How one family business grew on the backs of three generations through a strong customer service foundation
In 1950, journalist and flight instructor Paul Maher bought a water conditioning business as a side project while he continued to write and teach. With newborn baby William Maher less than a month old, Paul penned a letter to his parents.
“The banker here uncovered a water softener business that is for sale and thinks it is a good thing,” Paul said in the letter. “If you have $3,000 kicking around that you could lend out, I might be asking for it.” Nearly 70 years later, that little investment opportunity has spanned three generations and grown from less than 200 portable exchange customers to providing water treatment services for roughly one-third of Wisconsin.
Through the Generations
As the budding business grew, so too did the family. Paul and Lydia Maher, the founders of what is now known as Maher Water Corp., had three sons, but it was Bill Maher, whose own birth coincided with the business’s, who eventually took over the company. Bill went to the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point to study biology, but came back to the family business after he received his degree. He was always involved in the company, doing portable exchange routes as soon as he was old enough.
Similar to her father Bill, Dani Maher-Baron grew up immersed in the family business, but took time away when she went to technical college to study welding and mechanics. In 1995, she returned to the business, bringing Sam Baron with her.
“I kind of got dragged along as the boyfriend at the time,” Baron said, “I decided to do this after college as a part-time job. Then we got married, had kids and ended up buying the company in 2010.”
Together the duo has held every possible position, learning the nooks and crannies of the business. Now, Maher-Baron, president of Maher Water, is a licensed Master Plumber Restricted Appliance in the state of Wisconsin and holds Certified Water Specialist and Certified Installer designations with the Water Quality Assn. Baron, vice president of Maher Water, is president of the Wisconsin Water Quality Assn. After 18 years of learning the intricacies of the company, it was time for Maher-Baron and Baron to take on more substantial leadership roles in Maher Water. The transition was not necessarily easy, however.
When it was time for them to approach Bill Maher about taking over the company, “We kind of had to step in and tell him we’re ready now,” Baron said. “Whether you’re ready or not, we’re ready.”
Paul and Bill Maher with Bill's younger brother.
The Family Name
While the company’s name has changed from the original Maher Soft Water Service to Maher WaterCare to its current title of Maher Water Corp., some things have stayed the same—notably, Maher’s customer service philosophy. Before Paul Maher passed away, he sat down with Maher-Baron and Baron to discuss the importance of keeping the Maher name clean.
“Don’t run it through the mud,” Baron recalled Paul said. “Don’t use cheap selling tactics. Don’t push customers into decisions, because we still have to live and work in these communities.”
This philosophy has been an integral part of Maher’s success, as the company has always kept its name in front. Even though they sell a line of products available from other dealerships, it has always been about Maher first.
“Our employees are taught that the name is more important than the product that we’re selling, so the service end of it has always come first,” Baron said. “Because of that, I think that’s why we do so well in our market.”
Maher Water holds its own against some big fish in northern Wisconsin, which Baron attributes to its reputation for quality customer service. Two of the country’s largest dealerships are in Maher Water’s backyard. Despite the competition, Maher Water continues to thrive thanks to the dealership’s reputation for attention to detail and customer service-based business strategy.
The letter that started it all.
Customer service may be a constant for Maher Water, but the customer’s knowledge base is ever changing. Almost everyone has access to the internet now, which Baron said has contributed to the change in customer water treatment knowledge.
“When I started 25 years ago, it was educating people on why they need a softener and the benefits of having a softener,” Baron said. “Now, more of the education that I do when I go into somebody’s house is what’s really in their water and what they should be concerned with, as opposed to what they don’t need to pay any attention to.”
This can become a problem when a customer reads on the internet about water contamination problems that do not generally exist in northern Wisconsin. For example, when a customer reads about lead contamination, it can take valuable time to explain to them that they are not in an area where lead naturally occurs, or that their home was built in 2001 with lead-free pipes.
This customer disconnect is a common problem for Maher Water, as part of its territory serves vacation properties and customers from all over the U.S. who bring with them varying ideas about water contamination from different regions.
If a customer from Milwaukee asked the dealership to test for cryptosporidium, for example, it may be needless worry “without understanding that that’s a surface water issue that you aren’t going to have in a private well that’s 300 ft deep,” Baron explained. “If we can make the customer smarter, then they’re apt to make a better decision.”
The future of Maher Water is not yet set in stone, but the third generation of the dealership believes the fourth may naturally continue the legacy of the family business. Baron and Maher-Baron have four kids, and differing opinions on what they hope and think will happen regarding the next generation of Maher Water.
“I would love my children not to have to work this hard,” Baron said. “Anybody that runs a business will tell you it’s back breaking. You put in hours that nobody sees.”
Despite the desire for their kids to have less time-consuming and exhausting jobs, Baron thinks it is likely that one of them will gravitate toward the business–just like Bill and Maher-Baron did. A few of the kids are drawn to the sciences, Baron noted, and returning to the family company may be a natural transition if the job markets in their chosen fields are slim.
Baron and Maher-Baron’s oldest son is a senior in high school considering studying biology at the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, which happens to be the same school Baron and Bill went to; the same major Bill had; and a field similar to Baron’s, who studied chemistry there.
“He’s already looking at ‘well, can I come back here and work until I find something?’” Baron said of his eldest son. “Having done that, I know that once you start working here, it eventually becomes a career.”