This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue as "The Long Haul"
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Ronnie Lee did not plan to have a career as a water treatment dealer in Hobbs, N.M. He was a nursing home administrator when the owner of Hanes Soft Water came to service the nursing home’s system and told Lee he wanted to retire. In February 1989, Lee took a chance and purchased the business, soon changing the name to Water Processing LLC. That decision launched a passion for providing quality water services that has since spanned three generations.
Building a Business
For Lee, entering a new industry was not easy, but skills from his previous role were an asset for the fledgling business.
“I’d been in administration for many years, and it was quite a change; however, I have some experience prior to that time as a young man in door-to-door sales,” Lee said.
When Lee purchased the business, its primary focus was residential soft water with only a few reverse osmosis (RO) and commercial accounts. Under his leadership, Water Processing has grown to provide softeners and purification systems to residential, commercial and industrial customers.
In Hobbs, the primary water concerns are nitrates and arsenic, so water purification is essential. As a rural desert town, all of the water comes from wells. There are no running streams in the county and no bodies of water for a 75-mile-long, 45-mile-wide stretch, Lee said.
Water Processing serves the Hobbs, N.M., area.
Boom or Bust
Water Processing’s biggest challenge is unique to businesses in oilfield communities. During boom times, when the nearby oilfield is being mined, it is difficult to retain quality employees because the oilfield offers such high pay and overtime compensation. This economic whirlwind extends to all businesses in the community. Lee remembers one Christmas when the local Walmart brought in employees from out of town to keep the store open for the holiday rush.
When an employer offers seasonal high pay and its only qualifications for hire are “temperature, pulse and respiration,” how can a small, family-owned water treatment dealership compete? Lee seeks to provide unique benefits.
“I try to offer things that the oilfield does not: safety and the fact that I offer weekends off,” Lee said. “That is something the oilfield doesn’t offer, so we’re trying to appeal to a different segment of the population.”
Another way Water Processing retains employees is by hiring and training young people. By teaching young people a skill and providing opportunity for advancement, Lee offers a long-term career and potential for growth.
“I recently had someone refer to us as a nursery, as in a child’s nursery, because I have so many young people working for me,” Lee said. “Until about a month ago, my senior tech was 29 years old and he was the oldest person in my whole staff.”
Lee channels his management skills to foster an environment of growth among his young employees. Water Processing’s rigorous training process includes learning the 26 points the business requires when servicing an RO system, as well as monthly staff meetings and training sessions. The proof is in the pudding; Lee’s staff of nine includes three licensed plumbers, three licensed water operators and one certified water specialist (CWS).
“We do have longevity even though our employees are young,” Lee said. “My senior tech has been with me for 13 years, my next guy has been with me going on eight. We just started with them very young.”
Since purchasing Water Processing in 1989, Lee has expanded the business to service residential, commercial, and industrial softeners and purification systems.
Sanitization & Service
Not only did Lee bring management skills from his previous role, he also brought a dedication to a detailed job and sanitization. Sanitization is essential for water treatment products, particularly RO systems, Lee said. Water Processing regularly sanitizes the area where the RO systems go into the service vans, transports RO units in plastic bags to prevent contamination, and thoroughly sanitizes the system at the home or business. This dedication to cleanliness and detail does not go unnoticed by customers and is a large part of why word of mouth is one of the business’ most successful forms of marketing.
“They don’t ever get tired of hearing their neighbor tell them what quality of service you provide and how conscientious you are of sanitizing their system,” Lee said of potential customers. “Our goal is that they have soft water all the time, with no headache to them.”
Water Processing has expanded to service residential, commercial and industrial customers. Lee teaches his employees what he calls “concepts,” or how to service a machine as a whole, rather than one specific kind of machine. This skill is valuable for Water Processing, which offers a variety of products for customers, such as dairies, prisons, hospitals, gas plants and homeowners.
While word of mouth is one of the most successful ways in which Water Processing attracts new customers, Lee’s approach to marketing is multifaceted. The business approaches marketing from multiple angles, including radio, newspaper, telephone and its website. Perhaps one of the most successful marketing tactics over the years has been a radio jingle.
“I may go to a sales call in a home and a lady says, ‘My daughter can sing your jingle,’ and it’s not easy to sing,” Lee said. “It is very mind imprinting; it imprints our name on the customer’s mind.”
Ultimately, Water Processing is about taking care of the customer.
“My philosophy is, I don’t operate for a profit for just a day; my business decisions are such for long-term operation,” Lee said. “When you treat people that way, word gets around, and you’re there for the long haul.”
While the business is in it for the long term, Lee is ready to start slowing down and pass the business to the next generation. Currently, he works three days a week and wants to gradually reduce that number over the next two years until he only comes in to consult occasionally.
Fortunately, the business will remain in good hands with Lee’s son Wesley Lee and his grandson Jerod Stevenson. Wesley has been with Water Processing for 13 years and is a licensed plumber and water operator, while Stevenson has been with the business for eight years and is a CWS. As the pair transitions into ownership, they will have the support of fellow Water Processing employees and family members, including Bradley Johnson, Lee’s grandson-in-law, and Trendon Stevenson, Lee’s grandson and one of the newest hires.
“I’m hoping with new blood, we have more growth,” Lee said. “There’s lots of room for them to increase their overall sales.”
The next generation has plenty of ideas for how to push the business to the next level under their leadership, including rent-to-own, expanding the small systems market, integrating computer technology and potentially hiring a part-time salesperson. Lee tried to encourage his family to join the business by letting them work part time when they were growing up. Stevenson started part time in 2010 during summers while he was still in school.
“When I graduated in 2012, I came on full-time and finished my CWS certification,” Stevenson said. “It appealed to me, and I’ve enjoyed the industry.”
Lee has instilled into his employees and his family the value of quality service and community connection. Stevenson summed up why the water industry is such a valuable career: “Just like anything, there’s bad days, but it’s been very rewarding. A lot of it is the satisfaction of a job well done and knowing that I’ve improved somebody’s living standard.”