This article originally appeared in the March 2018 issue as "It's All Relative"
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After Fidel Castro became prime minister of Cuba in 1959, Ray Puentes immigrated to the U.S., where some of his family lived. Ray’s uncle owned a lithography business in DeKalb, Ill., and Ray settled down there and got a job sweeping floors at a nearby Wurlitzer factory. In 1966, he heard about a job opportunity at Servisoft, a local water treatment dealership. Ray worked there for six years, learning the ins and outs of running a water treatment business. In 1972, with a modest loan from his mother-in-law, Ray and his wife Kathy opened their own independent dealership, Soft Water City, in Sycamore, Ill.
In the early 1970s, for a family with meager means and limited funds for babysitters, running the business was a family affair. Ray and Kathy’s children, Chris Puentes and Lisa Kijowski, grew up in the industry and eventually took over the business themselves.
“We’ve run the business for almost 20 years now, but mom and dad are still here,” said Chris. “Mom puts her 40 hours in every week, but my dad is here about half the time. He still travels back and forth to Cuba quite a bit to support the family.”
Soft Water City’s products and services have grown since the 1970s, when its only offering was a water softener. In 1992, after Chris and Kijowski took over, the dealership started carrying bottled water. The dealership also offers iron filters, and designs and builds its own reverse osmosis systems using American-made components. As an independent dealership, Soft Water City is not beholden to one manufacturer, so Chris and his team are able to shop around for the best products with the best value.
Soft Water City’s business is primarily residential, but Chris said he enjoys the challenge of a commercial job. The DeKalb County, Ill., area is not rife with businesses, so he is aiming to get more exposure in Kane County, Ill., which is closer to Chicago, to pick up some commercial business. While the risks associated with commercial systems can be greater than those in residential installations, being knowledgeable about equipment and processes is helpful.
“We enjoy doing something a little bit different every day that keeps us on our toes,” Chris said. “I can’t tell you how many accounts we’ve gotten commercial-wise just because we’ve learned the ins and outs of how the equipment works.”
Brother-and-sister duo Lisa Kijowksi and Chris Puentes took over the business from their parents almost 20 years ago.
Chris got most of his training in the field, beginning at a young age. With decades of observation under his belt, he has seen some changes in the ways water professionals communicate with customers. In the past, he said, service personnel or salespeople would go into a customer’s home and sit down for a cup of coffee before even mentioning a water softener. Today, that is not the case.
“We have this big beautiful building with a brick-and-mortar front and very few people take advantage to knock on the door and shop around,” Chris said. “Everything is done over the phone now. It’s very impersonal, unfortunately. The industry has changed quite a bit in that respect.”
Marketing techniques also have changed over the years. Soft Water City has a website that lists its services, and the dealership has cut back on some advertising popular in the first generation, such as ads in the phone book. The most effective form of marketing, however, still is word of mouth. When Kijowksi and her administrative staff answer the phones and asks customers how they heard about the business, the answer is almost always from a friend or relative.
Indirect marketing also has been an effective tool that brings in customers while providing service to the community.
“We do a fair amount of indirect marketing through donations of our products and services, such as Habitat for Humanity or dozens and dozens of other things we do throughout the year to support the community,” Chris said. “It all pays back in dividends. It might not be today, it might not be tomorrow, but it definitely pays back.”
Since its inceptin as a water softener dealership in 1972, Soft Water City's service offerings have expanded to include bottled water, iron and sulter filters, and reverse osmosis systems.
With nine employees, Chris and Kijowski use their decades of experience in the industry to relate to and train those who work for the business.
“I don’t ask my employees to do anything that I haven’t done myself with less tools and less equipment. I am 100% a working boss,” Chris said. “If you’re in an ivory tower just barking down orders, I don’t think you get the results that you would if you’re in the trenches with the employees.”
Chris attributes much of Soft Water City’s success, particularly in times of economic upheaval, to its cross-trained employees. Rather than hiring one person to do one task, Chris makes sure his employees are skilled on multiple levels.
“My installer can do everything. My service guy can do everything. My delivery guys can do filter changes and preventive maintenance updates on our equipment,” Chris said. “Cross-training allows the guys to learn more than just what their initial job requirement was. It not only gives them a sense of teamwork, but it also gives them more responsibility, which they enjoy.”
Chris also advises dealers to know the customer. In what he describes as a “meat and potatoes” community, he said customers in his service area will not respond well to a salesperson showing up at the door in a suit and tie.
“Equate yourself to the customer, especially in sales,” Chris said. “Know your community. Know your customer. Know your potential customer. The closer you can equate yourself to them, the more commonalities that you have with that particular potential customer because when it comes down to it, you’re not selling equipment. You’re selling yourself. You’re selling your reputation. You’re selling your business.”
On the administrative end, Kijowski sees honesty as the best policy.
“Always be truthful, honest and upfront with your clients,” she said. “You’re going to get a lot further because you’re business and professionalism depends upon it. Be open with them and offer as much advice as possible to be able to give them as many options as possible because not everyone is able [to buy] or looking for the same type of equipment.”
Train Them Young
In the future, Chris said the dealership is looking to further diversify its service offerings by adding a plumber to its staff. Soft Water City has a list of local plumbers it uses for jobs that involve equipment such as toilets and hot water heaters, the latter of which pose frequent problems.
“Maybe one out of every eight service calls that we get is because of an old hot water heater,” Chris said. “They could have brand new equipment from us, but they could have a 30-year-old hot water heater. Lots of income could be derived by having a plumber on staff.”
Soft Water City remains family-focused, with six of the original owners’ grandchildren help out around the business in some capacity. Kijowski sees them as the future of the business.
“Right now we are a second-generation business, with hopes that maybe a third generation would be interested in following the family business practices as well,” Kijowski said.
The third generation ranges in ages from 14 to 18, and Chris and Kijowski have already put them to work waiting on clients and opening mail.
“They’re all still fairly young, so I’m not sure what they want to do in the future,” Kijowski said. “But I just want to keep their eyes open and their minds open to what their options are.”