioning recently purchased a smaller water conditioning company and retained its employees, so the business continuously is looking to expand.
“We are able to keep up with what we have right now, but I would say every couple of years we are looking to add a new employee,” Justin said. “We are not at a super rapid growth. We are just trying to grow slowly and not get too big too fast.”
As far as the future of the industry is concerned, “there is no new water,” he said.
“It is crucial that the water industry as a whole steps up to that and we work within [it] to develop some of these technologies so we do not get regulated out of our work by not stepping up and being innovative,” Justin said.
As water contamination issues continue to be prevalent, the development of new technologies will be essential and the water quality industry will be counted on to spearhead those efforts. Are you up for the challenge?