Low-Key Vermont

Sept. 22, 2010

John Beauchamp, president and owner of Vermont Water Treatment (VWT) in Middlebury, Vt., was an unlikely candidate for the water treatment industry.

“I was a three-piece-suit guy living in Century City, Calif., working in advertising and marking in Los Angeles,” Beauchamp said, “and I came out to Vermont to see my dad in the hospital. But it was the first time I’d seen leaves turning, and the ‘palm tree Christmas’ thing was getting a little thin for me. I wasn’t really happy doing what I was doing; I was good at it but I felt very unsatisfied in my career.”

Beauchamp met Charles “Chick” Ogg, who founded VWT in 1973, when his parents bought a house next door to the Oggs. It turned out Ogg was looking for someone to help him run the business, enabling him to retire.

After six months, Beauchamp had moved across the country to Vermont. It was 1987. “I leased a Ford pickup truck, got into a U-Haul and sold anything that didn’t fit.”

It was quite a dramatic life change. The big-picture marketing skills Beauchamp had learned at USC didn’t really apply at VWT, where a “big” ad campaign was a quarter-page ad in the local yellow pages. “I was new and didn’t know anything other than what kind of tie to wear with my suit, and hadn’t really ever worked with wrenches or torches or anything like that,” Beauchamp explained. Even so, “[Ogg] had his share of not-so-great hiring experiences, and I didn’t have any backup plan, so I had to perform.”

It was “low-key Vermont,” Beauchamp says, and he loved it. “I moved out here because I wanted low stress and to work in a beautiful place. In my early 30s, I needed some direction and I needed a mentor—and I found one. There were some hard times, but I think it went about exactly the way it had to go.”

Basics of the Operation

Beauchamp now uses the Middlebury location as a warehouse and also works out of a home office in Lincoln. “We use technology to bring the office with us wherever we go,” he said.

About 65% of Beauchamp’s work occurs within their primary service area of western central Vermont, but they also partner with the state for a fair amount of work, so they travel wherever that occurs.

The demographics of Vermont and the seasonal tourist population lend variety to Beauchamp’s schedule. “There are not a lot of people per square inch,” he said. “But there are a lot of out-of-state people who live here, with second homes, etc., so we are fortunate enough to have high-income people who live in the state and can afford our services.”

“Our state is not renowned for being anything other than green,” Beauchamp said, “so there isn’t a lot of commercial business. Commercially, we’ll see a lot of hotels, restaurants, carwashes, Laundromats, etc.”

He estimates 85% of their business is residential treatment, while about 14% of their work is commercial and about 1% involves municipal and small water systems.

Refreshing Success

Despite the chatter about the down economy, Beauchamp has seen VWT’s profits jump in the last three years.

“When we had the ‘go-go-go’ economy, we were still just ‘steady as she goes,’” Beauchamp explained. He knew that the business lived or died based on their reputation, and said that he knew the only way he could do business and sleep at night was to serve each customer one at a time.

“What seems to have gotten us through the hard times is that we were honest and did what we said we’d do,” he said. “We didn’t try to rip people off. We basically did good, honest work. We charged for it, but we made sure we took care of them and put them first, before the money.”

Coming from the big city, Beauchamp initially thought beating his competition was important. “Up here, I eventually figured out we had to treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated ourselves,” he said.

Instead of always trying to sell something, he strives to help people solve their problems. That may mean sending a customer somewhere else, like a well driller if he needs a new well. “Maybe he needs somebody to figure out what is wrong with his septic, and I might know somebody who is good,” Beauchamp said. “That’s what would happen: I would network with other people. As I gradually became less fearful of losing business and more interested in helping people, my business seemed to grow.” Much of his business comes from referrals, Beauchamp said.

Involvement with the state has helped VWT network with engineers and hydrogeologists and testing labs, all good sources of networking.

A Sacred Thing

In the end, Beauchamp’s business philosophy of respect for the customer and the technology has enabled his success. “I’m not going to sell [a customer] something that’s not right for them,” he said. “Water is a sacred thing—one of the four elements. We need to have the highest possible standards for our industry. I think sometimes that gets lost.”